Saturday, November 30, 2013

The final Low Key Hill Climb, and concluding thoughts on the LKHC series

Somebody said that in time of peace men satisfy their impulse to go to war by racing bicycles. I agree. In this particular instance, my own personal battle was to get to the top of Mt Hamilton faster than the guy who was going to end up winning the General Classification, David Collet. Actually, I wanted to get up there much faster than Dave. (Incidentally, Dave is a really great guy, and I was really happy I got to meet and ride with him during this series; we follow each other on Strava and plan on going out on training rides together next season).

I got into the race quite depressed ("heartbroken", in the words of Eddie) by the amazing amount of points that a certainly very strong mountain bike ride had given Dave on Saturday, which had cost me my several-weeks-old GC lead. I had beaten Dave at Bohlman-On-Orbit, in a close sprint finish. I had beaten him at Patterson Pass. I had beaten him at Lomas Contadas. I thought I had him. But no, thanks to the black magic of Low Key points calculation, the mix of low attendance and huge time dispersion on the one mountain bike hill climb gave him enough points to put me out of contention for the GC. Especially with Hamilton only left, a race with just the opposite features: large attendance and small time dispersion.

Mark Edwards had warned me of the presence of three-time olympian and 7- or 8-time Canadian TT champion, ex-pro Eric Wohlberg in the race, so the overall win was almost surely out of reach. However, I had a very clear objective to shoot for, and I decided I was going to be as aggressive as possible from the gun.

Have I managed to clip in my pedals yet?!
After struggling again with clipping in my pedals (alas, one year of biking and I'm still there!) I sprinted up to Nils to the front of the race, and started attacking probably not even 5' from the gun. It was me and GC #3 Bill Laddish, and it was clear that we both wanted to put some time over our direct competitors. We immediately agreed to work together and started pushing it. Our breakaway didn't last long (perhaps half of the first climb), but I continued to stay at the front, either pushing against the wind or riding on the wheel of the guy in front.

I could hear Mark telling me to be smart and to save energy, but I just wanted the race to have a fast pace and to tire Dave out as quickly as possible. But Dave, smartly, was riding in 5th-6th position, well sheltered in the lead group. Through the end of the first climb, the descent and the first half way of the second climb it was Chris Evans taking most of the air out front. Kudos to him. I did my share, but had started to realize how foolish my initial strategy had been.

Half-way through the second climb it was a great "Rich Brown" attacking generously. I decided to let him take a few lengths. I really like and respect Rich, and I know he likes and respects me as well. We understand each other at many levels (for one, we both have two kids each, the exact same age!). Dave was getting antsy, and he actually decided to get to the lead of the chase group, which pleased me, and I happily rested on his wheel. He was 10" on and 15" off the saddle. I could hear Mark telling me that that's a sign that a biker is close to pop. But I knew that Dave is actually a mountain biker, used to long stretches off the saddle. Still, he was clearly struggling to keep Rich in sight.

I knew Rich was ultimately not a factor, but at the end of the second climb I saw the actual factor jump. And jump like a pro. It was Eric. I found myself boxed 3-4 positions from the lead of the group, but knew that that was the winning breakaway, and put a ton of power to catch up to the Canadian before we'd get to the downhill. Unlike Eddie, I suck at downhill (Eddie knows this and chastises me every time on our long rides). But what was I to do? I braced myself and stuck to Eric's wheel all the way down and then up the last incline. Pace was all right. At some point, actually pretty soon in the incline, Eric turns to me and is like "they're right there, let's go" and invites me to take the lead. Honored, I put in a very honest 1-1.5 miles pull, which I believe managed to put some ground between us and the chasers.

At that point I had the pleasure to enjoy the second pro-move of the day: instead of nicely taking the next pull, Eric sprinted past me and left me in the dust. In great style: body low to the handlebars (see the picture), effortless, one thing with his machine etc. And more importantly, not even leaving me a grain of hope to stay on his wheel easily.

Eric Wohlberg powering to the finish line

So he was gone, and there were a good 3-4 miles to go. The TT champion in front of me and the chasing group, including my friend Dave, chasing me. I could see them at every hairpin turn. And so, evidently, the could see me… Well, I decided that I was not going to be caught for that day, and pushed my pace the best I could, hitting myself in the head for all the energy spent early in the race. I was getting increasingly nervous when the wind picked up towards the top, but I was also feeling good, managing to stay in the saddle, and to summon good power. I could still see Eric up
at almost every turn as well.
The last turn before the finish. The chase group is not in sight.

At the end the chasing group didn't catch me; I was less than one minute back from Eric, and the chasers about half a minute back from me. Dave did eventually pop, and I ended up giving him 1:22. Enough.

