Thinking Time, Not Miles

It occurred to me the other day that once again, my riding has settled comfortably in the 25-mile range. Oh sure, I’ve got some longer rides under my belt — but nowhere near the metric centuries I did semi-frequently a couple of years ago. It seems that lately, my rides have been stuck in a range of between 23-27 miles.

A few years ago, I bemoaned the fact that I rode so many 25-milers. I felt that I was shortchanging myself — not putting in enough effort to improve as a cyclist. And I did work to get those long rides to longer distances. But now, I hardly ever think about distance.

In fact, if I pay attention at all, I pay attention to the number of minutes I spend on my bike. A long ride is anything over two hours. At my 14 mph average, that’s a 28-mile ride.

Most often, I keep my riding to familiar routes around my house. I can combine any number of roads and streets and the Veloway, and wind up with a ride that includes challenging hills, fast sections, and recovery segments. Most often, I knock off after I’ve done between an hour and a half to an hour and 45 minutes. I feel refreshed. I’ve had some good exercise. I’ve spent time on the bike, which I really enjoy.

Then, if I want to push myself, I get out the mountain bike. A two-hour ride on that thing, and I’m ready to pass out. And I’ve probably covered only 14 miles or so in that amount of time. But the next day, I can tell I had some strenuous exercise — much more than a road bike gives me in the same amount of time.

So, I’m not complaining about the 25-mile ride anymore. Some might say I’ve gotten comfortable, but I say I know what works for me. I’ll continue to ride as often as possible, but I’ll keep an eye on the clock — not the odometer.

Some Changes Close By

Rain visited overnight, and continued to threaten this morning, so instead of a planned trip out to Dripping Springs, we decided to just do a neighborhood ride with the club.

Besides Maggie and Brian, two regular B riders, I was joined by Kenny and Steve, two of our better A riders. Kenny is recovering from rotator cuff surgery, and said he wanted to ride easy to recover from a 54-mile ride the previous day. (“I can’t stand up on my bike yet,” he complained. “Can you imagine riding 54 miles without standing up?”) Steve had also ridden long on Saturday, and he was content with a lazy ride. (Steve, a several-times state champion in both road and time trial in his age group, is known for taking frequent recovery-pace rides. Don’t be fooled. He can drop you just like that. He just doesn’t want to. Mostly.)

I gave Steve a rough idea of the route I had in mind, just in case he and Kenny did put some distance between us. The pace proved even easier than I had expected, as we spent a lot of our time in the saddle just chatting about various and sundry. At one point, Steve suggested we turn onto State Highway 45, an extension of our old favorite, Mopac. I used to ride this road a lot, but I’ve been avoiding it lately. A resurfacing several years ago made it rough in spots, and the traffic has picked up in both speed and numbers.

But when we made the turn onto 45, I was greeted with a newly-resurfaced highway. This time, it was smooth asphalt, not rough chip seal. And best news of all, the shoulder had been widened and extended to cover some spots where it used to disappear just before major intersections. We had a quick, smooth run to the turnaround.

Maggie wanted to take a”bio break” at the convenience store at the turnaround. The convenience store was built a year or so ago, but I had never used it. I didn’t need to now, either, but as we stood around waiting for Maggie, the urge hit me. Inside, the convenience store was bright and roomy, well stocked, and with spotless bathrooms. Whoa! That’s something I hadn’t expected.

Back on the return trip down highway 45, we decided to turn into one of several housing developments that have sprung up in this desirable part of Austin. I had been there before, but again, it was two or three years ago. The main road into the development used to limit your forward progress.

What the road into the Meridien neighborhood used to look like. This day, we kept going on nice blacktop. (From Google Street View. Click to enlarge.)

What the road into the Meridien neighborhood used to look like. This day, we kept going on nice blacktop. (From Google Street View. Click to enlarge.)

But today, we were able to keep riding, past the point where houses had been put in, onto another new asphalted road that made a big loop through forest. It will be built up soon, but for now, it was like our private race track. It didn’t occur to me to take any pictures on the ride, because our route seemed so commonplace. I wish now I had.

Through one of the built-up parts of Meridien. The other two developments we visited along Rt. 45 look much the same.

Through one of the built-up parts of Meridien. The other two developments we visited along Rt. 45 look much the same.

Two more developments attracted our attention as we continued east on 45, and we checked both of them out. Steve, in an effort to tack miles onto this easy ride, took almost every side street. We admired the new houses going in, while at the same time complaining that this is an environmentally sensitive area, because this is where our groundwater is recharged during rainfall. We’re worried that too much building will adversely affect our water supply.

Back on the highway, 45 turned north and became Mopac. This route leads to the Veloway, and we had talked about taking a lap or two there, but Maggie said she was close to 30 miles and was feeling tired after a hilly ride the previous day (Am I the only one whose Saturday ride wasn’t a tough one?). She said she’d had enough, and wanted to head back to Starbucks. Steve said he was fine with that. Kenny decided to head home.

