Saturday, June 29, 2013

Shooting for 600k -- My Ultracycling Setup

Tomorrow I'll be attempting by far the longest ride of my life to date: 600k (375 miles), with 24,000 feet of climbing.  My previous record is about 250 miles.  If all goes well, I'll finish in 28-30 hours.  40 is the limit.

Adding to the intimidation factor is the fact that it'll be entirely unsupported -- I'll be riding alone.  Honestly, I'm a little apprehensive, but I suppose it's just a question of keeping the pedals turning.   I'm planning to ride straight through the night, which will be a first for me.  This is all in preparation for the 1200k ride I'll take on in Alaska in 3 weeks.  In that ride, the plan is to ride an initial chunk of 600k before bedding down for a bit, so tomorrow's ride is something of a dry run.

Tomorrow's route isn't something I just made up.  Instead, it's a "permanent," which is essentially a brevet, complete with control points and the like, that one can arrange to ride alone at a designated time.   My route tomorrow will take me from Haymarket, VA, west through Marshall and Middletown, and then south to Clifton Forge, which is a stone's throw from Roanoke.  And then I'll come back, hopefully before work on Tuesday.  :-)

Over the months and years, I've tried a lot of different bike setups for ultra cycling rides from 200k-400k.  This is not a "racing" setup by any means.  Instead, it assumes I'll be unsupported, and the priority is on comfort and durability for the long haul, complete with anticipating any reasonably foreseeable contingencies.  For my ride tomorrow, I'm doing a dry run of something very close to the setup I'll use in Alaska.  Since I know several people who have expressed interest in ultra cycling, I wanted to explain my setup.  Rather than write 375 pages, though, I thought a video might make the most sense!

Listed below the video I link to certain items I discuss.  Please let me know if you have questions about anything.  I didn't talk about the many things I've tried and chosen to leave home, which is a worthwhile topic in of itself.

Magnic Lights -- note that this page shows the older, initial Kickstarter design

Dura Ace Tubeless Wheels

Hutchinson Sector 28 Tubeless Tires

Hed Clip Lite Aerobars -- mine are an older version

Banjo Brothers cue sheet holder

Revelate Designs Gas Tank

Exposure Lights Strada (front light) -- with triple-cell backup battery.

Exposure Lights Joystick (helmet light)-- with single-cell backup battery.

Arkel Randonneur Seat Post Rack with Tailrider trunk bag

Anker A2 USB battery

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Hail to the King

Strasser wins RAAM 2013.  Photo from
Facebook friends know that, last week, I posted an incessant string of updates about how the 2013 edition of the Race Across America was unfolding.  For those who've seen the excellent documentary Bicycle Dreams, my updates may have had some resonance.

Most people, though, were likely perplexed as to why I'd care about something seemingly so trivial and irrelevant: "Great, some Teutonic dude is mushing his way across the country on a bicycle for reasons best known to him, and he's beating some equally misguided souls who clearly overreacted to someone's advice that they get some fresh air."

The reason why I care is simple: in my view, Christoph Strasser's ride in RAAM 2013 was the single greatest feat of endurance cycling in history -- including every Tour de France ride, every stage race, and every time trial.  Indeed, I think it may be the most impressive performance in the history of endurance sports, period. Others may quibble.  I don't care.  It was utterly superhuman.

It's hard to quantify how inconceivably difficult RAAM is; the numbers just blend together, like the odds of one's picking the winning lottery number.  Outside magazine famously described RAAM as "the toughest race in the world."  It is nearly incomprehensible: a 3,000 mile bicycle race across the United States, from Oceanside, CA to Annapolis, MD.

It involves more than 170,000 feet of climbing, cresting above 8,000 feet.

Drafting is not allowed and, most critically, the clock never stops.  Unlike the Tour de France, which covers about 2,300 miles in daily stages over the course of three weeks, every minute a RAAM rider spends off the bike is a minute lost to another rider who didn't stop.  The result is mutually assured destruction, a competition to see who can rest the least and push the hardest.  The winners usually take 8-9 days to complete the journey, averaging more than 22 hours a day on the bike during that time.  Fewer than 200 people have completed the event in the 30 years it's been run.  Far more have summited Mount Everest.  And waiting at the finish line is only a medal and bragging rights -- no prize money whatever.

