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 Garner (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:
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.
Climbing South Park with Rich Hill (Paul MacKenzie following us took this photo)
I started fairly well. Bill Laddish and "Wes", another rider who like Patrick Garner 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.