Big Ride for the Death Ride

Our pal Don Blount is at it again, as he prepares for his big ride of the year. Here’s his account of a little(!) training ride.

BlountOnBikingTo prepare for big rides, you have to train for big rides — and often that training is painful. On Saturday, July 12, I am riding the Tour of the California Alps Death Ride. It is 129 miles (207.6 kilometers) with 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) of climbing over five mountain passes.

I have done a number of “big” rides to prepare for the Death Ride, including two double metric centuries and two century rides.

But I had never ridden at altitude, so two weeks before the Death Ride I headed up to the mountains to do a few training rides.

I joined my buddy Paul, who is also my doctor, and is experienced riding up in the mountains. He also climbs like a billy goat. The most I would see of him would be his back as he climbed waaaaay ahead of me.

Our plan was to do an 83-mile ride (133.6km) with 11,000 ft (3,353m) of climbing over four of the five mountain passes that are included in the Death Ride – both sides of Ebbetts Pass and both sides of Monitor Pass.

Mountain views can be spectacular. (Click pix to enlarge.)

Mountain views can be spectacular. (Click pix to enlarge.)

We started at 8:55 a.m. from Hermit Valley, Calif. at about 7,100 ft. (2,164m) elevation and we gained just under 1,600 ft. (487.68 km) within the first 5 miles (8km) to the summit of Ebbetts. Riding at altitude was difficult. I felt that no matter how deeply I breathed in that I could never take in enough air. This would be more problematic later in the day.

We headed down the other side of Ebbetts, dropping about 2,800 ft (853km) in 13 miles (21km). The views would be spectacular, the downhill riding fun.

My friend Paul channels Martin Short with a "There Amigos" pose while taking a break during the descent of Ebbetts Pass.

My friend Paul channels Martin Short with a “Three Amigos” pose while taking a break during the descent of Ebbetts Pass.

Monitor Pass was next. These two climbs were difficult. The first gained 2,400 ft (731.52km) in about 9 miles (14.5km), then dropped into a canyon that we had to climb back out. This back side of Monitor Pass was a bear. It would take me nearly two hours to ride just nine miles. But that nine miles included 3,100 ft. (945m) of elevation gain.

I learned or was forced to learn to keep moving; to not stop and lean over the bike but to get off and walk. Mentally this was tough to accept but pushing my bike at two miles (3.2km) per hour was better than standing still; at least I was still moving.

Don Blount looked fresher than he felt after summitting Monitor Pass on the second big climb of the day.

Don Blount looked fresher than he felt after summitting Monitor Pass on the second big climb of the day.

After climbing the last side of Monitor we headed into Markleeville, Calif. for lunch.

The final climb, over the other side of Ebbetts, would be the toughest of the day. It was hot and long. Starting from about 5,604 ft. (1,708m) of elevation, we would ride 17 miles (27.3km) and gain 3,000 ft. (914m). It would take me nearly two hours and 22 minutes to summit. Again, I stopped and walked several times. And three times someone stopped and asked if I needed assistance. I declined in part because I wanted to “HTFU.” I also wanted to punish myself by not taking the easy way out. And I did not want the mental image of quitting when I came back on this route for the Death Ride.

I was more than happy to reach the top. Paul was waiting, anxious to escape the mosquitoes that nagged him.

Returning to Hermit Valley and the car was bliss. The ride took about eight hours and 10 minutes. Total time out was just under 10 hours. Click here if you want to see my stats for the day.

The following day we did another ride of about 21 miles (33.8km) with 2,000 ft. (609.6m) of climbing. I actually felt much better this ride. Here are my stats for this “recovery” ride. Over the two days we would ride 104 miles (167.4km) with 13,000 ft. (3962m) of climbing. I left anticipating that the Death Ride would be hard. I guess that would be expected for any ride with “Death” in its name.

Riding a Double Metric Century (Part 2)

Guest poster Don Blount continues his account of his metric double century, a ride he’s using to prepare for his killer “death ride” next month.

BlountOnBikingI was nearly halfway through the Tierra Bella Double Metric Century in Gilroy, Calif. as the voices began getting louder in my head. I had been riding for nearly 4½ hours, which is a long time to spend with your thoughts. When doubt takes a seat in there, strange things happen.

