Thursday, May 7, 2009

Me vs Gila Monster




I wanted to quit so badly. The first few miles were hard - they felt as horrible as the crit the day before... And this was to be the grueling, mountainous 106-mile "queen stage." Things were not starting well.

As we rolled out in the early morning and the pace quickened, all I wanted to do was to turn around and slink back to bed. My goal for the day was a simple one: Make it to the day's first major climb at mile 53, settle into the best pace that I could maintain, get into a decent group, and finish the damned race.

Even those modest objectives were starting to sound ambitious. I'd conveniently forgotten the uncategorized hills - and inevitable attacks to set up an early break - along the way.

Once a group of ten-or-so riders finally did get off the front and establish a gap, the peloton settled in to a tempo that would keep them close enough that they wouldn't threat the overall results and, likely, would get gobbled up on the day's decisive climbs. I was able to hang with the group up and over the first Category 4 climb, down the descent, through the valley, and up and over the Continental Divide.



A stage race of this magnitude always involved attrition - riders who just fatigue over the course of the event and whose bodies go into revolt. During the Gila Monster stage, good riders were literally losing their wits. Crashes were everywhere and several racers were seriously hurt. It was starting to look like a war with bodies falling and staying alert becoming the most important task.

The Overall GC: Levi, Lance, and Gila Monster stage winner Phil Zajicek!
The Overall GC: Levi, Lance, and Gila Monster stage winner Phil Zajicek!

I held tough until mile 53, at which point I knew my time with the peloton was soon to end. The pack shattered going up the Category 2 climb, followed by the most hair-raising, high speed descent I've ever seen. There were small groups forming up and down the mountain, with Lance and Levi pushing the pace of the eventual winning move. Gila veteran Phil Zajicek would upstage them both, however, as he attacked hard into the finish and took the ultimate victory of what's been a successful domestic career.

As for me, I settled into a good pace and actually got stronger as the race wore on: The Monster itself - a Category 1 climb, followed by a Category 2 and Category 4 climb to the finish with lots of high-mountain road, twisty descents in between. 9,131' of climbing, all told. Although I was pushing my tempo, I was actually able to enjoy the scenery, reflect on the insane week of racing, and appreciate all that I'd gone through to get to that point. It was a beautiful, poignant moment.

The 106-mile day took about 5 hours, with the stage winners a full half-hour quicker. I ended the week in 84th, dead-center of the 168 starters. Only 104 riders made it to the finish line - an accomplishment in itself.

The memories of suffering are becoming more vague and remote, as they always do, but the grandiose images of the event remain. This can only mean that, despite the struggles, or maybe because of them, I'll be back for more... this was my 5th consecutive Tour of the Gila, after all. And I'm a better person for it.

Suffering On In Silver City: Gila Time Trial and Crit




The body's a tough thing to figure out. You may nail your training preparation and feel like you've done everything right – but your performance on the bike sometimes doesn't cooperate. My best guess is that my time here at altitude, after living at sea level for the past year, is taking its full effect.

Prevailing theory says that an athlete's third day up high is the worst. The body is in full red blood cell production mode in response to the thin air, and it's tough to do much else at a high level – let alone chase the top athletes in the world.

In the time trial, my power output was down dramatically from where it would normally have been. I race with a powermeter and had target numbers for various segments of the course, but it quickly became obvious that I needed to readjust my goals on the fly.

Although conditions were significantly faster than last year, my time was slower and the power output down a whopping 25 watts.

All that I could do was pace my efforts as well as I could, to recover whenever I could on the descents, try to give what I had on the tough climbs, and keep myself low and aero whenever possible. There aint no lying in the “race of truth,” but tactical dosing of my efforts helped to minimize the damages. All things considered, I'll take my 90th place of 147 riders, and will move on to day 4 hoping for better things.

