Sunday, August 7, 2011

2011 Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge

100 miles, 11000 feet elevation
9:45 total time (8:30 on the bicycle)

Almost at the last minute (well, two weeks before the event), I decided to sign up for another century. I have done the Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge (SCMC) twice before. I find it to be one of the harder centuries in the area. It climbs around 11,000 feet elevation, and some of the hills are exceptionally steep.

Following the Seattle to Portland ride, and my increase in training recently, I felt that my conditioning was returning to a level where I could consider the more challenging rides. So, I decided it was worth trying this ride now. There was no unknown about the route. They change the course occasionally, but this year it would be the same as the first time I did it in 2007.

I did make a decision that created a small unknown — my choice of bicycle. I have two road bicycles. I have used both of them for centuries and double centuries. However my older one has lower gearing. I can do steep hills on either one, but I have only used the older one for the very steep hills. That was the one I used for both previous attempts at the SCMC. This time I wanted to try the newer one.

I prepared by riding a training course with exceptionally steep hills on the newer bicycle. I did it without trouble. However, the killer hill on the SCMC route (Jamison Creek Road) is more steep and much longer than any of these. I did not know if I had both the strength and endurance for the higher gearing on that road.

A week before the event, I contacted my friend Gabrielle whom I had not seen for months. I know that she had ridden this event before, so I thought I would check if she was trying it again this year. She replied that she was. It would be nice to meet again.

The starting location is just over a half hour drive from home. I woke up Saturday morning at 4:10am. I had set my alarm for 4:30, but Aasha woke up crying and I decided since I was awake, I would just get up. I got ready and left home at 5:45am and arrived at the start at 6:25am. I set up my bicycle and got registered. Just as I finished the paperwork, Gabrielle came by. She had just arrived so I waited for her and her friend Denise to set up and register.

7:00am, 0 miles, 0 feet total

The forecast was for a mostly sunny day, but we were blanketed in thick fog at the start. It was quite chilly, but I decided that I would not put on my jacket because the course starts with a good climb. Since I had not talked to Gabrielle for quite some time, we chatted as we ascended. I actually kept a faster pace than I normally would have because I kept up with her.

After reaching the summit, the road follows the mountain ridgeline for several miles. It had no extended climbs, but had many ups and downs. Gabrielle sped ahead and I had Denise for company for this stretch. For first half of this part, the road was wet, as if it had rained. The moisture was from all the fog condensing on the overhead trees.

9:00am, 26 miles, 3500 feet total

We all regrouped at the first rest area. It was warm at the stop but we did not linger too long. We left together for an extended downhill run. It was considerably cold, which was a bit of a surprise considering how warm it was at the top. After entering Big Basin State Park, the road has a series of up and down stretches, none too long. Again Gabrielle took off during the climbing.

10:30am, 41 miles, 4900 feet total

Denise and I reached the next rest stop expecting to see Gabrielle, but she had already left. This rest stop comes just before Jamison Creek. This is the steep climb that would be a first for me on this bicycle. Most of the chatter among the riders at the stop was about how intimidating the hill is. It is important to fuel up and otherwise prepare for the grueling climb, so I ate well.

I was feeling very cold at this point, but I had wanted to let myself get to that state (I could have stopped and slipped on my jacket at an earlier point). Previous times, I had overheated on Jamison Creek, so I wanted to start out cold.

I started the climb with a slow and steady pace. As the road hit and sustained its steepest parts, the deliberate pace was not an option. It still was slightly faster than what I would have done on my other bicycle. The lowest cadence I can pedal with my legs is about 60 turns per minute. So given that first gear on this bicycle is a little higher, I necessarily would be going faster than in first gear on the other. This also means I am forced into a greater effort than I would have on the other.

Fortunately, it was not a struggle. Although several cyclists passed me on this stretch, I passed several others. The sun broke through and the air became warm halfway up, but I was in no danger of overheating since I started with shivers at the bottom. I reached the top without feeling exhausted, and Gabrielle was waiting (she had been there for a while). A few minutes later, Denise joined. We left together to the lunch stop that was only a couple miles away.