And as I thought about being able to stop if I had a mechanical problem with my bike, an unsettling crunching sound came from my cranks and they jammed.

I got off the bike, looked and tried pedaling them again. Nothing.

The front derailleur had fallen into the big chainring. As I fiddled with it, one rider stopped to help and another. One held the bike, while the other chatted. The talker was local and told me that a bike shop was not far away.

And then the SAG van pulled up. By that time I had gotten the front derailleur into the low chainring. Instead of hopping into the SAG wagon, I pedaled to the bike shop. I was not the only Tierra Bella rider there, several others were also getting repairs. A mechanic there confirmed that my derailleur was broken and that the bike could be ridden within the small chainring without worry.

And now that I had an excuse to quit the ride, I did not want to. I had too much time and effort invested.

I decided to do the last part of the ride in the small chainring. I still had a lot of climbing to do and would spin on the flats.

So I spun. And I spun and spun and spun for the next 25 miles (40km) before reaching the final climb at Hicks Road.

This climb gained 739 feet (225m) in about two miles (3.2km). It would take me about 20 minutes.

On the return trip I missed one turn but traced my steps to get back on course and ended up with a group of riders that I would stay with the rest of the way.

It was good to ride with someone as the afternoon winds in Gilroy picked up.

I rode 127 miles (204km), and my Garmin showed me with 8,632 feet (2,631m) of climbing in 8 hours 54 minutes. That does not include the hour of time I lost while fiddling with my front derailleur.

The Tierra Bella Double Metric Century was a challenging ride that I would do again. I learned how to deal with adversity and work through those negative voices that creep into your head during challenging rides.

I had a long car ride in front of me and just wanted to get home for a hot shower and to unload my gear. I also wanted my quads to stop screaming at me.

Riding a Double Metric Century (Part 1)

Guest poster Don Blount is gearing up for a big, big ride — and he’s using what a lot of us would consider a big ride to prep for it. Here’s his account.

BlountOnBikingMy big midyear ride is The Tour of the California Alps, Death Ride on July 12. It covers 129 miles (208 km) with 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) of climbing over five mountain passes.

I have other things planned after that ride but my preparation has been geared toward the Death Ride.

Intensity, climbing and saddle time are all components of my training. And yes, I used to hate hills but a 30-pound weight loss (13.61 kilograms) and improved fitness changed my attitude toward them. I can proudly say that I am a decent climber.

Through mid-May I have ridden about 2,800 miles (4,506 kilometers) with 71,000 feet (21,641 meters) of climbing in about 164 hours.

As part of my training, I took on the Tierra Bella Double Metric Century in Gilroy, Calif. in April. The 200K was listed as having 9,600 feet (2,926m) of climbing.

Gilroy is about 1 hr 45 mins from my home in Stockton, Calif. The early start required an overnight stay in Gilroy, which bills itself as the garlic capital of the world. The Ramada Limited was not five-star but it was fine for a night. I spent less than 12 hours in the room.

I rolled out from the Gavilan College starting point at 6:51 a.m. It was cool and I started out wearing a vest and arm warmers. I thought about wearing a long-sleeved jersey and for the first three hours of the ride I wished I had, but one thing about long rides in the spring is that the temperature can fluctuate by 30 degrees (16 degrees Celsius) or more and that is what the forecast called for. In a few hours I would be grateful for the short sleeves.

I rode at a comfortable pace, speaking with a few people along the way. Yet I was still thinking of the climbing that waited ahead.

By the time I reached the first rest stop at Gilroy Hot Springs, I was still cold but felt good. My goal was to finish in less than nine hours.


It was cool early in the double metro century as Don Blount arrived at the first rest stop.

It was cool early in the double metric century as Don Blount arrived at the first rest stop.

I had never ridden in this area before this day. However, I noticed how many areas reminded me of routes where I ride regularly. I felt fortunate to live in a good biking area and felt confident about being able to handle what waited ahead.