In the more newsworthy highlights of the day, Levi Leipheimer scorched the roads for a new course record of 32:59, besting Nathan O'Neil's former mark by about 15 seconds. Tom Zirbel (Bissell) rode an incredible race to take 2nd in 33:52, 30 seconds ahead of Lance Armstrong in 3rd. And the other Armstrong – Kristin, that is – showed why she's the reigning world and Olympic champion by uncorking an amazing record-setting ride of her own in the Women's pro race at 37:36.

Downtown Silver City Criterium

I'm tucked in on the right. My grimace tells a story...
I'm tucked in on the right. My grimace tells a story...

If struggle and suffering build character, I'll have character coming out of my ears after this week. Struggling in any race isn't exactly fun, but when trouble strikes in a crit, it's particularly painful. The entire 40 lap race, covering about 43 miles, felt as hard as the last five super-fast laps of a criterium typically do.

The speeds were pretty fast but, unfortunately, that wasn't the trouble. My body's not cooperating and I was holding onto the huge 145+ rider peloton by my teeth for the entire day. As you can see from the course profile below, there wasn't a whole lot of room for recovery.

OUCH.
OUCH.

As in the previous day's time trial, I did everything I could to save energy. My main rule of thumb was: Take it when it's free. In other words, any time I could move up in the pack with little to no effort, I was all over it. The further up I could get, the more buffer I would have in case I started to feel really bad before coming off the back. It was all about self-preservation.

I allowed small gaps to open up on some faster corners, then slightly accelerated into them. This saved me a little of the effort of having to brake into corners and re-accelerate back out. I stayed out of the blustery wind whenever possible, looked for seams in the pack to open around me that would allow me to take more efficient lines or find a better position, and took a couple of extra pedal strokes on the descent when I had the energy to move on up.

Truth be told, I felt absolutely horrible today. Only one year ago I was in the decisive breakaway in this same race and we were only caught in the last lap. It gave me confidence to do more big races. I'm trying to not have this experience make me feel the exact opposite.

But I'm also proud that I was able to gut it out. I clung to the lead pack and managed to get the same finishing times as the leaders, despite getting caught behind Levi Leipheimer's crash with a little less than two laps to go. His tubular tire rolled off of his rim on a corner as he was setting out on an attack. Several riders crashed and a huge portion of the pack, including me, had to come to a stop. You'd think these guys would have better mechanics although, to be fair, this is probably the first criterium any of the Euro-pros have done in several years.

Levi was able to finish the race without losing any time, thanks to a quick bike change with teammate Chris Horner. Congrats to Roman Van Uden (Land Rover/Orbea) for piecing together a win out of the chaotic finish. And for the Lance watchers – he took 11th in his first criterium since 2002.

Tonight it's eat, drink, rest, and hope for the best. It's an early start for the epic Gila Monster tomorrow. 106 ridiculously hard miles to come... and I'm planning on finishing!

Images from the Gila Time Trial

John and Gay Fayhee of Silver City have opened up their home to my teammate Emiliano and me for the week of the Tour of the Gila. They're incredibly welcoming and hospitable but, more importantly, just really cool and fun to hang out with.

I met John when I was in town both to compete in the race and to cover the event for Mountain Flyer magazine two years ago. My editor arranged for the host housing through the event promoter. John was the editor of Mountain Gazette at the time - a superb blend of outdoorsy, mostly high-country based literary fictions and facts - and I was an aspiring writer. We've kept in touch and been friends ever since.

John's wife Gay was nice enough to come out to the time trial venue today and brave the hoopla surrounding Lance's visit to snap some photos. Much thanks for these great shots, all of which are © Gay Gangel-Fayhee.

