Love-hate: my relationship with a mountain bike and Low-Key Hillclimbs.
Low-Key Hillclimbs is a series of 9 climbs each year, on Saturdays from the beginning of October through Thanksgiving, with the final of the 9 on Thanksgiving itself. When we started the series, part of my vision was that we'd use it as a showcase for the variety of climbs in the Bay Area. Back then, in the mid-1990's, racers typically used a low gear of 39-25 or even 39-23. This tended to make the spicier climbs the Bay Area had on offer a bit more of a painful experience than many would prefer. Thus it was usually same-old-same-old: climb Old La Honda, climb Kings, climb Highway 9, West Alpine, Tunitas. But other truly differentiating options went neglected.
So the goal was to broaden people's scope: cover the 2-dimensional space of duration and steepness with a combination of short and long, gradual and steep. In addition to making it more interesting for riders, it would make the competition more interesting, as the riders who excel on steep-long might not be the ones who are best at short climbs.
But the differentiation was less than might be expected. Scores were remarkably consistent from climb to climb. There was a bit of motion, but even with a climb like West 84, which is split into a flat portion and a climbing portion, when we ran split times there was relatively little difference in the rankings on the two.
So to spice things up, we needed to add something more truly different.
In 1998, a flat time trial was on the series. I don't take credit for this one: it was a year I was relatively uninvolved. But the route, Willow Springs, was rained out. So it never got used.
My contribution was the dirt. Dirt adds an entirely different element to the game. You'd think it would be similar: power/mass is the key metric in both climbing and against rolling resistance. But while a dirt climb won't turn the ranking on its head, it does have a much greater influence than switching between paved climbs.
Our first dirt climb was West Alpine Road in 2007. This was our second year back after the break from 1999-2005. It was a mass-start, timed event. We'd applied for a permit to Windy Hill Open Space Preserve. This permit had originally been accepted, but then was subsequently declined when it was realized we were timing riders. Timed cycling events are not allowed on Open Space lands, I was told. I pointed out that given the course, not even world champion mountain bikers could exceed the 15 mph trail speed limit. However, this did no good. To be honest I see their point. Even at a relatively slow speed, if one is in a competitive mode, a rider can behave uncourteously or even dangerously. But as a result we redirected the climb to West Alpine, which is a public road, one of the rare public unpaved roads in the Low-Key domain.
There was one tricky bit in that the road has been washed out since the late 1990's, and thus cyclists are required to use a bypass through open space land, a bypass which would normally be subject to permitting requirements. However, since that bypass is sanctioned for through-traffic on what is still technically a public roadway, and since the law does not forbid cyclists from competing on public roadways (assuming they follow vehicle code), it would have been hard for them to impose their permitting requirements on us.
That climb was a success, with a much-diminished but happy group of 30 riders. I rode Cara's cyclocross bike, too small for me, but good enough for the 18:15 effort. On the singletrack, which had some steep bits, I got off and ran in typical cyclocross fashion but without cyclocross skills. I ended up with 102.1 points, twelfth out of 28 male riders. This was well below my usual standing, as the average of my scores counting toward the overall was 118.8.
Despite the big success in 2007, our fun in the dirt took a hold until 2012. What changed in this time was the proliferation of GPS timing, in particular on smart phones, so that everyone had relatively easy access to a GPS timing device for at least a day. The other thing that changed was Strava established a precedent that simply posting times recorded by riders did not constitute an "event". Nobody demands Strava get a permit every day for reporting times riders took to climb such excellent open space trails as Kennedy Fire Road in Los Gatos. The traditional Thanksgiving ride there, on the other hand, where riders were actively organized and given a time to start together, was shut down.
So we switched to using GPS data for dirt climbs. In 2012 we hit that traditional Thanksgiving climb, used by us the Saturday before, Kennedy Fire Road. I ran this one instead of riding it, foolishly thinking the top was earlier than the actual top and not finishing the climb. I still haven't ridden Kennedy Fire Road. I definitely need to do that.
Kennedy was another success. Some people were deterred by the GPS timing aspect. It lacked the spirit of Low-Key, they said. But not really -- the spirit of Low-Key is to expose riders to different types of climbs, to establish fast times for different climbs, and while the GPS timing took away some of the group aspect, reducing rider groups to whatever riders informally organized among themselves, we certainly accomplished these. Including runners we had 45 finishers at Kennedy. That was solid. By virtue of my mess-up, however, I scored nothing, and indeed this cost me the overall ranking for top runner that year, a year I was focused on running in preparation for the California International Marathon which I ran in December.
With the good experience of Kennedy, I wanted to make a dirt climb an annual component of the series. So for 2013 we added a climb which Tim Clark had recommended: Montara Mountain. This was the most challenging dirt climb we'd done, with steep gravelly rock sections which made getting a road bike up it a real challenge. I used my mountain bike for this one, a 1990's Gary Fisher Genesis-geometry aluminum hardtail which I'd bought used in 1999 or so to ride the trails in Austin. I'd never gotten around to doing that, and only built it up later, getting a 2000 Marzocchi front fork, the first year they offered it with a lock-out dial. I figured lock-out was important to reduce losses from the suspension on smooth dirt climbs. I'm still not sure how true this is, but it seemed a good idea at the time.
