Monday, July 30, 2012

On GPS Units and MP3 Players

I took my son, who was on leave from the Navy, over to Great Brook for a little trail riding Sunday. Some overnight rain and 100% humidity were sure to make things interesting, as Aaron hadn't even ridden a bike in a long time. Clipless pedals, slicker than snot roots and rocks? Apparently no problem for Aaron. I'm just getting old, frail and worry too much.

Beaver Loop

Anyway, I took the opportunity to run an experiment. I have two GPSs, an Edge 500 and an Edge 705. After owning the 705 for several years now, I finally got around to mounting this cadence/speed sensor doohickey that came with it. It works wirelessly via Ant+ Sport. In theory, this should greatly improve distance measuring when riding off-road, plus keep better track of elapsed moving time. Also on the bike with the 705, I still had a wired Cateye cyclocomputer. Thus if Aaron and I stayed together, we should measure the same distance on three different devices, two GPSs and one wired computer.

We pretty much rode all of the singletrack GB has to offer, including Stone Rowe towards the end.  Aaron bombed right down the rock chute no problem, although the numerous rock step-ups on the way there gave him grief.

Stone Rowe

The experiment came out as expected. The 705 with wheel pick-up sensor and wired computer (also with magnet sensor) were within 0.6% of each other for time and distance. The 500, on the bike I rode, fell nearly 12% behind in distance. The GB trails aren't super dense either. The 500 was relying purely on satellite signal to measure traveled distance.

GPSs are really good at only one thing: placing your latitude and longitude position on planet Earth. A few meters out of 40,000km is 0.00001% accuracy.  They are much less accurate in determining elevation. You'd think distance measuring would be pretty accurate, but GPS vendors use algorithms to reduce data storage and smooth out noise that may be present in the data. This can result in severely undermeasuring travelled distance in certain cases.

When traveling on mostly straight roads, GPSs can reach 1% accuracy, on par with car odometers and wired cycle computers. In tight, twisty terrain, I've seen errors as high as 30%, where the GPS always comes up short.

That is why GPS companies offer auxiliary wheel sensors, as well as optional barometric altimeters to improve elevation measurement. The wheel sensor replaces rounded off, noisy motion data from satellite signals with counted tire revolutions on dirt.

You'd think with all our technological marvels, that things like measuring distance would monotonically improve with time. But no. Many things in the realm of humans don't behave that way. Take, for example, music reproduction. We started with wax cylinders, then vinyl records. 8-track and cassette tapes were a step backwards, but they did not displace vinyl. Then came along audio CDs. They replaced everything up until that point. Some argued sound reproduced from a compact disk was inferior to a quality pressed vinyl record. I would tend to agree, although vinyl records quickly degraded with playings. In most play-back scenarios, CDs were superior. Then came the real digital revolution: MP3 players. Music reproduction quality took a huge setback. You see, people's attitudes changed. They wanted quantity over quality. 1000's of songs on a tiny, cheap device? You betcha. It didn't matter if the music was compressed beyond recognizability. That is the primary reason I still do not own a MP3 player. Memory is getting cheap enough now, and there are decent lossless compression algorithms out there, so I may jump in at some point, some 10-15 years after these things became hot.

And so it goes with measuring sporting endeavors. The chronograph was invented in the 1800's. It had accuracy to about 5 seconds per day, or 0.006%, and resolution to 1/100th of a second. Say you were running a marked mile on a track. This chronograph from nearly a century and a half ago could time your mile to within a tiny fraction of a percent. It was a purely mechanical device.

Growing up in the early 70's, I recall having a mechanical odometer on my bike. It mounted on the fork, and a spoke stud struck a little cog on the odometer. It was pre-calibrated for a 27" wheel. I bet it was accurate to within 1-2%. Very simple, very reliable. These device actually came into existence about the same time the bicycle did in the late 1800's, like this example below. Each tick is a hundredth of a mile!

In my generation, miniature electronic timing devices arrived on the scene. Timing accuracy improved by a couple orders of magnitude over mechanical movement chronographs. In addition, you could record distance and time in a single device and have it compute average speed. Carefully calibrating these devices to your tire size could net distance measurement accuracies to about 0.5%.

Now we're in the world of GPS receivers. Wired and wireless cyclocomputers are going bye-bye. Most riders who use metrics now use GPS units. Distance and moving time are accepted as accurate, which is sometimes true on the road. Those who ride or run off-road, have learned just how inaccurate these devices can be.

