Sunday, September 25, 2011

Vermont 50

I nearly bailed on this expensive race after seeing how much rain was falling over New England. I seriously waffled. 2009 scarred me, when it took nearly 6hrs in non-stop pouring rain to finish the race. I missed last year, reportedly the best conditions in 10yrs, as I was in a cast when registration opened and was uncertain if I'd be back in form. A local cyclocross race was looking much better this weekend. 40 minutes of mud is a lot better than 5-6hrs and 8000ft of climbing in mud. I bailed on too many races this season though, so I stuck to plans.

I have a love-hate relationship with these endurance gigs. Long races are a blast, but debilitating cramping for the last two hours sucks. It negates the fun-factor and then some. I have never done a 3+ hour race without cramping. Today was going to be an experiment. Others suggested after the Hampshire 100 race a few weeks ago that my supplemental sodium intake was minuscule. I bought Elite brand electrolytes which have about a 4x higher percentage of sodium than the Endurolytes I've used until now. I added some to my Gatorade mix (the tablets do dissolve with time) and filled a vial for in-race consumption.

I spent the night in White River Junction with Dave Penney, his wife Beth and son Zach at the Fairfield. Zach is 10 months old now and wakes once per night at 3:30am. We planned to get up at 4:30am. Beth warned me he will make a little fuss, as she knows I'm a light sleeper. I told her it couldn't be as bad as the car alarm in 2009 that kept going off all night right below our window. I was looking for a brick to hurl on that car that night. So I brought my electronic noise machine that can go quite loud. I guess Beth thought it was pretty loud. After lights went out, Dave and Beth joked out loud that they could have sex and I wouldn't even notice. Of course, I heard none of this discussion. Great device, that noise machine is.

I did manage to get some sleep. We never got our wakeup call and my alarm never went off. Good thing Dave has a built-in alarm clock. I had to eat, poop and kit up in 20 minutes. Not nearly enough time. I hate starting a race with unfinished business.

Race organizers suggested a small light may be a good idea, because it might be hard to see at 6am. Well, it was friggin black out at 6am! I rode down from may car a few hundred meters to the start line. I did not plan to warm up anyway even if I had time. It was the warmest ever lining up for this race, high 60's probably, and near 100% humidity. It was soupy. This did not bode well for me in staving off cramping.

Staging was a mess. Seems things went awry with bib number assignment this year. Best I can tell, many if not all folks that didn't do this race last year had their pre-reg wrong. They halted bib pickup for a while the evening before to sort the mess out. Then lining up for the race, they regrouped waves with different start times. I was supposed to be in first wave but got bumped back to second. Singlespeeders were supposed to be in second, but got moved up to first wave. Many singlespeeders missed their start by 5 minutes because of this last minute change.

Lining up in the first wave was Ted King (Liquigas).  Many mountain bikers don't know who Ted is (yet). I think it is really cool that events like the VT50 draw this caliber of talent, but it is a double-edged sword. The VT50 could go the way of Leadville, where it becomes impossible to get in and the last vestiges of its grassroots beginnings all but vanish. The race filled in what, 10 minutes for 800 entries this year? I see either a lottery system or big fee increase for next year.

Ok, time to get on with the race. My wave rolls out at 6:05am. There were just enough guys with lights so I could avoid crossing wheels or entangling bars. The first mile is downhill pavement at 30mph. Kind of nuts when you can't see a thing. Due to Irene damage and recent rain, the course was altered a bit. We began climbing immediately on a dirt road that turned into doubletrack. I could not see the roots and rocks and was riding purely reactively.  I took it pretty easy, riding way within my limits. At least 40 riders in my wave went on ahead of me. If I stayed with them, I'd cramp in 2.5hrs instead of 3hrs. I figured 0.5hrs less pain and suffering was worth it.

There wasn't much singletrack in the first couple hours of riding. It wasn't as muddy as I feared either. To be sure, there were some nasty, juicy jeep road descents that quickly cloaked my bike and body in goo. I started with a 100oz Camelbak and was sucking it down at a profound rate. I added 6 Elite Tablytes to it, or about 900mg of sodium plus other electrolytes. It didn't taste salty at all. I reached back for my vial of tablets. It wasn't there! The one thing I did not want to forget was my electrolytes. So much for my experiment. I still had more electrolytes in my Camelbak than typical, so not all was lost. My plan was to ditch the starter 100oz Camelbak at the 30 mile stop and pick up a 70oz pack I had sent there. The VT50 uses HEED on the course, and that stuff is a lower GI disaster for me.

On Garmin Hill, I caught up to Alec Petro (Corner Cycle). I knew something was wrong, as I was not going very hard at all and I expected him to win my age category. He was coming down with a nasty bug and was abandoning the race. I felt bad for him, but that opened a podium spot. I finished 4th in 2009.

I got my first cramping spasm about 30 miles into the race, just before exchanging Camelbaks. I didn't want to look at my elapsed time, as I knew it would be disappointing. I bet I had just over 3hrs at that point. Clockwork. Doesn't matter how hard or easy I go. I will cramp in 3hrs. Beth was at this stop. When I asked how far up Dave was, she said I didn't want to know. He was riding singlespeed and I was a little surprised I hadn't caught him yet. I passed many of the other singlespeeders. He was at least 15 minutes up. Dang. Not only was I not chipping away at his 5min head start, he was just motoring away from me. Good for him.