11:45am, 50 miles, 7000 feet total

I still felt relatively fresh given that half the distance and most of the elevation was done. I ate a big lunch and rested for a little while. We three left together but our paths diverged a few miles down the road. Gabrielle and Denise were doing the 100 km route, which heads back to the finish at this point, whereas my 100 mile route adds another long climb. We said our goodbyes and I thanked them for the great company.

The next section included several shorter climbs before the last big one. I was passed again be a group of guys whom I had seen earlier. It seemed that they were stronger riders than I, considering our differences in speed. But it also seemed that they would periodically stop and regroup, at which time I would pass them. Our total average speeds seemed exactly the same.

1:20pm, 64 miles, 7900 feet total

There was an unofficial stop at a local park before the final big climb. I was the only rider to pause there at that time, but I thought it was a good spot to fill my water bottles and have a quick bathroom break.

Next up was Zayante Road, which I had last ridden four years ago. As I remembered it, it was a 10 mile climb where the first half is relatively flat and the second half is fairly steep. There was a small water stop just before the road becomes significantly steep. I did not need to stop because I had filled up recently. The same group of riders passed me early in this stretch of road, only to get passed by me when they paused at the water stop. By now I nicknamed them "the hares", after the famous tortoise and the hare fable.

2:50pm, 76 miles, 9900 feet total

I reached the final rest top just past the top of Zayante tired but not exhausted. I was having stiffness in my neck and back, so I spent a little extra time stretching. The next section contained a long downhill. Approaching that, the hares passed me but then paused to regroup and clear up some confusion about the route only to have the tortoise (me) pass them.

At the bottom of the hill, we were close to the end, but still had a small climb. Again, there was a small water stop which I skipped, but at which the hares stopped. This would be the last time I saw them.

4:50pm, 100 miles, 11000 feet total

I arrived at the end feeling good. It was satisfying knowing that I had finished one of the hardest centuries in our area without any serious problems. I was hoping to have a lower overall time the my previous attempts, but I had practically the same time as last year. Still, that was not a disappointment.

This year has seen me increase my conditioning to a level I have not had in three years. Considering that I have been able to do regular trainings, and that I have done some difficult events, I am wondering if I should attempt some even bigger challenges. There is a chance I may try to do a double century this year.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

2011 Seattle to Portland

2 days, 222 miles

It has been a while since my last actual event. I just finished doing a new one. A few months ago, my friend Moon in Seattle decided to do this ride and asked me to join him. It is a 200 mile course between the two cities, and riders have the option of completing it in one day or in two. Moon is an experienced hiker and runner, but newer to cycling. He was planning to do it in two days, and I decided I would keep him company and do the same.

This is a big event (10,000 participants!) which has been taking place for 30 years. Since we also had friends in Portland that we wanted to visit, we decided to make a family trip out of it. The plan was for all three of us to fly to Seattle, travel to Portland (me by bicycle, Vaishali and Aasha by car), then fly back from there. Moon booked motel rooms near the course midpoint for us to spend the night of the first day.

Knowing that the course is mostly flat, I did not need an intense training schedule to prepare. In the three months I had between when I registered and the event, I simply had to maintain my existing level of conditioning. I only needed to make sure I was prepared for the expected hours in the saddle.

I devised a training route that I did several times. It took me from my home to the ocean and back. This was a total distance of nearly 80 miles. With 5600 feet of total elevation, it is more intense than either single day of STP would be.

We arrived in Seattle Friday morning. This gave me time to assemble my bicycle and for Moon and I to pick up the route map and prepare. Moon had a big dinner that night, but I stuck to my usual strategy of eating moderately in order to build a bigger appetite on the day of the event.

We woke up early Saturday morning and left Moon's house at 4:50am. It was a mostly downhill 4 miles to the starting point on the University of Washington campus. Since there were so many cyclists participating, they let groups of around 25 depart every 10 minutes. We were underway by 5:10am.

5:10am, 4 miles

The first 5 miles required concentration because we had to pay attention to the cyclists in front and beside us. After the pack thinned out, we could just dictate our own pace more easily. It was an exceptionally clear day and we were treated to a stunning view of Mount Ranier on the first half of the course.