We've entered an era where metric gathering accuracy on average has degraded. It seems the other features of these new techno-marvels outweigh the loss in accuracy. We can record our tracks and upload them to Strava, where you are ranked against other riders' equally suspect tracks. Music fans wanted selection of tunes over quality of reproduction in MP3 players, and now cyclists prefer suspect GPS data for Strava entertainment over benchmark quality data. Maybe it is the case that music fans never really cared about "hi-fi" in the first place, and cleaver marketing tricked them into thinking it was important for a while. Perhaps cyclists never really cared about accurate average speeds or distances they rode. They were the only metrics we could gather and talk about at the time. There was no easy way to automatically capture other metrics like VAM unil GPSs and the web came along. That created a bigger sparkle in our eyes even though accuracy became suspect.

Not sure where things will go from here. Maybe memory will become so ubiquitous that music will no longer have to be compressed. Or maybe compression algorithms will become so good that even snooty music fans like myself will not be able to discern imperfections.  Will music fans start pushing for quality sounding music over quantity? This will need to happen to drive the market.

Likewise with GPS technology. What will it take to improve accuracy for applications the system was never intended (original and still primary use is military)? A new, commercial generation of satellites with much tighter timing accuracy, and more of them so there are always a few satellites almost directly overhead?  This would require a hefty subscription fee from millions of users to fund it.   GPS receiver manufacturers would have to improve their algorithms too. You can bet the US DoD will not improve their Global Positioning Satellite system for spandex clad whining cyclists, or even let the commercial world tap into the higher levels of accuracy the current system offers.  We are lucky enough the military makes an unclassified signal available at all.  For all we know, the next generation system may already be up there.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Not For Whiners

Every now and then, I set out on an exploratory ride, something that many riders might term "epic."  I have a number of off-road loops I hit periodically that net 4-6 hours of riding with little or no repeating terrain. I'm always looking for new possibilities.

When I first moved to New Hampshire 15 years ago (has it been that long already?!), mountain biking opportunities were far more limited than they are today. There were very few purpose built trails. Most riding was on pre-existing hiking trails, logging roads, and moto trails. One place I hit a few times was Crotched Mountain, an abandoned ski area at the time. I'd park at the bottom of Crotched Mtn Rd, ride up the paved road to the rehab center, then continue off-road to the summit. I remembered a bit of hike-a-bike (HAB) near the summit. I'd then take the ski area service road down the other side and loop back around on pavement.

Poking around in Strava recently, I saw a number of recurring tracks showing up in the greater Greenfield area. I wondered what's going on over there. Maybe it was time to put tires to dirt at Crotched after a 12yr Hiatus.

Saturday was a perfect opportunity, as the weather was quite unstable, and a long drive with later start to a more certain destination was too risky. Greenfield is only about 50 minutes away. I downloaded six tracks from Strava, then quickly took snippets from each of them to piece together what should make an interesting 35+ mile ride. I knew only one of the riders I was borrowing track from and had no other intel on trail quality. With my compiled track loaded on the Garmin 705, I headed over to Oak Park, where the Hampshire 100 MTB race starts.

The track had me snaking through Greenfield State Park to start. Lots of random bits of singletrack in there. Route following was extremely difficult because of so many directions to choose from sometimes. Lot of downed trees too. There was strong incentive to keep moving, lest the deerflies suck you dry.

Heading out of GSP, two bushwack segments were encountered. One was between Rt 31 and Crotched Mtn Rd, the other bridging up to Rt 136 shortly after. The later case, there simply was no trail there whatsoever, and I had to wade through shoulder deep vines, flowers, bees and no doubt ticks for about three minutes. I didn't find any ticks, but I was sure I felt them crawling on me for the rest of the ride.

Doubletrack was taken up the lower flanks of Crotched Mtn to the rehab center. A couple sections of this were badly eroded and required brief HABs. Picking up the Shannon Trail above the rehab center, I was finally on a superb piece of trail. Large patches were clear-cut up there, I believe to help bring back blueberries. This opened up fine vistas to big mountains to the west. This was a gem of a trail and nothing like when I came up here 12-15yrs ago. I wondered if it would be this way all the way up.

Shannon's Trail

All good things come to an end. The trail kinked south and proceeded up the fall line. Without a bike, sections were hands and feet climbing. With a 28 lb full suspension MTB and shoe treads worn down to only metal cleat exposed, it was pure hell climbing up this. It was mostly exposed granite at too steep a grade from my shoes to avoid slipping. I didn't remember this from years ago. I must have taken a different way that went only to the lower ski area summit. This half mile took me at least 20 minutes to complete.

