Monday, August 30, 2010

Batteries and high hemotacrit have value

First Annual Assault on Pikes Peak

Sunday set up to be a spectacular day for a 14er hillclimb. Highs near 90F were predicted for the Colorado Springs area with minimal chance for rain. I botched my sleep up though. Tom is an early riser. I begrudgingly set my alarm for 4:55am (he got up at 4), but I somehow managed to set the clock an hour fast. I got up at 3:55am. There was no way I could sleep some more after that.

We did bib pickup the evening before, which included a pasta dinner. Wasn’t bad. Red Noland Cadillac is the prime sponsor for the event. From what I heard, without their generous financial support, this event would not have happened. Bib pickup was at the dealership. Beer and wine were included.

It was still dark out when we got to the race start. The timed “but-not-a-race” event started at 7am. Just over 300 riders were present, set to go off in one wave. I saw every kind of one, two and four wheeled contraption there. There was Aspen Mike on his unicycle, a couple on a tandem, recumbents, a paraplegic in a handcycle, and get this, a posse of battery assisted bicycles. I have a hunch the event director will hear a good deal from the human powered majority about this.

Staring area before 7am. Pikes Peak lit up in distance,
The Incline visible on right (story next post).

I sent a few clothing items up for the descent in my Camelbak. I was riding up with nothing. No spare tube, pump or long layers. Just one gel and one water bottle. It was breezy and about 60F at the start.

I did not warm up whatsoever.  I somehow staged behind one of the battery powered guys. He didn't go out very fast.  I placed myself way too far back and was nervous going through the Manitou Springs village. A lead group bolted and was gone. Tom Ramsey was in that group. I didn’t really care about getting stuck back, as I was going to take pictures on the way up anyway. I just didn’t want an inexperienced pack rider to take me out.

Heading out of town towards US-24, the grade kicked up and thinned things out. I stayed with a small group that went at a pace I was comfortable with into the moderate headwind. We got on US-24 via the off-ramp. The police had shut down one of the two east bound lanes for the hillclimb. Thus we had a lane of a divided highway to ourselves for several miles. This was against traffic. They did it this way so we wouldn’t have to cross the highway twice. It worked.

The grade thus far was relaxed, maybe 5% average. When we got off the highway, we hit some steep bits. This was maybe 6-7 miles into the climb, but not much vertical yet. The Pikes Peak Toll road was closed to cars for the hillclimb.

First photo I took during the climb, about 7 miles in just on toll road.
Summit wasn'tgetting any closer.

I knew from studying the profile, that the climb doesn’t really start until about mile 14, or above 9000ft elevation. The grade kicks up there with a vengeance and stays that way for most of the remainder of the climb. It was along here that multiple motorized bicycles passed me. You’d here them coming. The riders still had to pedal. I talked a good while after the climb back at the bottom with an E-bike rep about these bikes. More on that later.

I stopped to refill my water at around mile 12. I thought, wow, half way miles-wise, maybe this won’t be so bad. I had no idea what I was in for. As expected, the grade at mile 14 kicked up something fierce. My pace dropped dramatically. I didn’t run the Garmin, but I bet there were many 12+% sections. I was geared at 34x28 minimum. At altitude, this put my cadence painfully low.

A typical switchback. Taken on descent.

Mt Washington has the 5 mile grade. Many readers will know about this. It is that dirt section at mile post 5 where you see forever, and it is all 15% grade. Well, Pikes Peak has the 15 mile grade. It too is dirt, steep as heck, and the summit isn’t getting any closer. That is what was so demoralizing about this climb. You’ve been climbing for well over an hour, and it doesn’t look like you’ve even made a dent in reaching the top.

Over half way and summit in distance is still impossibly far up.

At 12,000ft, you leave timberline for good. And this is where things got really interesting. Not only do you have double digit grades, not only was the air become rarified, but you also had 50mph wind gusts. Oh yeah, this was way harder than anything I’ve seen on Mt Washington. I thought to myself a shit load of people were going to be in trouble here. In fact, multiple people riding around me had to catch themselves by putting a foot down. At times my speed dropped to 3mph and I was going all-out as hard as I could. The wind was whipping up pea sized gravel into my face. It was getting inside my shoes. I learned at the top that the wind ripped Tom’s shades right off his face. I think the last 8 miles took me much longer than the first 16 miles. I spent long stretches with my cadence in the 40’s. I had some serious reservations about descending in this wind.

The temperature was also plummeting as we climbed. My hands grew numb. So did my ears, nose and feet. If I had flatted here, I would have been in a world of trouble. There were bits where the head wind became a tail wind. This was sweet. I remember one stretch were I accelerated up to 35mph about two miles from the summit and felt zero net breeze. This was steady wind speed. Going around switchbacks was so tricky. You’d lean 45 degrees into the wind on one side then have to abruptly transition to leaning the other way. One rider near me gave up and walked.