The real climbing began at about mile 38 (61 km) on the way to Henry W. Coe State Park headquarters. Over the next 11 miles (18 km) we would gain nearly 2,300 feet (701m). It would take me 1 hour 16 minutes to complete the climb.

The big climb is completed. Arriving at the Henry W. Coe State Park rest stop in Morgan Hill, California.

The big climb is completed. Arriving at the Henry W. Coe State Park rest stop in Morgan Hill, California.

I was spent by the time I reached the rest stop. I lingered as I waited to recover. A friend had told me about eating some chicken soup at a rest stop when he was not feeling well during a ride. Son of a gun, there was some Cup Noodles soup. I never eat this stuff but I did this time. It was hot, salty and won’t be a regular on my menu anytime soon. But it helped.


Despite the smile, Don Blount was not feeling that great.

Despite the smile, Don Blount was not feeling that great.

Eventually, I started the descent. I exited the park and thought about the remaining 62 miles. I specifically had two thoughts: 1) If a SAG van came by right now, I would be tempted to get in. 2) If I had a mechanical, I could quit now and blame the bike.

I would soon be reminded to be careful what I wished for.

In his next post, Don recaps both the mechanical and mental challenges of the ride.

How Do I Know I’m Improving?

onbikeWhen I started cycling about six years ago, I was gratified by how quickly I seemed to improve. I built up the number of miles I could ride, I lost a little weight, I recovered from strenuous efforts faster.

But after several years of riding, I fell into a rut.

My long rides weren’t very long — it was rare that I roe for more than 40 miles. I found there was no way I could hang with the A riders in my club, and I was starting to have trouble handing with the B’s sometimes, too.

The lack of improvement got me into a funk, and I was unmotivated to do much riding at all. Heck, I was spending more time organizing my stamp collection than riding the roads around here (not that there’s anything wrong with stamp collecting).

So the question became, how do I get back on track?

For me, there was no blinding flash of light on the road to Damascus. I noticed that little things were coming together — over time, not all at once — and that my interest in cycling was picking up again.

A small, but dependable, group of B riders came out for our Sunday club rides. Sure, maybe there would be only two or three of us on any given week, but at least we could ride at our own pace, and not worry about being dropped by the main peloton.

We started doing variations on our usual rotation of rides — adding new routes or modifications to old ones, so we weren’t riding the same routes over and over.

And then I got Strava. Now, lots of people hate Strava. In fact, I was one of them — as long as I didn’t have it. And even after I started using it, I ran into some problems with data discrepancies between it and my old bike computer.

But I’m finding the thing about Strava that is helping me improve my cycling — perhaps more than any of the other changes I’ve mentioned — is its segments feature. Routes are broken up into segments, which are created by cyclists. And you can compare your times on certain segments with times of other riders.

For example, I do laps around our Veloway two or three times a week. One of Strava’s segments is the “Veloway Loop,” almost a complete lap of the 3.1-mile track. I was a bit disheartened when I started using Strava, because it clocked times around the Veloway that were much slower than I thought I was riding it. Often, 11 or 12 minutes a lap were the best times I could manage.

Now, back when I was just getting into cycling, and constantly improving, I know I could circle that track in less than 10 minutes. So I started paying closer attention to my Strava times for the Veloway, and checking the times of acquaintances to see how they stacked up against me.

I guess I could have gone all out and tried for a Personal Record, or PR, each time I did a lap. Instead, I continued to ride my routine laps. I registered a 10:04 — not too bad, but not what I was after. A couple of weeks later, 10 minutes flat! Only four seconds, but that nice round number represented something of a benchmark.

Depending upon how I feel on a given ride, I might or might not push it a bit when I reach the Veloway. If I was going to set a new PR, it would have to be when I was still relatively fresh — and usually, the Veloway lap comes near the end of my ride, not the beginning.

This morning, I reached the Veloway 12 miles into my ride. I hadn’t thought about a PR, but then noticed how effortless my pedaling was this day. That was on account of a brisk tailwind, and that could be good for my time. But it would also work against me on the backside of the lap, when I was dead into it. What the heck, I thought. Let’s go for it!

I applied an even effort around the track, drawing encouragement whenever I passed another cyclist. When I swerved through the ess curves near the end of the lap, I hit 23 mph — I try to reach 22, so this looked good.