7:10am, 28 miles

We pulled into the first rest stop which was quite crowded. They were well organized so we did not have to wait long to get food and use the restrooms. We did not linger too long so we managed to leave quickly.

The next section of the route contained a section described as "The Hill" in the route map. I was expecting something challenging, but found it pretty innocuous. I could see how it might be difficult for more inexperienced riders, but it was nothing compared to what I usually tackle. I had been going exactly Moon's pace so far, but on "The Hill", I felt the urge to sprint to the top. I did that, and waited for Moon to catch up. It gave me time to take off my arm warmers as the day had gotten warmer. Moon arrived quickly and we continued on.

The next stretch was mostly straight, and a bit monotonous. We kept a pretty good speed, and Moon drafted behind me most of the way. I was doing more work riding in front, and he was fighting less air riding behind me.

9:20am, 57 miles

The next food stop was in a large school field. Again, they were well organize d and we did not have to stand in much of a line. We saw that we were well ahead of our time estimate, so we texted our wives about our progress. We had guessed that we would meet around 3:00pm, so we wanted to tell them that we would be there much sooner.

The next section was flat, but not as straight as earlier. At one point we saw a disturbing scene. Just after some railroad tracks, there was a cyclist who had crashed and was lying in the road. Event staff were there and were asking everyone going through to slow down and be careful on the tracks. The rider was lying motionless, face-down in the middle of the street. I could not tell if he was unconscious or just lying still. Clearly he had been attended to because his helmet had been taken off. I hope he was alright.

The route entered a long stretch that was on a dedicated bike path. This made for relaxed riding because we could use the full lane without worrying about motor traffic. I might have been too complacent because I did not see a warp created by a tree root and almost fell off when I hit it. I was able to grab the handlebars tightly and steady myself (all reflexively in split second).

12:00pm, 91 miles

The final stop was smaller and just had snacks. That was all we wanted by this point anyhow. We called the wives to tell them that we were about one hour from the finish. We said "we are at mile 90", and they replied, "we are mile zero." They had their own plans for the morning and had gotten delayed. We told them we would synchronize our status when we finished.

The final stretch went by quickly. Knowing we had time to kill, we slowed our pace a little.

12:50pm, 104 miles

We reached the midpoint. We searched for food, but Moon decided he was not hungry, and I only had a cookie. We call the wives and found they were on their way but it will still be some time until they arrived. We saw that a good number of one-day riders were continuing on at this time. We could have finished the ride that day itself if we could keep the same pace. But Moon had already surpassed his single day mileage total, and anyway, we already had plans to stop.

Our motel was about 20 miles back in the direction we came from. We could either wait for them where we were, or start going that way on our own. We decided to move. We researched the route and found a way to go that avoided the main road.

3:00pm, 116 miles

When the car group came close, they called and we arranged a convenient rendezvous location. They got us and we drove to the motel. Ironically, they met us at the time we had originally planned on.

As we checked in, we saw several others with bicycles who were clearly doing the same ride. We cleaned up, unpacked, and went out for dinner. There was a Mexican restaurant right next to the motel, so we went there and had a good (huge, in my case) dinner.

After dinner, Prabha, Vaishali, and Aasha went to Olympia to see the state capital, but Moon and I went back to our rooms to go to sleep. We planned another early rise the next morning.

5:15am, 116 miles

We left the motel at 4:40. Prabha drove us back to the midpoint which was again 20 miles south. By the time we actually started, it was close to the same time we had gotten underway on day one. The route went through some small towns, and we saw many other riders start from their lodgings and campsites. At one point, we were delayed a few minutes by a train.

This section of the route had small rolling hills and was more scenic than the previous day. We were again lucky to have a clear day and got a clear view of Mount St. Helens on this part of the route.

This morning was noticeably colder than the previous. I was mostly prepared for it, except I only had half-finger gloves. My exposed fingertips got very cold in the morning air. I kept losing circulation in my right hand and had to keep shaking it.

7:00am, 144 miles

We halted at an unofficial stop for a bathroom break and a quick snack. I cooled off even more by stopping, but I was thankful for a small hill that appeared afterward. I sprinted to the top to generate body heat.

