Monday, December 12, 2011

Old La Honda Road: another PR

I had a good year at the Low-Key Hillclimbs this year. Often by the time October rolls around fatigue from the year is starting to kick it. Last year I came into the series fairly fresh and fit, but then started a new job and my fitness went straight downhill from week 3 (my first) onward.

I finally started exercising at a reasonable rate again in April this year, a mixture of running and some cycling (mostly long commutes to work), and surprised myself with a sub-1:31 half marathon in August: I considered that good given my lack of formal running background. So I knew I had some fitness but wasn't sure about how I'd do on the bike. I did a few climbs of Diablo before the series, just to get some climbing legs, and was surprised my times weren't so bad. But for the Low-Keys, you've got to be better than "not so bad". Everyone seems to raise their game for the series.

But despite my worries I did pretty well. So as the series wound down, Tim Clark asked me if I was going to try for an Old La Honda time. Old La Honda is, to me, the most prestigious climb for times. More riders know their Old La Honda times than any other.

I've been adding some volume to rebuilt my aerobic base prior to the San Bruno Hillclimb on the New Year: during the series it was more about working hard Saturday to Tuesday then being fresh for Saturday.

So I got in some solid work Thanksgiving weekend, then the following weekend. I was pretty tired on Monday, so went super-light on my usual Monday weight room workout. Tue I felt a bit better, but a work meeting kept me from either riding in or riding at lunch. So I was starting to feel fresh again Tuesday night: a good change to give Old La Honda a shot on the Wednesday noon ride. It wasn't optimal: a few days of light work following my recovery would have been better. But I valued the chance to ride with the group rather than try a solo effort.

My last PR attempt on Old La Honda had been successful: in July 2009 I had set out to break 17 minutes and was delighted with my result, 16:49. It was a redemption against having failed miserably at the Diamond Valley Road Race the weekend before, where failing to follow through on my previous two strong races there, I'd been dropped on the first lap. For that attempt I'd ridden a very steady pace, turning my 36-18 gear until near the top, where I upshifted to my 17-cog.

It might seem surprising I'd not tried again. But a good run at Old La Honda requires that I be fit and rested, and that I'm willing to bring my Fuji with its climbing wheels on the train. The key thing here is fit and rested. Devoting a three o r four day block to a good Old La Honda time is a luxury in which I rarely indulge. So most of my rides up the hill are for training only, typically on my Ritchey Breakaway with clincher wheels, carrying water bottles, a heavy tool bag, and a pump. Almost always I've I'd done some sort of hard ride the day before, as well.

So I risked bringing my Fuji SL/1 with it's light wheels and 180 gram Vittoria Corsa time trial tubulars on the morning train and from there to work. At lunch, I met Mark Johnson and we rode along glass-strewn Central Expressway on our way to the ride start: a serious risk for the ultra-thin tires and no spare. But we made it, and I felt fairly good.

Doing good OLH's from the Wed Noon Ride used to be compromised by a fast pace over Arastradero and Alpine Road, then jamming to the sprint at Woodside. But no longer: the focus is now, thanks to Matt Allie's leadership, strictly on the climb. So the ride to the base is at a nice warm-up pace.

Conditions were fairly good for the attempt. The road is in historically good condition, most notably the upper portion which was repaved within the past few months. And winds were forecast to be light, from the north, a tailwind (winds are generally blocked by the trees on the climb, but every little bit helps). Cool temperatures had me carrying more weight in clothing than I'd prefer, but as we approached the climb and were stopped by construction crews on Portola Valley Road, Peter Tapscott offered to carry my jacket and empty water bottle for me. My excess mass was in my long-sleeve undershirt, my heavy long-fingered gloves, my compression tights, additional calf compression socks,and the wristwatch I'd forgotten to remove before leaving my office. All of this adds up, probably worth 2-3 seconds on the climb, the wind resistance from the gloves maybe an additional second. But I couldn't pick the weather and I wasn't going to help myself by under-dressing. Some recent emergency repairs to my bike due to a broken Power-Cordz added some additional weight: at least another second there. It all adds up.

As we hit the base of Old La Honda I made a tactical error. My plan had been to start a bit back, then move up to the early pace-setters, essentially shaving a second or two. But this back-fired, as nobody took control of the pace, and I was stuck in traffic. I went to the extreme left of the road, moved up, and went to the front myself. Not the best way to start: I should have hit the bridge marking the start of the climb at speed and carried momentum up the initial slope.

I was joined by Chris Zappala, who'd mentioned he'd commuted to Palo Alto from San Francisco earlier that morning. Despite the hard ride in the cold, he was ready to ride, so I got on his wheel for early pacing. As I climbed I looked down at my cassette to assess my gear. I had a 12-23 cassette, so tried to count the number of cogs between the chain and the end of the cassette and figure out which gear it was. Was it 17 or 18? It felt as if we were going fast, in either case, but I doubted if I was spinning the 17 that I would be able to sustain that pace.

I came across James Porter and Greg McQuaid climbing together. I'd expected them on the noon ride itself but they'd clearly decided to leave early on their own. Tim Clark was going to be with him but I didn't see him. Greg was recovering from a broken collar bone so I didn't expect him to be in top fitness right now, so I focused instead on riding with Chris.