Then, on the way home, I got a green light at a major cross street, and powered up an easy, half-mile long hill past a supermarket. This one has been giving me fits, too, but again, it looked like I’d have a decent outcome.

And I did. Back home, I looked at my segment times. All were pretty mediocre, except the Veloway, where I set a new PR — 9:59! Broke 10 minutes! And the hill — I slaughtered it. My previous best had been 1:25, and today I did it in 1:18 (Yes, I had a tailwind, and yes, I did not have to start from a dead stop at the bottom of the hill, thanks to the green light, but a PR is a PR).

So yes, I’m improving again. Not only are my times getting faster, slowly but surely, but my interest in biking has come back. Biking isn’t all about fast Strava segments. It’s about the ride. After some time in the funk, I’m enjoying the ride again.

I Just Rode To Ethiopia…And Boy Are My Legs Tired

Guest poster Jeff Hemmel had the ride of a lifetime — or not.

HemmelsRide2Before you dismiss that headline, let me just assure you that it’s true. Yesterday, I rode to Ethiopia. I started in Florida, apparently hauled arse across the North Atlantic, beelined it straight across Africa, and finished up my journey in Ethiopia.

Don’t believe me? Just check out the nice little map that Strava compiled of my journey. As more than one person has said, hey, it’s on the Internet…it must be true.


Ray has recently mentioned he’s jumped on the Strava bandwagon. For better of for worse, I’ve been there for years, logging my rides, checking my stats, even feverishly going after a few KOMs, or King of the Mountain status on certain segments. I’ve watched things go from a time when there were maybe three or four segments on a ride — mostly bridge climbs here in relatively flat Florida — to coming home, logging in to Strava, and seeing my ride measured against literally dozens of segments all over the map. It’s a complicated relationship. I know that Strava can almost wreck a ride at times, making you feel like you need to speed through an area because you know you’re being judged against your peers rather than just ride for enjoyment. But, I know it can also literally make your day when you return home to discover you set a personal best, or maybe even challenged for the almost mythical KOM on a segment you may or may not have targeted.

And, depending on the quality of data it gets, Strava can also apparently turn 47.7 miles into a monumental journey to Ethiopia.

I’ll lay some of the blame on the third party in our little menage-a-trois — my Garmin computer. It’s usually pretty dependable, but on this occasion I think it’s fair to say it was having a bad day. Ethiopia, however, was nothing compared to what happened next. Today I didn’t just get a map to Ethiopia, I got the dreaded “bad file” message. That’s when something goes kaffluey on a Garmin and your ride never gets recorded. Like it never…even…happened. It’s a measure of how obsessed some of us have become with Strava that, upon seeing that message, I spent the next 10 minutes feverishly trying to resurrect what I knew was lost. Making matters worse, I had recently signed up for one of Strava’s monthly “challenges.” I usually ignore these contests, but whatever reason this one caught my attention, a challenge to see if you could ride the combined distances of the Spring Classics — Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Fleche Wallonne, and Amstel Gold —or a total of 787 miles in 40 days.

In fact, today, after a particularly vigorous solo ride, I was going to surpass the 787-mile mark with nearly 10 days to spare. Maybe even set some PRs in the process.

Until, that is, I disconnected my Garmin from my bike, hooked it to the computer, and gazed at the results. Yesterday, Ethiopia. Today, bad file. Oh, the horror of it — I almost cried. Like it never…even…happened.

Okay, maybe I’m hyping up my reaction a little for a funny story. After years of using Strava, I have learned to have a little perspective on these situations. It’s happened before, ironically almost always when I’ve gone out and put in a big effort and just can’t wait to see what the results are, but yet, it’s happened. And at times like these I like to remind myself that stats, or KOMs, or PRs, aren’t really why I ride. To prove it, I reflected back on the “bad file” ride, miles that passed accompanied by palm trees, sunshine, shore birds, and a brilliant view of the Florida coastline. It put me at peace.

At least, for a few minutes. Then I fired off a support request to Strava and feverishly scoured the Internet to find instructions how to reset my Garmin…before it happens again.