View from near Crotched summit

Supposedly I was following another rider's MTB track. No way did anybody ride this. When I double checked this track later at home, I saw this "rider's" speed never deviated much from 2.5mph, even on the road sections. This was a hiking track labeled as MTB Ride in Strava! I need to be more careful.

I made the summit without catastrophe and was relieved to see I could take the com tower service road down. Unfortunately, this took me way off my intended route and onto paved roads.

Switchback coming off Crotched summit

I regained my route south of Rt 136 and encountered amazing singletrack - miles and miles, a large network, with great flow. I deviated from my track again, this time deliberately, following a fine trail that was obviously designed for MTB. It was heavily used. Many of the trails were named. I didn't really know what town I was in at the time, or whether I was on private or public land. How come I hadn't heard of this before? Doing a little research, I couldn't find much, other than speculate these are trails built and maintained by the Greenfield Trails Association. Definitely need to learn more about this.

Miles and miles of this

Eventually I had to move on, get back on my route, and hit Rose Mountain. The sky was becoming increasingly dark. A bit of road brought me to the Rose Mt fireroad. It basically went up and over, north-south. I believe there is a third way that cuts in too, from The Pinnacle. Anyway, it started bony, but completely doable. Further up, the grade goes past 20%, and the surface becomes nothing but slick as snot rock. Humidity was near 100%, and all roots and rocks offered about as much grip as Slick 50 motor oil. Dismounts were required.

Climbing Rose Mt north side

The summit was nice, with limited views of the horizon. It was starting to spit rain. I had already emptied a 100oz Camelbak in the oppressive humidity and getting dehydrated. It was time to head back even though I had a lot of GPS "popcorn trail" still to hit. It would have to wait for another day. The initial descent was mostly exposed ledge, less greasy on this south exposed side. It was quite rideable. Further down, a stream had taken over part of the fireroad and turned it into a 6ft deep crevasse. I didn't dare ride it. Nobody would ever find me out here if I stacked hard.

View from Rose Mtn summit, spitting rain

Heading back on Rt 31 towards Greenfield, I spied a singletrack cutting off the road adjacent to a cemetery. It looked too buff and broken in to pass up. It was another amazing section of trail, very fast. It popped me out close to Greenfield center.

Blue=planned (with error towards end), Red=actual

I finished with 38.7mi, 4600ft of climbing, in 4.4hrs.  The rain started coming down more earnestly just as I finished cleaning up. Riding here has a lot of potential. The route I picked needs a lot of work though. I do not need to revisit the Crotched summit with a bike again anytime soon.  I need to learn more about the status of trails in the area too. Could the Greenfield Trails Association be another Kingdom Trails in its infancy?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Day in the Kingdom

After Saturday's flop of a hillclimb race, Isaac and I headed up to hit the Kingdom Trails on Sunday. I was surely in for more punishment. Isaac is quite a bit younger than me and has put the hurt on big names over the years.

NEK continuously morphs. Trails are "cleaned up," new trails are cut, Some get closed. Collected trail fees are evident in meticulous maintenance almost everywhere. Isaac had never been to NEK, so he was in for a real treat. I only hoped his experience lived up to all the hype he's heard over the years.

We set out in true Hill Junkie form, heading up Burke Mtn to shake the previous day's hillclimb race and 5 mile run out of my legs. Burnham Down is labeled as a double black diamond on the map. I think it was designed as a downhill run, but it also climbs superbly and keeps us off the pavement heading up. Hundreds more feet of narrow wooden bridges have been built over perennially muddy spots. Also, the pesky root step-up that I never managed to clean riding up was removed. The climb was perfect, although Isaac was soon out of sight.

We crossed over the road and continued up the Camptown trail. Getting a bit rooty from downhill traffic, but still great climbing. Most riders will stop going up when reaching the road again. I was tempted to. In thirty minutes, I already had diaper chamois. It was very steamy outside. Hard climbing at 6mph will have you soaked in no time. Isaac wanted to experience all of Burke, so up the toll road we went. I was in no shape to drill it this time. I told Isaac to scoop me up on the way back down. He lingered at the summit just long enough from me to get within a stone's throw of the top, so I finished it too.

On the way down, it was Moose Alley all the way. I cleaned it all with margin. I had dropped the air pressure from already low to ridiculously low for the chunky riding found on Moose Alley: 16psi front, 22psi rear. On lower Moose, a reroute sent us down a pretty scary rock chute. My rear tire pinched so hard it sounded like bare metal against rock. A quick inspection showed my onion skin Racing Ralph tire was still intact. I just may have to buy a new set of those for Colorado.