8:20am, 162 miles

The day was warming up by the time we reached the official food stop. We did not break long, probably because we took a break earlier. Although the course was still thick with riders, there were fewer than yesterday, when all the one-day riders were mixed in with us.

We finally reached the Columbia River and crossed on Lewis and Clark Bridge, entering Oregon.

Again we witnessed the scene of another crash. One cyclist was loaded into an ambulance while another was getting his arm bandaged. Although it was unfortunate to see, it looked much better that the one we saw yesterday. On a ride with 10,000 participants, it is inevitable that there will be some injuries.

11:00am, 188 miles

We reached the lunch stop and like yesterday, it was at a school. Unlike yesterday, it was not well organized. There was only a single line, so it took half an hour to get our food and eat it. We called the road team to synchronize, and this time they seem to have it timed correctly.

The clear skies gave us a view of the third major mountain peak of the ride -- Mount Hood. Soon after, we crossed the Willamette River. The final few miles were through the city to the finish line downtown. Again here, we got funneled into a group of other cyclists and had to deal with signal lights.

1:40pm, 222 miles

We rolled to the finish and celebrated. There was a party atmosphere. We called the road crew and they arrived fairly soon. We all went a mutual friends' house and cleaned up and had lunch. Moon and Prabha left to drive back to Seattle since they had work the next day. We stayed in town a couple more days to spend more time with our friends and to visit some others.

It was an enjoyable trip. The ride itself, while not much of a physical challenge for me, was fun. It is always nice to do a ride with a friend. And a totally new route is always a treat. I would consider doing it again if I can join friends. I feel like my conditioning has gotten better, so I may try to do some more challenging centuries this year.

Click on the image to see the video compilation from the ride.

See the full set of pictures from the ride here, or click on any of the embedded photos.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mt Hamilton Challenge

131 total miles, 8000 feet total elevation gain, 12 hours 25 minutes total time (10 hours 30 minutes on the bicycle)

It was time for my first big challenge in a long time. This was the third year I have attempted this ride, but I did not do it last year because I was not in shape enough at this point in the season. I am still not in my best shape, and have only found time for medium-length training rides sandwiched by annoyingly long stretches of bad weather and illness. In preparation, I rode an 80 mile, 6000 feet ride the previous weekend. Having done that without significant problems, I felt that my conditioning was in place for this one.

One problem I found on that previous ride was that my bicycle needed new tires. I got two flats in my rear tire, which I was able to fix because I usually carry two spare inner tubes with me. I also developed a rear flat at the end my last long ride. Getting frequent flats is an indication that the tire rubber has gotten too thin. Before this year, my last flat was almost two years ago. I have put on nearly 6000 miles on the current set of tires, which were the originals when I got the bicycle. This is much longer than most people hope to get from a set, so it was clearly time to change. I made sure to ride the bicycle to work the week before to ensure that the tire mounting was good.

6:15am, 0 miles, 0 feet

I woke up at 4:30am, got ready, ate a couple donuts, and had my father drop me at the start. I checked in, dropped off my packed food, and got underway. The morning air was a bit cool, but since the day was expected to warm up, I decided to shiver in my long sleeves for a while rather than put on my jacket.

The loop was ridden counter-clockwise.

The forecast was for clear, warm weather, and I had not noticed any prediction of strong winds. But, before reaching the first climb, we experienced some very powerful gusts. One blew me from the right side of the road completely to the other side, and almost off. I was about to dismount when it subsided. This did not bode well for the day, since fighting the wind can be miserable.

On the 4000 foot climb up to top of Mt. Hamilton, I made sure to pace myself. On previous rides I ran out of energy by the end, so this time I wanted to avoid that scenario. It was tempting to speed up while other riders were passing me at periodic intervals, but I forced myself to operate at about a 70% exertion level. (This is just an estimate since I do not wear a heart monitor.)

Still, the rest stop at the top was not as crowded as I had experienced previously, so I was ahead of the pack. It helped that I started before most riders also. I made sure to sit in the sun because the steady wind was cold on the summit.

