Thursday, September 10, 2009

Mustangs and Jettas

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about where I want to go with cycling next year. I've clearly discovered a niche where I don't suck, mainly non-technical efforts lasting from 20 minutes to not much more than an hour. These consist of hillclimbs, time-trials, "roadie friendly" MTB races, and hilly road races. What I enjoy most though, are ultra-distance type of events, like our annual 6-gaps ride, D2R2, or the epic trail rides I do on trips a couple times a year. But therein lies an issue. While I may not totally suck at endurance riding, it is not a strength. In competition, cramping always seems to rear its ugly head. In non-competitive events (this rarely happens, unless I'm riding alone!), fueling and hydration always prove to be a challenge. Seems I go through way more calories and fluids just to keep the motor running than others I participate in these events with.

I did a little pre- and post-race SM100 analysis to see where I might finish on an unknown course. Before the race, I had a perfect test case. I raced against Gunner Shogren at the Ironcross race last October, finishing 9 minutes behind him. He finished in 4:03. He races singlespeed, but makes no difference in this comparison. Gunner also did the Shenandoah Mountain 100 last year in 8:33 on a singlespeed. That's a 2.1x multiplier, meaning it took Gunner a little more than twice as much time to do the SM100. So all things being equal (such as no mechanicals, similar conditions, etc), I should have been able to do the SM100 in 2.1x my Ironcross time of 4:12. That would have put me at 8:52. But I finished in 9:25, so something doesn't match up here. It is actually much worse than this. Conditions were exceedingly fast this year, as course records were broken, and Gunner finished in 8:16. This should have put me around 8:33hrs, not 9:25hrs.

Here's another example. I ride and race with Dave Penney frequently. The weekend before the SM100, we both raced singlespeeds up Mt Mansfield in Vermont. We are of similar weight. This was a much shorter event, falling in my "sweet zone." I finished in 37 minutes, Dave in nearly 42 minutes. Now extrapolating this to SM100 a week later suggest I should come out an hour ahead of Dave. Not all things were equal here, as I rode a plush dualie with gears, Dave was on a hardtail singlespeed. Thus one could make the case I had the unfair advantage in this comparison, so I should come out even further ahead. I didn't. Dave finished 5 minutes ahead of me. It is well known Dave doesn't suck at ultra endurance.

When Dave and I go on cycling trips, I seem to eat 50% more than he does for the same effort and duration of rides. I will even lose weight doing this. Since we are of comparable weight, obviously I burn more calories for a give power output than Dave does. This is called cycling economy, and cyclists can range from around 17% to as high as 26% efficiency. I suspect I am near the bottom end of that range.

I've owned Mustang GT's for half of my adult life. I love those cars, but they are not very practical for my current lifestyle. The fuel economy sucks, around 23mpg for current models. But if you want to get somewhere fast in an hour, they will do a nice job of it. My wife owned a diesel truck when I met her, a small Isuzu that got something like 30mpg. We've never owned a diesel Jetta. These will get over 40mpg highway. Say you put one gallon of fuel in each tank. The goal is to go as far as you can. Optimal speed might be around 50mph. It will be no surprise the Jetta will go much further than the Mustang. Now with that same one gallon in the tank, say we want to see how quickly each can go 10 miles. I'd dare say the Jetta would take 50% longer. It would use less fuel getting there, but getting there fast it won't. So in distance, the Jetta wins hands down, in speed the Mustang triumphs. So what does this have to do with bicycle racing? Everything!

You see, I'm something like a Mustang GT. Big motor, runs hot, guzzles fuel. This could be result of muscle composition, but many factors could be at play here. Dave, on the other hand, is more like a diesel Jetta. A Jetta doesn't fare well on the drag strip, but it will leave the Mustang in its dust on a cross-country trek using stock fuel reserves.

So after the SM100, Dave and I were talking about if we could choose our muscle composition type, such as Type-I (slow twitch), Type-IIa (fast twitch endurance) or Type-IIb (fast twitch sprint), what would we like? Interestingly, I would love to trade my in-betweeny performance for copious amounts of slow twitch. I have no sprint anyway, so why not go full slow twitch so I can enjoy the ride-all-day and not bonk benefits. Dave would like more fast twitch performance.