The sky stayed nice and clear though. There were no ominous clouds building. When we cleared the last water stop, I saw a large group of riders coming up behind me. Even though I stopped multiple times to take photos on the way up, I did not want this group to pass me. I somehow found some more energy. By this point in the Mt Evans climb a couple years ago, I was cramping up horribly and getting an altitude headache. Not today. I felt great. I managed to hold that group off for the last thousand feet or so of climbing. When I reached the 14,110ft summit, I couldn’t feel the shifters whatsoever. The temperature was probably less than 40F and the windchill around freezing. Overnight the windchill was reportedly 15F.

I logged 3:04hrs riding time, and my given time was 3:09:23, good for 27th place out of 312 starters overall. Tom slayed this climb in 2:56:23. He's a phenomenal climber and could challenge the Mt Washington age group record when he turns 60.  He just had a physical and his hemotacrit is many points higher than mine. Time for me to buy that oxygen tent. Or move to Colorado. This was easily the hardest timed hillclimb event I’ve done. 3hrs, no recovery.

They fry fresh donuts at the summit house. That and a hot cup of coffee did wonders for my hands. My core body temp was barely ok. I didn’t start shivering until after I sat down inside. Those were the best donuts I ever had. Maybe it was a timing thing.

Hour of vertical in single frame.

After taking in the summit views, it was time for the nearly 8000ft plummet back to Manitou Springs. I heard some riders say they were taking van transportation back down because of the wind. Screw that. What I saw on the descent shocked me. There were still many, many riders hours from the summit, walking their bikes up. I knew many would underestimate this mountain. I felt sorry for them. What do you say? Looking good! Almost there! Many of these people had little chance of making the summit before being turned around by event staff.

Mike Tierney on Uni. He finished in an impressive 4:40.

Walkers coming up on my descent, far from summit.

The first two bikes to descend from the summit as I finished my climb were battery assisted bicycles. This event is a timed, USAC sanctioned fun ride, but not officially a race. The two fastest motor-assisted riders do have asterisks by their names in the results. Seeing them there rubbed many human powered athletes the wrong way. Why would you allow motor vehicles in a bicycle event? Where does this end? I suspect with my robotics background I could build a battery powered cycle that could reach the summit in an hour. The technology will only improve and the motor assisted bikes will get faster. What is the point here? Clearly the event director needs to deal with this next year.

Buttery smooth pavement and miles and miles of switchbacks.

There were event booth displays in the park at the bottom. A couple vendors were E-bike vendors. I talked with one at length. He was surprised that anybody would care a motorized bike was participating. He said to me, “you mean this could be negatively perceived?” Well, yeah! They were there to promote environmentally friendly transportation options. But they were very na├»ve to think they could do this in a human powered timed event. I don’t think they should even have a separate category during a bicycle race. Pick a different day and a different event. Electric bicycles and the human powered counterparts will soon not mix well at all.

Looking down on Hwy 24 from toll road. Lane closure did
appear to have some impact on traffic. Hopefully minimal.

I have to say the technology has progressed. These are not the stealth E-bikes that made a buzz recently. These bikes pack batteries with 1000W-hrs or more of power. They are quite conspicuous. There were at least six of them there. One guy had a completely homemade job, which looked like two small car batteries with what looked like a car alternator turned into a motor. Probably not very efficient.

Obligatory summit photo of Tom and me.

It was a great day of riding, just over 4hrs total. This hillclimb event made the greatest impression on me of any. Mt Evans better watch out. Mt Evans is just a warm-up climb to this beast. Mt Washington will lose its “toughest hillclimb” label. With the steepness, exposure to wind, thin air, and 60% greater net gain, Pikes Peak could easily claim that title. The event was very well staffed and orchestrated. Only 300+ entrants started this year. Organizers were hoping to sell out at 1500 riders. I think they just didn’t get the word out. Now it will be out. I think Pikes Peak will sell out next year. They plan to offer it again. You can’t ride your bike on this 14er otherwise. Asking around, there were only two prior bicycle events on Pikes Peak. One was 1986 world championships, the other around 1991. They both started much higher up than Manitou Springs, and nobody rode back down. This event was a first of its kind. The scenery above tree line is surreal. You get a strong top of the world sensation on this mountain. I wouldn’t do the Mt Evans hillclimb race again, but I’d definitely do Pikes Peak again.