The struggle merely to finish RAAM is an endurance challenge almost without parallel.  Two people have died in the attempt.  Many, many more have been hospitalized with pneumonia and renal failure.   Hallucinations are ubiquitous.  In fact, the race has given rise to a medical condition, Shermer's Neck, that exists nowhere else: the muscles holding a rider's head up simply give out, such that his head flops around like a ragdoll's.  But if you think such a trivial malady stops these guys, you're mostly wrong.  What happens instead is MacGyver meets a Terminator T-1000:

So, yes: RAAM is stupid.  It makes no sense whatever.  But you can be sure of one thing: the people who compete in it don't do so for multi-million dollar contracts, to get their faces on a Wheaties box, or to date a starlet.  There is no reason at all ever to compete in this event except that the athletes feel a drive to do it, often for reasons only they understand.  Many of the very best ultracyclists come from impoverished, hardscrabble backgrounds in eastern Europe, and ride their bikes as a means of escape -- of proving themselves to the world, and to themselves.  There's some beauty in that.

Against that background, enter Christoph Strasser, a 30-year-old Austrian competing in his third Race Across America.  He'd won the race in 2011, in a time of 8 days and 8 hours, but was beaten in 2012.  Competing against him was likely the most stacked field in race history, including Dani Wyss, a 2-time winner, and Reto Schoch, the 2012 winner.  The only name missing was the legendary Jure Robic (at left), the 5-time winner and star of Bicycle Dreams, who died in a bicycle accident in 2010.  Aside from Robic, every winner in the last 10 years was toeing the line.  Strasser had a support crew of 11 people spread across three vehicles, including an RV, and he'd set his sights on beating the course record of 8 days, 3 hours -- which had been set back in 1986 and not approached since then.
What transpired over the next... well, almost 8 days was one of the most outrageous episodes of utter domination that endurance sport has ever seen.  Here was the leader board when Strasser crossed the finish line:

Dear. Holy. Crap.  He was 245 miles ahead of the guy in second place.  He averaged 15.66 miles per hour for 7 days, 22 hours, and 52 minutes -- the fastest time in history by a country mile, and the first time anyone had ever completed RAAM in under 8 days.  Here is what 245 miles looks like -- note the second-place rider out near West Virginia:

Dani Wyss, the second-place rider and 2-time winner, finished fully 22 hours after Strasser, and Strasser went 1.5 mph -- or 10 percent -- faster:

Figures like that are hard to comprehend.  By way of analogy, similar performances in other sports might be:
  • Winning the Boston Marathon in 2 hours flat, and with a 10-minute gap over the second-place runner;
  • Winning the Ironman World Championship by an hour, over a field including two former winners.
In other words, this is not "merely" a win in the hardest race on earth.  It's something closer to an evolutionary leap.  The 8-hour barrier at RAAM is like the 4-minute mile of endurance athletics.  

So, who cares?  It's just a bike race.  Well, I'd put it the opposite way: I don't understand how someone could *not* find this utterly amazing.  I don't understand why it wasn't the lead story on ESPN and the sports section of every newspaper in the country.  If endurance sport has any meaning -- and millions of people running marathons each year suggest it does -- then it's surely the ability to redefine what's possible, and failure to appreciate that shows a lack of poetry in one's soul.  We watch the Olympics to see the best athletes on earth doing things no one else has ever done, and attaining speeds no one has ever reached.  People who've never swam a lap nonetheless can appreciate the athletic genius of Michael Phelps, and I think what Strasser did last week is every bit as stunning.  If a man can ride a bicycle for 23 hours and 15 minutes a day, at nearly 16 mph, for 8 days on end, what else might we be able to do that no one's dreamed?  What limits have we each imposed upon ourselves that aren't limits after all?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Putting the "Doh" in "Gran Fondo"

The Diabolical Double at Garrett County Gran Fondo accurately describes itself as an "extreme epic ride that highlights the incredible beauty and severe terrain of the Allegheny Mountains of western Maryland and West Virginia."  That about sums it up.  There are four distance options, the longest of which is the 125-mile "Diabolical Double[-Metric Century]," an utter beast that clocks in at more than 16,000 feet of climbing.  It's certainly one of the marquis rides in the mid-Atlantic region each summer, and this was my third trip through the wringer.

I wish I could say it was a great time, but the truth is that I wasn't ready for this ride and got found out in pretty epic fashion.  No mechanicals, no wrecks (although I did nearly dislocate my shoulder in a pothole in a gravel road), and no excuses.  I just had nothing in my legs from Mile 1 to Mile 125, and the heat, which climbed up into the 90s at points, compounded the problems.