9:50am, 35 miles, 4300 feet

The other side of Mt. Hamilton is much steeper, so it is usually a fast descent. I was most worried about wind here, because a sudden crosswind while descending at speed can be treacherous. Fortunately the air was much more still on this side of the mountain.

The remote, beautiful San Antonio Valley on the other side of Mt Hamilton.
Photo by Bill Bushnell.

This part of the route is the most scenic. The empty rolling hills and expansive meadows belie the area's proximity to a major urban center. With all the rain we received this past winter, everything was green and wildflowers were everywhere. Since there are no cross roads and no destinations besides several big desolate ranches, there is virtually no traffic. The only people on the roads were out for a scenic drive. There were many motorcycles, and there was one convoy of classic MG and Triumph cars.

12:35pm, 63 miles, 6300 feet

The second stop was at the halfway point. Most of the climbing was done. Although I had no problem eating at the previous stop, I had little appetite now. My digestive system usually slows down under heavy exertion. Still I did manage to eat the food I had packed. I had a hummus sandwich on white bread (simple carbohydrates and protein), potato chips (carbohydrates, fat, and salt), cookies (carbohydrates), and a soft drink (pure sugar). All of it was the "energy food" that I needed.

The stop was simply a small clearing by the road. Everyone leaned their bicycles against the barbed wire fence while they sat on the ground to rest and eat. At one point, a group of four of five large brown horses came running up to the fence and abruptly stopped. They sniffed all the bicycles on the fence near them, probably attracted to the salt of the riders' perspiration. They intently stared directly at the people near them who were eating, hoping for a handout. I was about ten feet away when one stood and stared at me for a while. When it became clear that I would not offer anything, it blew its nose at me. Fortunately I was upwind, so none of his mucus reached me or what I was eating.

2:50pm, 91 miles, 6300 feet

The next stretch was a long, mostly gradual downhill coast. This allowed me to relax and recover some energy. We descended from the hills down to the town of Livermore. Then we went along the city road west to the town of Pleasanton, where the last official stop was.

The wind was more calm here, and it was bright and warm. I finally took off my arm warmers. To this point it was too cool to be in just a short sleeve jersey. Now my appetite really was gone. Knowing that the next stretch contained the final climb, and that was where I previously ran out of energy, I knew I had to force myself to eat.

It did not help that all day the swirling winds had blown dust, pulverized leaf bits, and other grit in my mouth. This gave me a bad taste that I could not flush. Instead of the 15-20 minutes rest I took at the previous stops, I spent about 30 minutes here in the hopes that the relaxation would kick-start my digestion. I did manage to eat (most of) another sandwich and chips, but I packed the cookies for home.

5:20pm, 115 miles, 8000 feet

I paced myself in the flat section approaching the final climb to conserve energy. The gradual, 1000 foot ascent would normally be an "easy" climb for me, but the question was how many functioning muscle fibers were left in my legs. Surprisingly, there were more than I expected. Instead of putting in the lowest gear and crawling, I was able to keep a steady pace in third gear. Though not particularly fast (I passed no one, three riders passed me), it was much better than I thought. I had plenty of energy and my legs were functioning fine.

As usual, I stopped at Ed Levin Park. This is not an official stop but it has a restroom and I usually need to use it by this point in the ride. But it was just a quick in-and-out because I did not need to rest, and it was downhill and flat the rest of the way.

6:20pm, 126 miles, 8000 feet

I reached the finish feeling good. I was able to keep a relatively fast pace on the final flat section. I checked in, received my ride patch, and headed home. I opted not to have anyone pick me up at the finish since it is an easy 4 mile ride back home.

6:40pm, 131 miles, 8000 feet

I have to call my ride a success. I was worried about my conditioning but had no problems. My final time was very similar to the last two times I tried it.

Now I need to decide what other major rides to to this year. The only one I have signed up for is the Seattle to Portland ride this July. That one is 200 (mostly flat) miles over two days. I should have no problem staying in shape for that. I will probably do one or two local events before that.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Repeat: Two Rock Valley Ford 200KM Brevet

125 miles, 4160 feet elevation, 10:55 total time (9:15 on the bicycle)

My first major ride in the last three months was the same as the last one I did — the Two Rock Valley Ford 200KM Brevet. This is a good route to be the first big ride of the season because it is long and only moderately hilly. This allows me to objectively assess how much conditioning I lost over the winter.