I think there definitely are a few shortcomings in the LKHC points system. For example, no rewards for the final rankings: when I out-sprinted Dave at Bohlman-On-Orbit, we both put in a good effort, and I beat him, but we got the same time and the same points! Also, the disproportionate reward for the MB climb is quite frustrating. Take triathlons: the swim always has a huge dispersion, but that is accounted for by having swims be much shorter than the other two events. Or take grand tours: the TT are much shorter than the other stages, to avoid making TTers the only contenders.

The LKHC organizers argue that dirt climbs "mix things up [and] reward versatility". Well, then why not adding some running? Or rock climbing? Or speed chess? I'd be game for all! Also, there are other ways to mix things up. Random number generators work quite well…

I had a lot of fun during the series. It brought me a good amount of fitness and some racing strategy skills. I am so grateful to my wife, who understood how important this was to me, especially during an amazingly busy time at work, both from a fitness and from a mental standpoint…

I am grateful for the support of all the team, from my fellow low key-ers Nils, Eddie, Dan, Matt, Mike, Scott, and Matt S, to Mark and Jim for their advise. It meant a lot to me when today, at the Felton-Empire repeats, Scott told me that it made no sense that I had gotten second in the GC and that I clearly deserved first. I look forward to a solid 2014 season, hopefully quickly upgrading to cat 3 and being able to play some team work with trippers Morgan, Dan and perhaps also Mark!

LKHC #9: Mt. Hamilton

By Eddie Santos

For most, Thanksgiving is a holiday synonymous with a large meal centered around turkey. For the rest of us, it's a heavy dosage of pain centered around Mt. Hamilton. As tradition has it, the culmination of the Low-Key Hillclimb series brought a race up Mt. Hamilton on an absolutely picture perfect morning, despite forecasts of rain showers in the week leading up to the race. To thank the Gods for their providing blessed weather, Bike Trip put forth a solid Thanksgiving day team (likely annoying family members at home left to do all the cooking) of Dan, Nils, Scott, Stefano, and myself.

For those who have never experienced Hamilton, it's an 18.4 mile trip up to the observatory accumulating 4,399 ft feet of climbing along the way. In essence, the course consists of three climbs of starting with 5.9 miles (4.7%), a technical descent into the second climb of 3.2 miles (4.5%), and then a fast descent leading into the longest, steepest climb of 6.3 miles (5.9%).  This was the fourth time I'd done Hamilton (third time racing) and thus had started to get a sense of how to best slay the beast. The previous times I'd raced up the twisty mountain, I'd gone out too hard on the first two climbs, blew up, and bled time up the final, hardest climb. These experiences however, allowed me formulate a plan of attack: error on the side of slow on the first climb, find a group of riders to work with on the flatter top part of the first climb and on the descents, and save some energy to punch the third climb square in the face.

Staging on Alum Rock Ave / Mt. Hamilton Rd
The riders staged at Alum Rock Ave in different groups, according to ability. Group one was those who had scored above a 117 in the series, group two above 105, so on and so forth. This put Dan, Nils and Stefano in group one, with Scott and I waiting behind. The grouping did not appear strict however, as I spotted some rather heftier fellas hands on hoods staring at Stefano's back wheel, with dreams of glory sparkling in their eyes beneath their sunglasses. The lead car sounded the horn and the race was on. As usual, Nils was charging ahead of the field already halfway up the climb.

Nils sprinting while it's still flat

Group 1 already had a good lead up the road as I turned onto the course. I immediately reminded myself to be cool, and start the climb at a manageable pace. After a few minutes I realized I felt great, my body was responding well, and so I decided to catch up to the first group that was just slightly ahead. I knew I couldn't hold them to the top, so the goal was to hang out at the back, catch the over anxious, and form a second group of strong, but not quite top riders who I could work with. I was hanging on pretty well and feeling great. I was careful not to overexert myself, and eventually started slipping back slightly. I was still hitting a solid pace and found myself riding next to Rob Easley, who would prove to be a valuable ally for the rest of the climb. At one point, he shot up the road and caught a few other riders. I didn't panic and kept my rhythm. Knowing the flatter, faster portion portion of the first climb was just ahead, I accelerated to catch them so I could sit on the back and save energy, and executed this perfectly. We caught others, formed a group of about 8-10, one of which I noticed was Dan Connelly, and thus knew I was in good company.

Rob was pushing a really good pace heading towards the first descent, and I was still in the big ring churning the pedals hanging onto his wheel. Rob was all over the road, but he was proving to be a really strong and motivated rider. I knew descending was a relative strength of mine, and if I could hang on, I'd be in a good position. Once we crested and started the descent, Mark Johnson of Pen Velo attacked hard and shot down the road. I was still on Rob's wheel and noticed he didn't have the firepower to follow Mark. Immediately, I took the reins, came around Rob, and started pushing the pace, with Dan and Rob on my wheel. Once we reached the flatter part near Grant Park, I flicked my elbow and Rob came around to help me out and keep the pace up. We caught Mark at the base of the second climb, with Dan and Alex Komlik bridging up to join us. Rob and Alex were doing a great job at setting the speed, and realizing I was in the presence of better climbers, I mostly held wheel, though I made sure to occasionally take the front to let them know I was there to help out. This was a race against the clock after all, and solidly behind the leaders, there was no point to not working together. We must've shed Dan somewhere along the second climb before a fast descent towards the last climb. 