It's a nice bike, but it's heavy, several pounds heavier than a modern carbon mountain bike with carbon fiber wheels. And it's a lot heavier than a 'cross bike. But I liked the fat tires for Montara, wanting as much traction as I could get. Even so, I didn't clean it, and unclipped during one of the especially steep bits. My 3x8 gearing is fairly low, but now as low as the gearing most people have with 10-speed or 11-speed cassettes.
I ended up with 98.6 points. I wasn't very fit in 2013 to start with, having only just recovered from a crash in June for which the subsequent physical therapy and associated exercises took a much larger priority on my time than riding, and for much of the time running wasn't an option. But even so, my score was low that climb: on climbs contributing to my final score I averaged 109.8 points. So this was 11 points, close to 10% lower.
The turnout: 51 total runners (6) and cyclists (45), despite a relatively remote start at the coast north of Half Moon Bay. The weather was gorgeous, though, and it was so-much-fun. While there was no organized start time, a bunch of riders started near the usual Low-Key time of 10:00. I started at 10:00 when registration normally closes, others started around 10:10 when we traditionally roll. So there was a decent crowd at the top at one point. It felt a bit like a party, even more than the usual road climbs.
Now it's 2014, and I wanted to add in one of my favorites, the Marin Headlands. I was a bit worried about using the Headlands, because it's national parkland, and higher-profile than either Kennedy or Montara. But the combination of Miwok and Marincello in good conditions is about as well balanced a climb between mountain bike, cross bike, and road bike I know. The trails have some steep bits, a few ruts, but I've ridden them both on my mountain bike and on each of my Ritchey Breakaway. I've ridden nearby Coastal Trail to the Conzelman Road / McCullough Road junction on both of these as well as on my Fuji SL1. So the trails are quite versatile.
For a change, I was planning on using the Winter Allaban for the Low-Key. It made sense: gain the advantage of the fattish tires of the rando bike with its low gears. Sure, the bike is much heavier than my Fuji SL/1, but I didn't want to do a lot of work to get the Fuji ready, and the fatter tires should provide better traction. But it was worst than I thought. On my pre-ride the Sunday before the Low-Key my rear tire, a Challenge Strada Bianca 30 mm (measured @ 32 mm on my 26 mm rims) was slipping occasionally. This wasn't enough to cause any major issues, except on one particularly steep bit on Bobcat returning from Marincello, but skidding is almost certainly a big energy waster, and I figured even if I wasn't skidding overtly small skids I might not recognize as such would cause energy loss I didn't want.
Pre-ride of Headlands route
Kirby Cove side trip, during Headlands route pre-ride
I could have put Cara's cyclocross wheels on the Winter, but I decided instead to go with traction maximus: the mountain bike.
The pre-ride gained less significance, however, as in the days before the climb we got around 2 inches of rain ending just hours before I rode the trail. The trail ended up absorbing most of this, but the surface was left tacky and damp. This likely improved the traction relative to what I'd experienced on the drier surface.
I got to the trail head having ridden there from home. I'd discovered, to my horror, that my front brake was lightly rubbing. The Gary Fisher has J-brakes, and the adjustment on those is very sensitive, since they don't have as much throw as other brake designs. If I change on thing on the Fisher, it will be the brakes. I don't like worrying about them.
I didn't have my multitool, but fortunately Glen Kinion was there, and he led me to his parked car where he had a giant bag of tools. Paul McKenzie was parked nearby, as was Jennie Phillips. It was the Sisters and Misters out for their ride, which wasn't due to start for close to an hour. I adjusted my brakes with Glen's screwdriver, chatted just a bit, but then headed out for my lap.
I left my water bottles, vest, and remaining 2 dates in a bag at the junction between Miwok and Bobcat, then set off for my lap. I was carrying the bare minimum -- only a single gel to consume after Miwok, before descending Old Springs.
Miwok went fairly well, I thought. My goal had been my 10 minute Strava PR, and I beat that cleanly on my lap timer, although the Strava segment I later realized includes a portion of the trail prior to the Low-Key start which had been marked by chalk by Reid the day before based on the GPS coordinates I'd posted. We don't use the Strava segment for Low-Key, but rather I define my own "start line" and "finish line" and time how long it takes riders to go between them. I still beat my Strava time, however, by only one second, but that had been by a good margin my best time, so I'd take it.
Old Springs descent was next, untimed. It felt good to be on a mountain bike here, although having swapped the heavier mountain bike saddle for a road saddle, I couldn't get my butt behind the seat as I normally would. Old Springs has a series of steps and I like being well back for these. But still it was better on the mountain bike than on a road bike. Along the way I encountered Gary and Holly riding the other way, from home near Mt Tam to the start to meet their Sisters and Misters teammates.
Marincello was next. This is easier than Miwok -- a fairly steady grade to a false summit, a gradual sweeping left turn, a final steep bit, then a short gradual slope to the top.
Soon after I started I realized I'd forgotten to take the gel. Whoops. That was clearly nonoptimal but I'd need to live with it.
