Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Four Amigos: Diabolical Double 2017 Recap

It's rides like the Garrett County Gran Fondo's "Diabolical Double" that sold me on cycling.  I bought a bike in 2005 to train for an Ironman in 2006, and after finishing that in one piece, I found myself drawn inexorably to the long, painful, and stupid.  Whereas in my first year of cycling a rolling hill constituted a daunting challenge, by 2007, I found myself signing up for Mountains of Misery, a ride in Blacksburg, VA, over Memorial Day weekend that started in a valley and ended on top of the most ridiculous climb in the world (and the filing location of Dirty Dancing!).  MoM offered a 100-mile route with two awful climbs and a 125-mile route with four, so I chose the longer one because it was longer than the shorter one.  Sound logic.

That first year of MoM was a blast.  I didn't know anyone else riding, but I met a colorful cast of folks along the way who knew what they were doing.  Too dumb to know better, I rode faster than I should have but somehow held it together, thus finishing both my longest and hilliest ride in one swoop.  In the final miles of that ride I met a guy, Kyle, and his girlfriend, Laura, who seemed to be riding pretty hard.  When we got to the base of the final climb, a 3-mile monster that ascended at an average grade of 12% or so, Kyle quickly vanished up the road.  I remarked to Laura that he seemed to be a strong rider, and she agreed before dropping me as well.  Sheesh.

In future years, MoM became a mainstay on my calendar -- every Memorial Day, I talked a different group of friends into giving it a go, and most of them came back for more.  I rode it seven years consecutively, and only in the last year, 2013, did I crank out a quick time as I was chasing my buddy Mike around like a dog after a frisbee.  He's Canadian, so he doesn't get tired, apparently.

Sometime around 2010, Kyle, whom I'd first met on MoM a couple of years earlier, apparently decided that MoM wasn't hard enough and that he could do better.  He had a house on Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County, near Wisp Mountain in far western Maryland, and he advertised a 125k ride that would make MoM look like child's play.  The first year was a "beta" year, i.e., one in which the ride organizer was still perfecting things, so he invited riders to come out and give it a whack in exchange for gaining a new perspective on the concept of suffering.  I toed the line with Max, Mike, and perhaps Seb, and we trundled our way through never-ending grades of 15% or more, followed by descents that weren't much more relaxing.  At one point we found ourselves in a valley with 50 miles to go, looking at a digital board that proclaimed the temperature to be 95 degrees, and facing a series of miles-long climbs in the brutal sun.  The only way home was forward.  Grim effing business.

The gang and I rode the Diabolical Double two or three more times in the ensuing years, often camping near the start.  Each time was memorable, but when I stopped racing triathlons and joined the ultra-racing scene, I found that each year the DD coincided with the National 24-Hour Challenge in Michigan, the biggest of the American 24-hour races, so I didn't make it back for a little while.

2017, then, was the return of the prodigal moron.  Due to work commitments, I couldn't make it to Michigan, and besides, I learned that the DD had innovated in my absence.  In 2013, it had been a 125-mile sufferfest with little to shoot for except survival, but in the last year or two, it had started keeping track of riders' times up certain climbs and ranking riders' performances afterward in connection with "King of the Mountains" and "Queen of the Mountains" awards.  That sounded intriguing.  Better yet, 2017 was the pilot edition of a team competition wherein teams of at least four riders would compete over about a dozen climbs scattered throughout the day.

I put a team together consisting of the ever-enthusiastic Sebastian; a local climbing superstar, Chris; and one of his friends, Matt, whom I didn't know.  I looked forward to a social ride, because I haven't had many of those lately.  Between the R60 chase on the randonneuring front, which had me riding solo off the front for 6-20 hours at a time; ultracycling races, which are monastic by nature; and my usual indoor training regimen, I realized I'd been something of a cycling hermit.  The beauty of the DD's team competition was that we could ride together all day, enjoy the plentiful aid stations, and then work hard on the designated climbs before regrouping at the summits.  A perfect summer day on a bike!  If only Max hadn't been in Europe.

I wasn't sure what to expect performance-wise.  I felt like I was in pretty good shape after my win at the Maryland Endurance Challenge 12-hour race a month before, and my base fitness was unquestionable after my springtime randonneuring exploits, but the Diabolical Double's KOM competition was an entirely different beast.  Ultracycling and randonneuring, like Ironman racing, prize long, steady efforts that, while uncomfortable, never require anything approaching an all-out effort at a given moment.  Climbing steep grades as fast as one can is just the opposite: you find a highly uncomfortable place and force yourself to live there until you reach the top.  It's something I don't train for in any direct sense, and I hadn't done much hard climbing this year.  Indeed, I hadn't ridden these notoriously difficult climbs in several years.  So, I eyeballed the Strava times for the relevant climbs, reviewed my past times, and took a stab at some goals I hoped to be able to reach.  Off we went!

