Saturday, August 2, 2008

Equinox Hillclimb Race

After coming out of my hardest week ever on two wheels a week ago, I pretty much wrote off the rest of the competition season. The hole I dug myself into in Colorado was massive. Last Sunday in Boulder, I took it fairly easy up Flagstaff Drive, which was a sub-threshold (barely) 52 minute climb from the hotel. So that was an easy day compared to rest of the trip. Monday was recovery day. Having a double race weekend coming up, I wanted to get at least a little intensity in during the week. I hadn't had any for almost two weeks, not VOmax work anyway. Wednesday was too close to the Equinox Hillclimb, so I opted for some 3-5 minute VOmax intervals on Tuesday. I thought it was ludicrous even planning such a workout, but I figured if it didn't work, I'll finish the whole week as recovery.

I felt pretty bad as I ramped power up in prep for first interval. But I easily dropped Dan, an elite triathlete in the process. I thought hmmm, that doesn't happen too often. Then we got to the first hill. Dan lasted 30 seconds on my wheel. I haven't been using any HR or power feedback lately, so all I had to go by was my speed going up this hill which takes about 4 minutes. No record, but it was one of my faster climbs. There seemed to be a disconnect between how I felt and what I was actually capable of. So I went with the workout plan. I proceeded to get four more high quality VOmax intervals in. I was rebounding nicely from my week out west.

After tapering from that workout the rest of the week, I arrived at Equinox apprehensive. I really have no "A" races this year, except maybe for wanting to do well at Battenkill, which went so-so. I certainly wasn't planning to PR any hillclimbs. My Mt Evans hillclimb race in Colorado was a disaster. I like to blame the rental bike that was ill-matched to the task, but I can't be sure it wasn't me either.

For Equinox, I warmed up on the same bike I was going to race up this time. Last year I had a solitary 24t ring up front that precluded warming up on the road. You'd just spin out at 10mph. So last year I brought a second road bike along to warm up on. This year I didn't feel like messing around with my bike that much, mostly because I wasn't going for any PR's and such. I put a compact double with an elliptic 36t Q-ring on up front. On the back, a 32t MTB cassette. I pulled the rear brake off. That's it. The setup weighed around 15.5-15.6 lbs. I've never raced Equinox with such a big ratio, but I've become less of a spinner the last couple years. Riders with carbon tubulars sport rigs that weigh much less. Last year I also removed front derailleur and excess chainrings for about 15.0 lbs.

So the Top Notch wave goes off at 8am, and like most years, the starting gun misfires. I let about 12 riders bolt away and kill themselves for the $500 first mile preem. These included the usual suspects like Ian Gordan (Arc en Ciel), Eric Tremble (Kenda) and others. Mark Luzio (Cycle Fitness) was there too, and he's beat me in the past up this beast. Not last year when I PR'd. Mark took off faster than me too, but not like the $500 contenders. I was somewhat disheartened by how fast so many riders bolted away from me. It is so hard to mentally block that out, knowing that last year I was 4th overall here. I don't use a power meter for hillclimbs, so it's all perceived exertion.

At about the half-mile mark where it started to get steep, I inched past Mark. We watch each other closely here. He stayed right behind me for a while, and I wondered if I just accelerated into a zone I didn't belong and he'll soon pass me again for good.

It is fun watching the action up front play out for the $500 preem from second or third row seats. Eric Tremble bolted well clear of the next closest contender. He was taking no chances. Last year he missed it by 0.5 seconds. Ouch. But later I would learn his primary reason for drilling it so hard for the first 5.5 minutes of the race.

After the first mile action was over, most of those player's were cooked. I was in 12th place. Slowly but surely I began to pick off riders. This started to build my confidence. Mark was now gone out of sight behind me, nobody else was gaining on me. I was riding my pace. By the halfway mark (2.6mi), I was quite sure I had ridden the race on borrowed energy to that point. I thought there was no way I could continue to hold that pace. Then I'd pass a couple more young whipper-snappers, including preem winner and last year's overall winner Eric Tremble. This gave me another shot of confidence that I hadn't popped yet. Now I was in like 6th place out of Top Notch wave. From mile 4 to mile 5, I passed three more riders. Holy crap, I was now potentially in third place overall. How can this be? Everybody else having a bad day? I really don't try to pace by mile or know where I need to be time-wise at mile so-and-so to have a good finish in hillclimbs, so I still believed I was going to have a mediocre finish. Approaching mile 5, I could see that some of the recent kids I passed were attacking each other. Good and bad I thought. Good, in that each attack will take more matches out of their books and hurt their ability to bring me back. Bad, in that if one of them gets second wind and carries a surge to the finish, they'll surely pass me. Ian did this too me last year. After all, I was only about 20sec up the road from this silliness going on. As the finish line came into view, I knew I had clinched third place. It didn't take long to realize I had a minute and a half to my PR time to cover about 0.2 miles. Another PR was inevitable. I crossed the line in 41:15.9 minutes, nearly 30 seconds faster than the PR I set last year. I was psyched.