Less than an hour later I got a full-blown muscle spasm. They start in my inner thighs, then progress to hamstrings and quads, until I am no longer able to flex my knee. So I immediately shut things down to prevent this from progressing to the point it did in the Hampshire 100 a few weeks ago. I started walking up all the climbs. If the climbs are steep enough, you really don't lose much time anyway. This sucked. I was steadily passing riders from the first wave, now they were passing me back.

We enter a part of the course that is mostly singletrack. Despite a week of heavy rain, the singletrack was actually in good shape. It was moist, but not muddy. There was this long descent with non-stop switchbacks. The off-camber roots were treacherous. A foot came out many times just in case. This long session of delicately picking my way through a mine field of potential mishaps allowed my body to regain some electrolyte balance. I was able to pedal uphill again without throwing my legs into tizzies. I caught back up to three younger riders and had a few trailing me too. We stayed together for the next several miles.

At the race start, I heard that since some singletrack was taken out of the race, some extra road was put in and the distance would be 54 miles. Then I saw a sign that said 4mi to go when I had only 44mi on my computer. What? That meant a 2mi climb up the XC trails on Mt Ascutney and the 1mi plummet down to the finish were about all that was left for the race. I thought I hadn't had a spasm in 30 minutes, so I can totally drop these six guys on that climb. And I did.

I had no idea where the cramping demons went, but they didn't arrise for the next 15 minutes. I felt right on the cusp the whole time. Maybe there was something to this increased sodium intake. I'm always in cramping hell for the last 10mi of this race. I still had no idea of my elapsed time as I began the descent to the finish. There were no riders in sight behind me. I had passed one more during the climb.

I finished in 5:14:33, about 36 minutes faster than 2009. This might have netted a top 20 overall finish.  I no more than finished when Alby King rolled in. Huh? He should have been way ahead of me. He decided the race wasn't hard enough and went on a 20 minute off-course excursion. Glad I kept the power on even after I dropped the others, as Alby would surely have caught me. So with Alec dropping out and Alby's snafu, that bumped me up to third place in the Expert 45+ field. Woo-hoo! Scored a jug of Vermont pure maple syrup for my effort.

Coming through finish. Photo by Beth Penney.

Dave Penney continued to put distance on me after the 30 mile mark. He won the singlespeed division, and best I can tell, placed 4th overall with a time of 4:37:50! This certainly was his day. I ride with Dave a lot and have long known he is capable of a result like this. Nice way to redeem yourself after Greylock, eh?

It turned out to be not such a bad day. It got very warm after I finished when the sun came out. Just standing around, I was sweating buckets. I had to stick around a few hours to claim my dropped Camelbak. It takes an army of volunteers to put on a race like this. They all do a fabulous job. The hickup with registration and staging this year was an anomally that probably won't happen again. I see this event doing nothing but gain popularity. This year the mountain bike and running races both max'd out with 800 and 550 competitors respectively.

Anyway, I have mixed feelings about continuing to compete in events like these. People assume that because I'm a pretty good climber, I would naturally excel in a long race that is all climbing. While I can't really say I suck in the VT50, I feel like I'm completely out of my league.  It's a whole different beast. I can take Dave in a sub-hour hillclimb by several minutes, but he can put better part of an hour on me in a race like the VT50. He excels in endurance, I have a high VOmax. People are just built differently like that. I'll still probably do Ironcross in two weeks if the weather looks good. I will remember my salt tablets though!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Essential Equipment

Seems in a blink of an eye, I converted over to trail running. A year ago, I would have never considered trying it, given my propensity to roll ankles. When I got out of my cast last year, I bought an ankle brace, as I didn't trust my healing ankle. I did a little hiking as a means to strengthen my ankle and lower legs. The deal was, with a brace on my left ankle I found I could still roll my right ankle. So I ordered a second brace.  I never thought I'd use them to run off-road though. They have become essential equipment.

Lace-up ankle braces

My last four runs have been all or at least half off-road. Yesterday's in the rain was interesting. No different than mountain biking on wet roots and rocks, really. Twice, an ankle started to roll on me. Hard to say if the ankle braces are stout enough to completely protect me from injury. My biggest fear is tripping on a root or tree debris and bashing a knee or breaking a wrist in a fall.

Pace goes way down off-road. Impact is lessened on loamy soil, but I find trail running makes me more sore afterwards. It is all the off-camber stuff, pushing off laterally to dodge stuff, bigger step-ups or step-downs. I would think this could help me come time to put on XC skis. I don't plan to rollerski anytime soon. Hopefully running, road and off-road, helps fill the transition gap to skiing.

I been getting some other functional training in too. My wife Cathy has been bugging me to replace our main floor carpeting for some time now. For our first several years in this house, we had a large black lab that spent part of his time outdoors. He took a lot of dirt into the house. Although he was trained to stay off the carpet, he learned that after we went to bed, he could poach the dining room carpet off the kitchen. When he heard us get up and come down the stairs, he'd quick get up and lay on his mat like he was there the whole time. The warm spot on the carpet gave him away though. Smart dogs, those labs are. Anyway, he trashed the carpet. Cathy wanted to put a wood floor in there. I reluctantly agreed, as I wasn't paying somebody else to install it, so that meant I would have to work it into my busy schedule.

So last weekend I tasked Cathy with rolling back the carpet. She says "Um dear, you better come and look at this." The subfloor in the corner was wet and buckled. WTF. Probably water infiltration from Irene, but you could tell this was not a new problem.

Cathy wanted wood floor, Cathy can take belt sander to high spots.