Because I'm me, the night before the DD brought a tropical storm to the area that dumped All Of The Rain on the course, washing gravel across the road in certain places and generally making a muck of the first couple of hours.

KOM Climb 1: Overlook Pass (0.7 miles, 12% grade)

Fortunately, we didn't have to wait long: the first time climb, Overlook Pass hit us at mile 2.5 or so.  It was a steep effort of 0.7 miles, so I revved it up and let it rip.  About halfway up, I realized this was going to be a long day, but the result was a pleasant surprise:

My previous best time up the climb was 6:31, and my ambitious goal was 5:25.  My actual time was 4:59, with an average power of 365 watts.  What a result!  Maybe I could climb after all.  Of course, that's easy to say on the first hill of a 125-mile day with 16,300 feet of climbing, but a good start was better than the alternative.  My lungs and legs burned.  Le ouch.

KOM Climb 2: White Rock Road (0.9 miles, 10% grade)

We didn't have to wait long for our second shot at glory: White Rock Road awaited us just a few miles later.  I walked across the wet metal grate bridge just in front of it -- fool me once, and all that -- and Chris, who'd started behind us, met us on the other side.  At last I'd be able to ride with the legendary Chris, the climbing hero and cheerful masochist about whom I'd heard so much, but with whom I hadn't ridden.  I imagined he'd dispatch me easily when the grades pitched up, but we'd see.  White Rock Road was just as advertised: a little longer, a little less steep, but with lactic acid still flooding the muscles from the past effort.  Oh, well, up and at 'em.

Previous best: 7:28.  Goal: 6:53 (looking back on it, could I possibly have been more arbitrary?).  Time: 6:41!  Victory is mine, at least over me.  Plenty of folks beat me, but at least I beat past me.  That guy sucked.  And an average power of 360 watts for 6:41, another personal best, and an even stronger effort than the first climb (5 watts more, but 1:42 shorter).  This was fun!  And completely awful.  Seb found me doubled over the handlebars wondering if we could go home now.

After White Rock's torture, we enjoyed a leisurely ride to the first aid station.  I got to know Chris a little, made fun of Seb (because that's what one does on a bike ride), and caught up with a bunch of local triathletes I hadn't seen in too long.  It was refreshing not having time spent at aid stations count against us in any sense -- I ate a sammich and some M&Ms in leisurely fashion, then off we went, to infinity and beyond!

KOM Climb 3: Limestone Hill (3.5 miles, 5%)

Infinity wasn't very far at all.  In fact, it started about 1/4 mile after the aid station.  This one was longer: 3.5 miles at a relatively reasonable average grade of 5%, but is there a more misleading statistic in cycling than the concept of average grade?  In this case, it meant extended sections at 10% punctuated by brief descents and lengthy flattish parts that would have been relaxing if ridden slowly, but ridden hard were anything but.  I took off like a flash, leaving Seb, Chris, and Matt behind, and I was feeling pretty good about myself for a couple of miles, at which point Chris came cruising past me and flew into the distance, beating me handily.  Wow.  Hats off, the guy can ride.

I'd never ridden Limestone Hill before, so I had no past times to compare it to.  My educated goal was 20:04 (again, there must have been some reason for this), but I spanked it with a 17:57 effort at a healthy 310w average.  Chris and I both recorded top-10 overall Strava times (i.e., rankings against everyone who's ridden the climb), with him pipping me by 5 seconds.  I was delighted with my time, but I was feeling like my quads had been run over by a semi.  Red wizard needs food, badly.  (Sorry, 80s video game reference.)

KOM Climb 4: Sam Friend Road (1.3 miles, 8% avg grade)

Not friendly at all.  I was still pretty cooked from Limestone Hill, and Chris was bobbing over distant hilltops effortlessly.  Sam Friend wasn't going to be pretty.  It wasn't.  Just get it done somehow.  How long could 1.3 miles be, after all?  (Answer: 1.3 miles too long.)

Again, no past times against which to compare my performance, but at least I handily beat my goal of 9:27, chalking up an 8:34 with a 319w average power.  Hardly disastrous, but I was feeling thoroughly sorry for myself at that point.  Chris had plenty of time to wait at the top while deciding how sorry for me he wanted to be -- he beat me by nearly 30 seconds.  At this rate, he'd have to save me a beer at the finish line, and perhaps drink it while I laid in a ditch somewhere.

My only solace lay in Chris's assurance that the next aid station came before the fifth KOM climb.  I intended to sit down for awhile and suck down Coke while I collected myself before taking on the next climb, which was a 4.7-mile slog.  And then, just where I thought the aid station would be, I saw a timing mat.  Well, crap.

KOM Climb 5: Keyser's Ridge and Pig's Ear (4.7 miles, 3% avg grade)

Again with that average grade.  Sure, the average was 3%, but nothing on it was 3% -- it was hundreds of yards at 10% or more, then meandering flats and mild descents on which we had to push the pace because we were being timed.  It was a combination of climb and time trial on legs that wanted to be anywhere else.  Meanwhile, Chris had missed a turn at the start, so I was pretty sure he'd be buzzing past me at any moment.  It never quite happened, but by the time I reached the top (and the long-sought aid station), I was shattered.  I'd never climbed that hard so many times in succession.