Stetina

Levi

Floyd

Lance 02

Lance01

Josh

Howes

Emiliano

Colavita

Christian

Baldwin

Armando

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Surviving Stage Two: Inner Loop Road Race

Stringing it out up the first climb
Stringing it out up the first climb

There are two big related stories about this week's Tour of the Gila stage race. One is the amazing coverage that media outlets are giving to a U.S. based bicycle race. When Sports Illustrated, ESPN, the New York Times, and pretty much every mainstream news publication is covering a race in remote southwestern New Mexico, you know that something's different. Here's a little snippet from the Albuquerque nightly news:








And just what is that "something different?" Well, it's the Lance factor of course:




Stage Two: Inner Loop Road Race Recap

I knew it was going to be rough, so I set very modest goals: Finish the stage and make the time cut. Sounds easy enough, but when you have international superstars revving their engines, a small gap to the peloton can balloon extremely quickly.

The race is mellow for all of about 5 miles before teams start lining up for the first intermediate sprint bonus. Right after that comes a pretty nasty climb up to Pinos Altos and the pack definitely begins to splinter. I didn't quite make it over the climb with the lead peloton, but was close enough that I could punch it to the riders just in front of me and quickly rotate with them to rejoin the action.

A few miles of technical mountain descending and then the steep two-mile climb in the outskirts of the Gila National Forest is up next. It's a spectacularly beautiful area, but I only now this from visiting on non-race days. Today going up that climb, my lights started to go out.

I must have yo-yo'ed back and forth off the back of the pack, fighting my way back on three times before the last "yo" had no response... it just dangled at the end of the string with no snap back. Sorry for the horrible metaphor - it's the best I can do after too long, hard days!

The next descent goes on for ever, off of the mountain and down into the Mimbres River valley. The tight roads, undulations, and some decreasing radius turns thrown in are sure to grab your attention - it's awesome, and a nice chance to recover from the climbs.

The good news is that by the bottom of the descent, I got into a good-sized group that eventually built to over 20 riders. We moved through the subsequent valley and the climbs towards the end at a good clip. We finished the stage about 18 minutes down on the leaders which, considering what was transpiring at the head of the race, wasn't all that bad.

There were some fireworks going on further up the road in what sounds like a smaller, simpler version of Tours de France gone by. Floyd Landis was in a four-man break that gained as much as four minutes on the peloton with Lance and Chris Horner doing most of the work to keep them close and eventually real them in. As Alex Howes (Garmin U23 Team), who went on to take second place in the field sprint told VeloNews, "They were just two-man team time trialing, it was pretty impressive."

Kudos to my teammate Emiliano Jordan who after a rough day yesterday was was able to rebound and gut it out over the early climbs, sit on all through the valley, and stay with the lead group to the finish - no mean feat! The rest of my teammates actually ended up in my chase group, although they each lasted longer in the peloton than I did. There's still a little bit missing in that real top-end punch in my game, especially when it comes early in a race.

Tomorrow's another day, the "race of truth," time trial, or, as my Honduran teammates call it "contra reloj" (against the watch). 16.15 miles long and, since it's the Gila, some pretty burly climbs thrown in along the way.

Photo via Tour of the Gila.

One Day Down and Degrees of "Good"




There was a quote from Astana's Chris Horner about two weeks ago when the rumor mill started flying about him attending the Tour of the Gila with teammates Lance Armsrtong and Levi Leipheimer. It looks like VeloNews has since re-edited the interview, so I'll paraphrase. Horner thought that the Gila would be an ideal warm-up for the Giro d'Italia, which starts on May 9th, because of the altitiude (Silver City is almost 6,000 feet with climbs going much higher), the great climbs and descents, and that they'd emerge from the 5-day stage race feeling fresh since it wasn't (by their standards) a very long or hard event.

When Horner said this, he wasn't being cocky. Perhaps it was misconstrued as such and that's why VeloNews removed that portion of the interview. Those guys really just are that good.

Just a few weeks ago, as I wrote about for the Club, I lined up for the Cherry Blossom Classic stage race in the Dalles, Oregon. Paul Mach and Jeremy Vennell of Bissell Pro Cycling dominated the weekend. They made it look effortless as they set a ferocious tempo on the climbs, putting mere mortals like me into severe difficulty.