Investigation outside showed why. The builder failed to install kick-out flashing on our house. We have a bump-out bay window in the kitchen. Where it's roof meets the siding along the family room was not properly flashed. Water came down the bump-out and ran behind the siding. No wonder we constantly struggle with carpenter ants in our house.

I got the extension ladder out. Pounding on the siding below the leak gave a sickening sound. The siding just caved in. The sheathing behind it was completely rotten.

So a project that began as installing a wood floor morphed into ripping siding and sheathing off the side of our house. I had to replace the rotten sheathing, then replace the vinyl siding, then work in a kick-out flashing, which is hard to do when everything is built already. It wasn't pretty, but I think what I came up with is robust. That probably took more time that it will to finish the wood floor.

We went with an engineered flooring material. It is natural oak veneer laminated to interlocking panels. It floats, so no nailing or gluing. It goes in quick. Not sure how durable the construction is, but that room gets very light use in our house. In two evenings, we nearly finished the floor. Just need to finish a bit more quarter round moulding.

Almost finsihed in two evenings.

All that crawling around on my knees and running down to the basement to cut boards a zillion times was actually a pretty good workout. Made me hurt in many strange places. You'd think with running, cycling, situps and pushups there wouldn't be much else to punish, but there's lots.

Vermont 50 this weekend. Looks like lots of rain on the way. I just may give up cycling entirely the way my season has been going.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


I should be heading to New York right now for the Adirondak road race. Instead, I'm home trying to get well. After the climb up Greylock last weekend, my throat continued to get crankier and crankier. At first I thought I was coming down with a bad cold, but I never developed any other symptoms. My throat got so sore,  that after two sleepless nights, I went in to see the doctor. So here I am now, on amoxicillin for strep throat. I've never had a more severe sore throat. Or lost my voice as badly.

After taking it pretty easy this week, I was going stir crazy by my off-Friday. I was riding, strep throat or not. Besides, I had been on antibiotics for almost a day, so I should have been good to go, right?

After linking up dirt rail trails and gravel roads in the Keene area a few times on CX bikes, another potential loop dawned on me that would require a mountain bike. From aerial imagery, I could see power lines just north of the MA/NH state line cutting across two rail trails, forming a very large triangle with Keene at the northern vertex. An ATV trail was clearly visible for the 15 miles or so of power line. The terrain was quite mountainous. I had no intel on rideability or accessibility of this ATV trail. Exploratory rides like these can be hit or miss.  The race wasn't the only miss this weekend...

Even after sleeping in, the temp was still in the 40's driving over to Keene. Love it. My goal was to go out for long, steady burn kind of ride, minimizing any intensity that might aggravate my throat. I was hoping to ride 50+ miles on dirt. Miles on rail trails come easily. The power line, I wasn't so sure.

I went south on the Ashuelot Rail Trail from town. The first three miles had a new, finely crushed gavel surface on it. Totally road bikeable. Beyond that, it was occasional mud bogs and rocks, but still fast. There was minimal erosion from Irene and all blow-downs had been cleared out. There still was one massive wash-out from last year. Would suck to miss it on an ATV or snowmobile. It is about 15ft deep with vertical walls.

In Winchester, I took a mile or so of paved road to doubletrack back into huge sand mining area. My planned track got fuzzy here, as I could not discern any trails through trees in aerial imagery. I just assumed something would connect this area to the nearby power line trail. I hunted in vain, climbing or pushing up huge, loose, sandy banks, following ATV tracks only to find they swooped back down. My 15mph avg plummeted.

Eventually I found a promising route. The trail appeared to be an official snowmobile route. There were erosion control measures in place. It climbed 500-600ft at double digit grade on very challenging surface, but all rideable. It was actually pretty good riding.

When I reached the power lines, life began to suck. Since power lines run without regard to grades or fall lines, there were no erosion control measures. In fact, the "trail" under the lines went directly up and down crazy steep fall lines. In many areas, all the soil was gone and it was 100% loose baby head rocks. With water running down them for good measure, just to make sure it was almost impossible to even walk up the slope without falling.

Pretty much all of the power lines riding looked like this.
All eroded, all wet, all steep = all suck, but actually good
Ironcross race training. Looks just like the Ironcross run-up.

I quickly found an exit back into the forest. The riding was good again. It appears there is a vast ATV/Snowmobile trail network in this area. I have no idea what the land status is. None of it was posted.

I popped back out on the power lines for a bit. It was more nastiness, barely rideable at best, but typically not. At a dirt cross-road, I noticed where I had just popped out had scary looking no trespassing signs, and continuing across the road on the power lines would lead me to believe I'd be shot if I went in there. That was more than enough excuse for me to abandon the idea of closing this triangle on dirt. I generally respect all posted private property anyway.

My mountain bikes are surface agnostic. Many mountain bikers consider it a nuisance or even misery to have their tires touch pavement. This even comes from riders who put in many road bike miles. Invariably, these epic loops I like to do involve pavement at some point. I'd rather ride a big 50 mile loop with a bit of pavement than play in a small area all day just to avoid pavement.

I picked up the Cheshire Rail Trail from Rt 119 and began heading back toward Keene. This trail had not yet been cleared of Irene deadfall. Many dismounts were required. That was too bad, as this is 1% downhill grade for 10 miles. You feel like a superstar riding dirt at 20mph with modest effort.

I reached Keene with less than 50 miles and 4hrs on the Garmin. I read about Drummer Hill just north of downtown as the place for mountain bikers in Keene. Many miles of technical trail have been built in the last few years. There is a lot of vertical difference to work with there too. I wasn't sure were to access the trails, so i just rode north to Rt 9. Turns out Rt 9 is like a highway with no local access to the roads it went under or over. I rode up this big climb out of town only to waste it by riding down to exit from Rt 9.