A new trail next to Nose Dive, called Swan Dive was tried. Very soft and loamy still, but another great way down to the river. We replenished fluids, then headed over to the Darling Hill system.

Flenceline down was taken, climbed back up carriage road, then bombed down the new Troll Stroll trail. What a riot, with buttery smooth berms. Tap & Die was taken up, which was a brute on tired legs. Amazingly, nobody came down Tap & Die during our climb. Tody's was taken down. Next was Sidewinder, which I talked up a bit with Isaac. There is now a shack at junction of Old Web's and Sidewinder selling all kinds of goodies. There must have been 40 people hanging around there. Most spoke French it seemed.

Sidewinder did not disappoint. Isaac had to hit it again. I could hear him whooping all the way down. I have a pretty good idea why snowboarders like half-pipes. It's those moments of nearly weightlessness coming back down each time. The compression was so great in the bottom, that my rims were fully compressing through the tires.  Made very unusual sounds, yet the beads never burped air.

We crossed over to the other side of Darling Hill and started working our way back, hitting all the good stuff. We bombed down Kitchel, which was quite sandy, then decided to head back in for just a bit more, riding Riverwood. We finished on Herb's, which I don't think I've ever ridden before. A lot like Troll Stroll actually, big swooping turns at breakneck speed. Wicked fun.

While on the doubletrack heading to Kitchel/Herb's, something nailed me on the hand. It felt like an electric shock went up my arm. I figured something stung me, but never saw it. It hurt like hell. I didn't stop, but figured I might be in world of hurt later.

Our track highlighted in yellow.

The river was flowing with a couple chest deep pockets in it. It was a perfect way to cap off 5+ hours of riding. That was one of my best NEK days ever. No hint of cramping either.

The deli was still open. I had to get me one of those Thanksgiving sandwiches for the drive home. These monstrosities are basically a whole thanksgiving meal on a large sub roll. I think it weighed about two pounds. It disappeared very quickly.

Six hours later at home, my stung hand swelled up to the thickness of an orange. Half of my forearm swelled up too. Last time I had a reaction like this was over 30 years ago when I got stung by a yellow jacket in the forearm. I took a couple Benadryl when I got home, which controlled the swelling, but promptly knocked me out for the night. Four days later the swelling is gone, but my hand itches incessantly. Stupid insects.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Ascutney Debacle

There's not much to say about this one. I sucked. I went home disappointed. No surprise, really. I was an idiot.

The prior weekend's LAMB ride was a brute. I think because we were riding only four gaps instead of the full 6-gap route, we hit the climbs harder. Our moving pace was certainly indicative of this. Oppressive heat didn't help matters. With Ascutney coming up the following Saturday, I had to get any intensity training done earlier in the week rather than later if I wanted any chance of approaching my best finish. Recent power numbers and PRs on local climbs suggested I was in good enough form to contest my PR there.

So on Tuesday, I went out for an abbreviated intervals ride on the bike. My legs were still FUBAR from the LAMB ride. I rode with a couple other guys from work and just sat on their wheels up the first couple of interval climbs. I managed to work in a couple moderately hard efforts later in the ride, but it ultimately was a junk ride. All I did was abuse my body just enough to prolong recovery without getting any training benefit.

Wednesday comes. I hadn't run in almost a week. If I didn't run on Wednesday, I'd go 10 days or more without a run. With CIGNA coming up, I couldn't let that happen. Feeling let down by Tuesday's junky ride, I figured I would not just go out for a junky 5 miler, but go for some intensity. I'd do one mile repeats. In 90+F heat no less.

I've run many times the day before an interval workout on the bike. It takes me down a notch, but not enough to significantly diminish the value of intervals the next day. I figured I had two recovery days before Ascutney, so how badly could two or three one mile efforts harm me?

Even though I dug a deeper training hole on Tuesday, I found I could actually push a descent pace running. Maybe I was finally bouncing back from the LAMB ride. After a warm-up, I ran a 5:35 mile. I had never run mile intervals before, so I had no idea if this was good or bad. I ran a cool down mile, then another one mile interval in 5:36. By now I was completely overheated and there was no way to run a third one. I ran back to work with over 5 miles total. I felt quite satisfied with these two solid intervals.

