Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Low-Key Hillclimbs week 4: Berkeley Hills

As we descended back to the Peets Coffee which marked the start of the week 4 Low-Key Hillclimb route, Rich Hill said to me: "has Low-Key ever done a day with 4800 feet of climbing before?"

I paused. Hamilton? Not quite, only 4400. Diablo? Not close. Portola Valley Hills last year? No -- less than 3000 total feet. What about weeks with optional extra climbs, like the Diabolical Double or the Lomas-Marin Ave combo? No and no.

"I don't think so. No -- I'm pretty sure not," I replied.

I felt good about this, because after 6 intense efforts up climbs with vertical gain from 476 to 764 vertical feet, I was cooked.

Details of the route are here. Paul McKenzie designed a route of absolute brilliance, tying together a combination of classic and obscure climbs in the maze-like Berkeley-Oakland-Hills with a minimum of overhead. Of those 4800 vertical feet, 3825 were against the clock, 975 part of the untimed transitions (still timed, actually, but with a 1 hour + 3 min/km time limit which was plenty for relaxed regroups plus a dawdling recovery pace from one to the next). The goal was to have riders repeatedly pummel themselves with one hard effort after another, not stopping until 6 challenging "short climbs" were done. And while I call the climbs "short", that's "short" in comparison to Old La Honda, the canonical middle-length climb, but still long enough to earn a Tour de France cat 4 or even cat 3 designation.

Pacing in a route like this is an exercise in macro-versus-micro. There's pacing within each climb: go out super-hard at the start then try to hold on, or target a steady effort? I went for more of the latter, in deference to the macro-pacing aspect: the week wasn't just a single climb but six, and while there's recovery between them, that recovery is obviously only partial. Yet I had enough faith in my recovery, given my combined running and cycling volume over the past two months, that I wasn't going to hold back too much on the early climbs to save anything for the later ones. Better to push it hard, then again, then again, then again.

And this worked. I faded a bit on the fourth climb, not having started the ride with enough calories (oral surgery has me on a soft-food diet, and all I had was a half-pack of Sharky chews consistent with that, although I probably should have used some sugar solution in my bottles, which I generally avoid due to the difficulty getting the valve adequately clean). But then after climb 4, we reached Paul's parked car which he'd stocked with chews, gels, and cans of Coke. A 1/3 can of Coke mixed with water + a pack of Clif Blocks was a big boost, and I was able to make a good effort up Wildcat, climb 5.

After Wildcat, though, I felt done. If this was an interval session, at this point I would certainly have headed home, feeling I'd done an excellent day of work. But this wasn't an interval session. It was Low-Key. Stopping simply wasn't an option. We still had South Park...

So I recklessly threw myself at the South Park climb. There was no reason not to. This was it, the last climb of the day. And with Patrick Gordis (who had skipped two of the intermediate climbs and so was no longer officially part of the "event") dangling in front of me I had plenty of motivation. I wanted, waited for him to crack, even ever so slightly, and I'd have him. But although he slackened his effort just a bit when the road leveled out partially before the final kick to the top, allowing me to reduce the gap, I simply could not catch him. But it didn't matter, really. I'd given everything, drained the tank which I'd thought had already been drained. It was a good, solid effort when there'd been nothing left. Now I was truly, legitimately, done.

This feeling of digging deeper than I had thought I could was intoxicating. For me, the day was a success.

Interestingly the ranking on each of the climbs was virtually identical. People would move up a place or down a place, but with the exception of the Quarry-Volcanic climb #3, which ended in muddy dirt which some people handled better than others, taking any one of the climbs versus their sum would have produced very similar standings and very similar scores. So was the day a waste? You see this sort of argument all the time, for example related to Tour de France stages. "Short stages produce the same results, which are dominated by the final climb, so why waste the time, effort, and expense of longer stages?" This misses the point. It's not just the result, but how you get there where the value is. It's about the story. The story of week 4 of this year's Low-Key Hillclimbs was a relatively unique one, rivaled only by last year's Portola Hills route, which comprised much shorter efforts. Certainly no other week in the 2014 series will be the same.

Here's my VAM from the ride:

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I've plotted VAM (rate of vertical ascent) versus time for portions where VAM exceeds 300 m/hr. Tunnel is a relatively gradual climb so VAM is relatively low due to power given up to wind and rolling resistance, with the exception of one surge. On this climb, I was riding with Bill Laddish and Robert Easley most of the way up, the last time on the day I'd be able to stick with them. The pace early was sluggish, so I took the lead, a step I knew was a tactical mistake, but I wanted to establish a solid pace to break the group up. This worked, with only Bill and Robert following, until they took over. I was following them until a glance at the altitude profile on the Edge 500 showed we were what appeared to be quite close to the summit, so I ramped up the effort (see the spike). Unfortunately there were still 2 km to go: the Edge had spontaneously zoomed out, as it likes to do, and without having given adequate attention to the axis scales I thought the summit was a lot closer than that. This surge, however, inspired Bill and Robert to keep up the pace, a pace I could not sustain, and I finished alone in 3rd. This was my best result of the day.

Thorndale was next. This one went very differently, as I'd had my jacket on for the descent from Tunnel and when I stopped at the base of Thorndale to remove it, nobody else paused. I was thus completely at the back. This wasn't too bad, though, as the climb was so steep, with essentially no car traffic, that I was able to pass through the group without much delay. You can see my VAM is nice and solid here, in part due to the steepness of the climb, but demonstrating I had no significant issues with bike traffic. With the grade, any advantage from drafting a rider who'd started in better position was negligible, especially since we had what should have been a tailwind at this point (although despite the weather forecast for high winds, I didn't feel much).

After Thorndale, some of the rain which had been forecast arrived, as as we waited at the top, a light cool rain fell. But it wasn't much, and none of us got wet, even those of us without jackets. Once again I put on my jacket, knowing for Quarry-Volcanic we'd be forced to pause at the start to cross the gate.

By the time we got to that gate, the rain had already abated. There was the question, though, about what the condition would be of the dirt section which finishes this climb.

We began on pavement, though. The start was ragged, with riders heading out one or two at a time, me close to last. It was another steep one, albeit without the sustained steepness of Thorndale, and I didn't see a disadvantage in starting relatively late. Soon, however, we reached the end of that. First there was gravel, but that didn't last, and then we were on dirt. The dirt had a thin layer of mud on the top, enough that my rear wheel would spin with any choppiness in my pedal stroke, or if I let my weight get too far forward. Between watching my pedal stroke, keeping my weight back, and picking a line through the mud I slowed considerably here, and two riders I'd passed early re-passed. This was to be my worst result of the day.

As we finished, riders ahead were unclipping to open a gate, through which they passed. This provided access to a lot from which one could admire the view, which with the low-hanging clouds was worthwhile. The foot-assisted passage through the gate clogged up my mud-intolerant Speedplay pedal-cleat combination, however. I missed the Bebops which now live on my Ritchey Breakaway: they have the float, low stack, and relatively light weight of a Speedplay (at least the Speedplay stainless steel spindle version: the Ti-spindled Al-bowtied spindles on my Fuji I was riding here are lighter), but have no issues with modest amounts of mud. As we descended I couldn't clip in, but we paused again at the gate at the bottom during which a combination of water remaining in my single bottle and scraping with a sharp rock cleared things out well enough for me to get my shoe into the pedal once again.

I was feeling a bit depleted here, as I noted, my pre-ride supply of Sharkies now long since gone. But I knew that Paul's aid station was after the next climb, so I figured I'd be okay. Running has taught me that the typical cyclist addiction to constant water + calories tends to be overdone.

Given that this climb wasn't particularly steep, 10% sustained on Fish Ranch, my VAM here is holding up fine, despite my lack of calories. When we emerged from Fish Ranch onto Grizzly Peak the grade leveled out considerably, to more like 7%. My VAM dropped here until a final effort where I got it back up to around 1450. On this climb I benefitted from using the Garmin course navigation feature where it provides a list of upcoming waypoints with the distance to each: it was the first climb of the day where I used this. Since I knew the finish was essentially at the intersection of Grizzly Peak and Lomas Cantadas, I knew at a glance how far that was. However, this would stop working before the next climb. I've had this mode fail several times before. If freezes, failing to progress. I really don't know why -- one of many little bugs in the otherwise very useful Garmin Edge 500 navigation feature.

After a much-needed break at Paul's excellent aid station, the Lomas Cantadas descent was taken slowly due to its steep turns and the wet foilage on the road from the recent rains, extending into the night before. A faster group had taken a slightly longer route than my group did, however, and we merged at the point where our paths converged.

Two more to go...

Our first climb of the day, Tunnel, is a very popular climb although I'd done it only once before. The next three were fairly obscure, such that even the local riders hadn't all done them. But Wildcat Canyon, our next climb, is one I'd done many times before. It starts steeply enough, nearly 8%, but then levels out substantially for the long run to Inspiration Point, where we were finishing. This made it probably the most tactical climb of the day, with only Tunnel close. It was very important to start in good position then to stick with a good group on the steep portion to assure a descent draft on the gradual section. A small gap at the top of the steeper bit could explode if one were to miss the train.

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Climbing South Park with Rich Hill (Paul MacKenzie following us took this photo)

I started fairly well. Bill Laddish and Robert Easley, another rider who like Patrick Gordis hadn't done the full route, took off. I thought my position at the bottom had been descent but I missed this move and I wasn't going to get it back. That was fine, though, as I was in a group with Patrick, Bob Gade, and Robert Easley which was working together very well. Well, by "working well" I mean Patrick put in a killer pull up the whole bottom portion of the climb before the other two shot off together while I retreated to that special place we go when we're just trying to suppress unpleasant human body feedback. I ended up pulling Patrick over the first portion of the flatter section before he said "I'll take a pull", came past, and dropped me. From here to the end was just an exercise in perpetual suffering until I was reprieved by the arrival, at long last, of Inspiration Point and immediately prior of Paul's green line.