Climbing a jeep road in Drummer Hill, I caught up with a local rider out on a "lunch ride." He was probably older than I, not as strong of a climber, but he could smoke me in technical terrain. He showed me the way to the high point. Then it was all super cool singletrack back to the edge of town. I could not stay with him on the descent, at one point dismounting for a sketchy 3ft rock drop. I definitely will have to ride in there again sometime. It is a large area with many purpose built trails.

So this loop was a miss. Not an epic fail, but something not worth trying again. I'd rather do the western rail trail loop that DaveP and I did before on CX bikes.  I rode 56.8mi with 4025ft of climbing in 4:51hrs. Turned out to be a great endurance effort. It never got warm enough to pull off the knee and arm warmers, yet it was brilliantly sunny. I love early fall days like these.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Mt Greylock

I did the Mt Greylock Hillclimb TT on Saturday. A record number of folks turned out for this well run event on a pristine day. For once, it was not too hot, too cold, too wet or too windy. It was just right. Should be PR conditions, right? That's not exactly how it went down.

Late in the week I was fighting a scratchy throat, not getting enough sleep and dealing with a lot of frustration at work. I had to get up extra early on Saturday due to road closures on the way to Mt Greylock. Needless to say, I felt less than stellar. It didn't matter. It was going to be nice, and I hoped to ride more after the TT.

I got in a decent warmup before lining up for my 10:28:30am start. A rider goes up every 30 seconds. Wouldn't you know it, I was DaveP's 30 second guy. He's been PRing most of his climbs this season, and the way I felt, I thought surely I'd go out too hard and he'd pass me in the last mile.

The climb starts very steeply. In fact, there is some 17% grade in the first mile. Then you get some downhills where the big ring is needed, before the climbing resumes. There is a lot of 10-12% grade in this climb. The summit is reached 9.1 miles from the start.

Once I got into my rhythm, I felt ok. I think I handled the start well and did not go out too hard. John and Pamela on the tandem were staged a couple minutes ahead of me. I gained on them during the initial steep section, but dang if they weren't hard to catch through the rollers. I bet they went well over 40mph on the two downhills, while I max'd out at 35mph. But when it got steep again, I finally passed them. Once was not enough for John. He first solo'd up as one of the first time-trialists, descended, then teamed up with Pamela on the tandem. Impressive. That would be a surefire way to end my marriage if I tried that with Cathy.

I passed oodles of people on the way up. I recalled from last year, just weeks out of a cast, reaching the hard left hand turn in 40min, 30sec. I figured I should be able to do that in 40 minutes flat this year on such a perfect day. But as I approached the turn, 40 minutes came and went. I rounded the corner in EXACTLY the same time as last year. Last year, I buried myself from that point on to PR this climb in a fraction of a second under 44 minutes. Could I do that again this year?

I tried. I just didn't have that VOmax snap I had in my legs like last year. It took me 3:30 to finish that last half mile or so last year, and I think I did a good chunk of it out of the saddle. This year, it took me 3:54 to cover that last part to finish in 44:24. A solid 2nd best effort, but I was somewhat bummed to climb the first 95% of the climb in the same time as last year, but then go 11% over in the last 5%.

Not surprising, really. My training has been dysfunctional at best this year. I think running is mostly to blame, but travel and work schedules have thwarted many intensity workouts. In fact, I can count on one had the days I've gotten in quality interval workouts this year. Most of my riding has been the "junky middle" kind of riding. The junky middle is often the most enjoyable riding though. Trips to Arizona, North Carolina, Italy and Colorado this year have all gone well.  I will remember these trips far longer than some race result. Not all is lost by failing to maintain a certain structure in training.

Running has been a big experiment. I hope to find out in the next month or two if my bone density has improved. The doc said go run and check back in a year. It will be a year in December, but I will probably jump the gun a bit on that. Running has impacted my cycling training by eliminating honest recovery days. I run on what traditionally were my complete rest days or active recovery days. The deal is, even an easy five mile run beats you down. At least it does for me, as I'm not running 30 miles a week. I'll ride hard or race all weekend. A rest day is really needed on Monday. But no, I run. Then come Tuesday, my intervals day, my legs feel like poo. Sometimes I attempt intervals, only to shut them down early or half-ass get through them. I used to cherish these sessions, as huge gains come from modest time commitment.

I need to re-assess what I want to do next year. I'll be able to race in Masters 50+. Be nice to win a race or two. That won't happen if I continue with my current workout regimen. If my bone density scan shows little or no improvement, running will clearly be out of the picture and I'll have to find some other means of corrective action. But I suspect there will be a marked improvement. Then what? I could shift my focus to duathlons. I believe I could easily become a competent runner if I ran more than one hour per week that I have been. My triathlete friends insist I've been going about it wrong this season. I should be doing my bike intervals and running on the same day. That would leave a day or two per week open for true recovery. I can only imagine what a five mile run would feel like after one of my VOmax sessions on the bike. If I want to be a bike first, run second kind of guy next year, that may be what I have to do. But...

I hung around up top Mt Greylock for a while chatting with hillclimb enthusiasts. Time went by quickly, and my sense of well being went downhill. I was definitely coming down with something. I decided to bag riding a loop over Petersburg Pass, get some free lunch at the bottom and call it a day.

