Thursday, January 2, 2014

2014 San Bruno Hillclimb report

Going into San Bruno Hillclimb this year I knew I was underprepared. I'd barely ramped up my climbing fitness during the Low-Key Hillclimbs, showing some signs of speed at Lomas Cantadas (week 7), then exposing my weakness on the dirt @ Montara (week 8), then the following Thursday, Thanksgiving, paying for a lack of endurance @ Mount Hamilton (week 9). It was all a bit sobering.

That launched me into a December full of travel: San Francisco - Philadelphia - Albany NY - Philadelphia - New Jersey - Philadelphia - San Francisco in two weeks. In addition to the planes and trains, I squeezed in some decent-quality running. But running isn't the same as riding, especially since my running is adaptation-limited at the moment. On the positive side I felt some running speed returning at the end of that period.

My return to San Francisco on the night of the 27th allowed for just a few days to prepare for San Bruno. Due to commitments of visiting family, I ran, then later hiked, on Saturday (the 28th). Then on Sunday I pre-rode San Bruno, starting from the Low-Key Hillclimb side (west) rather than the race side (east). My legs felt like sludge, but started to open up near the end of the climb. Monday was a light hike in Muir Woods. Tuesday I rode San Bruno again, this time from the east. I felt better, but still not zippy. Wednesday morning, race day, I pre-rode the climb before the race. I felt okay: my break from running had flushed out the sludge. I had done as well could.

San Bruno (E)

My goal was to finish within a minute of my 2012 time, which was 16:03. I'd been really fit then, not to mention two years younger, the latter of increasing significance year-by-year. To do that, however, I decided I needed to ride a tactical race: focus on making it to the top of the first of three climbs with the lead group, then to the top of the second climb (the underpass) with a group, then the third and final climb to give it everything. A dose of tactics was added by a headwind during part of this climb. The route turned away from the headwind with 800 meters to go, so it was here to try and get a gap on with whomever I was riding. It also gave me added motivation, because I didn't want to be beaten by too many of the 4-5's.

Race goal? I felt finishing the top 5 was an outside possibility, but I was trying not to focus on that. Too much depends on who shows up.

I lined up with a mixed 45+ field, combining my group (1-2-3) with the 4-5's. This created a decent sized group, which I liked, as it made it more likely I'd have riders to pace with throughout the climb.

The race begins with a left turn onto Guadalupe Canyon Road from North Hill Drive (the access road to the industrial parks, one of which hosts the race registration). This curve was a bit crowded: I've not been doing any pack rides, so I was slightly uncomfortable here, and lost places. But the group was relaxed here, no crazy business, so there were no issues. I was further back than I wanted to be, and I'd need to remedy that.

The pace was immediately unsustainably fast, but not ridiculously so. From my position so far back I needed to be alert for splits, and when there was a lull in my group, I moved up. Now I was back close to where I thought I should be relative to the others.

I hit the top of the first climb in decent shape, but not long after a gap opened ahead of a rider ahead of me. This was unfortunate. I managed to join into a group of four, including Alexander Komlik, top photographer at the Low-Key Hillclimbs for 2013, and two others. Alexander was setting a solid pace.

We stayed together the rest of the second climb. I was feeling the pace was hard, but I knew there'd be recovery on the 270-degree descent-and-turn back under Guadalupe Canyon Road. I made it here intact, but stupidly, I was slightly gapped by Alexander and another rider on the short descent and rough turn which marks the bottom of the descent on the 270. This was just a moment's mistake, but it opened a few meter gap which I'd struggle to close.

David Cheung photo
the final climb (David Cheung photo)

The rider with Alexander opened a gap on him, and I saw that Alexander was having problems holding the pace. The rest of the climb was a matter of keeping the pace steady, not slacking, and I felt I was able to do this. I passed Alexander, was passing a number or riders from earlier fields (juniors and 55+ primarily), then tried to keep the effort high to the finish.

Finishing was a bit of a anti-climax, as I was alone. My lap timer, which I'd started with 10 seconds to go, was reading on the wrong side of 17:30. My time was a bit of a disappointment, the the prizes had been determined long before. I wasn't sure of my place, but it was likely closer to 10th than to 5th.

Chris Phipps, freshly back from eating bread pudding in England for the holidays, cracked 16 minutes to win, leading a podium sweep for his team, Thirsty Bear. The podium shot is here. I ended up 7th/12 in the 1-2-3, 10th/39 in the combined 45+ field (3 of the 4-5's finished ahead of me). It is what it is.

Here's a VAM analysis, where I did 5-second smoothing using my bi-exponential filter:


My rate of climbing was highest at the beginning. This was as it had to be, as it was important to stay in a good group. There was a lull during the second climb, as I was in the group I was in and that wasn't going to change. On the third climb, my goal was a steady pace with whatever reserves I had left. This was largely successful. Toward the finish I tried to ramp it up, but there wasn't enough left to ramp up: my increasing perceived exertion served only to hold onto the pace I had. As the grade levels out toward the finish my VAM dropped a bit. There wasn't any sprint left in me, but then my motivation for one was low, as I was alone.

I figure I did the best with what I have. But I know at this point each passing year could be the year I hit a cliff in performance, so I worry the ceiling is dropping on what I can do. But it is what it is, and certainly my preparation was inadequate.

What I need to do, I think, is get myself out to a Wednesday noon ride and see if I can do a decent time on Old La Honda.

But the goal for the near future: Inside Racing's Montara Mountain trail half-marathon on 18 Jan. It will feel really good to get out on the trails again. I'm really looking forward to that one. Cara's doing the 10 km race, which should be nice as well.

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