I started running on fumes when I hit the sweeping left false summit. This was fine because it would mean I'd be sure to come close to emptying the tank on this climb. I kept the intensity up on the sweeping left, then gave it everything for the final steep bit, surviving the final few meters between the end of that and the top.
I PRed Marincello as well, by a healthier 8-second margin. PRs on both climbs? How could I be unhappy with that?
After recovering a bit, finally eating that gel, I descended Bobcat back to the junction with Miwok and found Holly and Gary there. It was 2:05 pm, after the scheduled Sisters and Misters start time, but they didn't see any sign of the others. Had the group started early? That was impossible, I said, since Gary and Holly had backtracked the course in arriving there, and I'd forward-tracked the course before meeting them, so there was simply no way. Some hikers arrived from the direction of the lot where Paul and the others had parked. I asked if they'd seen mountain bikers and they said no. So the three of us decided to start together, Holly for time, Gary just to get the ride in, me for the company and for a second loop.
So after I ate my remaining two dates, put my water bottles back on my bike, and returned my vest to my pocket I was ready to go and we were off.
We were overtaken along the way by the late-arriving Sisters and Misters group. I was clearly sub-optimal for this second lap, having given everything on the first lap. But it was fun giving a hard effort here without any pressure to get a particular time.
I was passed by Greg and Paul on Miwok. After the others rejoined, we descended Old Springs together, me following Paul for a PR on the descent despite going very relaxed at the bottom. The rain really cut down on the hiker population, and we had virtually no reason to slow more than normal the whole way. We regrouped again at the bottom, some of the others not as comfortable with the Old Springs steps, and then went on to Marincello.
On this, my second time up Marincello, I really started to feel the effort of the previous climbs. Greg, Paul, Sarah, and Amy all dusted me early. I felt as if I would regain ground toward the top but it didn't happen. Still, I had my earlier time, so didn't worry.
After regroup and photos, and spotting Bill Bushnell taking photos from above the junction, we descended Bobcat together. It was great riding with the group, enjoying the remarkable weather and fantastic views.
Afterwards, I rode back home, while the others packed their cars. I got home not long before dusk, a wonderful day of riding.
So mission accomplished, right? Indeed, the day was a big success. We had 23 riders, 1 "runner" (Bill Bushnell, who hiked the course), 24 total. That was the lowest turn-out of all of our dirt experiments, but Peninsula riders, who are the majority of Low-Key regulars, are averse to driving to Marin or riding anywhere close to rainy weather. It's unfortunate: a lot of great riding opportunities are squandered by the fear of the wet, fear which was notably absent among riders I encountered when I was in Basel Switzerland.
But I don't worry so much about total numbers: it's quality, not quantity which counts. And everyone who did the ride seemed to have a great time. David Collet remarkably beat Andrew Touchstone's "untouchable" KOM on Miwok, Sarah Schroer and Amy Cameron each beat the previous QOM on Miwok, and I'm sure I wasn't the only returning rider who beat my PRs. But the vast majority were not returning riders. I'd shown them trails they'd not ridden before, and so I felt like the goal had been met.
But personally I was disappointed with my 109.9 points. I had really wanted more than this. Still, it was easily the best of my three dirt rides in Low-Key history, two on the mountain bike, one on Cara's cross bike. I should embrace Low-Key philosophy, and focus on the experience. But why was I slow?
The most obvious explanation is simply mass. THe mountain bike is a full 5 kg heavier than my road bike, around 8% more total weight. But everyone's mountain bike is heavier than their road bike. Glen was on a modified randonneuring bike with cross tires which was a steel brick, yet he climbed exceptionally well. There's more. One is that my mountain bike has 175 mm cranks, which was the style of the time (large cranks for mountain bikes), in comparison to the 170 mm or even 167.5 mm I use for the road. But crank length is relatively unimportant in tests: it's more a comfort thing. I've not used a power meter on the mountain bike (I didn't have time to install the Garmin Vectors without adequate time to let them settle in, which experience shows is needed to get accurate power). But I suspect my power is off a bit. I think my attention is too diverted to picking good lines through the dirt, while on a road bike it's 100% toward the effort. But this is just conjecture. Another factor is simply that dirt climbs tend to favor riders with more anaerobic power, since the climbs involve variable grades, and the climbs in the Headlands are relatively short. I think this is indeed an issue, as I tend to do less well, relatively, on climbs like the climbs we did in the Berkeley Hills this year than in longer, more sustained climbs.
So it is what it is. The dirt has been a success and we'll be back. For next year? I'm thinking Purissima Creek, a personal favorite. Getting there is easier from the Peninsula, a bit tougher from San Francisco, then Montara was last year. It's a longer climb than those in the Headlands, again with a wide trail allowing plenty of room to give hikers their space, and it's also quite manageable on a road bike (although with some steep bits). Maybe I'll try the Fuji SL/1 on that one.
So, in summary, my score on mountain trails:
- 2007, dirt Alpine: 102.1 points
- 2012, Kennedy Fire Road; DNF
- 2013, Montara: 98.6 points
- 2014, Marin Headlands: 109.9 points
I know what my goal would be next year.