Monday, June 11, 2012

Franconia Sufferfest

Where do I start with this one? Back about 14 years ago when my affinity toward hills became strong, I sought out ski area climbs. I did not have a road bike. Dirt service roads provided the biggest climbs around. Many ski areas ran lifts back then too, for the downhill set. I could catch some of the easier trails back down for extra fun. I would draw all kinds of crazy comments at Killington while climbing, like "you bought the wrong pass!" Or "you're going the wrong way!"

Over the years, I hit virtually every ski area in New England. Day trips took me as far away as Sunday River and Sugarloaf in Maine. More recently, I hit Mt Sunapee (100% rideable) and Sugarbush (almost cleaned it).

Then this quirky event popped up on the calendar called the Franconia Sufferfest, sponsored by the Franconia Inn and Littleton Bike & Fitness. It started at the Franconia Inn and finished at the summit of Cannon Mountain. I had always wanted to bike up Cannon, now I had a perfect excuse to do it. Little did I know, the state-owned ski area did not allow bikes (or even hiking for that matter) on the ski slopes, except for this special event. The tram would have to be taken back down.

The race was open to runners and mountain bikers. I wasn't sure who would be faster. On pavement, runners reach parity with road cyclists at about 17% grade. On gravel with mountain bikes, parity is reached at a much less steep grade, around 10-12%. This is due to much heavier bikes with much higher rolling losses. The route up Cannon Mtn was about 21% average grade on very suspect surface. Clearly, runners would have a huge advantage here. If we started with a bike, we had to finish with a bike. So whether a biker would finish ahead of a runner or not depended on how much the rider could gain in the first four miles of the course which gained only 1000ft or so. Total course gained more than 3000 feet in 6 miles.

Sunday's weather was ideal for the event. Cloudless and perfect temps. Riders queued up along the grassy airstrip across the street from the Franconia Inn. Runners would go off in second wave a minute or two back. There were only 20-25 riders crazy enough to attempt this. There were at least twice as many runners. There was no shortage of talent on hand though.

We go off, heading down the grassy airstrip. It was a typical MTB race start, holeshot sprint to the singletrack. The deal was, I didn't think there'd be any singletrack. So I settled back. Pace was still very high, not something sustainable for more than an hour. We cut into the woods, and immediately the trail necks down to muddy singletrack with skinny plank bridges. Ah, that's why the locals bolted so hard. Actually, I was probably the kind of rider that they wanted to put behind them.

I didn't recognize anybody there, so before the race, I asked race director Dave Harkless who I should watch. He pointed out Greg Jancaitis, a Cannondale rider, and a couple local guys in Dutch Treat jerseys, Justin Kline being one of them. Before long, there were only five of us pushing an aggressive pace on slick trails in a dense hemlock forest. The pace waned a bit, I moved up to fourth place, then third. The grade was very steep, and I was deeply anaerobic. I thought these kids were going to kill me out here. At some point, somebody had to relent just a little. They did. Not sure who was up front, either Greg or Justin, but I pounced on the opportunity and came to the front to ensure pace didn't drop too much. I must have kept the pace up pretty good, as a little while later, it was just Greg, Justin and I with nobody else in sight.

We reached a downhill with a very abrupt, rooty right hand turn. It caught me off-guard and I totally bobbled the turn. Greg and Justin bolted on ahead. I lost many seconds getting going again. We reached another longer, fairly treacherous downhill. Ferns obscured the greasy rocks and roots. I had never ridden here, so I dared not let my speed run out, being the delicate roadie I've become. I hemorrhaged many seconds in a brief time. I pretty much relegated myself to third place at that point. I could match Greg and Justin aerobically, but not technically.

We hit some heinous grades in the woods at one point, like 2.5mph kind of stuff, barely keep the front wheel down. It hurt so bad, as I didn't want to walk. I took a look back to see if anybody was coming up, as at that pace, two minutes back is not much distance. Nobody. But in looking back, I wobbled right off the trail into trees. Idiot. Do you think I could get started again? Noooo! Greg and Justin were gone now.

We finally popped out at the base of the Mittersill ski area. Reviewing the course profile before hand, I knew that there was around a mile of almost "flat" terrain cutting across the Mittersill ski slopes to the Peabody lodge at Cannon. This is where I thought good time would be made up on runners, as surely I'd be able to go 15-20mph here. Not a chance. It was soft, mushy grass. 5mph required about 350W input. It was such a demoralizer, as I knew what was just minutes away.

The turn to go up for real came way too soon. Right up the ski slope fall-line. I saw Greg and Justin walking almost immediately. I hoped this was just a brief spat at the bottom. Soon I learned, this was not to be.

GPS track, start at Franconia Inn on right

We pushed, and pushed, and pushed. My GPS told me the grade at times was over 30%. The trail was loose cantaloupe rocks half the time. It was easier to push the bike in the grass along the eroded ATV track. A third of the way up was a water stop. I think I was able to ride my bike for about 5 seconds there before jumping off again. My 29er doesn't gear nearly as low as my 26" dualie, but no gearing option would make a difference here. I was aerobically max'd out at 2.5mph. Justin had even less hope than riding it as I, as he had a 1x9 drive train.

I did slowly gain on Justin. I did not seem to make any progress on Greg. The gain he made on me in the woods was what he held to the summit.  On the open ski slopes, it was easy to see where everybody was. Next rider was many minutes back.

I was wearing almost new carbon sole shoes, and I could tell they were getting trashed. They weren't broken in yet, and the my heels were badly chafing. Half way up, I could tell I was already getting blisters on the back of my heels. My calves were getting destroyed too. This bothered me deeply, as the Mt Washington foot race was less than a week away.

Detail of Cannon Mtn portion of climb

About 75% up Cannon, I caught Justin at about a 0.01mph speed differential. We talked a little, then realized heavy breathing was coming up behind us. It was Richard Morris, the first runner to finish. Guess my suspicions were right. A bike is a big handicap to lug up this mountain, and that was based on assuming the bike could be ridden. Richard passed Justin and I quite decisively. I don't think he passed Greg before the finish, but because he started minutes back, was still faster than Greg.  I reached the summit with enough margin on Justin to zip up the jersey before crossing the line. My time was 1:13:14, pretty close to the 1:15 I estimated. I finished 2nd biker and third overall runners and bikers. I was so glad that was over.

The spectacular view and weather helped take some of the sting out of the slog that just happened. This spring I commented that I did the biggest hike-a-bike (HAB) ever in Arizona when I took a "short cut" back to the car to retrieve Dave. Well, that was NOTHING compared to this 2000ft HAB. In fact, Cannon was a bigger HAB than my three previous biggest HABs combined! No more than 2% of the ski mountain was rideable. Lower gear, fatter, softer tires, maybe would net 5% rideability. But it won't make you faster than a good runner.

I was not disappointed in doing the event. The course was very well marked and marshaled at tricky spots. The event was well organized, and there was good food afterwards at the Franconia Inn. I guess I was disappointed in thinking I could actually ride up Cannon. Silly me. I've skied it many times, so I know how steep it is. I may go back next year, minus a bike. I think I can run it faster than I biked it. I'd run it just for the morbid curiosity of experiment alone.

This event forced me to put another 2000ft of vertical credits in the bank. With Pack Monadnock a week earlier, I've climbed about 3500ft more than descended. This entitles me to one free 3500ft shuttle ride at some point in the future.


rick is! said...

brutal. running up that kind of stuff isn't all that fun either but it has to be far better than pushing a bike in stiff shoes.

DaveP said...

Yup, you were right, I would've HATED this event.

Dude, what are you doing looking behind you, the people you want to beat are in front of you!