Like I said, it’s a complicated relationship.

Strava Revisited

Okay, I have no integrity whatsoever. After bashing Strava several times on this blog, I am now immersed in the ride tracking program — big time.

Why the sudden change in feeling? Well, it’s all because of a new phone. I’ve never had a smartphone before. All my mobile phones were very basic. So when my wife and I sprang for new phones over the weekend, I knew I would want to try out some apps. And for a cyclist, what better app to try out than Strava?

Honestly, I thought I would use it to take the place of my Bike Journal entries, where I keep tabs online of my rides. Strava catalogs much the same information — distance, average speed, maximum speed — but it gives you much more.

For starters, the GPS feature records the route you ride in a map. And if you want, you can trace the route you took by following a little blue dot around the route. I’ve already used it on a couple of my friends’ Strava pages to see what kind of variations they ride on the basic neighborhood route that everyone around here rides. And it’s already given me some good ideas.

My regular route through Circle  C Ranch. It was fun to see how my friends ride essentially the same route, but with little variations of their own.

My regular route through Circle C Ranch. I enjoyed seeing how my friends ride essentially the same route, but with little variations of their own. (Click pix for bigger.)

Of course, the big thing everyone who has ever heard of Strava is familiar with is the King of the Mountain and Queen of the Mountain titles that go to the fastest rider on a particular segment. No King of the Mountains for me yet. I suppose I could do as others do, and chart a short section of a bigger route, then claim a KOM because no one else would have ridden it yet — but that’s meaningless, and I’m not about to do something like that. This week.

You can also create a segment on your own, but after today’s ride I found that I might not need to. I rode a popular neighborhood route of about 18-21 miles, depending upon the variation taken on a given day, and when I accessed the Strava record, I found the route had 20 different segments.

Some of them are worthless to me. They’re short little chunks of road, not even .3 miles long. But other segments are parts of the route I have always paid particular attention to anyway. Now, I have a record of how fast I went to compare with future efforts, and also to compare against other riders I might know.

Basic data from today's ride.

Basic data from today’s ride.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that I did well on some of the segments. One, that tracks a full lap of the Veloway (3 miles), had me clocked at 10 minutes, 4 seconds. I typically ride it at around 10:30. I have done it as fast as 9:30 in years gone by. Now, I can keep that figure in mind (Strava has already declared it a PR, or Personal Record, for me) and try to better it in future trips around the Veloway.

So, if you’re on Strava yourself, and want to chuckle at some slow times, visit my page. We’ll see if I get a little faster in the coming months. Even if I don’t, it’s going to be fun to compare routes and times with myself and my friends.

Thinking About Hills

Anyone who has read Bike Noob knows I’m not much of a hill climber. In fact, if anything, my hill-climbing ability has decreased in the past couple of years — I’m getting older, you know. Yeah, that’s it. (All right — I still haven’t managed to get my weight down to that level where hills are doable — but I think I’ll stick with the age angle.)

But it’s spring, believe it or not (It must be — we’re under our second wind advisory in a week! It was tough out there today!), and as we point toward our nice weather riding (It will come again, I promise), a lot of us will add hills to our training regimens.

Yes, even I climb hills in training. But the hills I climb close to home aren’t anything like the really challenging hills we’ll face on some of our targeted rides.

One that I think I’ll try to handle — maybe in the fall, after I’ve had lots of time to train for it — is Fulton Ranch Road. It’s not too far from Austin, and has been part of the 100-mile version of the Livestrong Ride here. It’s got a grade that I think is just within my abilities, but the problem is, it’s a lot longer than most of the hills around here. To whet your appetite for some warm-weather climbing, here’s a YouTube video of the hill.

But Fulton Ranch Road pales in comparison to the real monster. That’s the Westernport Wall in Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. Its 31 percent grade — that’s 31 percent! – is steep enough that the road is closed to motor traffic. But bikers are welcome to take a stab at it. And to make matters worse, the Wall is only part of the story. It comes in the middle of a triathlon! If you can get to the top of the Wall without clipping out and walking, you get a brick with your name incribed added to the rough and uneven surface of the road.