Later that evening, I felt the day wasn't yet complete. I ran only once this week, a relatively short 4.2 mile run. I decided I would go out for a run, a trail run.  I hadn't yet run on a rough off-road surface. The Mines Falls run I did earlier this summer was on a well groomed dirt path. A loop I had in mind from my house went four miles on gnarly ATV trails. I put both ankle braces on and had no idea if I could even run in those things.

I got into the woods and I first thought, wow, this isn't that hard. I was pretty confident I would not be able to roll an ankle to point of injury with the braces on, but I could easily trip on a root or Irene dead fall and bash a kneecap.  My loop was very hilly. I went uphill faster than downhill. I was amazed at how easy it was to run up the steep gnarly bits compared to riding up them on a mountain bike. It was like running uphill took no additional effort over running on level trail. On a bike, you really feel the ups.

I crested the top of Seavey Hill and dropped back down to my house. Even though I was sick and my legs hurt from Greylock, that was actually quite enjoyable. I could easily get into more of that. There are many areas not reachable by bike (like wilderness) that could easily be reached by running.  I watched a movie with my wife after the run. I could barely walked after the movie. It appears running on rocks and roots uses a lot of muscles that don't come into play running on flat pavement. The ankle braces didn't seem to have much negative impact on my mobility. No chaffing. I have trails close to the office that may need to be sampled on foot this week.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Junction Creek Loop

Friday's forecast was somewhat improved with only 30% chance of afternoon thunderstorms. I really wanted to do a Telluride/Ophir loop on this trip, but legs and weather were too iffy to risk it. Instead, I opted for a slight variant of a ride I did a couple years go: Junction Creek.

This ride is a quintessential Hill Junkie ride. A 4000ft climb on dirt FS-171 right from town takes you to the upper trail head of the section of the Colorado Trail called Junction Creek. 20+ miles up, then 20 miles all singletrack down. Except it is not all down. Somehow I always seem to forget the climby bits on these epic descents. On the way down, one climbing section involved nearly 1000ft gain with a bunch of hike-a-bike. The descent can be quite bony and steep in spots too.

The day and climbing started off nicely.

I started riding quite early, since I didn't have to drive to this trail head. I soon realized that some of the previous night's spicy Mexican food was not going to wait until I got back from the ride. Thank goodness there was a pit stop at about 9000ft by the Animas Lookout on FS-171. Pine needles would have made for nasty toilet paper.

I plodded along on the dirt road climb at light to moderately aerobic pace. Progress seemed slow, but later when I checked my climbing time from 2009, I was within a minute and started several blocks further away, so not any slower than 2009.

Approaching the upper trail head, there was a horse camp. A large tent, trailers, even a small electric fenced in corral. There were also a few border collies there. The horses were tethered to the trailers right along side the jeep road. All the animals went berserk as I went by. The collies would have none of it, as clearly I was loose and should not be escaping. Despite screaming from the owners, one dog was intent on not letting me ride away. He grabbed a hold of my heel while I was pedalling. Glad cycling shoes have stout heel cups. My mother later asked me "weren't you terrified?" Nope. I've lived near border collies for many years in Michigan. They are not mean but can appear menacing when giving chase. I shrugged the incident off. Dogs should be allowed to run free at 10,000ft and 20 miles from the nearest house.

One of many views heading up FS-171. Probably above 10,000ft here.

I realized I had eaten nothing during the 2.5hr climb and drank only one water bottle. Yeah, that's right. Water bottles. When preparing my Camelbak in the morning, the tube attachment area burst just as I was heading out the door. Stickiness all over my chamois and hotel room floor was the result. I scrounged up four bottles in the room, two of them small airport bottles with screw caps. That was less water than I anticipated needing but the best I could do. Four bottles stuffed in a Camelbak makes for a lumpy, uncomfortable backpack. I had no cage to put on the frame.

I began the singletrack descent. It starts out with a lot of up and down. It felt more up than down, actually. Eventually it starts dropping earnestly into the Junction Creek gorge with a vengeance. I hoped the new pads I put on held up.

Exposure. Note trail at bottom of gully in lower left of image
amost 100ft straight down. A slip over the edge here would ruin
your ride.

Besides the climbing on the descent, the other thing I forgot about this descent was how exposed it was. I'd say 50% of the upper half is highly exposed. A fall in these areas could easily result in sudden death. Drops of 100ft or more were everywhere, and the trail was very narrow. Great care had to be taken to not clip a rock with the uphill side pedal, resulting in a immediate launch over the edge. The exposure was so persistent, I got used to it after a while. Probably not a good thing. Considerable focus was needed riding this trail.

The falls on Junction Creek trail. Just a trickle today.

After crossing the bridge over Junction Creek, the big climb brought me back up to about 9600ft elevation. There were sections greater than 20% grade that my sea level hematocrit could not ride. So far, the weather was holding up. Rain would be a disaster, as there is only one way back down to town. The soil here had a red clay base. A few areas were still a bit greasy from rain presumably the evening before.

While climbing at about 3.5mph, something suddenly started crashing through the brush just to my right. It was a black bear! Crap, was he close. Fortunately he heard me first and started bolting uphill. It was a near shear drop to my left. My only escape route would have been on skinny trail steeply up in the direction I was going or to stop, dismount, and point my bike back down. If I had to do either, I would have been bear bait.

On Wednesday's rainy ride, I passed two female hikers early in the ride. They commented how quiet I was and that they didn't even hear me coming. I said "that's scary, bears won't hear me coming either." That's one of the risks riding alone and not wearing a bell. Does anybody even wear bells in Colorado, or is that just an Alaska thing?