Ever notice how refreshed you feel after a nice recovery ride? Our chitchat session around an outdoor table at Starbucks was lively and fun. And I realized that I could now return Mopac/45 to my route repertoire. It pays to do the occasional routine ride close to home — provided you’re ready to turn onto some previously untraveled roads.

A Morning Quickie

No — not that kind of quickie. I’m talking about getting your day started with a short ride.

It was my wife’s idea. She had  a big day coming up at work, and wanted to ride to clear her head. I didn’t have to start at work until 10 a.m., so I was happy to volunteer to ride with her. All we had to do was make sure we were ready on time.

Not too tough to do in our house these days. We have two dogs, and our beagle is always ready for her breakfast at 5:30 a.m. Trouble is, the beagle eats only one meal a day, and it’s not breakfast. But I rolled out of bed to feed our other dog, a chihuahua mix. That got us going, and after eating our own breakfasts, we jumped into some cycling clothes and got the bikes.

Our route was going to be a simple one — my wife’s favorite out-and-back that I’ve written about on this blog before. I figured I’d be able to get a little more out of the nine mile trip by taking my mountain bike. The greater rolling resistance on that bike keeps my speed down, so we could ride together for most of the ride, instead of me being way ahead of her.

The morning was already hot — almost 80 degrees (26C) — and not even a hint of a breeze. By the time we reached the turnaround point, we were soaked through.

“It’s a perfect morning for a ride!” said my wife. “I’m really glad we came out.”

I was, too. We headed back home, dealing with lines of cars parked in the bike lane. Local side streets are getting a coat of sealant, and residents were told to get their cars out of the area — so they all moved to the bike lanes on the through street. Luckily for us, rush hour traffic was light, and we made it up the one big hill on the route and cruised home. We had just enough time to get our days started — she in the home office, me over on campus. We were invigorated. Amazing what just 43 minutes on the bike can do.

A Dandy Rest Stop

Our Sunday club ride was going to head to Kyle, but when I arrived at the start, I found out there would be a small change.

“I have to pick up something from my office,” said Maggie, who works at the hospital in Kyle. “You don’t mind a little detour, do you?”

“Not at all,” I said, figuring that any variation from our usual routes would be a nice change.

Four of us B riders headed out toward Kyle (“The Second Largest City in Hays County,” according to its website) on a route that took us through Buda and out on a nice no-traffic rural road for a few miles. Then we hit the long, straight slog up Ranch Road 1626, with its endless two percent grade. Seems endless, anyway. It’s really about two miles, maybe a little more.

But this time we didn’t turn right at the stoplight and head for the gas station/convenience store where our ride normally turns around. Maggie led us off on 1626, which widens to four lanes with a nice shoulder at this point. The road makes a long slow curve toward I-35, passing through the “Town Center,” which is an ambitious name for a shopping mall that features a Target for an anchor store on one side of the road, and a large supermarket as the anchor on the other.

We crossed the Interstate, and headed for the hospital, dead ahead. Maggie took over the ride leader duties and we wheeled up to an unmarked side door of the main hospital building.

“Bring your bikes inside,” she said.

Our own private rest stop.

Our own private rest stop.

We carried them up a small hill to the door, which she unlocked, and we stashed the bikes at the base of a stairwell. Maggie unlocked another door, and we found ourselves in a dimly-lit hallway past the hospital’s executive offices.

“Here’s our rest stop,” Maggie said, as she motioned us toward a small kitchenette. “There’s ice in the fridge, water in the water cooler, and bathroom through there.”

After pedaling 23 miles on a very humid Texas summer day, the air conditioned coolness of the kitchenette was welcome. We stood around soaking it in while Maggie retrieved whatever it was that she needed from her office. I filled both water bottles with ice, and topped them up. It was also a treat to use the spotlessly clean bathroom facilities. Much better than the loo in most convenience stores.

In a few minutes, it was time to go, but none of us really wanted to leave, except perhaps for Maggie. Once we hit the road again, we opted not to retrace our route out here. Instead, we hopped on another country road that runs behind the hospital and leads north. In no time, we were passing through semi-rural communities of manufactured houses, on a road that was partially shaded. I had been here several years ago — once — and none of the others had ever ridden it. We all agreed that it was nice to see places we hadn’t seen before.

A gate to a small ranch on our return leg.

A gate to a small ranch on our return leg.

Back at Starbucks after the ride, we congratulated Maggie on the nice variation of the route. We also got her to agree to go to the hospital again some time — just so we could make use of our own secret — and private — rest stop.

The Death Ride

Our friend Don Blount treated us to his training rides f0r the Tour of California Alps Death Ride…and now, he’s got the story of the ride itself. Spoiler alert: He survived.