I was done, simply done. But being done wasn't an option, so I joined the others for a brief respite before South Park.

For South Park the plan was far simpler: start hard, stay hard, and hold it to the finish. I wasn't going to pay any attention to what others around me were doing. After a relatively late start, trying to postpone the inevitable, I supposed, I eventually caught and passed Rich Hill among other riders, then saw Patrick again just up the road.

I waited for Patrick to relent, just a bit, to open a crack I could exploit. But he simply would not relent. Finally the road leveled out a bit, the calm before the terminal storm, and there I saw my chance. Patrick didn't slow: his speed increased with the decreasing grade, but his effort was clearly off a bit here, and I was able to upshift and reduce the gap. But then the grade increased again and Patrick's focus returned. I couldn't reduce the gap any further and then we were done.

From the VAM plot I'm pleased to see I was able to hold a decent effort over this sixth and final climb of the day. My final surge on the last steep portion wasn't much of a surge, but finally a last effort to sustain the unsustainable pace I'd been holding. In the end, given what I had, I seem to have nailed the pacing on the day fairly well, even if tactically my performance may have been mixed.

But it was an excellent day, and an excellent course design by Paul. I'm not sure what we'll do next year but whatever it is will have a very difficult time living up to this one.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Dolphin South End Runners San Bruno Mountain "12 km"

On Wednesday morning I had oral surgery, getting an implant installed. Fun, fun. But the procedure was a lot easier than I had anticipated, so relatively easy I questioned my decision to get anesthetic, something I normally decline during fillings, for example. It hadn't even occurred to me to ask, as I expected such a scene of blood and gore that no rational human could survive the untempered pain and still maintain either consciousness or sanity. But I suspect it would have gone okay.

The worst part was at the end when I was strictly advised "don't do anything to raise your blood pressure for the next 5 days, including any vigorous exercise." No vigorous exercise for 5 days? But I was approaching the end of a recovery week after a solid block of work in Switzerland, and I was ready to get moving again. In particular, Saturday was the Low-Key Hillclimb up Welch Creek Road.

But that would be only 73 hours post-implant: too far short of the 120 hour recommendation for comfort. I really didn't want to compromise the success of the procedure, which given the lame nature of at least my dental insurance, was quite expensive as well as time-consuming.

So instead, I canceled my RSVP for Welch creek and volunteered instead, deciding I'd ride up relatively slowly ahead of the main field to help with results.

But I was extremely pleased when I got an email from the Dolphin South End Running Club of San Francisco informing me they'd be promoting a trail race in San Bruno Mountain State Park on Sunday morning (web page here). Perfect! DSE Running is sort of the "Low-Key Hillclimbs" of Bay area running, organizing a rich shedule of races year-round with low overhead (just a removable name tag you attach to your shorts) and a super-low entry fee ($5 for members, $7 for non-members like me). Most of their races are road, but they occasionally venture to the dirt. San Bruno Mountain offered some narrow, hilly trails which would be a great location for a short trail race. The distance was good, as well: 5 km nominal for the short race, 12 km nominal for the longer race. 5 km is too short, but 12 km would provde a nice quick opportunity to test my trail running legs for the first time since the Woodside Ramble 50 km.


course map

The day of the surgery I rode my bike to/from the train to get to work. This was fine. On Thursday, the next day, I did the same, adding a relatively easy lunch ride. When I got to a short but steep climb, Mora, I tried riding it at slowly, but I tasted some blood in my mouth, so concluded the surgery site was leaking. I turned around and rode back to work. The next day, Friday, I did a flat ride at lunch instead, and was fine. Saturday was the Low-Key.

All went well. Welch Creek begins rudely, with a steady 14% grade. This went fine. Then there's a fairly easy km before an 18% 500 meter section which wipes the smile right off your face. After a short break, there's a 500 meter section at around 13.5%, which feels utterly sustainable after the 18%. Another break, then a final 500 meters at 15% to finish you off.

Perhaps this was a bit reckless, and I tasted just a bit of blood on the 18% section, but I didn't feel as if I'd exerted myself that much. Given the huge difference between Welch Creek Road and the short section of Mora I'd climbed 2 days prior I figured I'd be okay for Sunday morning's race.

I set out for the start on my Ritchey Breakaway just as the skies lightened with dawn, around 7:10 am. I followed the SF2G "Dawn of the Dead" route to East Market, which becomes Guadalupe Canyon which climbs to the ranger station at the base of Radio Road which is where registration was scheduled. I arrived there at 7:50, 10 minutes before registration opened, and so I was the first one checked in and ready to go.

With plenty of time before the start I decided to preview the course a bit. The race was only 12 km, and I knew I was good for at least 20 km based on my running in Basel, so I was willing to do a bit of light running to study the course.

This turned out to be an exceptionally good idea. The route consisted of two loops. The first was the 5 km course: Saddle Loop and back to the S/F area. Then there was a nominal 7 km second loop, a somewhat extended variation on the Summit Loop trail. I noted first how we exited the S/F area for the 2nd loop, then where we entered the trail. From there, I followed the well-marked route up the climb, which I noted was narrow and rocky. Passing in some sections would be a challenge. I ran slowly up to the intersection of the route with the actual Summit Loop Trail, which we'd follow up and to the left. I instead went down and to the right, to return to the S/F. Although I was now running a section of the trail which wasn't on the course, I figured this would be more representative of the actual descent, which was on an different portion. This turned out to be the case: it was still single-track but less rocky.

FInally I returned to Radio Road, which is where the course would also emerge. From here I was a bit confused. Did we cross the road and return on the trails or return on the road? I tried the trails, but it became clear this was just sending me on an unwanted second lap of loop 2. So it must be the road, I concluded.

Then back towards the S/F area, it wasn't clear to me how we reached the finish line, which was clear enough. Did we take the most direct route, or pass the aid station and loop around in the direction the 5 km runners would likely finish? I asked someone at the aid station, but she clearly didn't know. I decided to ask at the S/F line.

I had around 10 minutes until the race start, so I stopped my Forerunner 610 and hit reset, to lock in the warm-up as an activity. Then I'd hit "start" again on the S/F line itself so I'd have a good distance for the present activity. This was a big mistake. Later, I got a warning that it was going to enter power savings mode in 20 seconds... 19 .... 18 ... I hit a button to prevent this. But a later warning I must have missed.

One thing I discovered during this time was a text description of the course posted by sign-in. This was very useful: it pointed out that we'd be descending a bit on pavement at the summit, a section I'd not reached in my warm-up, and also that we'd be returning to the finish by the bike path along the road-side.

Another big win: I was idly chatting with another runner when he told me "the race begins in the canyon": the final climb in the last kilometers where Summit Loop trail emerges from a canyon into which it descends. I'd forgotten about this from my previous visits here, but recalled it when he mentioned it. Good for me, as it gave me a final chance to make up ground after the final descent, favoring both my relatively better climbing than descending but also my ratio of endurance to top-end speed.

But soon it was time to line up. The promoter corralled us, then gave us a description of the course. Notably missing from the description was the detail of the finish. So I asked about the finish: do we loop cut to the finish here or there? He repeated the entire description of the course, once again leaving out the description of the approach to the finish. I decided maybe it was good that everyone now knew the full course in such detail, but I'd need to figure out the finish stretch when the time came.

We then relocated to our actual start position where we reversed direction. I was maybe 3rd row. I don't like starting at the front due to the usual surge of enthusiasm, where I don't want to be in the way.

Countdown, then go.

As I noted already, I realized at this point my Garmin was clearly not acquiring GPS, with the timer ticking but the distance stuck at 0. I'd been here before, and the most straightforward approach is to shut it off, back on, and hope I get GPS signal on-the-run. This unwanted attention devoted to my Forerunner caused me to lose more places: I was in the middle of the herd.

But then we arrived at the decision point where we could turn left to bypass the finish and enter the Saddle Loop trail, or turn right to go to the road from where we'd hit the Summit Loop trail. To my astonishment the pack went right. Once I'd snapped out of my shock at this, enhanced by the fact we'd been given the full course description not once but twice, I shouted "wrong way" and turned back to do the correct route.

Normally I'm a navigational train-wreck but despite my lack of self-confidence, I was sure this was the correct way. And it was, of course. But as a result I found myself running at the front of the pack.

Up the first climb of Saddle Loop I rank, seeing just a few runners immediately behind me. Apparently there was some delay in people getting back-on-route. But approaching the top, I was caught by a group of 4. They extended their lead as we hit the first descent. Then I was passed by one then another solo runner.

A glance at my watch showed my pace was brisk by my standards, so I didn't worry. The race was short, around 12 km nominal, but with the hills I expected it to take close to an hour, a substantially longer effort than a road 10 km, for example. Still, one hour is short enough that I had to stay just out of my comfort zone. I had to be pushing the pace the whole way. I didn't want to slip into some sort of steady-state as if I were on a longer trail race or a training run.

The lead of the guys immediately ahead of me stabilized not long after, so their rapid pass was early-race surge, as I'd expected. I wasn't sure of the leaders but I never expected to follow them.

After Saddle Loop, we turned a surprising right at the bottom of the descent, toward Crocker Road. It quickly became obvious this was an out-and-back to add some distance. Distance is good for me. The surface is "paved", in theory, but is so heavily potholed it's far worse for both running and cycling than decent dirt. As I tried to adjust my form to deal with this, I saw the leaders returning from the turn-around. They weren't that far ahead, actually. Then came the two other guys. Then came the turn-around.

Now the roles were flipped: I was the one with the lead as I surveyed the runners behind me. But I had enough confidence in my ability to handle the upcoming singletrack climb that I wasn't too worried about the gap I had. It was good enough.

Another course feature I'd not caught: rather than stay on the main trail/road back to the S/F, we diverted for the far more scenic bog trail. This drops down to what isn't much of a bog right now approaching the end of dry season, then climbs back. This allowed me to gain on the runner ahead of me, who when we exited the trail was just a short distance ahead.