It didn't take long for these efforts started to catch up with me. I hadn't run anything over a 7:30 pace in the last six weeks due to calf injury. I hurt in places running should never hurt you, like my upper body, even my biceps. Two days later, I had shins splints so bad that stairs were very uncomfortable to negotiate. My quads, hip flexors and glutes hurt more than anything else. I use those for cycling, so how could 11 minutes of fast running put the hurt on those muscles?

I also managed to ensure I wouldn't get enough sleep before heading to Ascutney, as I went to a concert the night before and the race start time was moved up to 9am. Late to bed, early to rise. Cathy and I went to see Dennis DeYoung at the Lowell summer music series. The show was phenomenal. Dennis' voice hasn't changed in 40 years. He had talented musicians with him and covered all of Styx's greatest hits. A class act all the way, and probably the best value concert I ever went to.


By Saturday morning, I didn't feel too bad. The weather was ideal for a hillclimb. I still remained hopeful for a descent recent. My wave goes off.  It didn't take long at all to realize I had no sustainable top-end. I threw in the towel after the first mile when everybody and their sister dropped me. I finished in over 30 minutes, one of my worst finishes ever at Mt Ascutney. This was barely better than when I rode up Ascutney at a recreational pace a few weeks earlier. I was hoping for something closer to 28 minutes. What a big disconnect between expectation and result, probably biggest ever.

It was still a great day for a climb. I caught up with a few people I haven't seen in a long time. The event is always well organized. There is great healthy food at the summit, and awards are held right there just after the last finisher makes it up. The day was not all a lost cause.

I didn't go for the traditional ride after the climb. I was saving it for a full day on the Northeast Kingdom trails the next day (stories forthcoming). When I got home, I was feeling angry with myself. So what did I do? Went for a hilly five mile run, partially off-road. That would set me up nicely for NEK the next day. I will never learn...

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Steamy LAMB Ride

There were several big organized rides going on this weekend. There was the ERRACE in Connecticut, the Mt Washington Century in New Hampshire, and the Grand FUNdo in Massachusetts. A few of us were torn between doing the Grand FUNdo or something entirely different on our own. Mike Harris was organizing a LAMB ride in the Green Mountains of Vermont. LAMB is an acronym for Lincoln, Appalachian, Middlebury and Brandon, the four gaps the ride hits, although not in that order. I hadn't hit the gaps in a while, so that sounded pretty good.

Even in northern VT, the temperature was expected to break 90F with a dew point at 70F on Saturday. These are pretty oppressive conditions for a long, climby ride, conditions that always seem to destroy me. We started at 10am, so we were sure to ride through the hottest part of the day.

The group consisted of Mike, myself, DaveP, IsaacSM and BrettR. We kept it tight heading over Brandon Gap, even after Isaac's nice 400+ Watt burst for the last couple hundred feet vertical. No stopping. We just bombed right down the other side.

Paceline work quickly brought us to the base of Middlebury Gap. The temperature was rapidly rising, and much of this climb is exposed to the sun and is much steeper than Brandon. The group splintered a bit on the last steep section. Only a minute or two was needed to regroup and chug some water before the 50mph plummet.

We topped off water in Hancock and plodded north on Rt 100. There was apprehension in the group. Lincoln Gap was next. John Summerson's book "The Complete Guide to Climbing by Bike" lists the east side of Lincoln Gap as having the steepest paved mile in the United States. The oppressive heat with very little wind was sure to make it even more challenging. The only solace is the steep section is heavily shaded.

Heading north on Rt 100. It is always green here.

Isaac hadn't ever been up Lincoln. As expected, the steeper the grade got, the more distant he became. Isaac weighs about 30 pounds less than the rest of us and climbs like a ram on 'roids. Us heavier folk do have the advantage on descents though.

As the grade went past 20%, I ran out of gears. It wasn't like wishing I had more gears. I literally ran out of gears. My cadence dropped below 50, and my speed was still kind of high, and my power was unsustainably high at such a low RPM. Then it dawned on me. I forgot to put on a compact crank. I panicked for a moment, thinking Dave will never let it go if I had to walk in shame up Lincoln. I still had much lower gearing than standard road gearing with a 38x32 minimum ratio, but I've never pushed anything bigger than a 34x32 up Lincoln. Today was do or die.

I never suffered so badly on a bike before. My cadence at times dropped to 40rpm at 350W output. That would be the same force I'd need to generate at a more normal cadence of 80rpm at 700W. And I had to hold this for 15 minutes! I made it, but just barely. At the top, Isaac confessed when he got out of sight from me, he'd switchback across the road to lessen the severity of the grade. He did not want me to see this. Ha! He should have not said anything, as he looked pretty smooth riding away from me.

