Friday, October 3, 2014

Hill Climb Season...

Following my summer medical woes and subsequent decision to skip The Green Mountain Stage Race I choose to focus on two of the late season hill climb races. The Greylock uphill time trial presented by the Northampton Cycling Club and Kearsarge Hill Climb hosted by the Hopkinton Rotary are both unique challenges. Greylock is as advertised a time trial format that rewards the ability to suffer alone while Kearsarge is essentially a road race for the first half of the race complete with tactical games and maneuvers. I competed in both of these events last year and had mixed results. After a strong forth place showing at Greylock I raced like a moron at Kearsarge and got dropped before the real racing really began. With a year of knowledge under my belt I felt good about my chances in both events. Given my lack of racing miles but encouraging recent Strava stats my goal was to be on the podium at each event. 

Greylock is an awesome mountain for many reasons. The proximity to my home town and fact that it was the first big mountain that I had ever seen only enhanced its reputation in my mind. A car trip to the summit when I was eleven planted seeds that grew into my adult obsessions. Being high above the surrounding country was appealing. As I aged the thought of gaining that elevation under my own power was a constant source of excitement. Last year at Greylock I was an unknown quantity and raced with little to no pressure. I simply showed up and rode as hard as I could for just under forty-two minutes. In that time I passed twenty-one other riders that had started in front of me at thirty second intervals. I walked away psyched and eager to start my road racing career in 2014. This year I had established myself as a climber to be reckoned with with my victories at Quabbin and Killington and felt pressure to perform. Looking at the entry list the days prior to the race I had a feeling that I would be in contention for the podium with a chance at the win if the conditions were right, and if I managed to race like a rational individual. 

The drive to Greylock is always fun and this year was no different. Again Tool blasted as I had my greatest career drive over the curvy western features of the Mohawk Trail. Dead Mans Curve and Hairpin Turn are like candy for the euro handling package and turbo charger of the V50. The thrill of the drive only enhanced my excitement for the coming madness. As with every Mike McCusker run event check in was a breeze and I was back at the car preparing for my warm-up within a few minutes. Looking at the start list my excitement continued to grow with the knowledge that Erik Vandendries would be my thirty second man, and that we would be the last two riders in the wave. Erik had crushed me over the last humiliating mile of Keargarge last year and I was hell bent on revenge. I had great legs throughout my warm-up and my heart rate was cooperating. I knew I was on a great day and that I was ready to rock the climb. 

At the start the weather was already chilly with reports of sub forty degree temperatures with wind and freezing fog at the summit. Thankfully I had packed a summit bag this year so freezing to death was not going to be a concern like last year. Standing at the start the time seemed to fly by as my start time approached. My only strategy was to crush and to ask questions later. 

Three, two, one...

Off the line I hammered with everything hoping to demolish the climb. My heart rate quickly jumped into the low 180s as I tried to find a steady rhythm. I was riding a new 28 tooth cassette on my mechanic Nate’s Zipp 202’s for the first time and was trying to stay in the saddle as much as possible. In the first mile I had already taken twenty-five seconds out of Erik which only enhanced my frenzied state. I put another log on the fire and went to work trying to catch him. If you were to poll all of the great masters cyclists in America, unquestionably, you would find a common denominator, they’re all reasonable. While I was mashing out an estimated 450 watts near or beyond my lactate threshold Erik was quietly and calmly setting a reasonable tempo. (I would later see in the data that I was 1:07 faster than winner Gump over the first mile. Whoops!) Just as the pass appeared immanent past the ten minute mark in the effort Erik began to glide away. Part of me was already cursing myself but I told myself to shut the hell up and got back to work. I had committed to this suicide strategy and now I needed to suffer for another thirty minutes to salvage my goal of finishing on the podium. Through the middle steep sections that included the epic hairpins I continued to pick off competitors one by one on my way up the mountain. I was riding well and doing everything I could to go as fast as I could but I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to beat Erik. As I continued to gain elevation with every pedal stroke the temperature continued to drop while the winds increased. I was nurturing hopes of smashing the upper section as I had last year when I stole the KOM from the overall climb record holder. It was no surprise however that when I hit the exposed flats that the head wind combined with my dwindling watts was standing in my way. I fought and clawed for every second in the last mile but in my minds eye I knew that I was going slower. Across the line covered in sweat and nearly frozen spit and snot  my suspicion was confirmed. The crippling headwinds combined with the unsustainable early pace saw me finish a minute plus slower than last year. I quickly gathered my summit bag as my core temperature rapidly dropped. Being that it was roughly thirty-five degrees with three hundred meters or less of visibility I decided that there was no need to hang out at the summit. It was fun not nearly dying on the decent and I was back at the car and changed within the next half hour. One of the more appealing parts of the Greylock race is the after party put on by the NCC. The most satisfying beef stew, salad, and gingerbread cake is served in an old train yard with free Berkshire Brewing Company Steel Rail Ale. The results took forever which gave me time to catch up with my buddy PJ and his wife Katie over a couple of beers. In the small world department I even shared a table with a two random guys that now live in my home town and are friends with my cousin Wendy. Finally the awards started and I was psyched to find out that I had held on for third place behind the legendary Jay Gump and the aforementioned Erik Vandendries. Overall Greylock was again an awesome experience and will continue to be on my yearly calendar for years to come!