A couple minutes after crossing the line and no longer seeing cross-eyed in an anaerobic haze, a rider from the second wave crosses the line. New course record at 37:46.8, breaking Joe Moody's record from 2006. Cool. But dang! That meant I just got bumped off the overall podium. I killed myself to hold third place in my wave. This rider was Steve Gatzos (BRC). His racing age is 32, and he recently started transitioning to hillclimbing after successful road racing. The funny thing here is, Steve sought my advice on gearing for Ascutney and this race. I recommended, even for a strong rider such as himself, going close to 1:1. He put a single 24t granny on up front with standard 23t road cassette on the back. He won Ascutney overall two weeks ago, just edging out formidable climber Gerry Clapper (Benidorm), who won Ascutney last year. So Steve brought the same setup to Equinox, and he not only won the race, he broke the course record. I jokingly quipped with Steve at the summit, "no more gearing tips for you!" Steve is a great guy. He does the bulk of his hill training on Blue Hill. It goes to show you don't have to climb 30 minute hills to do well in 30 minute or 1 hour efforts.

Eric Tremble knew Steve was going to be at the race and knew he'd be starting one wave back. Eric knew Steve was a contender for the $500 first mile preem too. Apparently you don't have to be in the Top Notch wave to win it. Fastest time from any wave wins it. So Eric bolted clear of everybody in our wave as insurance that Steve wouldn't nip him with a faster time. This paid off. Eric had huge margin on the next closest Top Notch contender but beat Steve by mere seconds for the preem. So Eric met his objective in winning the preem he barely lost last year, but forfeited the overall win. I think if Steve had been in the first wave, Steve would have won both the preem and the race. With a qualifying time of less than 50 minutes, Steve will be in Top Notch wave next year. Ought to be interesting.

As usual, Andy Holzman and crew do a fantastic job putting this race on each year. The first thing that crosses your mind after crossing the line are the yummy donuts and coffee at the summit. The post race meal is excellent, especially the premium icecream. I went up for seconds of Moosetracks. The awards purse exceeds $5000 value. For my first place 40-49 year old finish, I have one night's stay and breakfast at the posh Reluctant Panther Inn ($329-$429/night) in Manchester, VT. The weather held up nicely. It started to thunder as the awards were wrapping up, and it rained the entire drive home.

Competition wise, this season has not gone that well for me. Riding in general has been fabulous, especially three cycling trips so far. But mediocre finishes in road races at best have left me a bit disenfranchised. I turn 46 this month, and each year I wonder if its the year I start going downhill. But that is what is so cool about hillclimbs. They are personal fitness tests. This is my fifth year racing Equinox, and to pull off yet another PR shows I have not yet gone over the age precipice. Taking 30 seconds off last year's time, which I thought would never be bested, more than makes up for the disappointing road race and other hillclimb race results. Mt Washington is in two weeks. I'm not planning or even hoping for a PR there, but it isn't entirely impossible. I'm not going to stress over it.

Today's race marinaded my legs nicely for tomorrow's race. The Bow road race with John Funk and other punishers present will completely charbroil my legs. I did well at Bow last year after racing Equinox the day before, but other years I got killed. A lot depends on how hot it gets. Looks like Eric and Mark will be there too.

Long post already, but I have to plug this exciting news for the hillclimbing world next year. A hillclimb championship series has been planned, called the Bumps Challenge. This is something I'll definitely participate in. Also, I just learned there is a new hillclimb race up the highest peak in Vermont, Mt Mansfield. It is called the Race to the Top of Vermont. What makes this race doubly cool is the private toll road is dirt. I always thought it was paved and such a shame they never allowed cyclists on it. Now we have a chance on August 31. All riders must be on MTBs, 26" or 29" wheels, and tires must be 2" wide. They don't want any "cheaters" on cross bikes for this one. We will also be allowed to ride back down after the race, thus all bikes must have two brakes. I may look into converting my singlespeed into a rigid platform for this race.

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