Dave was entering the special place we like to be in at the end of a long, hard ride, where the endorphins are freely flowing. This was not good, as the ride was barely half over.

The descent towards Lincoln was markedly improved from the last time in 2010 when I rode it. The paved portion was repaved and buttery smooth. No more risk of taco'ing or over-heating a rim. The gravel section was in descent shape too, allowing us less timid riders let our speed run out.

Brett taking in view of Lincoln Peak

We decided to stop again in Lincoln to top off water. Better safe than sorry in the heat. Much of the remaining descent down to Rt 17 was lined with cars. Apparently there are many nice swimming holes in the stream below. Girls in bikinis were distracting while dodging cars.

App Gap was going to be the death of me. It was now surely over 90F, and much of the climb is in full sun. Dave drifted back on Baby App. The rest of us crested Baby App together. We stayed less than a minute behind another rider the whole way up. On the final, steep 4km of App Gap, Isaac bolted and caught Adam St Germain, the rider dangling just ahead of us. I tried to, but spectacularly imploded with about 2km to go (there are Green Mtn Stage Race markings on the road). My thermal fuse popped and that was it. I couldn't even produce 200W. And my over sized gearing would not let me spin on the 15% grade either.

View from App Gap

Another large cycling group was up top when we got there. We heard from the Lincoln General Store that there were groups attempting all six gaps that day. I couldn't imagine. We waited a while for Dave. His thermal fuse popped much earlier on the climb, something I've never seen happen to him. He looked pretty ragged reaching the top. Dave got to the special placed and rode right on past it. What comes after that special place? Something akin to the depths of hell I imagine.

Dave approaching summit of App Gap

A third and final water stop in Waitsfield would cover the slog back to the cars down Rt 100. We had a 700ft climb along the way through Granville Gulf. It was about 25 miles, but once over the gulf, there was nearly 20 miles of slighty downhill riding. We got a nice steady paceline going, holding 23-25mph most of the time without having to push many Watts.  The whole time I couldn't stop thinking about how nice the dip in the White River was going to be.

I finished with 111 miles, 8300 feet in 5.9 hours moving time on the Garmin. The end came none too soon, as my hamstrings started cramping on my last couple pulls.  I wonder if Hundo participants had a clean, cold stream to chill in afterwards? The heat and suffering of the day soon faded after we jumped into the White River. That was one hard ride with a solid group.


Next weekend: Mt Ascutney. I expect Peter Hult's course record to be broken by 10-20 seconds. I'll be lucky to come within a minute of my personal best. Could still be hot out.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Newton's Revenge

Sleep deprivation, dew point above 60F (15C) with winds gusting to 62mph (100kph). These are not your ideal personal record breaking conditions for Mt Washington. Given recent performance metrics and lightest body weight ever for Mt Washington (159lbs/72kg), I thought there was an outlying chance I could better my best on the Rock Pile. I brought reasonably fresh legs. I can suffer through tapering for an event once in a while. But if an event is important enough for me to actually rest for it, the event is important enough to keep me awake at night. Compounding inability to sleep was the fact I had to leave the house at 4am. Newton's Revenge is expensive enough without a hotel stay. I doubt I got more than 3hrs sleep.

The weather is a wild card. I waited until the last minute to register. I've had Mt Washington races cancelled on me. The race fee is gladly accepted as a donation to the benefiting charity. I was more worried about heat, as most of the country has been sizzling. There is no sense in sending my body up a one hour climb when thermal meltdown occurs in 20 minutes. The forecast suggested marginal conditions. I took a chance. I missed the Rock Pile. I hadn't climbed it since 2009.

The July Newton's Revenge race is held as an overflow to the popular August race. A record number may have registered for Newton's this year, perhaps driven by the popularity of the BUMPS series. The elite Top-Notch field had some depth of talent. Lining up in the first row, I could guess to within one or two spots where I was going to place in the results. There's no suspense like in a road race.  You're not racing against people, it is you versus the mountain. I was interested in where I stood relative to when I last climbed Mt Washington in August of 2009. Did I still have it?

Top-Notch field lining up. I'm partially cut off on left side of photo
talking with Cameron Cogburn (not shown).
Photo credit: Mt Washington Auto Road.

Start. Note cannon smoke and plugged ears on left. Cannon is
so loud you feel the percussion from it.
Photo credit: Mt Washington Auto Road.