Since Thanksgiving, I have been cycling infrequently. There was the traveling to see relatives over holidays, busy weekends in between the traveling when home and family priorities took precedence, the flu, and seasonal rain. The time I was able to make for training were rides in the range of 20 to 50 miles. I generally avoided some of the steeper roads which I usually train on because steep descents are COLD in winter. Plus I wanted to avoid slippery or deteriorated roads. I stuck to riding the more moderate hills.

My friend Gabrielle reminded me that this ride was happening last weekend and that she was riding it. It happened that I had no other plans for the day so I registered for it at the deadline — the preceding Wednesday.

The route started in San Francisco (lower right point), and we traversed the loop counter-clockwise.

I left home at 5:30am and reached the start point by 6:30am. I checked in and found Gabrielle. We chatted and caught up with each other's activities since we last met. Unlike the same event in the fall, the sun was up before we started at 7:00am.

7:00am, 0 miles

Gabrielle and I were in one of the lead groups that departed. The immediate uphill climb to the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge worked well to warm our bodies and fight off the morning chill. I kept the fast pace for about 15 miles, but then decided I needed to go slower to preserve some energy. Gabrielle sped off with the rest of the group and I never saw her again. I decided to let my legs dictate the pace I would keep for the rest of the ride.

10:00am, 43 miles, 2080 feet

The first stop was at a convenience store in Petaluma where I ate a donut (a good source of pure energy). Since I knew from last time that the store does not have a restroom, I used the facilities at the public park across the street. I was actually five minutes ahead of the pace of last time, due to the initial fast start I had. Although the day was warming up, I decided to keep my jacket and leg warmers on, at least until the next stop.

11:40am, 61 miles, 2480 feet

The next stop was in the tiny town of Valley Ford. Just like last time, I loaded up on simple carbohydrates by eating a small box of crackers and a bottle of soda. It was finally warm enough to take off the leg warmers and jacket. At this point my pace was still five minutes ahead of last time.

2:00pm, 84 miles, 3220 feet

The final intermediate stop was in Point Reyes Station. Here my pace was noticeably slower than before. I was now ten minutes behind last time. Like I usually do here, I ate a big cheese sandwich and another bottle of soda. By now my conditioning loss became apparent. I actually maintained a good energy level so I was not particularly tired, but my leg muscles had nothing left. They felt totally shredded.

All the remaining hills, including the smaller ones, were a struggle. I kept it in my lowest gear and cranked the pedals with whatever my legs could manage. On one uphill section at the 98 mile mark, I felt a slight but odd bouncing sensation. I examined my rear tire and saw that it was not flat, but that it had lost most of its air. Clearly it must have had a very small puncture causing it to lose air slowly. Considering that it still managed to keep some air, I decided to NOT replace the tube but rather to pump more air and see how long it would carry me. I guessed that if I only had to pump it back up two more times before I finish, then this would save time over the work involved in replacing the tube.

As I expected, around the 111 mile mark, I could feel that the rear tire was low on air again. And again, I simply pulled over and pumped it up. I did this again (for the last time) at the 120 mile mark. The day had definitely cooled down by this point and was getting dark. I could have put on my outer layers when I stopped to pump, but I was racing the sun and did not want to lose any minutes that would make me finish in the dark. Instead, I simply pumped frantically and jumped back on.

5:55pm, 125 miles, 4160 feet

The sun had set by the time I reach the finish, but there was enough twilight that I did not need my lights. However, by the time I officially checked in and returned to my car parked one mile away, it had gotten dark.

So the objective measurement of my conditioning loss is that my time on the bicycle was 25 minutes more this time than it was three months ago. The 45 minute increase in overall time also included the three sessions of tire pumping and some increase rest time at the stops. This is not too bad for the first big ride of the year. It should take only a couple more big rides (and several intermediate length ones in between) to get my conditioning back to where it should be.