Monday, May 25, 2015

Six Goals for Racing

The other day, one of my clubmates quoted some hammerhead dick as saying, "There's no point in racing if you don't intend to win."

Sure thing, Lance. You go.

I view bike racing as more like kung fu: no matter how good you are, there's always somebody, somewhere who can totally kick your ass. And the gap between normal amateur-racer humans – including the Hammerhead Dick – and even the lowest rung of professional or world-class riders is actually a giant chasm, so while winning an Cat 5-level amateur race in Ontario is kinda cool, it's also relatively meaningless.
Hammerhead Dickism can lead to this

Personally, I feel I need to approach the thing with a bit more humility. Not that I have much choice. Maybe some day I will be in a position to contend for a win in my M3 division, but that's fairly unlikely. I'm just in it for the fun of it (in which fun gets a broad definition that can include subjecting myself to the pain of exertion at pretty much the outside limit of my physical capabilities for extended periods of time). And what the hell, somebody has to fill out the field.

Here are my Five Goals for any race (in descending order of priority):
  1. Don't die.
  2. Don't crash.
  3. Finish the race.
  4. Don't finish last.
  5. Improve on time or placement if I've done the race before.
  6. Learn something about how to race better.
  7. Have fun. (Actually, so long as I get  to six, seven is guaranteed. )
That said, I do have one big hairy audacious goal* for this racing thing overall:
Just get one lousy OCUP point in M3.
That means a top 15 finish (or maybe top 20 in the races with a bigger field).

That's actually pretty ambitious for somebody with my limited talent, and probably can only happen with the happy convergence of a lot more work by me, and a lottery-load of luck on a particular day. But if I can manage it by the end of Season Five of Racing, I'll be pretty happy. (This is Season Three.)

(* à la Jim Collins, Good to Great)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

On Chamois Cream

Great Mother of God...

Why didn't anybody tell me about this before?

I mean, I knew about it; but I didn't, y'know, know about it.

The winter indoor training rides were putting a bit more stress than normal on the ass regions, so I decided to give this stuff a shot & see if it helped. (Filzer Happy Chamois Cream. Got it at Mountain Equipment Co-op.)

Holy crap. Wow.

Maybe it's the best chamois cream going, I dunno, it's the only one I've ever tried. All I know is, as far as my chamois is concerned, it's very well named.

The greatest thing since bib shorts.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

OCUP Race #1: Good Friday: 75% Gain, 25% pain

I had never ridden The Good Friday race before

so this was bound to be an adventure. The course is sorta undulating; no big hills to speak of. Four 16-km laps for about 63km total. The main challenges are the winds that can whip across the treeless farmers' fields, and one scrabbly section of road that is more suited to a cyclocross course that leads from the start line out of the Ancaster fairgrounds.
GFRR course: 3 good laps in a 4-lap race.

Generally the pack sticks together all the way and it ends with a bunch sprint. If there's a selection, it's usually decided by the strong winds that can be a feature of this race. So going in, my goal was to stick in the pack as long as possible, and if all went well, to finish there too. I didn't care about placing, but I really wanted to see a "00:00" time beside my name on the results sheet.

 That would be the best-case scenario.

It was a cold and foggy morning, and I didn't really get enough time to warm up properly even though I had arrived ridiculously early. It was nice to have my DHFlyers/Cycling Gym pal Kris Henrnandez on hand to introduce me to some of the riders in my new team, Morning Glory CC, and warm up under their tent; and I met another familiar face in Steve Hart of Lap Dogs, in the starting pen. Steve is a super strong rider and a very nice guy, and he had a plan to stay at the front and cover any breaks. Which he could actually do. Whereas "get to the front and cover the breaks", even once, ever, is more like a lifelong aspiration and bucket-list item for me.

The race went off at a pretty good pace, and I had a good starting place near the front so I was able to stay reasonably close to the front as we got going. I had been warned about the way the race accordions over the undulating roads, and that was a pretty accurate assessment. Surge, brake... surge, brake... and it was a pretty tightly-crowded pack, so there wasn't much room to manoeuvre. With the crappy end-of-winter weather, not many of the racers had actual ridden in a group yet (me, for example), and all around me regular choruses of "HO-HO-HO" "WHOA" "OH" were accompanying some sketchy move or other. (As far as I could make out, I was not responsible for any of them.)

If you're not moving up, you're moving back
Rush Hour at the GFFR. I'm the Mystery Rider the in no-name kit.
 At the Grey County RR last year I made the fatal error of fixating on holding the wheel ahead of me, and not paying attention to all the riders slipping past me.
Partly I wasn't confident about making any moves inside the peloton, but also I had more of a "just happy to be here, hope I survive" mentality. As a result I got strung out & dropped pretty quickly, and spent most of the race time trialling. This time I was determined to move up any time I had a chance, and fill in any space I saw. That strategy made a world of difference. Not only did it keep me up in the pack, it made me feel like I was actually racing.