From the intermediate high point of Junction Creek, there are miles and miles of high speed bombing. It looked like an old logging road with narrow ribbon of singletrack down it. I feared it wouldn't lead back to town and I had to climb back up it. People drop down the wrong side of ridge lines all the time out here and need rescue.  The trail went more south than east and had me worried for a bit. Eventually I reached the junction with Dry Creek trail. In 2009, I took Dry Creek, then Hoffheins trail back up to the Colorado Trail. This time I wanted to stay on the CT to minimize climbing, but I really didn't know what this few miles section would entail.

It turned out this section nicely contoured for a while before beginning more high-speed descending. Lots of waterbars and rocky chicanes required attention. My water was nearly gone when I finally reached Gudy's Rest, a nice viewpoint before beginning a serious set of switchbacks down the gorge wall. I encountered other riders and hikers in this area. During the rest of my descent, I encountered only a solitary backpacker.

I was happy to reach FS-171 again without rain or any serious mishaps. The cumulus clouds were getting darker on the bottoms. It was a 4-5mi gradual downhill back into town on dirt and paved road. Not more than two minutes after getting back to the hotel, thunder broke out with rain. I had to pack my bike up under the hotel lobby car port. I just nicely had enough time to box it up and drop it off at FedEx on the other side of town.

This loop went 48 miles with upwards of 6000ft of climbing in 5.3hrs moving time. It max's out around 10,600ft and does not go above treeline, but there are nice views on the upper portions of the road climb.
That's it for Colorado this year. Over 30 hours of moving time in 6 days destoyed me. That is probably a record amount of riding for me. I hit many new trails in Cortez, Salida and Horse Gulch in Durango.  DaveP has been to Colorado with me. Need to get him and Alex out here next year, maybe go a week or two later in hopes of slightly cooler weather and less risk of afternoon thunderstorms. Need some of those afternoon hours to get 5-6hr rides in, you know...

Friday, September 2, 2011

Thursday's Double Treat

Colorado Trail

The probability of T-storms was high on Thursday. I didn't want to suffer another debacle like Wednesday's ride. I broke with Hill Junkie protocol (again) and shuttled a ride. This time the net advantage was only a thousand feet or so. My favorite section of the Colorado Trail to date is the section from Molas Pass to Coal Bank Pass. It is almost all above tree line and hovers around 11,000-12,000 feet. Normally I park at the bottom of Engineer Mountain Trail and work my way over to Molas Pass via Old Lime Creek Rd, a rough jeep road east of of Hwy 550. But with Thursday's forecast, there was an exponential increase in the risk of getting caught in the great wide open in another deluge. So I went for the low hanging fruit and skipped the human propelled shuttle.

The women wanted to hike up to Engineer Mountain. It is a very popular hike just off Hwy 550 from Coal Bank Pass. In just 2.5mi, you gain incredible views. The plan was the women would drop me off at Molas Pass, drive back to Coal Bank Pass to hike, then drive back down to the bottom of Engineer Mountain Trail to pick me up. With any luck, we'd get there at about the same time.

Starting out at Molas Pass

Wide open contour singletrack here. This is why I come to Durango.

Unfortunately, I learned later that Cathy just doesn't tolerate altitude well. They did not get far into the hike at all before having to turn around. Earlier in the trip, my mom noticed that Cathy's lips were a tad blue on the summit of Pikes Peak and Cathy was not altogether with it at 14,000ft. But even at 11,000ft, she has trouble. That was too bad, as the view from Engineer Mtn is one of the best.

Approaching Jura Knob at 12,000ft

I felt I was making pretty good progress on the Colorado Trail. I had ridden this section once before and knew what to expect and where the good photo ops were. I wanted to keep moving to beat the rain. It didn't take long for cumulus clouds to begin forming. I hate being rushed in a ride, but I had to at least reach Engineer Mtn Tr before any threatening weather formed. There was no other way down.

Looking south from Jura Knob. I believe that is Enginner Mtn
just poking into view on the left side of image. Hard to stay on
skinny ribbon with views like this.

I always seem to "forget" the challenging parts of these rides. The descent from Jura Knob involved a lot of hike-a-bike. Then again beginning the initial climb towards Engineer Mtn. With a hard week of riding in my legs, it took considerable mental fortitude to keep pushing.

I hadn't seen another person in over an hour. Suddenly, I hear a thump, thump, thump right behind me. I turned to look in terror, expecting some massive beast ready pounce on me. It was a runner right on my wheel. I thought I was doing well, but no. I thought about asking him if he had a few hematocrit points he could sell me. This was well above 11,000ft.

I reached the saddle at Engineer Mountain. Amazingly, there was cell phone coverage there. I called Cathy to give her an ETA. That is when I learned they did not make it too where I was now standing. There was a strong wind blowing through the saddle, the sun was still out, the temp mild, and the skies were still not very threatening. I could have relaxed up there all afternoon. I had the saddle to myself.  Interestingly, there were people at the very summit of Engineer Mtn. It probably takes hours of rock scrambling to get up there from where I was. I would never have gone up there with the forecast. From town later, it did look like bad weather moved in.

From Engineer Mtn looking north. One of the grandest views
in Durango area.

The non-stop drop-dead views are not the only great part of this ride.  The nearly monotonic 2600ft singletrack descent is another great part. It is my favorite trail descent. You pedal all of maybe 60 seconds in five miles of downhill bliss. It is steep in spots, bit rooty in others, but mostly just FAST.

The Engineer Mtn Tr cuts through many meadows on the way down.
You go so fast the colors of the flowers fuse into each other.