It was muggy at the start line, maybe 70F. We were told of very high winds up top and a little cooler. I'll take wind over hot and day. I lose way more minutes in heat than wind. I decided to not take a water bottle. Why break my streak of never taking water up the Rock Pile? Most riders around me only had half a small bottle. One large squeeze puts that much in your stomach, which I did just before the start, then put the bottle to the side.

The cannon goes off. Lined up next to me was Cameron Cogburn (CCB), who I knew would handily win today's race. In a minute or two, he was gone. A large number of riders bolted on ahead of me. I stayed back with Erik Vandendries (545 Velo), who I know paces extremely well. Maybe 20 riders shot ahead. It is really hard to let that happen. You have to have faith that many of them will come back as they implode. I comment to Erik, seeking reassurance, "they're going out too hard, aren't they?" Erik replied "yes, they are."  Half of them did fall back in the next 10 minutes or so. Glad I don't get suckered into those frenzies anymore.

A mile or two into the 7.6 mile climb, things were pretty much sorted out. I stayed on Erik's wheel, which I was questioning the wisdom in. I've beaten Erik on this mountain before, just barely, but that was before he got really good at hillclimbing. I felt good, but I was most likely going out 1-2% too hard. At the three mile mark, I decided to let him go every so gradually.

It wasn't long before I heard heavy breathing coming up behind me. It is never a good sign mid-climb when I get caught. It usually means I went out too hard, hit deflection, backed off, then got overtaken. I believe this was Greg Bartick. We poked up above treeline at 4000ft around mile four and found the wind. I thought "oh goodie, a big guy going slightly faster to pull me through this heinous wind back up to Erik." But no. We were very closely matched, and it seems neither of us were very willing to slay the wind for the benefit of the other. This Mickey-Mousing cost me time, I'm sure.

Fortunately, a couple of the hardest sections of the climb had tailwind, like the infamous "Five Mile Grade" section. It almost felt flat with 40-50mph blowing at your back. The wind was so strong that it was blowing my unzipped jersey over the top of my head! It also boosted my front wheel over where a nasty cross wind burst hammered me. That always bumps your HR up a notch.

Summit conditions during race. 45mph sustained, >60mph gusts.

The road switched back, and then it was full-on headwind, still on gravel, and even steeper. I nearly came to a stop at one point. I couldn't have been going over 2.5mph for a stretch. At least with a drop in temperature and high wind, I was no longer on the verge of over heating. I couldn't shake Greg, nor he I. Maybe there is a bit of real racing in a hillclimb after all. Erik seemed to put good time on us through this section. The wind could have been much more damaging had it been from the southwest. It was out of the northwest, so some of the straightest, most exposed sections had tailwind.

Back on pavement with some tailwind again, I managed to roll Greg off my wheel. The fastest parts of the climb are in the last 1.5 miles or so. I seemed to be gaining time on Erik, but the summit would come way too quickly before I caught him. At 6000ft, clouds would move through in the blink of an eye. Visibility would go from 10 miles to 100ft in seconds.

One instant, visibility.

Next instant, no visibility.

The finishing 22% grade was more difficult than I remember it. Maybe it was the wind. I crossed the timing mats in 1:07:08, about 8 seconds slower than my last time up in 2009 and 1min, 35sec slower than my best. It was hard to not be pretty happy with that. It was good enough to know I still got it.  Most top finisher's times were a minute-plus slower than last year, when conditions were much better. Cameron won at 55:59. He was hoping for a low 50's finish.

Myself coming up 22% grade. Photo: Cathy Jansen

All done, in more ways than one.
Photo: Granite State Race Services

The Mt Washington events are one place where everybody sticks around afterwards for awards. The catered Hart's Turkey Farm Restaurant lunch is not to be missed. I did miss having Richard Fries there to announce the finish and MC the awards ceremony.

On gearing. Seems I never use the exact same setup twice on Mt Washington. I put a new drivetrain on my Trek 5900 just before the Okemo climb last weekend. I'm done messing with swapping out cranks, derailleurs, cassettes and adjusting chain length for individual climbs. I will now leave on the bike an FSA compact crank with 34/50t rings. The 34t ring is an elliptical Q-ring. In back, I have an 9spd XTR 32t cassette. An early generation 9spd XTR medium cage derailleur handles the shifting. Not the lightest setup, but it will leave me with gears for a post climb ride. I did remove rear brake and front derailleur for Mt Washington. Those are easy to take off/put back on.