Makes my .4-mile jaunt up Convict Hill look like a walk in the park. Maybe by the end of summer, it will be!

A Look Back at January

Guest poster Don Blount is back (he’s been blogging here more often than I have lately) with a look at his January biking miles, and how they’re helping him build for the coming year.

BlountOnBikingI finished January with 606 miles (975 kilometers), my highest monthly total ever.

My previous high was set in July; I rode 573 miles (922 km) that month.

Winter is when we get the bulk of our rain in Northern California. However, this winter has been dry. So dry, in fact, that we went more than 50 days without any rain and when it finally rained to break that streak, it was a fairly insignificant amount.

However, those dry days provided plenty of opportunities to ride outdoors.

And I took advantage of that.

For the past nine months I have been riding about four to five days a week. I continued that in January while also adding quite a few longer rides, of about 50 miles (80 km) a week.

To put this in perspective here are my previous January mileage totals: 2013 – 260 miles (418 km); 2012 – 291 (468); 2011 – 313 (503); 2010 – 220 (354).

Another change I have made these past few months is riding for time instead of distance. Instead of planning a 40-mile ride (64 km), I will plan a 2 ½-hour ride with the distance dependent on the pace.

And also, I have changed how I use my bike. I ride for fitness and performance. It is part of my cardio activity for staying healthy but I also ride to become a stronger rider. That change may be just semantics or attitude. But it has worked for me.

A bike mechanic once told me that it was more important to focus on the time you spent in the saddle instead of the distance. Distance will build as you put in the time he said (and no, he did not look like the Ancient Mariner).

I did not understand what he meant then but I do now as I go about preparing for rides I have planned for later this year. The only way to prepare for longer rides is to spend time in the saddle. Some of those rides I am targeting will require about 12 hours of saddle time. The longest ride I have done was a full century that took 6 hours 39 minutes.

I feel comfortable and confident spending time in the saddle, I just need to continue building.

In January, my long rides were three to four hours. They will be getting longer this month. I already have planned a ride that I am told will take six hours, it is 87 miles (140 km) with 7,000 feet (2,133 meters) of and a metric century too.

I do not expect to ride 600 miles (965 km) every month, but I take satisfaction in getting off to a good start in building a strong foundation for the year.


The Hills, Revisited

Guest poster Don Blount is back again, this time regarding his never-ending battle with the hills.

BlountOnBikingNo mea culpas from me. No apologies either. I previously have called hills evil and I am not backing down from that statement.

Well, at least not until they apologize for throwing so much hate in my direction.

Hills, and their partner Gravity, worked against me greatly.

They made climbing torture and frequently stripped me of my dignity. You ever tried to look cool pushing a bike up a hill while wearing cycling shoes?

But of late, climbing has become much easier.

I can comfortably do rides that I could not handle a few months ago. I can look at the scenery and even talk to other riders at times. I can do rides I would not have attempted previously.

This is not because of any change in the hills as they have made no concessions. It is because I lost a boatload of weight and improved my fitness.

Now that I can ride in the hills, I have plenty of climbing planned.

On Jan. 2, I was part of a group of six who rode a route that is part of the Amgen Tour of California . We started in Danville , rode to the summit of Mt. Diablo , descended down the other side of the mountain to Walnut Creek for lunch. We then rode back up to a junction a few miles from the summit before returning to our starting point.

In total, the ride was 49.44 miles (79.56 kilometers) with 6,138 feet (about 1,871 meters) of climbing in 3 hours 57 minutes.

Summit of Mt Diablo in Mt Diablo State Park near Danville, Calif.

Summit of Mt Diablo in Mt Diablo State Park near Danville, Calif.

And it was something I would not have attempted a year ago.

But as I do these rides, I keep in mind that Hills and Gravity are tricky. They are just waiting for the right moment to ambush me. It could be on an extended climb or a climb with a steep grade or even a series of rollers. I am not letting my guard down. I plan to continue working at riding and climbing.

And I keep in mind what I was told by Bennie, a member of my bike club. He would know about climbing as much as anyone. A few years ago he climbed a million feet in a year. He consistently tells me: It gets better the more you climb BUT NOT EASIER.