We now approached the aid station near the S/F. As I got closer I shouted "electrolyte!" since I knew from my pre-race inquiries had an electrolyte drink and water. This would be my only replenishment of any sort during the run, my breakfast having consisted only of espresso and decaf tea with plenty of honey or maple syrup. I like doing races without much in my stomach, and for races this short, it's never been a problem.

The volunteers were on top of their game, and they pointed me at a cup pre-filled with blue liquid. Good runners can drink in full stride, but after some messy experiments in this I decided walking is better for me. So I slowed to a brisk walk, grabbed the cup, drank it all, and deposited the cup on the side of the trail as I started running again. It didn't take much of a surge, a natural response to the recovery I got from the few steps of walking, to get back to where I'd been relative to my friend ahead of me.

We then hit the road from the left side. There was an immediate right turn. He followed the left edge of the road while I apexed the road to the inside. I didn't see anything that this was out of bounds of the course. This allowed me to pass him before we entered the trail. The turn to the trail was marked and since I'd previewed this part of the course before the race I was fully confident of what I was doing. After the race some runners reported having problems making this turn.

I extended my lead as the trail started climbing and soon I saw the next runner ahead: fifth place. I was a bit worried about passing him. First I had to catch him, then I had to get past which might be challenging with the tight singletrack. But then he started to walk. Deja-vu to the final kilometers of the Woodside Ramble 50 km where I passed a runner ahead of me who also started to walk. I had no interest in walking: my legs felt refreshed after the mental break of finishing the Saddle Loop, and I ran past, greeting him as I did so.

He followed me a bit but then when I glanced back he was gone.

The course here was well-marked with chalk, but I was glad anyway for having previewed it before-hand. Soon I was past the point I'd diverged from the race route on my warm-up, the summit in close sight. Another runner was visible on the slopes ahead. Could I catch him as well to move into 4th?

There was a long straight, then a turn, then a straight to the gate to the parking lot at the summit. This might have caused me some concern except I'd read the course description posted at registration, that we had to run down the road to get back to the course. I knew roughly where this juncture with Summit Loop was in any case.

But first the gate.... as I approached the gate it was clearly closed, as usual, leaving me the option of going to the right, going to the left, going over, under, or through one of the gaps. But then I saw there was a warn foot-path to the left, so that's how I went. Minimal time lost...

Through the lot, up theshort hill to the finish of the New Year's bike race, and then I was on the paved descent. I focused on using the whole road, cutting the tangents of the corners, an important optimization so few trail racers seem to do.

The turn to Summit Loop trail wasn't far along the descent. It was well marked, I thought, if you were looking for it as I was. There was a moment of confusion as there's a paved portion which is essentially a driveway for cars, the trail going to the left. This caused me to come to a complete stop to correct my course, but I didn't lose much.

Onto the descent... this was indeed like the portion of Summit Loop I'd previewed, not nearly as rocky as the Ridge Trail and Dairy Ravine trails which we'd climbed. Still, it wasn't trivial: I still had to watch my footsteps. I was worried about being caught from behind, but also thinking about catching the runner ahead.

Finally the descent ended as I entered the canyon. I'd long since lost sight of the runner ahead. It turns out he considers himself a strong descender and was busy gaining ground on 3rd place, leaving me further behind. And it wasn't until I later looked at the Strava Labs activity replay that I realized how close at this point was the pursuit from behind. The runner I'd caught to move into fifth had steadily made ground on me on the descent. Had this final portion been flat, he may well have closed the gap, but with the climb I was able to pull away for good.

I felt good here, keeping a good pace on the climb, knowing there was no need to hold back since the race was close to done.

Once it leveled, I was soon back to the road. There the optimization began once again. I saw no indication that we were to remain on one side or the other, so I used the full width, apexing the two principle corners before we passed under Guadalupe Road for the final few hundred meters. Then there it was: the finish, and I was across, under 1 hour on the clock.

After hanging out near the finish, eating some grapes and drinking some sports drink, changing into my cycling shorts, then finally collecting my 5th place ribbon, I was ready to head home. So I got back on the Ritchey Breakaway, rode back over Saddle Loop dirt trail, descended South Hill Road, and from there crossed Geneva to Italy, worked my way back to Mission, Valencia, and eventually back to Noe Valley.

Overall, I was very pleased with how the race went. My running has been ad hoc, basically running when cycling wasn't convenient. I got some solid run blocks in during my stay in Basel, feeling some decent speed kick in when I wanted it. But I'd done no trail running, in particular no serious descending. I was really happy my quads survived the descents on this race seemingly intact. Indeed, the next day I felt slightly tired, but only slightly.

Perhaps most importantly, despite a full race effort, my mouth was fine. So evidently the surgery site had essentially healed.

I don't know what my next trail run goal will be. Maybe a half-marathon will be a good test. If I focus on getting in 1-2 runs per week during Low-Key Hillclimb series, I think this is doable. Half-marathon is a great distance: more time to enjoy the trails than the 13 km distance I'd run today (according to GPS), but not far enough that I need to worry about the distance too much. I've bonked during 30 km races, but I've always handled half-marathons okay.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

Dutch Lotto jersey, revisted

Back in July I designed a jersey for what is at present the Belkin team, but which will become the Dutch Lotto team. It was just a hack. I didn't expect the professionally designed one to actually look similar to any significance:

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The actual jerseys of the team for the 2015 season were just revealed:

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2015 jersey

Not too bad, I think...

Friday, October 24, 2014

Tour de France: 2015 green jersey points favor climbers

There will be a new point schedule for the 2015 Tour de France green jersey competition:

Tour course director Thierry Gouvenou explained the rationale for the changes to the flat stages.

"We have made some changes to the green jersey competition next year," Govenou said. "When we are almost certain that the stage will end in a sprint, we will add a little bonus to first place."

"Previously we've had 45, 35 and 30 points for the top three positions respectively. Now we will award 50, 30 and 20 points. The person who wins the stage will have a bigger advantage over the others, and it's something which brings the pure sprinters back into the frame for the green jersey."

More points for first, but the same points for the top 2 and fewer points for the top 3 and beyond for the sprint stages.

From 2013 results, Sagan with his domination in the rankings would still have won. But 2nd would now be Coquard, a GC rider. All of the sprinters would have lost points relative to what they actually scored. So in conjunction with the number of finishing climbs in 2015, expect a GC rider to have a greater chance at the points jersey as well.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Old La Honda: always calibrate Powertap after battery swap

Despite an early afternoon meeting for which I risked tardiness if anything went wrong, I felt a strong need to test my fitness on the Noon Ride, Wednesday edition, which climbs my favorite climb anywhere: Old La Honda Road.

After the cheap LR44 batteries I'd last installed in my Powertap gave up the ghost a few weeks into my Basel Switzerland experience, I found some superior 357's (silver oxide) in a local combo department store / food store. This should have had me up and running but I didn't have the tool to remove the cover on the hub. I eventually brought it to a local shop, to see if the guy there could remove it with an open-end adjustable wrench, but it was too tight and the metal wrench risked damaging the flats on the hub cover. So I decided I didn't need power all that much in Europe and to wait until I got home.

Indeed, the cover was on quite tight for some reason, and after applying some Tri-Flow to the interface between the cover and the hub, applying the plastic tool, carefully pressing my body weight against the tool and turning slowly, I was bit by bit able to get the cover off. Weird. I then replaced the battery and retightened the cover, albeit perhaps less tight than it had been.

Riding into work from the train I came to a traffic light which I wanted to make, so I sprinted. These sorts of sprints are substantially less than the sprints I'd do in a race or sprint workout: those are all out maximal efforts, this is a "speed up but stay aware of what's around me and in control" sprint. Yet afterwards my Garmin read 656 watts max power. That's not an uncommon number for me to see during a sprint workout. I was very pleased with this number, preferring to be very pleased to assessing if perhaps there was a measurement issue.

When it came time to leave for the Noon Ride, getting to which takes me up to approximately 30 minutes depending on my luck with the inhumanely long Peninsula traffic lights, I noticed I was cruising along at 280 watts without much trouble. Wow -- impressive power. Riding at over threshold hardly feels like work.

The ride went as usual, around the Portola Valley Loop and to the base of Old La Honda. Before we even hit the bridge, Chris Evans took off in close to a full sprint, easily double the speed of anyone else. Obviously he wouldn't sustain that, but the "start hard then manage the crash" approach is one I've seen before from riders with a strong top end. They want to make sure to empty the tank on the climb, and the best time to do that is when fresh, they feel. So blast off, then try to cut back to near threshold the rest of the way, holding on to the time boost from the first minute or so, This works on Old La Honda because the effort is short, around 16-17 minutes for good climbers. For a longer effort the penalty for the early anaerobic indulgence would be payed over a proportionally longer period.

However, not blessed with much top end I've always preferred to ride the climb more aerobically, going out at an optimistic pace, cracking off from that a bit during the ride, then in the final minutes ramping it up for the finish. Anaerobic efforts at the end of the duration don't contaminate the rest of the effort, unlike those at the beginning. But it's harder to make sure you empty the tank this way.

Consistent with my pacing strategy, I didn't want to see more than 300 watts on my Edge 500, which shows 3-second power on my lap page. So I try to keep that nice and steady close to but not more than 300 watts. Doing this will result in an average power less than 300, since when the grade transitions from steeper to shallower, there's a tendency for the power to sag a bit when spinning up the pedals. So I never average my target, as long as I treat the target as an upper bound.

I was feeling strangely good, spinning my 36/23 up the climb. Normally I'd ride a 36/21 or even 46/19. I set a PR with a 36/18. So 36/23 is low for me. But I found with a higher cadence I had no issues with my 300 watt target. Wow -- I'd really gotten more fitness than I imagined in Switzerland!