BlountOnBikingFor seven months I had been training for the Tour of the California Alps Death Ride. I have ridden more than 3,600 miles (5,794 kilometers) and climbed more than 117,000 feet. I have ridden a metric century, two double metric centuries, a century and a near century.

And when the ride came on July 12, I was as ready for a long, hard day in the saddle. At its most simplistic level, the Death Ride is a double metric century (200km) with 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) of climbing. But of course, that’s like calling a lion a large house cat.

The Death Ride’s route covers five mountain passes at altitude. Starting at about 5,800 feet (1,767m) elevation and climbing to near or more than 8,000 feet (2,438m) elevation five times was a challenge. It would have been easier to ride with a gag stuffed over my mouth and a clothes pin clipped over my nose.

Did I mention that this was hard?

The views in the mountains are well worth seeing.

The views in the mountains are well worth seeing.

This is how the day went:

I was up at 2:15 a.m. and departed the place where I was staying in Bear Valley, Calif. a little after 3 a.m. I had an hour-long drive and wanted to get started before sunrise. I arrived at Turtle Rock Park and was ready to go at about 4:36 a.m. except for one small detail. I could not find the necessary mounting bracket for my headlight. I searched for 20 minutes. By now, it was nearly 5 a.m. and sunrise was less than an hour away. But first light would occur in about 20 minutes. I put a small blinker light on my bars and set out.

I had ridden the first four climbs during a training ride a few weeks earlier and was so glad that I had done so. About halfway up the first climb, Monitor Pass, someone said “I think the top is up there.” Little did he know how much farther away it was. The first climb was easier than I had remembered and I hoped that would be a good sign for the day.

Riders mill at the Monitor Pass rest stop.

Riders mill at the Monitor Pass rest stop.

It took about 1 hour 40 minutes to ride 15 miles to the second rest stop. I had gained about 2,200 feet (671m) of elevation. My reward? My first sticker, a blue one. Stickers are put on your bib to show that you have completed a climb. In two places, they are actually given before the climb because they begin on the opposite side of a pass; you’re in a place where you have no choice but to climb out. This was the only sticker I remember noting the color as I received it.

The descent down Monitor was long and the climb out of this canyon was about nine miles with 3,000 feet (914m) of elevation gain. It would take me 98 minutes. What made it more difficult is that this type of ride, with some 3,000 riders, is akin to driving on the highway at rush hour. I would get into a nice climbing rhythm, end up behind someone even slower than me, look over my left shoulder for an opening, pull out and accelerate past the slower rider, then get back over to the right and try to regain that rhythm again. Plenty of people passed me as well, so I did not have the option of staying to the left.

A stop during the final descent to grab a photo of my bike there.

A stop during the final descent to grab a photo of my bike there.

There was some relief descending Monitor again and heading for Ebbetts Pass. Like the second climb of Monitor, Ebbetts is long but it also has steep sections and hairpin turns to navigate. By the time I reached the summit and received my third sticker I was talking to myself – sometimes aloud – to keep moving forward. I descended to Hermit Valley where I received my fourth sticker. I lingered a bit here, trying to recover, telling myself I had four of the five stickers, just one more to go.

The climb out at about 5½ miles (8.9km), was by far the shortest climb of the day. It is not a terribly difficult route when fresh. However, I was far from fresh, my stomach was rumbling and it was hot.

A few experienced riders had advised me to skip the lunch line because it could be long and time consuming, instead I had my lunch packed in a cooler in my car back at Turtle Rock Park, about 20 miles (32.2km) away.

By the time I reached my car I was beat. I have come to expect this feeling during these endurance rides. I think it is just my body’s reaction to the physical stress.

I tried to eat a chicken panini. It tasted so awful that I nearly gagged. I ate a boiled potato and a banana and drank about three-quarters of a liter of warm sparkling water. I sat there trying to gather myself. I thought seven months of training for this. Seven months of work and a number of people who I would have to go back and explain what happened if I had quit. My stubbornness would not allow me to do that. I thought that if my body broke down officials could drag me off the course but I was not going to quit. At least being dragged off would give me a better story to tell.

I headed off toward the climb to Carson Pass in hopes of getting that final sticker.

I was well ahead of the cut off times as long as I kept moving at a reasonable pace. I rode next to one rider wearing a 2013 Death Ride five-pass finisher jersey. I asked him how long the climb was and then went ahead of him. I came across another rider in a five-pass finisher jersey. He told me that we would be well-within the cutoff times. I then went ahead of him. I figured if I was ahead of those two then I was in good shape to finish.