Genetics have come a long way in the last few years. There are now several companies that will characterize your DNA for certain athletic performance markers. One such company is Cygene Laboratories. I suspect this will become all the rage over the next few years, by far eclipsing VOmax testing, LT profiling, Power Meters and HRM's combined. I suppose there is some potential there. I don't think they have muscle composition mapped out yet. Best bet for that is old fashioned biopsy. I'm not willing to part with muscle tissue to get an answer. Suppose they can tell me my muscle composition from a cheek swab. Would it change anything? Could make me depressed. Genetics don't map 1:1 though. Nurture is a huge factor (mental and physical). Even if my genetic make-up says I will never excel at ultra-endurance, how I was brought up and my mental perseverance can make up for much of the deficiency such that I can be happy with the performance I achieve. That is the bottom line.

Since posting my SM100 race report, I've gotten several emails and blog comments with links to more info and suggestions on cramping solutions. A few of these seem to hit on supplementing with protein and amino acids during endurance events. I've tried Accelerade a long time ago, and Sustained Energy more recently. I think products in this family warrant a fresh look. Some riders swear by EFS for solving stubborn cramping problems. Might be worth a try. It contains full spectrum of electrolytes, like the Enduralytes that I use, plus amino acids.

I have noted almost since I first took up cycling, that long, hard efforts make me reek of ammonia. Supposedly this means the body is metabolizing protein. If you are not ingesting it, it can only come from muscle tissue. Not a good scenario. Looks like I'll have some more experiments to run this fall. Would really like to sort this out before ski season gets under way. Yep, I did 16km on rollerskis at lunch today. Felt great.


Matt Jarvis said...


This post reminds me of an article in a recent issue of Bicycling magazine that touches on a comparison of Ned Overend and his son. If you haven't already checked it out, seems to be a good read.

Your mention of smelling like ammonia after a long, hard effort cycling touches home. I sweat a lot -- even when I was a teenager and in shape -- and I'm always dwenched after any hard activity over 1-plus hours. I weigh 230 pounds now, but I had this problem when I was 150 pounds in high school.

On another note: Great race up Washington. I was there taking photographs and video for my personal collection. Man, that's a tough race. I have photographs of most of the competitors, and when I get the video transferred, I'll make that available on-line.

Again, thanks for the all the information about hillclimbing. I'm really interested in competing at Ascutney and eventually Washington. I did a bike trial up Ascutney and was humbled by how difficult it was for me to stick with it.

Keep up the tremendous effort!!!

Matt Jarvis

Dave said...

I am not as fast but have similar troubles. Interesting that I cramped bad on the 2nd climb of 6 Gaps this year and SM100 after a full season of hard training. I say that I have power but not endurance. My hill climbing TT improved markedly this season and I can suffer but not keep up high power steadily. In both rides I recovered from the cramps. In SM I felt very strong toward the finish after eating real food at Aid Station 5. I too think nutrition is my key. Both pre ride and during. Bonking blows. Do tell us all how you improve on the common troubles.--Dave

Luke S said...

Maybe this says something about the type of ski races you should focus on...

There are lots of great 10-20 km events in New England that have finishing times between 25-60 minutes. Seems like your type of race. And not all the competitors are speedy youngsters, plenty of masters do come out for these races.

Hill Junkie said...

Luke - you know, the only ski race I ever age-cat placed in was a 10k, the hilly beast at Waterville Valley called the cross-trainers race. Granted, Rob Bradley and the like were not there, but I did beat one of my slow twitch ski buddies that smokes me in 50k races. You might be on to something...

DaveP said...

Yawn. Concentrating on what you're already good at is b-o-r-i-n-g. Then again, for some people maybe it's not fun if they're not getting on the podium? Protect the fragile ego.

Hill Junkie said...

Ooooh, my fragile ego just shattered. You know, at one time I had to push my bike up even a pimple of a hill. Used to utterly suck at it. Perhaps it is time to work on a new weakness, as I was hinting at in the post.

Anonymous said...

Doug - I know a bunch of folks that have really good luck with the Hammer Product, 'Anti-Fatigue Caps' -- it's designed to consume excess ammonia...Patrick

Big Bikes said...

This is entirely non-technical and anecdotal, but a few years back I was having issues with cramping. One of the fastest guys I've ever know told me to try drinking a whole bottle of Pedialyte the night before a race and following it with a bottle in the AM if it's going to be a particularly hot one.

I have done this ever since, even prior to cool races. I have not cramped that I can remember.

That's all I got.