I finally started to feel the climb approaching the finish, but then it was time to ramp up the effort. I didn't look at the power meter here, rather focusing on spinning my 36/23. Then I was at the top. Looking at the lap timer approaching the finish I was dismayed to see I was over 19 minutes: 19:08.85 I later determined from the FIT file. But the display showed the laps's average power had been 289 watts. What??? That would be among my best-ever powers up Old La Honda. How was it possible I got such a good power with such a mediocre time, especially when I'm relatively light right now (56.9 kg when I weighed myself this morning).

I immediately turned around, headed back down the climb (normally I descent nearby Highway 84, but I was in a rush to make my meeting), then back around the loop the way we'd come and from there rode back to work. Along the way I rode a bit with Chris Evans, who caught up to me when I stopped to get some water. I mentioned the mystery of the high power + long time. "Time never lies," he responded, "your brakes were rubbing or it's power meter error." After we split up, he heading to his job at Stanford, me going further to Mountain View, I stopped to check for rubbing brakes. Nope. I realized it may have been related to the battery swap in the morning.

Eventually I got back to my office where I managed to get some lunch, upload my data, take a shower, get dressed, and make the meeting with a few seconds to spare, albeit with somewhat wet hair, eating some yogurts during the meeting.

Afterwards, I looked at the FIT file and was impressed. I'd gone out at close to 290-300 watts and essentially held that, average power dropping into the 280's but then rising up with my unusually strong late-climb surge to that 289 watt value. My average cadence was 83, which is good for me when climbing.

Tom Arnholt of AlphaMantis responded to my tweet by noting that after a battery change, it's important to do a manual zero of the Powertap: it may not be able to re-zero after this using just the automatic zero which occurs when coasting. This had been my mistake. Not only had my battery died, but I hadn't used the wheel in over a month. So I did the Garmin 500 "calibration" step. It said "calibration successful" and reported a huge offset. So hopefully things are better now.

Here's my data for the ride (yellow solid line) and the data scaled to give an average of 261 watts (estimated by Tim Clark's power estimator (dashed yellow).

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I was disappointed with the time. But then I probably shouldn't be. I was targeting the wrong power, which I was largely able to sustain, and I finished with a lot in the tank, since I was able to surge a lot more than normal even after adjusting the power. I obviously could have gone faster. How much faster? Oh, I don't want to guess. Maybe I can try again next Wednesday.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tour de France 2015: 3344 km

The 2015 Tour was announced, and although it has a brutal series of Alpine finishes, it's a relatively short one. The total distance is only 3344 km, historically low, although this distance falls right on an exponentially decaying schedule I fit to the distances from 1945 to 2010. Here's the plot:

I like long Tours as I find them more epic. The "epic" aspect doesn't show up well on television, but I have limited exposure to the television coverage anyway. However, I appreciate the finishes more if the riders have worked harder to get there. Modern racing has, however, to a large degree neutralized long stages. There's a constant temptation to shorten the routes and focus more on providing novel aspects each day to get people to watch Eurosport.

Maybe I'll go to watch some of the race next year. The concentration of Alpine stages facilitates this.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

what not to do with your Garmin 610 at a race start line

For running races of up to 4 hours, my Garmin Forerunner 610 has been my GPS of choice. It's compact, relatively light, fits well on my wrist, and has decent recording accuracy. I have a wrist strap for the Edge 500, but that unit is cumbersome for a wrist-mount. And my iPhone is too heavy.

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DCRainmaker image of Forerunner 610. See his review here.

The issue with the Forerunner is it's very finicky. Here's what I did today during the Dolphin South End Runner's Club San Bruno Mountain "12 km" trail run (actually closer to 13 km, according to my GPS data).

  1. Turn on, acquiring GPS signal during warm-up run.
  2. Run with the GPS on, to record warm-up run.
  3. Finish warm-up run, then hit "stop" and "reset", to lock in the warm-up as a separate activity. Don't turn off the 610: intent is to keep GPS signal active so I'm ready to go at race start.
  4. Approximately 10 minutes later, with 10 seconds to go before race start, hit "start" to record a new activity.
  5. Run race

Seems reasonable, right? WRONG. Mega-fail. You'll start your run, the timer will be ticking away, but the distance will be stuck at 0. The reason is that the Forerunner, when it's not recording data concludes it has no use for GPS, and goes into "power save" mode by discarding its GPS connection. There's a way, I think, to tell it to re-acquire, but I can never figure that out, and the touch screen doesn't work so well anyway, so the simplest approach is to power it off then back on again, hoping it acquires GPS while I'm running, and then hit start when it finally does.

This is the second time in a race this year that I've done this. The real cost is in Strava, where I don't match Strava segments on climbs at the opening of the race. For example, today was a 12 km race and a 5 km race. Both courses did the 5 km loop, the 12 km group moving on to an additional loop. I'd have liked to compare my time on the opening loop (which is a Strava segment) to not only those doing the 12 km course, whom I ran with (I was 7th at this point, passing two of them later to finish 5th), but also those in the 5 km race.

But no luck. The data from the opening 500 meters or so are lost.

Instead what you need to do is turn it on for warm-up, but if you want to isolate that as a separate activity, turn it off, reset, then turn it immediately back on, to avoid it going into power-save mode, which it does only after a fixed delay. It actually issues a warning for a few seconds before shutting off GPS, but it's easily missed in the noisy environment of a race start.

I understand why they do this. As frustrating as it is to lose data at the beginning of the run in addition to the unit taking a lot of attention which is far better devoted to the actual race, it's equally frustrating to realize your battery is half-drained away when you need more to get through the race duration. But the present "solution" is too error-prone.

Other than the limited battery life (not enough for hilly ultras) I like it: it records data, it tells me my pace and distance, I can upload at the end of the ride. That's all I want, really. This business with dropping GPS is the biggest flaw.

Friday, October 17, 2014

heuristic error check for rider mass (kg) vs age

For Low-Key Hillclimbs I have a mass-adjusted climbing score, which is based on the product of the rider mass and the rate of vertical ascent. This isn't a power calculation, but is related to power, and the units differ from power only by a factor of the gravitiational acceleration, which is roughly constant.

The natural units of mass for international sports is kilograms, but this is the United States, and people here are more accustomed to dealing in pound-equivalents (pounds formally being a unit of force or weight, not mass). So rather than require riders to calculate their mass in kg, which they may be less likely to recall than their weight in pounds, I default to having them enter pounds, with an optional unit specification which can allow for other units (I presently support pounds, kilograms, stone for my Britophiles, and slugs to be pedantic).

But people mess up. One friend specified his mass as "10 stone 8 pounds", a mixed unit I can't handle (my parser considered that as "10 pounds"). But more often people will enter kg without a unit. That seems to happen once or twice per week.

So what to do? The pragmatic approach is to check the weight, and it's low (pounds and kg differ by a factor 0.454), then assume it is kg. But what about young riders? Sometimes people bring kids on the Low-Key in trailers. So I need a threshold for what I consider "too light for pounds" which is a function of age, yet which isn't so low that relatively heavier riders if they make the mistake won't get caught.

Of course, if I had height, that would help. But I don't. So I need to go with age.

To accomplish this, I developed an ad hoc age-to-mass conversion. First I needed to come up with a threshold for infinite age. 40 kg seems reasonable: 88 pounds. There's women lighter than this, but it's the infinite-age limit, and for finite age, my threshold would be reduced lower. Note I could use sex as well, except for tandem riders sex can be "mixed" due to the way I process results, so I decided to not use that.

On the other hand, if a rider were to enter 90 kg, a reasonable mass, then my code would still consider that to be a reading in pounds So there's a chance of bigger riders making the mistake and slipping through. Fortunately this is a hillclimb series, which tends to attract relatively thin people, so the substantial majority are under 90 kg.

Then I need to adjust the mass versus age. Once people reach adulthood, mass maxes out, so my function needs to asymptote beyond age 21 or so. The very young tend to grow at a certain rate, but since mass increases superlinearly with height (BMI suggests to the second-power, but it's more realistically a higher power, closer to 2.5). So in the early years the mass increases proportional to age to some power greater than 1. That power won't necessarily be constant with age, but I'll assume that's a good approximation.

So here's the equation I came up with:

kgmin = (40 kg) (age / 15 years)2 / sqrt [ 1 + (age / 15 years)4 ]

I picked 15 years because this seemed like an age at which growth stops increasing as rapidly as it does at younger ages.

The behavior of this equation is clear. For small ages, the denominator is essentially 1, and the mass increases proportional to the square of age. But at high ages, the 1 in the denominator becomes irrelevant, and the numerator and denominator cancel, leaving an asymptote of 40 kg.

I decided to check this against published data for mass versus age. Here's data for boys age 0 to 17:

And here's data from girls:

I used the 5%-tile data because I'm interested in a lower-bound limit, and in any case 50% and above are confounded by the obesity epidemic which tends to not afflict children of Low-Key hillclimbers.

Here's a comparison of my equation with these data:

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My curve is conservative, tracking women better than men, the girls' mass tracking the boys' until an age where they saturate while the boys keep going.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Gallium Pro geometry

On Caltrain yesterday, I was surprised to see among the usual set of commuting bikes a SRAM Red-equipped Argon Gallium Pro. The bike immediately stole your attention. The design was one which has been trending: clear-coated carbon with plenty of text detail so the viewer is sure to realize he's gazing upon the result of advanced, proprietary engineering and not at yet another paint job on the same old OEM frames being pumped out of the same old Taiwanese factories. But it worked: the bottom bracket area was huge, the downtube a large-diameter "inverted Kamm tail" design seemingly designed to maximize wind resistance, the top tube a broad, eccentric shape which screamed "vertically compliant yet torsionally stiff". All it lacked were the pencil-think seat stays Cervelo popularized, but this was a machine designed for stiffness over anything else.

It seemed dramatic overkill, since the bike was small (the Argon "XS" I suspect). There wasn't much seatpost showing and the handlebars were spaced up to within a few cm of the saddle height. The spacers, however, weren't of the ordinary variety, but rather of similar diameter to the large-diameter head-tube, designed to appear at first glance as an extension of that tube rather than of the fork. Did this help front-end stiffness? Perhaps. I'd love to see test data.