Chris eventually faded, as expected given his morning commute, and I moved ahead. I hit the first mailboxes in 5:50-something, the fastest I'd ever done. That didn't seem to necessarily be a good thing. Then I noticed that I was indeed in my 17 cog, so downshifted to the 18. This put me back to where I wanted to be, gear-wise, but not where I wanted to be feel-wise. I was becoming distressed, struggling to maintain pace through the steeper corners, and there was still a long way to go. In 2009 I'd still be climbing seemingly effortless at this point.

I came upon Tim Clark, whom I was able to catch. For awhile he served as a nice rabbit, but eventually I caught him and he cheered me on as I passed. But I was feeling a growing sense of despair. I tried to suppress all negative thoughts, to simply push onward, but I couldn't deny that I was struggling.

I shifted down into my 19.

Now it was official: I'd gone from "get back onto pace" to "minimize losses". Sub-17 was still possible, I told myself, keep up the pressure, don't let up. Even if I were to miss 16:49, I still wanted to make Strava page 1, which required 17:08. This was no time to indulge in self-pity!

I looked down at my computer and saw 16-even with a few turns left. I knew that these turns always eat up way more time than expected: it always seems time accelerates here. But I kept pushing, all hope of smooth form now gone.

There it was: the mailboxes, then the stop sign. As I approached I looked again at my computer, the first time since I'd seen 16. 16:35 it said just as I went to hit the lap button at the stop sign. I'd done it: a new PR. Official time (from the Garmin) = 16:36.31.

It was with interest that I uploaded the data from the Garmin, and sure enough, the numbers tell me what I already knew from my gear selection: I faded.

To generate this plot I differentiated my altitude versus time, then applied a bi-exponential convolution with a 5-second time constant to smooth the data. To avoid issues with the smoothing at the beginning and end, I excluded the first and the final 500 meters. This generated the data with the red points. I then did a non-linear regression, fitting a decaying exponential to the result (the exponential versus distance, as opposed to time, but the two yield essentially equivalent results). This fitted function is plotted with the dashed curve. On the left of the plot is the rate of ascent represented as meters/hour ("VAM"). On the right I show the projected Old La Honda time for each VAM. The green background is sufficient to break my previous PR of 16:49. Red implies I'm losing ground versus that result.

You can see I obviously started way too fast: a 15-minute Old La Honda pace. Some people can do that (Ryan Sherlock beat 15 minutes the weekend before my ride, although Eric Wohlberg has the unofficial self-timed record at 13:50). I cannot. So as the climb progresses, the trend line has my climbing rate decrease at 3.4% per kilometer. Finally at around 4.5 km I crack fairly badly, my pace dropping even below this decaying trend. But I rallied toward the finish and regained some of that lost time.

Honestly: if I'd known my pace was going to be this far from uniform, I'd have said no way would I have been successful. But I was successful, which tells me that I am able to go out fairly hard, too hard, and still retain enough to do well for this interval. This is important for the San Bruno Hillclimb on 1 Jan, where there are considerable draft advantages for staying with a pack near the beginning, and given my experience here, it seems I can afford to go into the red to hold onto early wheels there. San Bruno is a relatively tactical climb, as there's an unavoidable recovery half-way as the route descends and turns under the main road on which it begins. Then from there the winds can make it very difficult to bridge gaps which may have formed on the first portion. So holding onto a good group is really important.

Anyway, it will be fun to see how it goes. I'm hoping for good weather on Jan 1.


fulmar2 said...

Congrats on your OLH PR. That time is very impressive - as are many of your performances this year. I have now witnessed two all-time PRs on OLH this week, and I do not think that this is a coincidence. Both PRs were not exactly performed by people not at the normal "peak age" for cycling. Also, both PRs were off times that were already pretty awesome.

My theory is that people are riding more - and harder - because for the first time ever (with Strava) achievements are being recorded. It will be very interesting to see what happens next. I see two futures:

1) Everyone gets faster - insanely fast. The bar is raised, humans achieve athletic accomplishments at a new, faster rate.

2) We burn out from "racing" too much.

This is an exciting time for such a study. Again, congrats on your great OLH time!

djconnel said...

Thanks. I agree with your assessment. In this instance my year was a total wash-out racing-wise. I didn't start working out more than once per week until April. I didn't do a single road race: a few running races and a hillclimb (Fremont Peak). Running was good for steady-state efforts, I rode to work up to twice per week (45 miles), and there was frequent jamming for Strava times on short (~1 minute) climbs. So a good mix. Freshness + fitness. As you point out, without the former, you're sunk, and in this area a lot of people a lot of the time are chronically over-trained.

djconnel said...

Also, cafeteria at work has limited food and limited (-1:30 pm) hours, so once I learned to ignore the existence of the snack machine, my weight was where it should be. The denominator is as important as the numerator.

Ygduf said...

You're too humble. 16:35 or whatnot is ridiculous. Tied for 12th out of 1900 people? Top 1/2 of 1%!

That you are at that level after an "off" year is another story.

I heard the top of OLH is re-paved. True?