Fast-forward a couple of weeks to the Sea Otter Classic. Levi Leipheimer showed up without any teammates and got into the decisive breakaway in the road race with four Bissell teammates, including Mach. Mach describes how Leipheimer was able to ride away from the foursome without seeming to break a sweat. It never ceases to amaze me just how many levels of "good" there are.

Tour of the Gila, Stage One

Compared to past editions of this race, today's Mogollon road stage was downright civilized. The typical driving winds, guttering of riders, and echelons all over the road were replaced by relatively mild, warm, sunny conditions. As always, there was a breakaway that stuck for a good portion of the day, but they held less than a two-minute gap when the peloton turned into the 7-mile finishing climb.

Not long after, largely thanks to Lance Armstrong's tempo-setting efforts, seven riders, including his teammate Levi Leipheimer, sped across to the break and left them behind. Lance ended up taking 8th on the day, but he set Leipheimer up to do what he does best - hit the hills hard and lay waste in his path. 22 year-old Peter Stetina (U23 Garmin team) continues to be a revelation as he powered his way to an impressive 2nd place.

As for me, I had plenty of elbow-rubbing time with the superstars. It was a little surreal when I listened in on Lance, riding just behind me, trying to get the attention of his team director, Johan Bruyneel, over his race radio. The moment was straight out of one of the Tour de France dvd's I've watched over and over. Recent World Cup track winner and up-and-coming all-around phenom Taylor Phinney (aka "all-twitch") was to my right, and the best U.S. based riders in the business made up the rest of my field of vision.

As expected, the finishing climbs absolutely shattered the peloton. By the time I crossed the hilltop finish, I was about six minutes behind the furious winning pace, setting tempo and doing the best I could to spin my 25-tooth cog up the wicked steep pitches. The climb is relentless. I'm not going to be able to match the climbing speeds of the top domestic pros on something like that - let alone the Euro peloton talent setting the pace this week! If I dug too deep and went beyond threshold for long, I'd be sure to come unglued and lose tons of time. Because there's little time for recovery, my best approach was to find a pace that I could hold and do my best to keep turning it over, recovering whenever the pitch flattened a bit.

I've been feeling the altitude for the past few days and knew that today would be tough. Although the race was relatively tame by Gila standards, it was still a long, hard day. Every effort above threshold hurt more than it should have. I focused on my breathing, keeping my neck and shoulders loose, good pedal form, and coasting whenever possible. I'm doing everything I can to conserve energy and to keep eating and drinking during the stages, hoping that my form will come around over the next couple of days. The time trial is on Friday - and there's no faking it or conserving energy there!

The mental chatter was relentless today and I did my best to keep it positive. The demons emerged and prodded me to climb off at the feed zone, to quit bike racing and realize that I'd never be able to hang with guys of this caliber. I did manage to persevere and quash those voices - but it wasn't easy.

Tonight it's time to chow down (I seem to have a bottomless appetitie right now, 2 burritos went down way to eaily), a toned down version of Myofascial release on the foam roller, light stretching, and plenty of sleep and R&R. My lungs are feeling pretty stressed already but, if I feel up to it, I may trying in some shorter versions of the breathing exercises from Cyclo-BREATH.

Stage 2 Course Profile - 80 Miles
Stage 2 Course Profile - 80 Miles

Tomorrow has a long, hard climb early in the stage followed by a long, technical mountain descent. Getting through that with the leaders may be a tall order, but if I can dig deep and get over that climb with a strong group, we should be able to catch back on in the long valley after the descent. If not, it's going to be a really long day out on the road, battling to make the 20% time cut and to live to race another day...

Photo by Rob Alvarez.