Still, not a disaster!  Out of 3 previous efforts, my best time was 23:20, and I'd set an audacious goal of 21:46.  My actual time was a sprightly 19:47, good for 18th overall.  Wattage of 285 wasn't anything to brag about, but I was tired and there was a downhill section where it was hard to push the pace, so I had to be pleased.  Whether I could climb anything else, though, was far from clear.

KOM Climb 6: Bowman Hill (1.6 miles, 9% average grade)

Bowman is notoriously nasty.  I'd ridden it several times before, and it was always the piece de resistance of an incomparably difficult set of challenges.  You know it's bad when one aid station is only 11 miles after the previous one -- it's guaranteed that nothing good will happen in those 11 miles.  And it didn't.  Bowman is efficient in that it just goes straight up the mountainside with no thought for  mitigating the grade through switchbacks.  This presented an additional challenge in that riders ahead of us were drifting back and forth across the road in a desperate attempt to stay upright.  Gah.  I wasn't sure what I had in me, so I just sat down and cranked until the cranking was done.

Woof!  Previous best - 13:08.  Goal: 12:31.  Actual time: 11:36.  My power meter didn't register for some reason, but heck, who cares.  I was alive and had kept alive my streak of beating every goal time with flying (ok, slowly disintegrating) colors.

Bowman was the penultimate KOM "chip timed" climb, and the seventh and final one lay some 40 miles down the road.  Of course, that section wasn't flat by any stretch -- it's just that the climbs would only count toward the team competition, not the individual KOM.  There's the famous Killer Miller, a climb I'd tackled many times before with times ranging from 10:01 to 11:20.  This time, I chalked up an 8:18.  There was the Michael Road route up Big Savage Mountain, which comprised the final 0.6 miles of a 4.3-mile climb... and it averaged 12% grade.   It was the closest I'd come in years to unclipping and lying down on the ground, but merely by surviving it I snagged a top-10 Strava result:

KOM Climb 7: Dry Run (2.8 miles, 7% avg grade)

Finally, after about 105 miles, we came to the final King of the Mountains chip-timed climb, a hard 3-mile charge up Dry Run Road.  I had nothing left to give -- I just wanted to make it to the beer at some point.  Somehow, though, when I saw that timing mat, I sucked it up and recorded an entirely solid effort:

Goal time: 18:19.  Result: 17:01 at 315w average power.  I have no idea where it came from -- there aren't many times in my life I've ridden that hard for that long, much less with so much stress in my legs.  In fact, that's a higher power than I've ever recorded in the Computrainer challenges I've taken part in at the old Multisport Expos, and I tackled those on fresh legs.  Hot damn!  The end couldn't some soon enough, but I will say that Dry Run is simply a delight.  How could you not ride well under a forested canopy with a river rushing past you?  Paradise on earth, apart from the pain.

The remaining 20 miles were a relatively tame victory lap that unfolded without incident, apart from a couple of unwelcome "team competition" hills that came out of nowhere.  Somehow I managed to snag the day's best time and 5th overall on Meadow Mountain, an 0.8-mile, 9% kicker from hell.  And, in an inexplicable turn of events, I took the Strava overall KOM on the final significant climb of the day, a 1.1-mile, 5% ascent up Negro Mountain Road:

I don't have many KOMs -- I'm not that kind of rider, and this ride had some folks far faster than I am -- so all I can guess is that I didn't fall apart as much as some others.  330+ watts for 5 minutes is, for me, miraculous at that stage of the day.  And what a sign-off for the ride!

Final Thoughts

I had more fun on that ride than I've had in a long time.  The companionship was a huge part of it: Chris, Seb, and Matt were great company -- talented riders who didn't take it too seriously.  I realized I miss riding with friends on events like these.  I used to do it pretty regularly, but it's been far too long, and I hope to have chances again soon.  Perhaps it's an argument against ultra-racing, although there are arguments in favor of that, too.  (Give me a minute.  Let me get back to you.)  But there's really something to be said for an event that lets you disregard overall time, work really hard for segments, relax the rest of the time, and finish up the same day you start.  It's almost... normal, although frankly, nothing about the Diabolical Double course is normal.

My performance here surprised the heck out of me.  I finished in the top few riders over 40 and top 10 overall out of many hundreds, and this isn't the sort of thing I train for.  It makes me think I could hold my own outside of ultracycling races, although who knows in what.  

In the meantime, I'm not sure what's next on the radar.  The Diabolical Double was an unexpectedly great capstone on an entirely successful spring season, complete with the win at the Maryland Endurance Challenge and R60 completion.  I hit all my targets, which I suppose means there's nowhere to go but down, but I'm hoping to build on my newfound strength and push on.  Maybe I have more surprises left in me yet.