All for now. Hopefully I can catch up on blogging Tuesday night and tell you about the Manitou Springs Incline. I did it Monday morning. Nasty, nasty. As a hurricane is bearing down on the east coast, the forecast here looks perfect. Tuesday I plan to mountain bike a portion of the Continental Divide at 12,000ft. I'll leave you with two Pikes Peak summit photos.  Thanks for reading.

West view from summit

North view from summit


Ronbomon said...

I always enjoy a quick read of your Blog. Not sure I agree with your view on motor assisted riders. Obviously, they can't have a separate event at a place like Pikes Peak. And what a great place to showcase them. I certainly agree that they should have their own division. and go off at a different time than regular bikes, etc. I had never even heard of them until a few weeks ago. However, I can see myself using them as someday in my 60's or 70's after several knee operations.

Also, I'd love to see Hill Junkie put the Highlander Cycle Tour on his September calendar one of these years. With it's Tour De Flanders type climbs, I heard people say it surpases and/or rivals any tour in America. Having ridden the Gaps that you write about in Vermont, I'd say only Lincoln is harder...

Hill Junkie said...

Ron - I certainly agree electric assisted bikes are cool. It would be great if people in cities used them for errands instead of combustion engine transportation. They also have a place in giving riders a boost that have limitations or disabilities. My primary concern at Pikes Peak was this. The focus on E-bikes was more on the technology, and less on the athlete. Just my opinion, but really hard events like this should keep the focus on the athlete. For example, a hand cyclists and a woman with one leg made it to the top without any power augmentation. This is a tremendous accomplishment.

The Highlander - maybe next year.

Anonymous said...

Great account of your adventure up Pikes Peak. The wind sounds like it was quite intense. You can't tell there was any based on the photos.

UltraRob said...

Great time for the ride. I agree that the organizers didn't get the word out very well. I think since they thought it would sell out they didn't put in the effort they needed to for a 1st year event. Like you said I don't think next year will be a problem though.

I was really surprised to see the electric assist bikes. Coming from a race background, I guess I never even thought of them for a ride like this. Since it's just a "ride" it should matter but of course people aren't going to do it as a ride.

You're correct about the 1986 Pikes Peak event. I don't remember exactly but I do remember doing the race in the early '90s at least 3 times. It was also revived for about 2 years around 2000. That race started 8 miles from the summit which is about half way up the remaining dirt section. In the early 90s, it was still all dirt. Around 2000 it was partly paved but I think there was still more dirt than pavement.

Sometime around 2000 they did a trial one fall where for 2 weeks on Tuesday and Wednesday they let riders start at Crystal Reservoir. It's a little over 11 miles in and if you refilled your water bottle at the aid station that were it was. They opened the gate at 6 AM and you had to be off the road by 9AM. I rode it once then.

Since I had ridden the top 13 miles of the road, I was concerned when I saw the gears most people had at the start. I was shooting photos so was in the media van until Crystal Reservoir. I had my mountain bike in the van and rode to the top from there. I had put 25mm tires on which was a perfect set up for me.

aspenmike said...

Doug, that is the most incredible hillclimb I have ever been part of. I'm sorry I missed you on top, but from the picture you took of me, I remember you stopping on your descent and snapping it. If you said anything to me, I don't remember, but thanks. My saddle time was 4hr 9min. I am still so pumped up from it, what an amazing place and road. I think I finished around 150 out of 300. Thanks for the great post, hope to meet up with you at bottom of Pearl Pass! Oh, I agree 100% with you, this is the hardest hillclimb event ;-)

Snowcatcher said...

Thanks for a great write-up. Enjoyed your photos. It was a little bittersweet reading someone else's account of making it to the top, but I'm truly glad so many did!

I kind of thought the e-bikes were a bit akin to cheating, but from personal experience, I also know different people have different goals. So I didn't mind them being there. I didn't really like seeing them in the number 1 and 2 spots, even with the asterisk. I'd rather they get their own category.

Dave said...

Awesome, now I will have to go and do this ride and have my ass handed to me, some day. Like your pics and write-up. Got my 1st hill race: Poor Mt Hillclimb in VA. Maybe I can catch you when you are 60.

rick said...

this was my first hill climb event ever. I am 57, from Pennsylvania. Finished 4:48:30. I was glad to hear that even the fast guys like you thought it was tough. Getting sand blasted on the dirt section was truly "a blast". I was so glad I put on a 30/ 34 for this climb. I used it most of the time past Glen Cove. This was like 25 miles of 15% grade back at sea level. Thanks for the great description of the ride.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading your account of the Pikes Peak climb. I didn't even know such an event existed and hope it is offered again as it is going on my hill climb bucket list. Glad to see you have bounced back from your injury as well. I must admit that I did a double take when you came around me on Ascutney back in July.