Once we were into the second lap I started to relax a bit, as I was having no problem staying in the pack. The only thing I was looking at on my Garmin was my heart rate, and I knew that so long as I kept it under 163 bpm (around  80% max) I was fine. Where there were strong surges I was able to keep pace no problem. On lap three the pace heated up a bit as teams sent riders up the road; and on Book Road heading west there was a bit of a headwind that started to string the pack out a bit and I think that's where I blew it.

Racing with the brain. Or not.
I'm not sure if I got complacent, or just lost my focus, but I didn't notice a lot of riders slipping past me on Book Road. There's a sharp and narrow right turn on to Trinity Road, and immediately after that everybody opens it up to get a good spot going into the scrabbly fairgrounds. But the first couple of times around in a big pack it just meant another surge-and-brake. I think that's what I was expecting coming around that turn, but in fact most of the pack had slipped by me by this point and I couldn't hold the wheel of the guy in front of me, and suddenly I was off the back. I fought to get back in contact but slowly the peloton just rolled away. It's remarkable how a small gap very quickly looks like a gigantic chasm opening up in front of you. Throughout the race I hadn't ever looked back, so I assumed that once off the back I was dead last. As it turns out there were quite a few riders back, and I briefly hooked up with a trio that was working together, though I lost them too in the last couple of hundred metres, and the last lap ended up being mostly a time trial, with the emphasis on "trial".

In the end I finished 1:48:09, 5:33 off the winning pace, 55th of 84. Considering that last lap, not bad, and for the first race of the season, a decent result. In many ways, my best race ever.

That said: being happy with the race is not the same thing as being satisfied with the result.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Tour de Terra Cotta 2014

Three Lousy Seconds

Sure it's short (only 26K) and is billed as a "Beginner" race; but the winning average speed (38.0 km/h) is right up there with the Intermediate (39.7) and Elite (40.5) races. And some of the riders in it clearly knew their way around tactics. Nevertheless, I really thought I had a shot a podium on this one, at least an age-group spot if not an overall placing. And realistically, this race is probably my best hope for ever getting on any podium.

I knew the course, having raced it the year before. I was feeling a lot stronger, having seen some noticeable improvements in key Strava segments that I was using as fitness benchmarks. And with a bit more race experience under my belt I felt a lot more relaxed going to the line.

I was comfortably up near the front of the pack in the first lap, and, wary of the mistake I made the previous year, I kept a steady pace and on the big climb of the second lap. But it was at this point that a couple of riders attacked, and by the time the front of the pack crested the hill, a group of 6 riders had established a break. I was in the second group of about nine that shook out after that. A couple of them took flyers to see if anybody would help chase down the lead group, but they were riding hard, and for the next two laps held a  30-40 second gap that we were unable to close.

There is one long downhill about a km from the finish, and I noticed on the first two laps that I was getting down it faster than the group around me. Whether I was just heavier, or had a more aerodynamic tuck I wasn't sure, but with that in mind I attacked on the final descent, figuring if that if I pedaled hard down it I could get enough of a gap that I could hold off the rest of the group until the finish.

I got a gap all right, but it wasn't enough. There was just a bit of an incline to the finish (which somehow slipped my mind), and at the 500m marker I had the terrible sense of very suddenly and decisively running out of gas. At which point the seven-man group behind me barreled right by. I had nothing left to get on a wheel, and it was over. End result: 15th over all, and just 2 seconds off an age group podium. Had I stayed in the pack on that hill and come in with them, I would have had a way better shot in the sprint, no question.
"Huit seconds... huit seconds... huit seconds...."

Apparently the late, great Laurent Fignon for years after the 1989 Tour de France would walk around counting out 8 seconds... 8 seconds... 8 seconds... OK, missing a third-place 50+ age group placing in a beginner-distance citizen's race was not exactly comparable losing the Tour de France by the smallest margin in history. But to blow any podium spot by 3 lousy seconds just because of a dumb tactical error bugged the living hell out of me.

And still does. 3 seconds... 3 seconds... 3 seconds...

Monday, February 23, 2015

I Was A Middle-Aged Lab Rat!

Adventures in medical research

I'm not really very squeamish. Needles don't bug me. Any time I get some kind of medical procedure inflicted on me I'm annoyingly curious about what the various doctors & nurses are up to. If possible, I'll want to watch when I get stitched up or I'm giving a blood sample or whatever.
After all, it's my machine they're fiddling with.

The heart catheter: like threading speaker wire into your ventricle
Last summer I heard about a study that the U of T & Mt Sinai hospital were doing on the hearts of old guys with a long history of endurance sports. I signed up; mostly because it involved getting a bunch of fitness tests done, which I was interested in doing anyway (power, V02 max, lactate threshold).

I was warned that it would also involve some "invasive" procedures, specifically a heart catheter; which was nasty enough that the researchers felt obliged to offer the subjects $250 as recompense for the discomfort & inconvenience. Whatever. The cash was a nice bonus, but I was curious about what was going on in my heart. If anything.

So it was pretty cool to be able to watch a live x-ray of my heart working in real time, including seeing the the catheter working its way through my chest to my heart, via a large vein in my arm. The needle the doctor used to insert the thing was shockingly large in caliber but it it just zipped right in no problem. (Weirdly, I could actually feel it in there, in my heart, though it didn't hurt at all.)