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Web photo of Argon Gallium

The compromise from full race-readiness was the wheels: Al-rimmed clinchers. Bringing carbon rims onto the Caltrain bike car would be absurd, so I wasn't surprised to see this. There was a good chance the rider had race wheels safely at home.

All other things equal (same tube diameters, scaled geometry) a smaller frame will be stiffer than a larger one. The stiffness of a beam is inversely proportional to the cube of its length, so if you increase length by 10%, stiffness increases by a bit more than 30%. Additionally, smaller riders are lighter and less powerful as a population, so forces involved are reduced: since mass tends to go like height to between the 2nd and 3rd power, a rider 10% taller will likely generate forces around 25% greater. A combination of 30% more stiffness and 25% less force for a rider 10% lighter means a bike optimized for a rider of a given height will likely be over-built for one shorter. This definitely looked over-built.

I discretely looked around to see whose bike it might be. I expected a small guy, perhaps Asian, dressed in full racing kit. Of course he'd be sitting close to the bike to keep an eye on it, but there was only one passenger in the ground-floor seats, and he didn't look like he fit.

We were approaching a stop, when a small, thin Asian woman walked down the aisle. I didn't pay much attention to her until she took the bike off the rack and started walking with it. I smiled. The bike clearly did not fit with my perception of a female bike.

I asked her about it: did she race? She was thinking of it, she said, but had used it for AIDS Lifecycle, a charty tour from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It rode well, she said.

I decided to check out the geometry. Argon is entering the ProTour for 2015, so their bikes are coming into increased prominence.

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geometry for Nitrogen; Gallium Pro is equivalent

Their geometry chart is restrained, for example with head tube angle and head tube length notably absent. Stack and reach are included, these being the focus of the fit scaling. The chart is particularly useful because it provides fit guidance as a function of saddle height: the range of available handlebar drops for a given saddle height for each frame size. For my dimensions (72 cm saddle height, 8 cm drop) this puts me in the size small, which is the 3rd smallest size of the 6.

Here's how those compare with some other bikes of note: the Trek Madone and the Cervelo series:

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The Argon scales down to an exceptionally low stack, lower even than Cervelo which is itself very low. Reach is relatively long, however, particularly in the small sizes where it rivals the Madone H1, which is among the most aggressively designed frames popularly available. In larger sizes it retreats a bit from the Madone's small stack-reach ratio. It nevertheless stays more aggressive than the 2015 Cervelo S5, which some among the Cervelo cult consider crazy-aggressive.

One differentiating aspect of the geometry is the low bottom bracket: 75 mm drop from the hub height. For small bikes, which are likely fitted with small cranks (165 - 170 mm), a low bottom bracket works, especially when fitted with compact pedals like Speedplay or (my current favorite) BeBop. With short cranks, the risk of clipping a pedal on the ground is reduced. But with large frames 75 mm seems risky. Cannondale, for example, raises the bottom bracket on larger frame sizes for this reason; larger frame implies longer cranks implies less lean angle to the point of pedal-ground or shoe-ground contact. Dan Martin lost Liege-Bastogne-Liege clipping a pedal in the final corner when he tried to pedal through to take the victory. He later won Lombardia coasting through the final corner. But for this woman's bike it wasn't likely an issue.

Another is the short head-tubes. Here's another version of he geometry chart showing head-tube length:

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9.1 cm and 9.6 cm for the smallest two frames is extraordinary. The low bottom bracket requires an even shorter than typical head tube to reach low stack values: with the bottom bracket lower, the wheel is relatively higher, and that means the head tube needs to be shorter.

I will readily admit I have an irrational obsession with bikes. Yet the number of bikes I've ridden is relatively small: I'm certainly not in the habit of going into shops and test-riding bikes I have no intention of purchasing (my recent test of the Parlee ESX, it being a "demo day", a rare exception). I felt little desire to ride the Argon since I value low mass, aerodynamics, and comfort over stiffness. The one bike I would like to test is the Cervelo R5, which if they adapted to the new S5 geometry would be particularly difficult to resist. But since I do and would continue to do the vast majority of my riding on my tried-and-true steel Ritchey Breakaway buying a new carbon fiber über-frame makes zero sense. The Fuji SL/1 (the same model recently ridden to a Low-Key Hillclimbs record and Strava KOM on Montebello Road) is more than good enough as an "event bike" for me.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

culture shock: Back the the USA

After 6 weeks in Europe, a combination of some work and more vacation, there's a bit of culture shock coming back the the United States.

  1. Sprawl: flying into SFO, the sprawl across the East Bay was extensive. Residential development in Europe tends to be more clumped: areas of density immediately adjacent to rural. Suburbia is much, much less extensive.
  2. Being immersed in English: this feels wrong, sort of like cheating. I'm not complaining, though!
  3. tasteless food: I cooked some California brown rice and cooked it. The taste, or rather lack, was a bit of a shock. In Switzerland, all of the food I had was rich and flavorful, fresh and good. A lot of food in the US tastes empty and stale, produced for quantity rather than quality.
  4. California stops: after assembling the Ritchey Breakaway and riding to the train on Monday morning, after my return Sunday night, at the first intersection I hit where I had right of way and cross-traffic a stop sign, a driver did a California stop: drifting through the sign without actually stopping. He knew he was letting me go, but it wasn't obvious to me. A big part of being on shared roads is to communicate your actions.
  5. bumpy trains: the Swiss trains were smooth as silk. On Caltrain, on some trains I can't even type on my keyboard due to the bouncing suspension. I actually experienced this first on my way home from the airport, on BART, which is smoother than Caltrain but the trains still look old, worn, and weathered.
  6. wide suburban roads: after Caltrain, I have a 3+-km ride to work. My usual way essentially ends with a left from Middlefield in Mountain View onto a highway frontage road. Middlefield is a suburban road, yet is 8 lanes at this point, so I need to merge across 3 then make a left across the remaining 4. 8 lanes? Even the intercity roads I was on in Switzerland, France, and Germany never exceeded 4 (2 each way).
  7. parking lots: generally, the amount of land squandered on asphalt here is appalling, both roads and giant parking lots surrounding every building. Even in Meiringen Switzerland, which is in an agricultural valley and thus land is abundant, the public parking lot is buried.
  8. lack of cycling infrastructure: In Switzerland especially, but additionally in France and Germany, grade-separated bikeways were common. I rarely see these here. There's plenty of bike lanes, but generally to get around on a bike you need to know the best routes In Basel there was the challenge of navigating the streets, but on roads with too much traffic there was almost always bike infrastructure: I didn't need to have any insider knowledge on which subset of the roads were bike-friendly. It's ironic that Proposition L in San Francisco's November election is advocating a "restoration of balance" for car-infrastructure. A comparison with Europe shows the present situation is out of balance, but well in favor of private motor vehicles.
  9. Lack of mobility without a car: I want to go to Low-Key Hillclimb week 3, Welch Creek Road, this weekend, but just getting across the Bay without a car anywhere resembling early morning is a challenge. In Switzerland you could pretty much get where you wanted, when you wanted.
  10. Street people: in San Francisco, they're everywhere. In Basel, I didn't see anyone camping in the streets.

I really do like it in San Francisco. I don't know if I'd be happy living and working in Switzerland: it's a much more dynamic environment here. But I certainly miss a lot about my wonderful time spent there.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Axalp climb

Adding to my collection of profiles for climbs I've done, here's one for the Axalp climb, approximately 10 km west of Meiringen, Switzerland, on the south shore of Lake Brienzersee.

First the profile. I used my Garmin Edge 500 for position and altitude. On the climb up, I lost GPS signal for a bit, which resulted in a data gap. Since I take the data straight from the FIT file, I rely on Garmin's distance determination, which would normally be good if my Powertap had been functioning, but the super-cheap alkaline LR44 batteries I got off Amazon don't last as long as silver oxide 357's with which the Powertap ships. As a result, I needed to rely on the Garmin's GPS distance determination, which doesn't interpolate across gaps, unlike Strava's distance determination. It was easy enough to convert latitude and longitudes into distance, but the Garmin's smarter than that: local variation in position turn straight paths into zig-zags, and the result is a persistent overestimation of total distance. Honestly I don't know how Garmin does its position->distance conversion, but all I know is it doesn't handle gaps well.

But I was saved. I descended the same hill I'd climbed, so I was able to use the data from the descent, reverse the order of the points, and presto-magicko, I have climb data. Of course this isn't strictly accurate because I climb the opposite side of the road as I descent, so switchback insides become outsides and vice-versa, but on the narrow roadway the difference is small.

Using the descending data offers an additional advantage, which is that if barometric pressure changes due to weather, or temperature changes, corrupt the altitude data, these changes will likely be a lot less at descending speed than at much slower climbing speeds.

Anyway, here's the profile:

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My profiles all end up looking fairly similar because I use the entire plot from lower left to upper right. I then take characteristic subsets of the curve and do nonlinear regressions to fit a gradient and an offset to the segments, providing a feel for how the gradient of vairious subsets of the climb behave. But it's also useful to consider the grade extracted on a local basis. For this I first do a smoothing operation using a convolution function with characteristic length of 50 meters:

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Yes, this one is steep, peaking out in the middle at over 15%, but fairly consistenly hanging out at 10% or steeper. There was some relief through and beyond Axalp itself. I continued to a T-intersection with a street sign:

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It rated out at 160% of Old La Honda using my formula, as I rode it. However, the climb can be ridden a bit further, taking the right-hand option, until it turns to gravel/dirt.

But the light was fading and I wanted to reach the bottom of the descent before I needed my headlight. So I didn't dally too long, or explore the way further. I did, however, stop long enough to take this photo, not far from the top:

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But then I returned the relatively short distance to Axalp, filled my bottle at the fountain, then returned to the valley for the approximately 10 km back to Meiringen.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

visiting Meiringen, Switzerland

There's a great rush of satisfaction in knowing you've gotten things right.