In the minutes waiting for the start, I asked Cameron what he was using for gearing. He ran the same minimum ratio as I did, a 34:32, although I doubt he was in that minimum ratio nearly as much as I was. Cameron has pro fitness and runs near 1:1 gear ratio. Ned Overend, who finishes in similar time, also runs near 1:1 ratio. Many first-timers fret on how low to run. If you have to ask if N:1 is low enough, where N>1, the answer is probably not.  Invariably, first timers don't go low enough and come back with much lower gears the next time. Take a cue from sub-hour finishers. If they finish in two-thirds your time (say 1hr vs 1.5hrs), your ratio should be 2/3rds their ratio as rough guide.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


I was on the fence racing Okemo on Saturday. I had multiple invites to long rides tugging at me. Mid-week training sat heavy in my legs.  Okemo is not one of my benchmarking climbs (more on that in a minute). I missed the Wednesday pre-reg cutoff. Day-of registration was expensive.  But... a lot of cool people do these things. You won't find typical roadie attitude at a hillclimb event.  You will find daughters lining up with dads. You will also find a full spectrum of serious athletes.

Most readers know it was hot this weekend. The race went off at 10:30am and goes up the east facing slopes of the mountain. Thus things had many hours to bake in the sun. The first 3-4 miles of the course is in full sun. I fare worse than most under these conditions. Climbing is fun though. I feel most alive when I'm suffering.

All 100+ riders went off in single wave. These situations always make me nervous. Many hillclimb racers don't have a lot of pack racing experience. Tendencies are to panic and grab fist-fulls of brake. The race starts "neutral" through a double chicane dropping down from the Jackson Gore village to Rt 103. This was not a problem for those of us in the front row with lots of experience. Once on Rt 103, we had use of full lane plus wide shoulder for two miles.

Okemo doesn't make a good benchmarking climb because of the variability in the neutral start and pack dynamics on the two mile lead-in to the climb. Nobody was willing to toe the line here, except for one rider. Kurt Schmid (CCB) bolted clear with Marti Shea (Destination Cycling) in tow. Marti has been dominating the women's BUMPS field for a few years now. I suspected this move was choreographed, like when Tom Danielson had someone help him break the Mt Evans course record. Everybody sat up and I got swarmed with all sorts of sketchiness going on around me. I managed to get back up front, but Kurt and Marti were gone. I didn't want to kill myself to bridge up, as I would no more than catch them than we'd hit the base of the climb, which kicks up to something like 15% immediately. Kurt and Marti had at least 15 seconds on the rest of us by the time they turned up. Brilliant, I thought.

Greg Larkin and Jeff Johnson where there, guys I needed to keep tabs on and good guys to pace with to avoid going out too hard. Erik Vandendries (545 Velo) was there too, who I expected to pull away from me at some point. I knew if I got ahead of Erik, I was going out too hard.

Kurt promptly fell back after bringing Marti to the climb. Tim Ahern, the men's points leader, began closing the gap on Marti. Things quickly sorted out, as they always do in a hillclimb. Sue Schlatter passed me and pulled away with Erik. I settled into 6th place for most of the climb.

The heat was oppressive. I was just waiting for the engine overheating light to go on. Almost no air movement. Unzipped jersey didn't help. About 75% of the way up, I caught John Cico. I struggled mightily to pass him and keep him behind me. I was fifth to cross the line. I was hoping to finish under 32 minutes but went over 33 minutes. Chalk it up to not tapering and heat. Turns out everybody's times were slower than expected. I felt I raced well and was not too disappointed.

Sue came within a few seconds of Marti. Had Sue caught the break at the start, the women's outcome would have been different. Erik just squeaked in ahead of Marti. Tim and Erik were the only two men to stay ahead of these women.

Some guys have delicate egos and don't handle getting "girled" very well. Most of the guys here not only got girled, they got mommed, as Sue once reminded me.  I got a kick out of that one.  There's no honor lost in finishing second to Marti or Sue. They both have palmares that could put some pro tour riders to shame.

After the race I caught up with Kurt, who lead Marti out to the climb. His leading Marti out was not planned. There was a tail wind, yet nobody was willing to wind things up, so he just went. Marti just happened to be there and recognized an opportunity. Hmmm, I notice Marti and Kurt are both from Marblehead. Another coincidence?

The Okemo event is well staffed and organized by the Ludlow Rotary Club. A superb meal of grilled chicken, beef and veggie burgers, with fruit and full array of homemade baked goods is provided at awards.  The Okemo hillclimb is a non-intimidating event for first timers or family members to try. Aftwards, JoeyB, IsaacO and I enjoyed a nice loop over Tyson Rd to make the day complete.