Sunday, November 2, 2014

Old La Honda: Chasing Mark

After last week's Powertap snafu where I tried pacing myself off the power meter only to later realize it was substantially over-reporting power, I wasn't feeling super-warm-and-fuzzy today about following the same approach in what was essentially a mandatory new attempt at the Wednesday Noon Ride. Using the calibration cycle on the Garmin Edge 500 had appeared to restore the Powertap to the regime where it was able to stay in tune during coasting phases alone, and the numbers I typically saw in the display were more typical of the pre-Switzerland mediocre Dan than the "suddenly blessed with amazing fitness" Dan the Powertap had been assuring me had replaced it.

Chris Evans and Brian Schuster of Squadra SF were at the start, two very solid climbers, especially Chris who'd been putting in an impressive string of mid-16-minute Old La Hondas with his approach of starting each week with a leg-ripping effort which I can only imagine matching for more than a mercifully small number of seconds. So as far as I was concerned, Chris was of no relevance. More relevant was Mark Johnson, who'd been putting up some low-to-mid 18-minute times on a regular basis. I certainly hoped to be able to stick with him. A big stretch was to move into the high-17-minute range, which is my known record on the Ritchey Breakaway. I didn't want to think about that. But I certainly had hopes of an 18:30.

I'd been discussing pacing strategy with Chris, noting the exceptional nature of his starts. He said he'd experimented with more measured starts and they didn't allow him to recapture the time boost (or is it distance boost?) he got from going hard at the beginning and then tapering back to what he can sustain. My assertion, and he agreed with me, is riders with exceptional top end power (or work capacity) can do a harder start than those with more limited reserves above threshold. I agreed from my own experience that there is no recovery from a too-slow start. A large fraction of that time is gone for good.

We hit the base and boom! Chris was up the road, rapidly disappearing around a corner. At the front of the remaining crew, Mark and Bill Peucel were chatting. Bill's been riding very well lately, but I knew I didn't want to be climbing at my chatting pace, let alone his which was a bit slower. So I passed them and set off at a moderately aggressive tempo.

Last week I'd been in the 36/23 most of the climb and I wanted to stay out of that gear, shifting into the 36/21 instead. I set a PR in 2009 riding exclusively in the 36/18, with the Fuji, reaching the top in 16:49. I later broke that (in Dec 2011), but I certainly knew that I wasn't going to be spinning anything close to 2:1 today. But if 36:18 is 16:49, then at the same cadence a 36/21 is 19:37. I certainly expected to be considerably faster than that. But recently, since returning from Switzerland, I've found my desired climbing cadence has been higher. Maybe it's because my legs are tired from a relatively heavy load of riding and cycling and that forces me to seek refuge in higher cadences, which result in reduced muscular loading.

So in my 36/21, I surged past the two leaders. Mark followed. I basically ignored him, keeping the cadence on my gear. However, I started to feel this pace was becoming burdensome, especially during the steeper of the positive grade undulations. Eventually I was forced to relent, downshifting into the 36/23 I used last week. Glances at my power meter, which I was trying to ignore, weren't encouraging.

Mark took the lead here, simplifying my pacing task from this point. It was simple: stay with Mark. So I got onto his wheel and tried my best to not think about anything else. Eventually the top would arrive.

Mark does this climb almost every week, and he's a confident guy, so knows how to pace himself. The pace never dropped so far I felt as if I wasn't being inspired to go my best. Often, following others, I feel like when they move to the front they lose motivation and the effort drops too far. This wasn't the case with Mark. Sitting on his wheel had become a real challenge. I found myself letting little gaps open on the steeper bits, using the more gradual bits to reclose them. All that mattered to me here was his wheel.

Around a corner, a large truck approached, leaving us maybe a 1-meter ribbon of road, slowing but not stopping. Mark slowed a bit as he passed, but I slowed a bit more. So leaving the truck behind he'd opened a significant gap: maybe 5 meters, and he wasn't going to wait around for me to close it back up.

But the reduced pace passing the truck provided recovery, and as the top approached soon after, I accelerated in the low gear to try and pass him by the stop sign. I failed, but I had at least reclosed the gap which had opened passing that truck.

Here's the power data, comparing running average to previous climbs:

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And here's smoothed power versus distance:

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This was an exceptional week for pacing in that I spent much of the final half of the climb glued to Mark's wheel. Pacing strategy was thus nullified: I follow Mark. If Mark slowed too much, I'd have taken the lead, but I was at my limit just following him. So micro-analyzing my pacing from this point is meaningless. I was on Mark's pace, not mine, taking advantage of a few % power discount for drafting, depending on the wind speed and direction.

The numbers: 272.95 watts, 18:43.38. Meh. I was 274.0 watts on 11 June, albeit with a time 13.27 seconds slower. My other powers this year, last week excepted when my Powertap was high on life, were three out of four within 2.3 watts of this value. My time was best of the year by 8.31 seconds, the previous best on 18 June. I am maybe 1 kg lighter than I was then, explaining the quicker time in conjunction with the time I spent glued to Mark's wheel, but meh. I was hoping for more from my trip to Switzerland.

That said: I did a 20 mile run on Sunday, approximately double my typical "long run" distance these days, running only approximately once per week other than a few blocks of consecutive days in Switzerland. I was definitely still feeling this going into the ride, and had definitely felt on my quick-pace ride into work the day before.

One interesting aspect of the ride was cadence. Here's a plot of cadence on the climb:

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I spent much of the time over 80 rpm, which is unusual for me: historically I'm more likely to be in the low-to-mid 70's.

Gear selection can be calculated as cadence / (speed × development), with units appropriately matched. I get good numbers assuming a development of 2.100 meters. Here's the result:

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I started with a 36/21, which I'd normally feel comfortable in the whole way up, except half-way I retreated into the 36/23 for much of the time, except for a few times I upshifted on flatter bits. Gear selection stopped being an issue once I let Mark take the lead. I simply shifted into the gear in which I felt most comfortable riding on his wheel. It's different when doing the pace oneself, in which case you're picking a gear which maximizes speed. I think my preference for a low gear, high cadence, was due to fatigue.

So I have some headroom on Old La Honda. How much? I don't know. I need to avoid gaining back any of the mass I lost in Switzerland, for one thing. And I need to keep up the intensity and consistency in my riding, two factors which had been notably missing for much of this year, including the months preceding my trip in September and early October.

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