Lining Up with Lance, Landis, Leipheimer, and Horner



D-Day, or perhaps G-Day (for the Tour of the Gila start), is upon us. Tomorrow kicks off five spectacular, grueling days of hills, altitude, wind, for what's always a star-studded peloton. The funky town of Silver City, an eclectic blend of blue collar, hippie, outdoorsy folks, and artists is overrun with lycra for a week. It's a wonderful place, revered by hardcore roadies both for the quality of racing and the enthusiasm the town shows in supporting the event.

Its out-of-the way locale has added to the race's cool factor, but has also prevented the race from developing the mainstream recognition that it deserves. This year will change that. Although there was controversy when the UCI (Union Cycliste International - the governing body of cycling) moved to enforce an obscure rule, several of the most famous cyclists in the world will be right next to us at the start line, some in disguise.

Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimmer, and Chris Horner are using the race to fine tune their fitness and prepare for the high mountains of the upcoming Giro. Due to a UCI rule that's never been enforced before, the threesome from Astana can't suit up in their Pro Tour team's kit. So, they'll be sporting the logos of Lance's Mellow Johnny's bike shop instead.

Floyd Landis is also on board with his Team Ouch as part of his road back to the top-end of the sport. And a who's-who list of the top domestic pros round out the 168-man field, which includes a five-man roster from my Ten Speed Drive elite team.

Team tactics for us in a race of this caliber is pretty simple: Survive. Our squad is composed of 2 racers from Honduras (Cristian Velasquez, the National road & TT champion, and Armando Orellana); Vincent Owens from Fresno, CA; Emiliano Jordan from Tucson, AZ; me; and Team Director John Freisen who will handle instructions via race radios, feeds, and all the logistics for the whole week.

Of course, lining up against the best of the best is a once in a lifetime experience and my teammates and I are revelling in it. Even cooler - this 23 year-old race will be the center of the cycling world for the week. The press coverage will be huge, the spectator attendance will sky rocket and the benefit both to the town of Silver City and future editions of the race - which was almost canceled due to lack of funds before SRAM came on to foot the bill - will enjoy better funding and increased attendance. It's really awesome to see!

It's All About the Mental Prep Now

I have my share of butterflies before tomorrow's 94-mile day. I worry that coming from sea level to a start line that sits at almost 6,000 feet, with significant climbing up from there, will be a brutal challenge. Could I have trained harder/better/smarter... gotten leaner... done more core, flexibility and breathing work? But, in addition to all of the doubts and fears, there's a real sense of excitement just from participating at this top level.

It's one day at a time with the main goal just making it to the next start. I'm in pre-hydration mode, elevating my legs when I can, and donning my favorite compression tights for air travel, car travel, when I sleep, between stages... they're seeing a good deal of use.

Stage 1 Profile
Stage 1 Profile

Tomorrow will be winds, a peloton strung out in the gutters, flat to rolling terrain, and a long, brutal climb with an exposed, really windy false flat on the way to an uphill finish line in the ghost town of Mogollon. Finish within 20% of the stage winner's time and I live to fight another day... I can't wait to see what these guys will do in the Stage 3 time trial!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Gila Sufferfest 2009

Just wrapped up the Tour of the Gila, back home and recovering. Below is an excerpt of the post I did for Oregon Cycling Action:

SILVER CITY, New Mexico -- This year's Tour of the Gila was a bit of a homecoming for me. Although I've never lived in Silver City, I spent the better part of the past seven years split between Taos and Albuquerque, New Mexico, before arriving in Portland this past fall. The Gila is where I cut my racing teeth, and this year marked my fifth consecutive edition.

The eclectic mining town of Silver City blends the stunning Gila wilderness with blue collar salt of the earth, outdoor enthusiasts, a growing artist and gallery community, and some folks who manage to blend several of those aspects. Somehow it all works and dodges the priciness and pretension of other southwest mountain escapes like Santa Fe. And, once per year, it hosts one of the coolest bike races in the country... (click here to read the rest).

I also provided daily race journal entries for Cyclo-CLUB.com. They're in the members only section right now, but I'll repost those here once they're public.