A month ago, I'd have said I was very optimistic about this event, having taken a massive chunk out of my personal best time at Mountains of Misery, a comparable -- if less, er, diabolical -- ride of the same distance.  That ride hurt a lot, but I felt pretty unbreakable throughout it, and I probably could have kept going past the finish if someone paid me enough.

How things can change in the course of a month.  After Mountains of Misery, my hip irritation had gotten bad enough that it hurt to walk, and I couldn't run to the sidewalk without hopping in agony.  I didn't see any option but to Shut It Down.  No cycling, no swimming (kicking and pushing off the wall would have been painful), and certainly no running.  It's amazing how much one's fitness level can plummet after spending a month on the couch, and how any heat acclimation can disappear by living in air conditioning.  I also find that my dietary discipline goes out the window when I'm feeling sorry for myself, so I've been following something close to the Paula Deen meal plan.

By the time I toed the starting line yesterday, I don't think I realized how unprepared I was.  Things then went downhill due to a stupid decision and an unexpected logistical setback.  The stupid decision was a rookie mistake: eating two huge bagels with almond butter and honey an hour before the start.  I spent the first three hours trying not to throw up while grinding up 20% grades.  I wanted nothing to do with water, food, or anything else.  Things then got worse when, on a shaded gravel road, I hit a virtually invisible pothole *hard*.  I nearly dislocated my shoulder, and both of my hands were knocked completely off the bars.  Bottles went flying.  I managed to stay upright, but the cap on one of my two water bottles was shattered, so I was forced to complete the remaining 5 hours of riding with only one bottle, as temps were climbing up toward 90.

I was riding with two teammates as part of the "Gentleman's Race," which is like a team-based scavenger hunt.  If not for the requirement that all teammates ride and finish together, I'm absolutely sure I would have switched over to the century distance at some point.  It was great riding with those guys, but toward the end, I couldn't even draft competently, and my world was a distinctly fuzzy place. Looking back on it, I was almost certainly very dehydrated, an awful state in which you want no food, no water, and nothing more than to sit down on the side of the road until the world stops being so mean.

When it's all said and done, it could have been a lot worse, especially considering the extremely technical descents throughout the ride.  People end up running off the road each year, to varying degrees of disaster.  I never had any doubt that I'd finish.  Instead, I just got owned, which in the long run may be a good thing.  I've gotten so used to 200k, 300k, and 400k epic rides that I've ceased to be intimidated by them.  That confidence is helpful on some level when things get tough -- you can always recall when things have been tougher -- but it also means that I've started neglecting fundamentals.  Yesterday my ego and dignity got kicked in the nuts for 10 hours straight, and there's some value in that.  These things wouldn't be any fun at all if they were easy.

On the plus side, my hip was just about the only thing that wasn't in agony at any point yesterday, so I'm hopeful that I've turned the corner on a deeply annoying injury.  One bad ride isn't the measure of a season, and I have a lot to look forward to, starting with a 600k (375-mile) solo voyage in a permanent next weekend.  In the grand scheme, yesterday will go down as a particularly painful training day.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Midnight Moonlight Madness

Last night (Friday), I found myself at 8:00 having no plans for the evening.  But I wanted some!  It was a beautiful, clear night, so I decided to hop on my bike, fire up the new randonneuring-friendly lighting system, and set out for remote pastures.

What a blast!  I think all avid cyclists owe it to themselves to try a nighttime ride at some point.  I wound up covering 85 miles or so, from my front door out to Sugarloaf and back, while enjoying (in a safe way) a new audiobook.

I headed out around 8:30, and got home just before 2:00 a.m.  It couldn't have been much more pleasant: no cars on the roads, no bikes on the roads.  Heck, no one on the roads but me and nocturnal wildlife.  I probably saw two dozen deer, several raccoons, and a few cats, all with eyes illuminated by my (quite wonderful) Exposure Joystick helmet light.

There's something liberating about freeing oneself from the dictates of prescribed training rides, group-ride pacing, wattages, heart rate zones, and all of that -- just head out and go.  When the only sounds are the soft whirring of one's tires, it's easy to remember why cycling is such a joy.  Even familiar routes look quite different at night, and the stars come out to play far from the city lights.

I definitely need to do this again soon.  If you love driving at night on the open road, this is way better.