The last climb was now upon us, and though I was tiring, I still felt great, and was very motivated by the low time I was seeing on my Garmin. I knew the final climb would be just over 30 minutes, and thus knew I was well ahead of my very optimistic goal of 1:20:00 (honestly, I was just hoping to beat 1:22:00 to improve on my 1:28:XX time from the Mt. Hamilton Classic in May). Rob was dishing pain and I was matching him quite well. Alex and I helped out when we could, and occasionally Mark, though he seemed more apt to sit on. Near the top, the wind picked up and we slowed down ever so slightly. I decided to up the tempo to see if the guys had it in them to hold on, and grinded away at the pedals. The guys were digging deep and were matching me, proving that they were in it until the end. With about a mile or so to go, they came around on a big left hander before the straight away to the gate.

Stefano solos near the top with David Collet on the brain

The last mile was pretty fast and I was at the back of our group of four hanging on for dear life. We powered past the gate before taking a right hand turn leading up to the final ascent to the observatory. Rob and Mark shot up the road in a strong effort, and though I punched it, I decided not to contest the finish, partly because I was tired and we were racing the clock (not each other), but mostly because I was grateful for having had them to help me push myself to a fantastic time of 1:18:54 (113.28), over one minute faster than my most optimistic goal! This was by far my best score of the series, having scored consistently in the 107-108 range.

Overall Bike Trip had a fantastic day, led by Stefano who took 2nd with a time of 1:12:42 (125.55), 58 seconds behind winner Erik Wohlberg, Dan in 10th at 1:14:26 (120.50), Nils in 13th at 1:16:14 (117.49), myself, and Scott in 59th at 1:30:53 (97.52). This was good for 2nd place in the team division, behind The Brown Zone who had recruited a ringer in 3-time Canadian olympic athlete and current men's performance manager for Optum Pro Cycling, Erik Wohlberg.

With that, the 2013 Low-Key Hillclimb series concludes with great performances from various members of the Bike Trip team. Nils, Stefano, and I were the only amongst us to register the five necessary races to place highly in the overall classification. Stefano barely missed out on first behind David Collet, who stole first in heartbreaking fashion on last weekend's dirt climb up Montara. Nevertheless, second place is an all-time Bike Trip record and I'm sure an even more improved Stefano will be back next year for blood. Nils and I placed in 9th and 18th, respectively, as I managed a last minute shot up the rankings with my final performance. As a team, we finished third behind winners Sisters and Misters of No Mercy, and The Brown Zone, both of which scored highly based on the strength of their women and weekly recruits. We'd like to think we'd of won if it came down to just the men!

(l to r): Eddie (most fashionable), Dan, Stefano, Nils, Scott.

I managed to secure the Most Improved Rider category in a landslide, having improved my median score in this years series by 23.17 points (84.41 to 107.55), well ahead of the next rider, Joe Sullivan, at 12.12. This is in no small part thanks to you guys, and particularly our coach Mark Edwards, for providing fantastic training opportunities, solid race advice, and excellent camaraderie. With no more races until 2014, it's time to get back to training in an effort to secure Most Improved Rider next year as well. Let's get to it Gents, looking forward to seeing you all there.

2012: Eddie "Beefcake" Santos

2013: Eddie "Lesscake" Santos

For results and pictures, click below:
Week 9, Mt. Hamilton
Overall, 2013 Low-Key Hillclimbs

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Lomas Cantadas: Stefano strikes again

I like steep. Lomas Contadas, LKHC#7, was a short sweet treat with a 1.3 10.5% grade aperitif followed by a 0.4 miles flat intermission and a grand finale a bit shy of 1 mile at about 15% grade. In the words of the only other bike-tripper at the race, my buddy Eddie, it sounded a bit like Bonny Doon. And if there's one climb we all know, love and respect is good ole Bonny.

This week's climb was not really on my list, as there existed a clear risk of divorce in asking my wife to deal with our 1- and 3-year old boyz again for a very very long morning after Patterson Pass last week. With the additional bonus of the 1-year old one just starting walking and very much enjoying practicing. BUT, the stars lined up right, and my wife being an astronomer and all, I was given green light.

