Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Epic Ride Recap: Mountains of Misery 2012

Final climb, 3 miles at 12-16% grade.
This was my sixth consecutive year of riding the Mountains of Misery Double Metric Century in Blacksburg, VA.  It's become a mainstay on my calendar because it's gorgeous, challenging, relatively easy to get to, and I invariably wind up riding with people whose company I enjoy for the better part of a day.  I've come to treasure the events on my calendar that aren't races, and that don't require the competitive mentality that races entail.  Plus, for whatever reason, every year this event tends to get something close to a perfect day weather-wise, usually in the low 80s and mostly sunny.

One of the reasons I love rides like Mountains of Misery, the Diabolical Double at Garrett County Gran Fondo, and others like it is that the scenery is just stunning.  Sure, the climbs are "miserable" or "diabolical," depending on the event, but when one crests the summits, mountaintop vistas abound and the descents down the other side are often 5+ miles long with the world blowing by at 40 mph.  There are usually a handful of times during each challenge ride when I think, "This right here is why I own a bicycle."  At those moments, there's nowhere else I'd rather be, and the worries of life are swept away in the moment.

To be clear, this ride is horribly difficult, with 13,300 feet of elevation gain over 127 miles.  The elevation profile speaks for itself:


After about twenty miles of moderate rollers that trend upward, one hits four climbs of note with about twenty-five miles between each.  They proceed in order of increasing difficulty.  The first is European-style, about four miles long at a steady 7-8% grade.  It's not too bad -- just a question of finding the right gear and settling in for 45 minutes or so of climbing at a moderate effort.  After barreling down the other side and cruising along a river and through some chippy rolling hills, the second climbs is considerably steeper, probably 1.5 miles or so at 10-12% grade, with some steeper portions.  It's a tough climb, but is still manageable after only sixty-five miles or so.

The third and fourth climbs are true beasts.  The third is again about 1.5 miles long, but it is perilously steep at parts, probably pitching up into the 20% range around the switchbacks.  After 95 miles of riding, much of it in the exposed afternoon sun, it's a pure gut-check.  Then, after a long descent and another 15 miles or so of small climbs and rolling hills, the final climb is a monster: 3 miles at a grade from 12-16%, starting after 125 miles have already reduced your legs to quivering pulp.  It speaks volumes that the race organizers put an aid station halfway up the climb, with only 1.5 miles to go in the ride.  The fact that there's an aid station within 2 miles of the finish line says quite a bit about what those two miles entail.  The answer is sheer brutality and fighting for every foot of progress, but the sense of accomplishment and great buffet at the finishing line make it all worthwhile.

This year I did a few things differently than in years past, and I think they made a big difference, as I posted my best time by a whopping 45 minutes (an 8:37), and I certainly could have gone a good bit faster had I been pushing for time.  First, I ate constantly, having a gel every 30 minutes and a bar of some sort every hour, plus a couple of Salt Stick capsules each hour.  I also kept myself very hydrated, drinking only water, but this wound up being a bit of a trick considering that my riding group stopped at only about 1/3 of the aid stations on offer (three in 127 miles).  Keeping sufficiently hydrated on an 85-degree, sunny day is tough without stopping frequently, so the drill was to drink two full bottles of water between each pair of stops, and then to drink at least two full bottles of water while at the stops themselves, before refilling the bottles for the next segment.  In all, I took in about 14 bottles of water during the ride, or about 300 ounces in 8.5 hours (35 oz/hr).  Calorically, I was probably up around 350-400/hour.  I also took bottles of 5 Hour Energy at miles 45 and 100.  It all worked a treat: the weakest I felt all day was in the first ten miles, and I simply got stronger as the day heated up and the miles rolled by.

Equipment modifications also played a role in my strong performance.  I upgraded my trusty titanium Seven frame with an Ultegra Di2 (electronic) drivetrain, installed handlebars with an ovalized top tube for comfort, and ran new Dura-Ace tubeless wheels, which permit one to ride at about 10 psi lower air pressure than conventional wheels, something that smoothes out the ride tremendously.

I also wore clothing specifically intended to help with the heat and sunshine, and I can't recommend it highly enough for hot summertime rides.  As the picture above shows, I wore Zoot IceFil Arm Coolers, which make it feel like one's constantly in the shade, regardless of the heat and humidity.  I also wore a Zoot IceFil Dome under my helmet.  These two items also saved the day for me in a brutally hot 300k (190-mile) ride through Pennsylvania farm country a couple of weeks ago, and they're going to be permanent fixtures in my summer cycling wardrobe.  I can't recommend them highly enough to anyone concerned about heat regulation or the specter of melanoma.

In all, I had a terrific ride, and I'm already looking forward to returning next year.  Events like this are the reward for hard training and solid preparation, and anyone curious about why people are passionate about cycling long distances owes it to herself to try a couple of challenge rides like Mountains of Misery.  There's certainly some misery involved, but almost everyone I know who's tried it has quickly circled it on the calendar for the following year.