Saturday, June 21, 2008

Altitude Sucks

The Red Bear lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. He and I have been talking about making a weekend of bicycle riding up there for some time now. Plus, any excuse to get some time away from the wife can never be a bad thing. I had once gone up there in March for a Buckethead concert, ridden with Red Bear up Rist mountain, and then did some additional riding in the canyons.

This past weekend Fort Collins had a cycling festival which includes a couple days of racing, and today was the Rist Canyon race. The Rist race starts at 5,000ft, climbs pretty much straight up to an altitude of 8,240 ft, and then drops down through the canyons, covering a total of 64 miles.

As a cyclist living in the Midwest, I had always dreamed of doing a mountain race as all we have to work with here is maybe a 100ft climb if you are lucky. Watching the epic stages on the Tour de France was always fascinating, with the racers pitting against each other in the blatant dares against gravity as they climbed sheer walls. I woke up before the alarm Saturday morning in anticipation of my first race involving climbing over 3000ft that didn't involve doing endless loops in order to attain it.

Racing in the Midwest usually involves criteriums, which is basically sprinting circles around the block for an hour. This would be totally obnoxious and pointless if hadn't been for the other 100 people who had shown up to do the same thing with you. Racing well in a criterium requires 3 things: getting rid the instinct of hitting the brakes as you go around the corner, being able to sitting in the draft doing little work as possible without feeling guilty, and then be remorseless as you sprint around that person who worked his ass off the entire times as you cross the finish line. I figured that a race involving a mountain climb would be a little more interesting than everything else I have seen, plus it's kind of hard to crash when you are going 4mph.

The race started out gentle enough. Everyone pretty much understood there was no hope of getting the "drop" on the climb and being first to it didn't mean squat. The first few foothills leading to the mountain were tough as the pace definitely was on and it was intended to start shaking up the order of the group. I was definitely on the low end of this totem pole as I probably weighed 30lbs more than the people at the front. These guys were whippy greyhounds and I was a beefy corn-fed Midwestern guy by comparison (and I'm the skinny guy back at home.)

As we hit the mountain switchbacks, the grade was not the punishing, but the pace was solid. It was pretty much like doing a 40K time trial effort. The group started to stretch out, totally based on the riders power to weight ratio at aerobic capacity. I was really hoping it would play out like a TT and just arrive at the top with a nice solid effort. That lasted about 5 minutes. At the first increase in grade, there was a attack that was almost an all-out sprint, and then right back into TT effort. There was no place to coast/hide to recover. You either kept up with the attack or you did not.

In watching the Tour de France, I never really understood the whole teamwork thing on the mountains until now. The GC would often have one of the domestiques lead them up the mountain like they were pulling, but at 6-8mph, there is no draft benefit. I understood it now. The less "attacks" you have to cover, the less you need to dig into your anaerobic, and this means you can keep your aerobic power up. It helps alot to chase someone, and the faster someone can lead you up, the less your competitors will be able to make attacks.

Plus, mentally, it's really tough to concentrate when you're going up. Imagine doing intervals on the trainer without a fan or a breeze to cool you off. Climbing at a TT pace in the sun and getting a 4mph return in speed means you get hot. Really hot. I hadn't expected to be exploding in that much heat, covering my top tube in big drops of sweat.

As the climb went up, the attacks were getting tougher and tougher to cover, and the ability to recover from them was less and less. It was the altitude. My legs weren't burning, but it was the sensation of a slow suffocation by having your head stuffed inside a plastic bag. Going to a bigger gear to use muscle to power out of the funk wasn't going to work either. I was already at a 80rpm cadence with the 39/27 and it was sinking into the 50's as the climb approached 15% grades. Eventually I didn't make the selection. It was one of those moments where it was like a slow motion fall. They first got away by just a little bit. "You'll make it back up there once you can get those legs spinning" I told myself. At the next incline, they got a bit further. "OK, well just keep climbing the effort up when the incline gets less and get back on" and all I did was keep the gap even. Then the next incline was a drop, then the next one, and then again, until finally I just snapped in two and all I could do was pedal enough not to fall over. Cracked. Shelled. Exploded.

At this point, if you are not acclimated to altitude, there is no recovery. Red Bear had warned me about what to expect. Being a Midwest transplant himself, he knew all about what to expect when coming from the low ground. You might be able to throw down some effort, but the recovery isn't going to happen. Thankfully, I was near the top, but unfortunately the grade had now increased to 18%. I did the longest stand-up act, huffing and puffing away to get 40rpm, fearing I might have to do the "paperboy" to get up the last few switchbacks. The spectators shouted "the last turn" and I found the strength to grind around it to the summit.

The summit greeted me with an abrupt view of the canyon below with a straight 20% decent to the bottom of it. I could see my race speeding down around the bottom of the decent. Descending down a grade of 20% means you hit 60mph almost instantly. The air is so thin up there that the top speed you get is incredibly high, but it feels like you're only going 30mph at sea level. The problem is that even though it feels like 30mph, you are definitely carrying the kinetic energy of 60mph, so if you were to go down, you are going to skid for a long, long time. So yes, I was scared.

The first part of the decent was this long straight stretch down at 20%, but then it lessens out into something more gradual and switchbacks. After the first decent and into these switchbacks, I got caught by a chase group of the bigger guys who couldn't keep up on the climb. I was like "Great! People to work with!". Except these guys knew the canyon. I did not. They hit those switchbacks with insane speed and I was left slamming on the brakes so hard I could smell them burning. It was pretty much game over and I still had another 40 miles to go. I looked down at my water bottles and realized I had gone through most of what I had brought with me on the climb up. The rest of this race would be a hot, long, thirsty, ride for me.

The canyons were pretty and there were alot of shattered racers on the course in the same predicament I was in. Not in the race anymore, but needing to get back. A couple people tried to play pick-up with me and I wasn't interested. Too tired, too hot, too thirsty. I had never been in such a "just survive this" funk before, even when I had accidentally gone a 142 mile bike ride last summer. Got mixed in with a small group that I presumed was working together to get back home, but their surging and uneven pace was irritating me. I just wanted to even grind back home, not big chunks of effort and coasting, as that wasn't my style anymore since getting into triathlon.

Got back to the end and started hitting up the Gatorade coolers full of water. I think I drank most of one. I looked at my jersey and saw it was faded from all the salt left behind from all sweating I had done. Saw other people come in, desperate for water, and they hit the coolers hard too, running them dry one by one. Eventually it got funny as more riders kept coming in, expecting water to be in the coolers, and getting animated in their frustration as they found each one empty. I almost expected one them to throw them Donkey Kong style at the chips and salsa vendor at one point. I must have gorged on a half dozen pieces of pizza, then passed out.

Racing in Colorado is tough. If anything, it showed me how impressive racing in Colorado is. It's easy to get in a draft of someone faster and stay with them on level ground, but to race up a mountain is a completely different story. I'm not sure what I really learned from this other than racing up a mountain is really tough, and I basically suck at it. Maybe next time I'll smarten up and carry an oxygen tank with me.


Bob Mitera said...

Talk to Liz about Bull Valley.

I can get you a map of my area with IL hills. 18 to 22% grade for 1 mile.

Jen said...

I'm doing a sprint race in Leadville CO (Elevation 10200 ft)in a few weeks. I'm going to be sucking wind BIG time. We live at 2000 feet. Your oxygen tank sounds like a great idea!