The GC big dogs were all lined up at the start line, and it was again Carl Nielson leading the way from the very beginning, at a seriously insane pace up the first steep bits and through the flats. A smart strategy, I thought, given the shortness of the course and the fact that he had been out-sprinted last week at the end. At the beginning of the interesting last third of the race, the 15% fun part, GC #3 Bill Laddish put forward a serious attack, to which I responded jumping on his wheel and passing Carl. 

A new solid contender, Hans Detlefsen, then jumped again shortly thereafter, and again yours truly decided to go with the attacker. This second attack was actually rather short, and just keeping a steady pace (so to speak) I found myself in the lead. After a few minutes Hans jumped again, but at that point I had spotted the landmark I knew corresponded to about 0.2-0.3 miles to the finish line. I upped the pace and "time trialed" (as much as one can time trial a 15% grade), and entered that sweet state where the hard breathing of your competitors starts to fade with the shadows of their bikes.

I crossed the line 6" ahead of Dave Collet, GC#2, who had stayed with the lead group all the way and saved it for a very strong finish, ahead of Hans (8" back), GC#3 Bill (15" back) and Carl (26" back). 

Hard to say when fellow competitors and good riders respect you. But I was surely quite happy when Strava notified me that Carl Nielson was now "following" me…

Saturday I felt like the words of climber great Richard Virenque made a lot of sense: "You can say that climbers suffer the same as the other riders, but they suffer in a different way. You feel the pain, but you're glad to be there."

Saturday, November 9, 2013

LKHC#6: Patterson Pass, first overall!!

I wished I had had a little more time to share this incredibly fun season of low-key hill climbs! Unfortunately Eddie wasn't there today to tell the story in his great words, so it's up to my cripple italian-english…

Today's climb was one roadies in the area know quite well: Patterson Pass. Only 4.4 miles, with a sweet rolling start for the first 1.5 miles, a gentle 6.6% for the following mile, and then the fun part: a 12% section, followed by rollers and an 11% grand finale (known as the OMG climb). Now, usually this course has tremendous wind blowing in the wrong direction, while today we were blessed with some nice tailwind.

Boxer Mike Tyson famously said: "Everyone has a plan 'til they get punched in the mouth". Well, today Bike Trip contradicted good ole Mike… Nils, Mark and I had an intense exchange of emails about strategy prior to the race, which ended with the following email from Mark (I'm quoting verbatim): "The forecast is for a slight tailwind @ 10:00 AM. ATTACK!".

And attack it was, from the gun: as soon as I had moved my eyes from the pedals that as usual wouldn't clip in (yes, I'm definitely still a rookie!), Nils was already 50m down the road cruising at a solid attack pace. Folks in our group were hesitating, and I jumped on Nils wheel, and we started working together, putting on a pretty good pace. We kept leading the bunch well into the beginning of the climb, taking turns pulling, but eventually Carl Nielson took the lead. I, frankly, was quite relieved. Mark, who knows Carl quite well, had informed me that Carl didn't mind setting the pace in the front, and I was happy to let him do that.

Drafting was a relatively minor effect, as the wind was from the back and the climb quickly gets in the >7%, but it was nice to just cruise along. I didn't really checked on the folks in the back, focusing mostly on Carl's wheel and on saving energy. I felt quite good through the first 12% climb, and Carl didn't really attack, but rather maintained a steady power output (which somewhat reminded me of following Mark's wheel on the Saturday repeats).

At the beginning of the OGM 11% ramp Dave Collet (#2 in the general classification) attacked very decisively. There was evidently no way I was going to let him go, and I jumped on his wheel and passed Carl. Dave pushed for a bit, but then we all regrouped. I felt well, and I knew exactly where the end of the incline was, so I decided to go and give everything I had. Which I did. I was quite happy to notice that the shadows of Carl and Dave were not glued to my wheel, and cruised to the finish line for the win.

Yours truly in the final attack, gasping for air ahead of Carl Nielson, Bill Laddish and Dave Collet
In the end Dave slowed a bit and let Carl and Bill Laddish (the fourth man in the breakaway) pass him. Bill eventually passed Carl, and, according to the LKHC timing, I was 3" ahead of Bill, 6" ahead of Carl and 14" ahead of Dave.

I am truly grateful for Nils and his great work at the beginning of the race and of the climb, and to Mark Edwards for his tactical insight. I felt like this was a well-planned effort, and a plan we managed to deliver quite successfully! An additional fun part of the story is that we gave about 30" to the Tour of Califronia pros on that same course, according to Strava. And sure, maybe they had some headwind… and maybe they had another 100 miles to go… Well, we have a few other things that get in the way of our biking, so take this Peter Sagan! and goodbye KOM Laurens ten Dam!

While I'm still in overall first in the general classification, and with a widened gap from Dave, who's still in second, Carl will probably put in the required 4 races, and other strong riders still could (including our favorite teenager phenomenon Adrien Costa!). So the game is still wide open, but I'm glad to have brought in the second win for the team, yeah-hee!