I finished with 21mi, 3200ft of climbing, in about 3.4hrs of riding time. It was a perfect ride. The trails around here are very well maintained, thanks to groups like Trails 2000.  No wonder Durango is such a riding meca.  Heading back into town, we all felt a tad unfulfilled. The women rented bikes to ride the bike path end to end (where there's just enough air for Cathy), while I did a second ride from town.

Horse Gulch

I headed out via the switchbacks prominently displayed from the north side of town up to the college campus. Fort Lewis College sits on a mesa about 500ft above town with some great singletrack hugging the rim. It is nice little touches like this that makes me want to move here.

From Rim Trail above town. Perhaps a little precip in distance
late in afternoon.

Heading east of the campus into the Horse Gulch trail system, I decided I felt good enough to venture further in than the last time I rode a token amount in this area two years ago. I rode out Telegraph Trail, not having any idea what to expect. It went up. A lot. The area is deserty and the soil is like baseball diamond grit. Really hard, really fast. I climbed up to the saddle where old telegraph poles still stand. I decided to take Crites Connect down, which merged into Carbon Jct Tr. This consisted of a four mile, beautifully contoured singletrack descent. Major score! I will have to do more riding in Horse Gulch the next time I visit Durango.

High up on Telegraph Tr in Horse Gulch.

The trail deposited me out on Hwy 550 well south of town. It took some crazy risk taking during rush hour traffic to get across many lanes of Hwy 550 to pick up the paved Animas bike path. This follows the river nearly all the way back to my hotel.

Ride two for the day netted another 22.9mi with 1800ft of climbing in 2.3hrs. There were sprinkles in town during the afternoon, but I never heard thunder. The day with minimal chance it stormed almost all day, and the day with much higher probability of storms, it stayed mostly clear. Nearly 12 hours of high altitude riding in two days put me into a stupor. Kids pay good money to feel that way. We ate at Gazpachos for dinner. We were warned it was spicy, and it was. The spiciness nearly had me sweating into my food.  I would experience discomfort on the saddle the next day.  Superb Mexican cuisine. I highly recommend it. Have to wait until after I get back home to put something up on my last ride of the trip on Friday. Attacked by border collies, close encounter with a bear, and fear of death riding. Good stuff.

The Mother of All Rides from Hell

Every now and then, a ride goes awry. Wednesday's ride went awry in a big way. Almost nothing when right. Here's a tale of lightning, greasy red clay and fatigue.

I had scoped out online a section of the Colorado Trail (CT) that I hadn't ridden yet. It hoovers around 11,000ft. My plan was to park at the Bear Creek trailhead on CO-145, ride up 145 to Scotch Creek/FS-550, climb up to the ridge, surf the ridge at 11,000ft for 15 miles, then bomb down Bear Creek trail back to the car.

This ride is close by as the crow flies, but an 80 minute drive by car, as it starts in the valley on the other side of the mountains. It is a bad omen when there is overcast in the morning and I had to use the wipers a few times. The skies looked like late afternoon monsoons at 8am. I figured it will burn off for a few hours and I should be able to clear the ridge line in that time. Bad judgement call number one.

It sucks starting out on wet roads when it is in the 50's out. Plus I had to go slightly uphill on CO-145 along the Delores River into a stiff northeast wind. I drilled it pretty hard for these 10 paved miles, as I wanted to beat the certain afternoon storms.

I reached Scotch Creek in pretty poor time. Tired legs, altitude, uphill and headwind all conspired against me. Now the real climbing would begin. Scotch Creek Rd is a rough jeep road that gets progressively steeper as it gains altitude. It started out as a wet, muddy scree surface. Abusive on the body and tough to hold a line. Further up, I noticed the water bars were recently reformed by a bulldozer. Long sections were loose, sink to your rims, red clay. Eventually I reached the dozer in action. The operator was nice to move aside to let me pass.

Riding up grades at 10-20% of this was nearly impossible.
The climb on Scotch Creek Rd was 6 miles.

It was about this time I heard the first thunder boom. I hadn't even reached 9000ft yet! I looked over my shoulder to the west and saw the sky was turning black. This was really going to suck, as I was not turning around. Bad judgement call number two.

I buried myself on this climb. The further up I went, the more torn up the surface became from dozer work. I had all I could do to go 2.5mph on sections. Thin air, mushy surface, and big double-digit grades. The thunder became more frequent and closer as I climbed. I began looking for areas of shelter to duck into. There was nothing except big trees, nice lightning rods.

I reached the ridgeline. It was starting to rain, but the lightning was passing by just a couple miles to the south. I put on thermal tights, a thermal top and Gortex rain shell. Then I stood under a spruce tree, which make for great umbrellas. The rain promptly petered out. The sky got a little brighter. I took the layers back off and decided to head down the CT a ways. I could always turn around if the weather turned for the worse right away. Bad judgement call number three.

From the CT ridgeline, the storm that just missed me during
the climb. Tried to get picture of lightning, but cameras are too slow.

The riding on the ridge was superb. It was the only part of the ride that didn't suck. The trail was well maintained, buff, reasonably dry and changed elevation gently and moderately. My sea level hematocrit could handle this. I talked briefly with a guy at some kind of a camp on the ridge. He said the weather was funky all week and rain, when it came, didn't last long. He said it didn't get much colder than 50F. The clothing I brought along could handle that, I thought.

CT goodness. Sky looks less threatening here, but only temporarily.