That's my chest in the picture, with the end of the dark cable lodged in my heart. There was a monitor nicely positioned so I could see it all, along with the relevant data (HR, blood pressure) as I pedaled a stationary bike a couple of times up to a set heart rate (110, 130, 150 bpm or so). The study was looking at the heart "stroke volume" of men with a history of endurance training, and how it might affect "ejection fraction" of the left ventricle (i.e., the percentage of the volume of blood that leaves the chamber with each beat). That's what they were looking for. I just wanted confirmation that I had no heretofore unknown heart abnormalities that might result in me pulling a Jim Fixx one of these days.

Taking it easy at 50 BPM
According to my summary write-up, "All indices of cardiac function are within normal ranges for endurance trained males. Normal hemodynamic response to graded exercise challenge." Well, that's comforting, I guess.

Plus I found out that my V02 max was 51.4 (not bad for a 52-year-old, apparently), max power was 350W, my resting HR was 47 and max HR was 193 (it hit 200 in my first ramp test at The Cycling Gym). All of which only really mattered because it gave me some sense of what I was working with, and what the possibilities might be for improvement.
And some sense that that I probably wasn't going to crap out doing it.

In the end though, it was just kinda freaky to get to watch all that amazing stuff inside you doing its thing. Humans are incredible, really.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Niagara Classic Road Race, May 18th 2014

...more like Niagara Fails

Like most Ontario races, the Niagara Classic is a circuit race. Niagara is mostly famous for its multiple climbs up the dreaded Effingham Hill, a steep wall that hits 15% and tends to shred the field. The race starts at the bottom of that climb, after a left turn from a side-road that forms the Start/Finish straightaway. That opening bit was supposed to be a "neutral start". Believing that was my first mistake.

My second mistake was getting to the line late and ending up way at the back. So when the the pack took off at full race pace in the allegedly "neutral" start, I was strung out the end before the damn race even officially started.

The "neutral" start; view from the front, where I wasn't. (Note the speed.)
I love all the racing tips books that tell you stuff like "if you're not a good climber, get the the front of the pack before the hills so you can stay in contact with the bunch as they pass you on the way up". Sure. If I could do that I'd probably be a pretty good climber already. Anyway, being back in the dust as I hit that climb at the start of the race was not very heartening; by the time I got to the top of it and rounded the first corner, the pack was long gone. Up the road I could see a few other riders but the gap felt unbridgeable.

Eventually I fell in with one other loser, but he was going even slower than I was, and anyway he refused to pull (or didn't understand the etiquette of the situation), so I left him behind and resigned myself to a long time trial. Which lasted another lap and another climb of the very well-named Effingham Hill before I came to the conclusion that no further good could come from this humiliating fandango, found a Race Marshall, and pulled off. Not a good feeling.

In truth, I probably would have done well to stay in it, as the slower riders gradually bunched up; I might have managed a "not last" finish instead of a DNF. But there is definitely something about the mental game. I gave up - but the fact is, I was beat before I even started this one.

Anyway, next time I will make sure I do a full ride of the course in advance of the race.
Lesson learned: I can't even think about being competitive with other racers unless I have the course beat in my head before I line up.

(Vidcap from JoJo.)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

I've gone mad with power!


Until recently I have not got into using a power meter to train. Mostly because even the most reasonable ones are crazy expensive (probably the cheapest is the Stages model, which comes in at around $800), and for that kind of money I'm more inclined to go with a new wheelset, for example.

In fact, all last year I didn't train with any data at all after my HR monitor crapped out. Needless to say, going by "feel" doesn't exactly lend it self to structured workouts. Or optimal results (See: "2014 Season Overview").

At The Cycling Gym, however, it's all about the power. (And the heart rate. And the SM02.) And the annoying thing about the data is it's stark, honest and unforgiving. The up-side is, you really can see your progress, assuming you actually do progress. Additionally, there is lots of analysis out there that will tell you exactly where your fitness lies relative to the people you might want to beat in a race.

The one I found most interesting was Andy Coggan's analysis of the power profiles of riders at various levels, from untrained to world-class.

My training FTP (Functional Threshold Power) currently sits at 298 watts, based on my most recent ramp test at The Cycling Gym. Which is kinda cool because it was 272w the first test in early December. At my current weight of 76 kg that puts my FTP Watts per kilo (power to weight ratio) at 3.92, or the level of a Cat 3 racer. (Which  frankly seems kinda hopeful to me.) Anyway, this just sets me thinking about what my PWR might be if I were a bit lighter, and how much weight I can lose before I get complaints from my Very Significant Other (I figure 2 or 3 kg, no problem). I was riding at around 72 kg last season, but anything south of that is probably not realistic or healthy. (And not a pretty sight.) Besides, for now it's a bitter cold bastard of a winter and I'm happy to have a bit of insulation.

Steve figures if I can get my FTP to 330 or so I'm good, though that may take a while.
330W FTP at 73 kg... PWR of 4.5w/kg? Those are practically WORLD DOMINATION NUMBERS!

Or anyway maybe enough to not get blown out the back of OCUP M3 races.

I'd take that.