Of course, we have infinite options, so the probability of picking the "optimal" is mathematically zero. If true optimization is the goal, we're doomed to failure. Some steadfastly hold themselves to this standard anyway, and indeed they meet with the failure which is mathematically certain. I'm not talking about this sort of pathological optimization, I'm talking more about when faced with a cloud of uncertainty, options taken did a pretty good job.

I write this on a train from Bern to Basil, having started in Meiringen. In this case, the choice was fairly simple. I popped open my SBB.ch app, typed in "Meiringen" to "Basel SBB", and it gave me a bunch of options, all starting with a trip to Interlaken Ost, then transferring to one or two trains to Basel. All took around 2:36.

Instead of buying my ticket with the app, as I would normally do, I got it at the desk in the Meiringen station, for which there was no line. I was given a ticket with said "Meiringen - Basel SBB via Brünig - Luzern - Olten". But I never read the small print.

On the train the conductor asked for my ticket. I confidently showed this, along with my 18 CHF day-pass for my bike. She was stared at it for more than the 3 seconds I'd assigned for a reasonable assessment of its sufficiency.

"This is the wrong ticket", she said. I tensed, adopting the fight-or-flight instinct which wasn't going to succeed either way. How could it be the wrong ticket?

"This is for a different route, with a different train company".

Wow. So I'd been using the SBB.ch app, which gave me the optimal route, but in this case subject to the constraint I take their trains. Sure enough, looking at the train map, and finally reading that fine print, it became clear the route though Lucerne was superior to the one via Bern. I was clealy non-optimal.

"You need to pay the difference in fare.... (click, click, click).... 18 Francs"

Well, at least there was no penalty. At least I didn't need to pay a full fare from scratch. At least I wasn't thrown off the train.experience with fare errors on Caltrain back home is that they are dealt with with a far more draconian response: a fine of around $300.

Of course I should have read the ticket. Of course I should have looked at the schedule for trains to Lucerne via Brünig. But I didn't. My smug satisfaction of over optimizing my trip was crushed into a sense ot utter and total failure.

And so is ending a 3-day trip to the Berner Oberland region of Switzerland. The forecast was for a 3-day trend of warming weather, proceeding from a cool Tuesday when I arrived to a warmer Wednesday to a seasonally warm Thursday. I had 3 rides lined up to do. Going along with the warming trend I put them in a sequence of increasing peak altitude. For Tuesday, a ride to Axalp, a ski resort where the top of the climb is at little more than 1700 meters. Then for Wednesday, a ride over the famous Grosse Scheidegg, last used in the Tour de Suisse in 2011 stage 3, remarkably won by a very young Peter Sagan. Then I saved for Thursday the inspiration for the trip, Grimselpass and Furkapass, two absolutely iconic Swiss climbs, each topping out at over 2000 meters. That was to be the highlight of this little trip, if not the highlight of my entire stay in Switzerland.

Tuesday: after a hike-run to Reichenbach Fall, admiring the plaque marking the spot where Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty fought to the death in 1891 as described in Canon Doyle's "the Final Problem", I left my hotel, the Rebstock, at 16:30 for a quick assault on Axalp, a ride just over 40 km round trip. Although I was cold on the descent (but not quite shivering) and I definitely needed my lights toward the end of the ride, it was a very positive experience. The combination of a 13 km run-hike and the sustained steepness of the surprisingly difficult Axalp climb, then adding in a visit to the wonderful Sherlock Holmes museum in Meiringen, left me feeling it was a day very well spent, even if I'd taken a longer-than-necessary train from Basel that morning. But I didn't realize that at the time.

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Sight of fictional battle to death between Holmes and Moriarty


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Holmes and Watson study reproduction, at Sherlock Holmes museum in Meiringen


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T-intersection where I ended my climb to and beyond Axalp


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view from above Axalp

Wednesday was the spectacular ride from Meiringen to Grosse Scheidegg, then from the summit to Grindewald. It was a supernatural ride, the road closed to all vehicles except for the buses which demand respect (it's not the best route for Strava quests, up as well as down, since when a bus as wide as the roadway approaches from behind it really is best to pull over), and the view of the mountains something which can't be described. I felt cold and depleted when I landed in Grindewald, stopping at a wonderful bakery at the upper portion of the town for 2 rolls and 2 chocolate yogurts, which were delicious. But then, feeling somewhat fortified, I descended further into the tourist-centric part of the city. From there down to Interlaken at the western tip of the lake was less enjoyable. Narrow roads with relatively heavy car traffic and no shoulders is a combination my experience riding in the United States doesn't allow me to trust.

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looking back at switchback approaching final km of Gross Scheidegg


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top of Gross Scheidegg


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watch for buses on Gross Scheidegg descent


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cog rail in Grindewald, plus my finger

From Interlaken, though, I made a wonderful detour up a dirt-and-gravel climb which generally tracked the obviously far straighter trajectory of a funucular railway. The road didn't make it all the way to the end of the railway, but then my legs didn't make it all the way to the end of the road. They succumbed to that all-to-familar transformation of muscle to jello, causing a "death before dismount" violation where I walked a particularly steep stretch of particularly large gravel before remounting and continuing onward.

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The road home to Meiringen along the north shore of the lake wasn't bad, but wasn't super special either. The truly spectacular views of the water had come from altitude.

That left Thursday. Grimselpass! Furkapass I left as an option, depending on the conditions in the pass, but I suspected since I'd done okay at 1700+ meters in the evening of the coldest day, then at 1900+ meters on the middle day, I'd be fine (bringing with me the addition of newspaper to stuff under my jersey) on the warmest of the 3 days at an altitude not much more than 2000 meters. I was on the cusp of well-optimized 3-day schedule.

I'd noticed both Tuesday and Wednesday the winds in Mieringen can be truly impressive. The shutters on my windows blew open Wednesday night, and I had to close them and latch them more securely than before. The excellent map of cycling routes I'd gotten from the tourist information booth at the bahnhof on my arrival on Tuesday warned of the "Föhn wind" for the route to Grimselpass. You will need to "pedal hard" it said. I was good with that.

Thursday morning, bright and early, I mentioned my concern for the wind to the woman doing the morning shift at the Rebstock, during the excellent breakfast service they provide. "It's good weather. When it's good weather, there's wind," she said.

I set off and went straight to the foundain outside the Sherlock Holmes museum to fill my bottles. It was a bad sign when a gust of wind blew the water stream from vertical to diagonal, missing the mouth of my bottle just below. As Tom Humphries, my sailing partner back when I was an undergraduate liked to say -- "yeah -- it's blowing."

No problem, I decided. That was just the valley here. Once the road heads upward the slope will shield me from the wind.

Well, maybe that happens in the San Francisco Bay area, where the wind is blowing off the ocean to replace the air rising from the hot East Bay, the wind getting launched over the tree-covered Santa Cruz mountain range. But here it was different. This was no ocean breeze, the nearest ocean (or reasonable facsimile) many hundreds of kilometers away. The dynamic wasn't the same. The air was blowing straight down the slope of the mountain.

At first I felt I was okay -- I could handle it. My principal concern was when getting passed by trucks on the narrow road. I have this exceptional fear of getting blown into the path of big trucks. It's not as if cars are particular less deadly, and at least the truck drivers are professionals whose (in Europe) professional futures depend on them not running people down (in the US, it's all good as long as you don't leave the scene of death). I've always had a particular problem with gusting cross-winds. They blow me across the road when heavier riders stay firm. As long as I could keep the bike in reasonable control during the gusts. I didn't care how long it took the climb to the pass: as long as I made it back by dark.

But then I came to the first tunnel. Here, perhaps due to the shape of the rock, the winds were howling. Traffic was stopped because of construction on one of the two lanes through the tunnel, requiring alternating direction traffic control, a common occurrance in Switzerland where road maintenance is given high priority. But there was a path around the tunnel, as there are around all tunnels to Grimselpass from Meiringen. The construction crew was using this path for their generators, but I thought I could get by.

I'd taken only a few steps when the wind gust turned into a meta-gust. I could barely stand, so crouched down to reduce my cross-section. I was going to ride in this? With trucks passing? No -- that was it. I was turning back.

So I walked down to the final corner before the short straight to the tunnel, a stretch where the wind had been the strongest, then got back on my bike and carefully rode back the way I'd come to Meiringen. A ride of shame.

I now had several options. I could do a different ride, where the wind was less of a problem. I could go for a run. Or I could take a bus to the pass.

I decided on the last option, quickly buying a ticket for the 161 to the pass, which left in 9 minutes. I also got that train ticket I mentioned and the day pass for my bike. I was going to take my bike to the summit (I didn't have anything else I could do with it in the time remaining until the bus left, and the next was in 2 hours). Then when there I'd decide what to do.

The bus ride was nice, although of course no comparison to riding the road myself. I felt a bit shamed as we passed first one, then another cyclist struggling up the hill.

Finally the bus arrived and I stepped off... into a blast of cold which cut straight to my bones. Long gone was the warmth of the valley. And any hope I'd sustained that the wind would be reduced up here was quickly destroyed. At least it wasn't gusting.

I put on all the clothes I had available, rode back and forth a few times, then settled on one of the two restaurants which were open where I scored big with a delicious cheese sandwich. You simply can't go wrong with simple food in Switzerland: the ingredients are fresh and delicious and so the result is fantastic.

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Grimselpass, looking towards Furkapass


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lunch at Grimselpass


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Looking back towards Meiringen from Grimselpass

After that, I braved the cold a bit more before the bus I'd exited returned from its ultimate destination, the town at the depression between the Grimselpass and Furkapass. I bought a return ticket and back I went to Meiringen, thinking of the rider I'd seen crest the summit for the same descent done the correct way while I had been waiting.