I cruised several more miles on the rolling CT. Nice views to the east opened up here and there. This wasn't treeless like some other ridges I ride. There is a forest service road that crosses the CT a couple times in this area. A forest ranger was parked there in a truck. I thought it would be good to gauge his sense of the weather. He didn't seem concerned that I was out there alone in temperamental weather heading down a trail that had no more bail-out options for many miles. The sky was overcast, and any thunder was from a cell that was moving away.

I committed to finishing the whole loop. This was my final bad judgement call. The riding up here was too intoxicating to say no. I reached the point where a massive 1000ft climb begins to reach the section called Indian Trail Ridge. Sign up top called it the Highline Trail. Whatever. It goes above tree line and becomes exposed. It was here were I began hearing new rumbles of thunder. Uh, oh. Pedal harder. Can't turn around now, way too far away from any trails or roads off the ridge.

My fear wasn't so much the lightning, but hypothermia. With lightning, you'll never know what hits ya. Dying from hypothermia would suck a lot more. I hadn't used my new Gortex rain shell yet, and I wasn't sure how could it would get and if I'd stay dry enough underneath.

The climb went on and on and on. It would never end. I don't think Topo correctly displayed how big this climb really was. At 11,000+ feet, the best I can do is hold 3-4mph on 10% grade. I could see the dark area of sky was heading right for me. I didn't think I'd reach the top before it would hit.

Approaching high point of ride, dark clouds and thunder getting
very close.

I finally reached the junction of Grindstone Trail at 11,700ft. The view was spectacular, but risk of either getting struck by lightning or blown off the mountain was too great to take a picture.Grindstone begins the descent and connects with Bear Creek Trail. Grindstone is very steep, benchcut into the side of extremely steep terrain, and can be quite gnarly in spots. I no more than began the plummet when the skies opened up. I quickly put the layers back on again.

It didn't take more than two minutes for the trail to fill with water. The soil here has a red clay base. It turns into the slipperiest, stickiest quagmire you can imagine. Descending 20-30% grades in an 12" wide trough of this goo with precipitous drop-offs to the outside was a recipe for disaster. I could not keep the bike under me. It was like riding a deep, icy car track without studded tires. I bailed off the bike or went sliding on my back many times when the bike went out from under me. Fortunately I never went over the edge. It rained mightily for at least 30 minutes.

Grindstone Trail. Loose rocks, mud, and exposure.

I reached an open meadow area where the trail traversed an extremely steep slope. The grass and weeds were so tall and dense, you could barely make out where the trail was. It was up to my handlebars. Underneath lie all kinds of perils - rocks, divots, off-camber greasiness. It was raining so hard, that when I got a ways out into the middle of this meadow, I could see absolutely nothing in all directions. Just meadow at about 45 degree incline in my immediate vicinity. And lightning was crashing all around me. Alex would have died of fright right on the spot. I was clearly the highest object around with nothing else in site.

I finished sliding my way down to Bear Creek Trail, 2300ft in just a few miles. Bear descends at a much more gentle grade, which meant I occasionally had to pedal. I soon learned that red clay offers ZERO traction when going uphill. I was forced to walk up almost all inclines. The trail rolled a lot too. Then my drivetrain stopped working. Thanks to Shimano's penchant for high gear counts and narrow chains, chain suck woes become common in anything but fair weather conditions. My bike by now probably weighed 40 pounds. It looked like it was made out of red clay. Nothing on it was recognizable. In one fit of rage, I nearly hurled it over the edge. It would have been far quicker to walk the 8 miles back to the car than lug this thing along.

Bear Creek Trail. Ridge I descended from in background.
Trail was so slippery it was even hard to stand on.

On the steeper descents, my front brake started making grotesque sounds. The pads were gone and it was metal on metal. They still stopped me though.
The rain was letting up. I realized the layers I brought worked well. I would live to ride another day. What was supposed to be the funnest part of the ride turned out to be the suckiest. I bet I walked 30% of the descent. Bike wouldn't pedal and parts were to too slippery to stay upright. It took me hours to get down from the ridge. Finally I heard cars. I popped out by the Delores River. I was no more than 100ft from my car when I took one more nasty tumble at high speed. Front wheel caught 2" trail lip in red clay and I went sliding on my back again. F-bombs!
My moving time (that was registered when I was actually going fast enough for GPS to detect it) was 6.1hrs. Total time out was over 7hrs. Seems I was just saying I did my longest unsupported ride ever, but now this one tops it by a bit.
Cleaning my bike up in the river, I found the red clay to set up like concrete even though it wasn't dry. It was so hard to get off. I probably spent 45 minutes working on my bike. Additionally, I found my GPS got rain in it and went haywire on me. Great. I destroyed my brakes, drivetrain, suspension bushing and now my GPS in one ride. That was an expensive ride. Needless to say, I was not in the best of moods coming back to the hotel where the women were. I was in panic mode to get brake pads (I always take one pair with me) and to find a tiny T6 torx driver to open my GPS to dry it out. The hotel helped me find a closed bike shop that would sell me pads after hours, then I tried Sears and then Home Depot before I found a T6 driver.
The GPS did have water in it. That was easy to dry out. Somehow, water got inside the LCD display too. That will not come out easily. At least I was able to restore GPS operation.
I'd definitely do this ride again if there was zero percent chance of rain with money back guarantees if it does rain. It is a great loop and should be nearly all rideable on dry trails. The ridge was dry and sweet stuff to cruise on. Thursday's forecast called for much higher probability of rain, but it didn't. I got in two great rides. That will have to wait for another post.