At Pickett’s Junction, the final rest stop before the Carson summit, the most marvelous volunteer helped me. She brought me watermelon – which for some reason I wanted. She filled my water bottles with ice and most importantly informed me that the summit was 9½ miles (15.3km) away. The time passed ever so slowly. It seemed that the summit was 1,000 miles away. I just kept turning the pedals. Pedal circles, pedal squares, pedal parallelograms, octagons, whatever it took to get there.

And finally I did. It was an indescribable relief. It took me 10 hours 21 minutes of riding time to travel the 105 miles (169km). I got my fifth and final sticker. Volunteers scanned my bib number, I got an ice cream sandwich – I rarely eat ice cream but it is part of the tradition of making the fifth pass and signed the poster.

Having that last sticker put on my bib was the sweetest moment of the ride.

Having that last sticker put on my bib was the sweetest moment of the ride.

I ate, hydrated and felt good now. It would be a long but fun descent back to my vehicle. Overall, I had ridden 124.21 miles (200km) with 15,030 feet (4,581m) of climbing in 11 hours 19 minutes, 41 seconds, at altitude. It was by far the hardest ride I had ever done. You can view a map and elevation profile of the ride as well as my Garmin stats here.

The day after the ride I celebrated a very happy 53rd birthday.

I have been asked if I would do the ride again. I would and already have ideas of changes I would make to my training. But before I get to that I need to prepare for my first double century in October.

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.

Felt Like Old Times

Judy, one of our club’s A riders, has been bothered by knee pains lately, so when she posted that she would like to do a slower-paced ride instead of the usual A riders’ sufferfest, I was interested.

She wanted to go at about a 14-15 mph pace, out to the gas station in Kyle, about 23 miles to the south. The main A ride had left at 7:30, and when we showed up for the 8:15 ride, we found about seven others who wanted to take the ride.

It started out briskly, with a run down the four-lane divided Slaughter Lane. At this hour, traffic was light. We turned onto Brodie, and I saw that instead of the 14-15 mph average Judy had advertised, we were cruising at 20+.

One of the newer riders packed it in at that point, deciding that he wouldn’t be able to keep up. Judy razzed the guy who had been setting the pace about going too fast. He said he wasn’t aware of the posted speed, and slowed down.

He dropped back, and I stayed on his wheel. I could feel myself being pulled along by his draft, and was glad not to be using too much effort so early in the ride.

The pace stayed steady. We cruised through Buda and out to Ranch Road 1626. I was a bit worried about my rear tire. It has a gouge in its tread, and I’ve bought a replacement, but after a day of yard work the previous day, I hadn’t bothered to mount it on the bike yet. I crossed my fingers that it would hold up through the ride.

As we approached Kyle, I took stock of my situation. I felt great. I was keeping up with the bunch (the remaining four in the group were all A riders) and I wasn’t working too hard to do it.

At the Kyle convenience store, I came across a weird combination I've never seen before. Hangover remedy?

At the Kyle convenience store, I came across a weird combination I’ve never seen before. Hangover remedy? (Click to enlarge.)

At the convenience store where we turned around, I treated myself to a PayDay bar, and noticed how short these folks make their rest stops, compared to us B’s. We’ll sit around for at least 15 minutes and maybe longer. Today, we were back on the road in 10.

Although the route is essentially an out and back, we do make a few variations. One of them is a run on Cement Plant Road. Its real name is ranch Road 2770, but since it passes a cement plant…

The nice thing about this three-mile stretch is that it’s a little bit downhill. I always look forward to it, because I can turn on the jets for awhile. But today, I was losing contact with the group. I had to pedal hard to close the gap, just in time to reach a section where we could cruise at 28 mph.

Cement Plant Road. It ain't scenic, but it's fast.

Cement Plant Road. It ain’t scenic, but it’s fast. (Google StreetView)

About a mile out of Buda, we were in a quick pace line, but I at the rear was moving faster than the group. I pulled out into the traffic lane, and stomped on it. The bike responded, no doubt helped by the light tailwind. I passed all four of them, and stayed in the lead until we reached the first intersection in town.

There some mutters of “sandbagger” under a few breaths, although most of them congratulated me on the move.

“You realize I’ll be toast for the rest of the ride,” I said.

I was a bit tired, but still managed to keep up the rest of the way back. Judy, her husband Joe, and I were the only ones left when we reached Starbucks. We grabbed an outdoor table in a shady spot, since the temperature had climbed. It wasn’t long before the A ride came in, and a little table for four was surrounded by 10 or 12 cyclists, sharing wisecracks about each other’s performance on the day’s ride, going off on tangents about any number of topics, and generally just enjoying the day.

When I joined the club six years ago, this is the way rides were. Lately, I’ve ridden apart from most of them, sticking with a few B-level riders, riding slower, not going back for the post-ride coffee klatch. My connection to the club was becoming weaker. Today, I reminded myself of the improvement that comes with riding with people who are faster. In fact, my Strava stats for the day included 14 personal segment records. It felt good to be back on track.