While I did manage to salvage something from the day with a cool mixed dirt-paved climb out of Meiringen I'd picked from the cycling map, I'd failed to identify that the warmest day would be the windiest. I'd have been better off climbing Grimselpass the day before. Ah, well. At least I got to see it.







Friday, October 10, 2014

Chamrousse out of Grenoble

After my epic ride of L'Alpe d'Huez, Lac Bassen, and Col Sarenne the day before, I found myself back at the Campanile Süd in Grenoble. I'd thought to find someone closer to the centre ville, something with a bit more character, but I was tired and having difficulty navigating the twisting roads of the city, and so turned on my Garmin Edge 500 navigation and followed the route I'd programmed to reach the Campanile. The Campanile is relatively cheap, has decent wifi, and provides a simple but nutritious breakfast. I decided to go with the safe bet. Luckily there were still rooms available.

I checked out the next morning, left my backpack (my sole luggage for the trip) at the desk, then set off for Chamrousse, which had been recommended to me by a friend. If you go into Strava Segment Explorer, zoom into Grenoble, and move the climb selector over to "HC", the Champrousse climb becomes the obvious candidate.

It was used in the Tour de France as a time trial during the giddy Lance Armstring years, 2004 as a time trial. Of course, Lance crushed it. Ten years later, in the far more palatable year that is 2014, it served as a stage finish. This latter fact was attractive to me, as I provide the names painted on the road, a ubiquitous sign of recent Tour passage, a motivator.

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2014 Tour stage, from Velo in Oberland hotel

There's plenty of other climbs near Grenoble, gaining less alitude. These are older, more historic climbs, the Chamrousse climb being an access road to ski resorts on the summit. So to some degree I was trading quantity for quality. L'Alpe d'Huez is also a ski resort climb, and it's a wonderful climb, however. So I really didn't know what to expect.

Overall the ride was a bit of a disappointment, though. After the day before, my standards were exceptionally high, however.

It opened with a long, gradual uphill grind to the start of the climb. This was on a 2-lane road with remarkably heavy vehicle traffic. Strava Route Finder did a wonderful job of route definition, and I was able to follow it closely enough (a few wrong turns) with my Garmin Edge 500. But still, I find squeezing myself on the edge of a busy roadway an experience I wish would end sooner rather than later.

Eventually I reached the first of two turn-offs to Champrousse. The access road is essentially a big loop, intersecting the road I was on in two places. But the net distance from Grenoble was similar either way. I chose the second, more eastern climb, since that is the one the Tour had used.

Soon enough I was on the climb. There's not much to say about it: up, up, up I went. There were some altitude markers near the bottom, but generally I saw very little indication of how far was yet to go.

I knew I was supposed to take a right off the main loop road to reach the ski resort. Suddenly I saw signs for Champrousse: there's a lower resort, "Chamrousse 1650", and an upper one, "Chamrousse 1750", the number presumably the altitude in meters. My Garmin wasn't providing much guidance here; I forget why (the screen was in one of its blank moods, perhaps), but I reached a narrow road to the right which didn't seem like it should have been the turn, but I wasn't sure. I circled a few times, considering it, before continuing on the main road when I realized the Tour woudn't likely have gone on something that narrow, and in any case there was no road paint in the corner.

This was the correct decision, and I reached what was obviously the correct turn soon after. Knowing this was the end, not only of this climb but of the climbing during this little trip into the French Alps, I put in a burst of effort (as much as my tired legs could produce), and reached the top.

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View from Chamrousse

The constrast with L'Alpe d'Huez was striking. While L'Alpe d'Huez was mostly empty other than a hot-spot catering to the cyclists, this was virtually completely empty. Despite the proximity to Grenoble, a very outdoor-oriented population-center, and good weather, there were no other cyclists, or much of anyone, up here. There was one bar which might have been open, but I didn't think so. It was all rather anti-climactic.

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After recovering a bit, eating some of my food, drinking some water, and finding a place to pee, I set off on the descent. Once again I was relatively cold, but not shivering. Unlike the day before, however, it didn't warm as obviously as I descended. To the contrary, several times I passed through clouds which increased the chill. I was glad to finally reach the bottom.

I then headed back to Grenoble, fetched my backpack, and rode to catch my train back to Geneva, and from there, Basil.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Low-Key Hillclimbs: some Montebello statistics

Low-Key Hillclimbs week 1 is done, and it's the first time Montebello was coordinated by someone other than Kevin Winterfield or me. Huge thanks to James Porter for taking the controls while I'm away from home and getting the series off to a successful start! We had an issue with water: surprisingly, 450 ml/rider wasn't enough at the end of a climb for which the median climbing time is well under 1 hour. But otherwise the day wasa big win.

A big feature this year was the unusual (by historical standards) heat: the temperature was as high as 95F/35C for the day. This isn't especially hot, but it is by San Francisco Bay area standards, where the ocean breezes and the bay tend to maintain moderate temperatures year-round. Inland, at the central coast, things heat up.

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Bill Bushnell photo

With Low-Key Hillclimbs, week 1 is the anchor. It's almost always Montebello Road (1998 excepted), and thus provides a certain standard for comparison for year-to-year. Riders like to use week 1 as a gauge of this year's fitness versus previous years.

Given the heat, I was surprised when records were broken in the men's division, women's division, and with a all-time-2nd-best in the mixed tandem and hybrid-electric divisions. It was clear that for those able to stand the heat, there was no problem producing a smoking-fast time.

But did this apply to the population as a whole? For that I needed to look a bit deeper.

To compare times, I ranked climbs for all bikes with times over 23 minutes (excludes hybrid-electrics). I'm using bikes, not riders, so tandems count once. I combine men and women into a single statistical population. I then subtract 0.5 from the rank of the first bike (0.5 instead of 1), which puts his rank at the center of his "bin", and then add 1 for each subsequent bike (so ranks go 0.5, 1.5, 2.5, ...). Then I divide by the number of results: this maps ranks from 0 to 1, exclusive.

I plot time in minutes versus this normalized rank by year since 2008 in the following plot. 2008 was when the series numbers really started to pick up after it started again in 2006, following a long layoff (since 1998).

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The plot is rather busy, but a few interesting features can be seen. One is the line for 2014 (red) trends ont he long side of the distribution. In contrast, last year (2013, magenta) is at the fast edge of the distribution, with 2012 not far behind. Another thing which makes itself evident from this plot is the first three years in the plot, 2008-2010, were a bit slower at the long-end of the distribution. This suggests since these three years the more endurance-oriented riders have tended to come out less than the faster riders.

To quantify this I took quartiles: the 25%-tile, the 50%-tile, and the 75%-tile of the distributions. The 25%-tile is the time at which 25% of the riders are faster, 75% slower. The 50%-tile is where an equal number of riders are faster and slower. The 75%-tile is where 75% are faster, 25% are slower. These times are interpolated from the actual distribution, which typically may not have times at these points exactly. So for example, if there's 120 riders, the 50%-tile is the average of positions 60 and 61.

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The results here confirm what I described before. Times at the top end (25%, 50%) were fairly flat from 2008 through 2011. They improved each of the following two years, but this year were slower. It's clear a large number of riders may have been affected by the heat. But in contrast, the 75%-tile was on a downward slope from 2008-2011. Since 2011 it's been fairly flat. The heat had less of an affect on the 75%-tile this year. This doesn't mean riders in this segment aren't affected by the heat; it's also possible that they were more likely deterred by the weather. There's many explanations.

So hats off to the top performing riders: top male Nick Bax, top female Beth Reid, 2nd woman McLovely Brown (who broke her existing Strava QOM), tandem team Emma and Jonathan Dixon, and hybrid-electric Bill Bushnell. They clearly were well-prepared for the conditions.

And for everyone else: hats off to you, as well! Overcoming the heat to make it to the top of Montebello Road, a challenging climb by any reasonable standard, is a worthy accomplishment.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Argon wind tunnel comparison of aero road frames

As was pointed out to me by Claude B in the comments section of a previous post, Argon has a new aero frame out, the Nitrogen (web page here), and with it they show some wind tunnel data:

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These tests are following a pattern. The Cervelo S5 remains the standard against which new frames compare, and they may be competitive with the S5, but don't beat it. We saw the same thing with the Parlee ESX and Felt AR1. Then lagging behind is a set of usual suspects, including the Specialized Venge and the Scott Foil. The only test I saw where the Scott Foil did exceptionally well was the test data produced by Scott itself.

Between the Nitrogen and the S5 is basically a choice between low-yaw and high-yaw drag. The Nitrogen appears to do a bit better at higher yaw. I tend to err towards lower-yaw performance because of ground shear: yaw at the height of a downtube is less than it is, for example, at head-level, let alone at 10 meters. At extreme yaws control becomes a bigger issue than simple drag.

A big factor on the aero road frames has been comfort. The Parlee ESX and the Felt AR1 have both focused on the seatpost for that: the Parlee with a cool bent post and Felt using a novel seat clamp to allow for a very thin, relatively flexible aero post. I'm not sure how the Argon stacks up here. But the most important factor in comfort is tire options, something Cervelo realized in the latest S5: clearance for at least 26 mm tires is important.

One feature of the Argon which reminds me of the Parlee ESX I test rode is the integrated headset spacer. Maybe it's more aero and maybe it's stiffer, but it certainly looks better, than simple round spacers.

Monday, October 6, 2014

L'Alpe d'Huez, Lac Bassen, Col Sarenne

After the climbs I just described, I did some serious lifting, first riding south from Grenoble to Bourg d'Oisans which involved significant elevation gain except on gradual grades along the D-series roads. Traffic was busy on these highways, and the riding was scenic for sure but not super-fun. Rain, which was forecast for the afternoon, arrived a bit early, and I was happy for the rain coat and rain pants I had packed for my trip. Riding with my stuffed backpack, a floppy rain jacket, and black rain pants didn't make for the Euro-racer experience, but it was effective. I stayed dry and warm.