In the interim between Greylock and Kearsarge I had an epiphany thanks in part to my friend, colleague, and training partner Bill Gillard. Out on our Wednesday ride as we approached the legendary Leviathan climb in Hinsdale, NH Bill prophetically reminded me that Perceived Effort does not directly correlate with Wattage. In laymen speak, going full gas at the beginning of a climb to get my heart rate high probably means that I am making huge unsustainable watts. Settling in early and sustaining would produce a fast time. That knowledge and application saw me shave eleven seconds off my best overall time and twenty-five seconds off my best solo time on the climb that I had been hunting for over a year. The hard data that I was now only ten seconds off of Gump on a four mile climb gave me a huge confidence bump heading into Kearsarge. 

As I mentioned earlier Kearsarge is a different animal than Greylock. Essentially it is a four mile hilly road race followed by a four mile hill climb. The organizing committee spices up the early action by having a big prime bonus for the first rider to hit the base of the climb. Last year there was five hundred dollars on the line so every Tom, Dick and Harry within a hundred miles that thinks he can sprint showed up for the money making the race super fast from the gun. With the prime dropped to two hundred dollars this year I hoped that cooler heads would prevail. 

Always a good sign I was up before the alarm and out the door early despite being underprepared. I had left my socks at home and didn’t bring any warm clothing to warm up in due to the forecasted eighty degree temperatures. Also I was sans awesome dark roast and instead had to rely on my in laws brew combined with a terrible Dunkin Donuts espresso. Map Quest totally screwed me and without cell services I drove aimlessly until I happened across Route 89. My early departure had saved my butt and I arrived early even with enough time to stop in town for a bathroom break. Friday had been Mary’s birthday so I was giving myself a pass on my lack of appropriate preperation. This continued when I discovered that I didn’t bring a skewer to use with my trainer for my warm-up. No way I was going to use Zipp skewer for this race! I quickly shifted and headed out on the road with my parking lot neighbor John Cico. My warm-up garb was very New Hampshire to say the least. Throw away purple running gloves, the race tee shirt topped by a brown plaid shirt. I won’t lie I was actually very comfortable in this get up. John being an awesome dude hooked me up with a sweet pair of socks after the warm-up that matched my kit. Even better was the fact that the socks had skulls and crossbones on them with the words Death Ride woven in to the top collar! What was super awesome about John was that he is a former University of Penn runner that volunteers at the Penn Relays every year. We exchanged stories from the Relays and I bragged about the fact that Mary is a two time champion which blew John’s mind. 

Following the pre race meeting I scanned the faces on the line and knew that I was in for a battle. Winning was going to be tough, in fact even getting on the podium was going to be a victory of sorts. Hill climb specialist and defending champion Eric Follen was front and center at the start along with last years runner up and former GMSR cat two champion Sam Evans-Brown. Greylock vanquisher Erik Vandendries was looking fresh as was CCB’s Kai Wiggins who has been tearing it up all year. To tie it all together in a nice box of suffering year long rival and all around badass cyclist Will Crabtree lurked out of the shadows in the last few minutes before the start. Whatever was about to happen I was sure of one thing, the shit was going to hit the fan on the climb. 