In Bourg d'Oisans, I had time to pass, and hung out for a bit in the main town. As the afternoon passed the rain picked up and I saw only a few riders. Riding was doable, as it wasn't super-cold (probably around 15C in the town, colder at elevation). But the 60 km I'd done to get there were enough.

The next day dawned surprisingly cold, at least by my standards. In the Oberland Hotel the night before, which had worked out extremely well except for the almost fully nonfunctional internet, I'd met some Australian motorcyclists and we'd chatted about various things. They rolled out fairly early, while I delayed until almost 10 am, letting the clouds clear and the sun to warm things up a bit. Peak temperature there isn't until around 3 pm: the mountains block the sun until relatively late.

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After a false start where I forgot to hit the lap on my Edge 500, I turned back, decided to remove my vest as well (a good move!), then began my climb of L'Alpe d'Huez. I'd done this once before, in July 1994, over 20 years ago, but it was much as I remembered. The road is steep by Tour de France standards, 11-12% between the opening few switchbacks, but the switchbacks provide substantial recovery if you let them. I prefer powering through, keeping the effort up, but despite this the lesser grade is a big relief.

The switchbacks are numbered starting from 21 and counting down. The numbers tick down surprisingly rapidly. not in proportion to what I knew was the remaining distance (14 km to the top). These also help a lot: you mark your progress by the ticks defined by the switchback numbers.

Each switchback sign has the name of a rider who won a Tour stage at the ski station. These are easily missed, and I missed most of them. I saw Gianni Bugno, then Andy Hampsten, then ... what happened to the names after Andy Hampsten? Then I remembered: admitted drug users, most notably Lance Armstrong, were removed. I thought Gianni Bugno's presence, his win at the dawn of the EPO era and by a rider who'd hardly be described as a climbing purist, was ironic.

FInally, I reached 1.... then....

Then I reached L'Alpe d'Huez. However, this isn't the stage finish. That's through the ever-growing development at the ski resort. I made the mistake of tracking my Edge 500 here, following a course I'd defined there. With a few somewhat ambiguous turns, I took two wrong turns. The second was most embarrassing, as there were arrows painted on the road, as well as a sign on its side, telling the proper way, but I was focused on the Edge 500 screen. I quickly recovered from these wrong turns, but they corruped my profile data and added as much as 30 seconds total to my ascent (I should check the GPS record).

I reached the traffic circle before the final 300 meters to the finish. I took the proper, counter-clockwise 270-degree route around the circle, although of course the pros take the shorter way. That dulled a bit the fantacy trip. Then to the finish, crossing the line...

But the line isn't the top, nor is it even a plateau. The climb keeps going, passing first some ski lifts where the road has a few cobbled sections, perhaps to slow down auto traffic, then as a narrow roughly paved road which continues to crawl up the mountain.

I'd spent my reserves in my fantasy print, but I throttled back to a more tourist pace and kept grinding up the hill. I could see structures ahead at various degrees of altitude gain, the furtherst well up the mountain, which extended from the race finish at near 1900 meters to more than 3000 meters where the day before's rain had deposited a clear cover of snow. Fortunately the road didn't go that far, at least paved. After climbing awhile I reached an intermediate peak, where a group of pole-toting hikers were congregating. Hiking poles are apparently mandatory in France and Switzerland, preferably constructed with high-modulus carbon fiber.

I stopped to admire the really spectacular view, feeling in general awe about it all. The solitude gained by a relatively short ride past the over-developed ski resort was impressive. Then I noticed that the paved road, which descended past this point, climbed again after, attaining a higher altitude than the one I was at. Even though I was tired, even though it would have been easy to say "enough!", this simply wasn't an option. I had to continue.

And it was more than worth it. The little climb was steep, but was all there was. After that I came upon a group having a picnic, more hikers, and an breathtaking view of Lac Basson and the peaks beyond. I simply had to take a panoramic photo, my first attempt at this with my iPhone. It was truly incredible.

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Lac Basson

But I was getting cold. I put on my long-sleeve wind breaker and my sleeveless vest, having taken both along (each fills basically one pocket of my jersey, making for a real capacity restriction which I would not have had on my randonneuring bike). But I wanted something more, perhaps some hot chocolate, something I wasn't sure if I'd drunk since that 1994 bike tour when I'd last done this climb.

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at the Tour finish after descending from the lake

Eventually I was able to find my way back to what appeared to be a cyclists oasis among all of the closed ski facilities: a small bar down near the tunnel. I had to follow another rider to get there. There I had a small chocolate, certainly nothing special but accomplishing what I wanted: sugar plus hot liquid with a small dose of caffeine from the chocolate. I felt much better, able to move on to my next goal, Col Sarenne.

The leader of that 1994 tour had been Ed McLaughlin, the president of Chico Velo (Chico, California). I don't remember how I found out about it, but as soon as I saw the tour description, I'd signed up. Three weeks riding the major French passes, during the Tour de France, with multiple chances at watching the race live! It was perfect, providing access to the race while keeping the focus on the riding rather than the watching. I was very lucky to stumble across it.

Tragically, Ed was years later paralized by a collision with a bollard, contributing to my profound hatred for bollards, which try to accomplish something using a most draconian means. I had sent Ed an email sometime after, and after a year, he'd responded. It was a sobering mail, as Ed expressed understandably profound frustration with his condition, but in that email he recommended Col Serenne.

Ed died several months after sending that email, so I felt I had the rsponsibility to do the ride. I need to check my records, but I think we did it during that 1994 tour. Nevertheless my memories were fuzzy of that ride, the day after L'Alpe d'Huez, in part because I badly bonked on Galabier later in the day. The road received renewed interest when the Tour de France did it in 2013, to some controversy due to the precipitous drops if one missed a corner, last year when Tejay Van Garderen threw away a chance at a stage win by showboating for the cameras with a foolish attack on the first of two times up L'Alpe d'Huez, while eventual winner Christophe Riblon paced himself, recaught Van Garderen, then dropped him int he final kilomerers. I was looking forward to seeing, perhaps again, what all the fuss was about, and also to honor Ed by doing a ride he could no longer do.

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profile of Tour stage (cyclingnews)

I was warned by my navigaiton friend that Col de Sarrene involved "a few hundred meters" of climbing. I wasn't worried since, despite the effort on L'Alpe, my legs felt okay. So I set off from the group stop, GPS-navigated to the traffic from where the road began, and there it was, what appeared to be a minor driveway, but which I confirmed after checking out the only alternative candidate to be what I wanted. The bold warning signs were impossible to miss, definitely causing hesitation. For example, the airplane icon was, I think, not a warning of low-hanging aircraft, but rather an indication of what transportation mode one would emulate if one took a turn too fast. 20 kph was recommended.

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approaching Col Sarenne

A short climb later, the road began descending, and I was immediately awed, although it would get even better later . The road was cut into the hillside, a narrow, roughly paved way. Often on the upper sections I encountered large rocks in the middle of the road, all of which I fortunately managed to avoid except for one glancing blow of what was probably a small one. Other, even more minor roads, were visible from this upper portion, extending line panoramic ribbons. Yet it was clear the direction I was to follow: the main road was unambigous.

I understood why people were concerned about using this in the race, as you clearely didn't want to ride over the edge. But the riders in the Tour are incredible riders, going shoulder-to-shoulder, the pack magically splitting down the middle as they navigate traffic circles at 60 kph in the final kilometers of a sprint. This would be relatively tame in comparison. The leaders would be following motorbikes, and would thus have warning of upcoming corners. The main pack would be riding relatively conservatively, the front-runners also following motorbikes, those behind just riding in the group. This would be no elbow-to-elbow battle for position as if the race ended at the bottom. Rather the race would be decided on the final climb of L'Alpe, and this wasn't anything extraordinary from a handling position. There were rather some places where the consequences of failure were relatively dire, but certainly no more dire than the consequences of failure every time they pass a hard obstacle on the road-side like a stone wall or sign post. It was breathtaking dramatic, but hardly extraordinarily dangerous, from my perspective.

At a fork between the main road and a minor road which was, I think, barricaded off, I began the real climbing to the pass. This was indeed a "few hundred meters", moderately steep, but since I wasn't trying for any sort of time, the sustainable effort I made was forgotten in the presence of the incredible surroundings.

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Col Sarenne summit

As I hit the summit two riders were working on a sign marking it: 1999 meters, it said, so I was significantly above L'Alpe d'Huez, but below what I'd reached at Lac Basson. It seemed there was some sort of sportif event which would be passing through. I had noted that climbed hill climbs seemed to be fairly popular on the roads near here, including the advertisement for a running race up L'Alpe d'Huez itself in August. The peak period for these events seemed to be July-August based ont he signs I'd seen.

Then I began the descent. I imagined Tejay Van Garderen and Riblon bombing this descent in his attempt to stay away from the pack at the Tour last year. Horrifying, I thought, until you consider that they were following motorbikes, so would hardly go shooting off any unnoticed corners.

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On the descent from Col Sarenne

Eventually I reached a microscopically small town, and later a larger one. At one point a donkey was standing in the road, carrying on some sort of conversation with the driver of a car, who sat smoking, with his window down. I wondered why the donkey tolerated the smoke.

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Eventually the driver moved on. The donkey stared at me as I rode by, slowly, and I stared back.

The descent was incredible. At one point I needed to stop in the middle of a switchback corner to take a panoramic shot:

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I reached the bottom and returned to main roads. The route back to Bourg d'Oisans crossed a "barrage". It was an impressive sight, the view over the edge of the road triggering my acrophobia.

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After more descending, more gradual now but much faster due to the wider roads, including passing through a few tunnels, I returned to Bourg d'Oisans. I stopped at the surprisingly large Casino market for some figs, then got some bread at the boulangerie, was disappointed that the fromagerie was closed and so returned to the Casino for some cheese, then caught the bus to Grenoble for the night before climbing Chamrousse the next day before I had to take the train back "home" to Basel.