Off the line, much to my surprise, the pace dawdled. Last year my heart rate was was redlining in the first three minutes as I chased down attacks. This year it felt like all hundred riders rolled together as one big group. I am in no way a sexist but I knew the pace was slow when everyone seemingly let the lead woman set the pace at the front of the bunch. I worked the group as I had all year finding the right wheels. I was focused most on Evans Brown and Crabtree because their styles most closely resemble mine and I knew that if they moved early that I needed to go with them. With every pedal stroke more and more of a pissing match broke out on the road and nobody wanted to do the work. I was content to sit in the bunch and watch for any serious threats. Four hundred meters out from the sprint prime Follen, John Badessa, Evans-Brown, Crabtree, Wiggins, and a few followers contested the sprint. My lesson learned from Wednesday burned in the back of my brain and I held off every competitive instinct that I have and let the sprint go. Into the park I was sitting eighth and slightly worried about the gap that had opened as a result of the sprint. The seven man group was settling in and I went to work upping my pace. The pretenders fell off right away parring the group to five. Wiggins was next to fade and I quickly dispatched him on the early steep sections. Follen and Badessa had gotten a gap on Crabtree and Evans-Brown as I sat in forth roughly twenty seconds down. Crabtree began to falter and I jumped across the gap thinking that he would hop on my wheel one last time this season. Unfortunately Will didn’t have the power leaving me to chase solo. I was feeling great and a tiny voice tugged at me to be content with forth. Why should I hurt myself to chase a seasoned racer like Sam? Instantly I hit the override button on my brain and told myself to shut the hell up and got to work. The gap seemed locked at twenty seconds until we got to a flat section on the mountain. Rather than recover and prepare for the next steep section I shifted onto the big ring and went full gas easily making the gap vanish into the high mountain air. On Sam’s wheel with three miles to go I could see the two lone leaders up the road a further thirty seconds. After a brief recovery I again shifted to the big ring and attacked Sam. His years of experience and power quickly covered the move and suddenly I was where I didn’t want to be, pulling a strong climber and sprinter up to the leaders. At this point the blinders went on and it became a two up race. Third place was going to be my own personal victory on this day. Rather than chase I let the pace slide and I made a few paperboy moves across the road to try and get Sam to pull. I made a few pseudo attacks to keep the pain level high before Sam counter attacked me on a steep section with just under two miles to go. I fought unbelievably hard to get back up to Sam’s wheel and felt a strong sense of satisfaction at making it back. Just as I settled in on Sam’s wheel however he again powered away and established a quick ten to fifteen second gap. I was hurting pretty bad with a mile and a half to go but I was having so much fun at the same time. With a mile to go I decided to trust myself and restarted the chase. I utilized another big power section on the course and raced back to Sam’s wheel. My heart rate zoomed through the 180s and I crossed over into the haze of the 190s. I knew that Sam must have been hurting from tying to drop me so I hit him right away, and I him hard. Finally the gap opened and I could taste the blood in the water. Over the two tenths of a mile when I went full gas I hit a maximum estimated wattage of 630 with an average estimated wattage of 400 for that minute for a 5.9 watts per kilogram number. None of these numbers mattered as the gap continued to open. In the last four-hundred meters I continued to crank knowing that no lead is safe in the mountains. Across the line I allowed myself a small fist pump to mark the occasion. In all honesty I was totally stoked with third place because of the epic battle that Sam and I had embarked on over the previous fifteen minutes. Weather at the summit was sensational and Sam, Will and I hung out and caught up on all things cycling and beyond. The awards were again long and the free beer and cold fog was replaced with free coffee and high temperatures setting the scene for another beautiful fall day in New Hampshire. 

Time to gear up for some Cyclocross! The next big objectives will be PutneyCross, Northampton, and New England’s. 



Addition: Though my time of 33:41 was only twenty-eight seconds faster than last year the real pearl in the data is the last four miles of the climb where I was a minute and fifty-seconds faster than last year. With Vandendries forty-five seconds back my reasonable approach worked and makes me think of the missed opportunity at Greylock.  

1 comment:

  1. Mark,
    I am hoping to get in touch with you. I work for the Keene Sentinel and I have a few questions. Could you please contact me when you see this message. My email is or (603) 352 1234 ext 1414