Thursday, November 26, 2009

LKHC - Priceless (and Prizeless ...)

November 26, Thanksgiving 2009

I consider it one of the more endearing achievements of my host country (in which I have been a guest worker or in more official terms a "non-immigrant alien" for nearly 19 years now) that it elevated the commemoration of a historical harvest celebration not only to a feast of over-eating, but also to an appeal to be generally grateful: Grateful for the obvious and important things in our lives, as well as the not so obvious and less important ones.

Don't ask into which category it falls, but I know I am grateful for the Low Key Hillclimbs series, which - fittingly - culminates in a traditional "Turkey Ride" on the morning of Thanksgiving Day. Fourteen years after its inception I am one of only a few "Alumni Riders" who are still around, even though the late season double-centuries (and the occasional not-bicycling-related conflicts) get in the way of participating more regularly. Still I could show up for four out of nine hill climbs this year - and I am grateful for it.

Those who have seen me struggle uphill over the last years (sometimes pushing the bike despite mountain-bike gearing) probably don't believe it when I say that I like climbing on my bike. But I do; and there was a time when I was actually pretty good at it: 45 years ago I won the Hill Climbing Championship of Lower Bavaria in 13:08 minutes for a 1000 ft climb over 3.1 miles! (It is true that I weighed then more than 20 pounds less than today). And while the flesh has become weak, the mind is still willing.

On the Saturday morning between the two "desert doubles" in Death Valley and Borrego Springs I started my LKHC participation this year with the Montevina climb:

In the background: Silicon Valley!

I felt highly motivated and performed quite well on this route which I had never discovered before. The atmospheric conditions were pleasant and the views georgeous:

Proudly wearing my Gold Rush jersey, I gave it all at the 14% stretch towards the end to finish in 35:12 minutes, which placed me 106th out of 129 - not too shabby, given that many of the participants were true racer types.

I was very much looking forward to the Mount Diablo climb, two weeks later. I hadn't been there for several years, and had never ridden up the northern route from Walnut Creek. The longer distance of nearly eleven miles and 3300 ft of elevation gain should suit me even better. The patience of the 137 participants was a little stretched when we had to wait until being sent off in individual time trial format. I should have anticipated that there was a long time between my breakfast and the start, and brought some stuff to refuel. I also didn't drink enough - always a risk when temperatures are low. As a result, I found my legs being threatened by cramps on the last miles and had to slow down in disappointment, which is reflected in the following picture taken at the steep ramp just before the finish line:

With my time of 87:54 minutes, I ranked 118th out of 137 and clearly missed my goal of staying at least in the same percentile as on Montevina. But in thinking about it a little later, I was satisfied nevertheless, because we were so lucky again with the weather - and because I really like climbing, no matter what!

One week later, on November 21, Alba Road was on the schedule. I remembered vaguely that I had come downhill on that road once in the early '90s, and that I was truly impressed. It climbs 2000 ft rather irregularly through redwoods in barely 3.5 miles, with the first half mile at a sustained 17% grade:

I have no good excuse, but I didn't do as well as I had hoped. I averaged only 5.1 mph (44 minutes), which put me at rank 73 out of 82. On the brighter side, the workout was intense enough for a good off-season training, and I got another nice picture from the Illumix photographer:

The final "Turkey Ride" up to Mount Hamilton, with 18.5 miles (this includes two downhill sections) and over 4300 ft total elevation gain the longest climb in the area, came only five days later. I have climbed it many times since 1992, but it would be the first time this year. My best time from 1993 is around 1h45; but nowadays, I am elated each time I can break the 2 hour limit - which happened only once in the last ten years. Of course, my goal was to finish in 1h59 or better!

Just as before the Mount Diablo climb, I believed again that the longer distance and the shallower grades would be more favorable to my disposition; and similarly, I made the same mistake again; no, I made it even worse: I completely ignored that for a two-hour climb I needed more than a single partially filled bottle with pure water and nothing else, nothing! While I am typing this, I am still terribly embarrassed. What was I thinking? Well - nothing. That's not good for somebody who wants to become a randonneur ...

170 starters, plus lots of other cyclists who came out on this marvelous day independently for their traditional big climb, made us feel like owning the road up to the Lick Observatory. I kept an eye on my stopwatch and paced myself successfully for a 2-hour finish (as I said, I do have enough experience on this climb). Paced myself successfully, yes - but only until about four miles from the finish. And then I bonked, and my legs cramped. Silly me! I crawled in my smallest gear and lost about 20 minutes on those last miles. I still didn't finish last, but I was so slow that the photographers had stopped taking pictures. Except the one at the finish line:

Smiling, but in embarrassment!

So, now I have unfinished business with this LKHC series, more particularly with the Mount Diablo and the Mount Hamilton climbs. I will have to do them again as soon as possible (and the latter one more than once). But regardless of how fast or slow I am: in a year from now, I will be grateful again for living in an area where such wonderful initiatives like the LKHC are being offered, and where I can at least get the illusion of how it felt when I was "a pretty good climber."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

From the Desert to the Beach and Back

BDO, November 7, 2009

It is obvious that I refuse to spell out the official title of this double century, the last of the year in the California Triple Crown series. If that title really was an indicator of its nature, I would of course stay away from it. But after participating in last year's inaugural edition, I was looking forward to coming back - so there! Incidentally, Ghislaine likes to spend a weekend in a desert location even when it's not called Death Valley (provided there is a nice swimming pool around), and so we have got another win-win situation.

Why Ghislaine likes to spend a weekend in Borrego Springs

Here is an overview of the route (click on it to enlarge). I also put the route in two segments here: Borrego Springs -> Oceanside and back.

The profile below shows how the roughly 14000 ft elevation gain are distributed. Highlights are the spectacular Montezuma 11-mile climb at the very beginning and the 5-mile climb to the base of Mount Palomar around mile 140 - when the legs are getting tired. All in all, one of the more demanding doubles. Last year, I faltered seriously in the heat on the shorter climbs around mile 120 and lost quite some time, but I recovered and still finished 15 minutes under my cautious goal of 18 hours. Of course, I expected to do much better this year.

We (Ghislaine, Fabienne and I) had a nice dinner at the Krazy Coyote on Friday evening, and the joyful anticipation of the next day made me good-humored enough to splurge when ordering desserts. Once we had them on the table, the ladies started watching their weight, however, and I had to make up for it. About eight hours later, during the Montezuma climb, it occurred to me that this probably had been a mistake ...

Why I was so slow on the climbs ...

The biggest surprise on this route is always the temperature drop from the top of Montezuma down to Lake Henshaw. It was chilly enough last year already that despite my old age I hadn't forgotten the experience; and so I carried this time long-finger gloves, a wool skull cap, four layers plus an additional one of crumpled paper over the chest, and of course all the wool socks, leg and arm warmers you can imagine. And boy was I glad that I had it all!

Not far from the spot where I took the picture above (the mountain on the horizon is Mount Palomar, and the foggy area at its base is Lake Henshaw), I saw two participants walk their bikes on the gradual downhill. I slowed down and asked what was wrong. The answer? "Nothing. We are just cold!"

But at the same time, I loved the scenery, the clean air and the smooth road surface - it was going to be a wonderful day! And to top it off: my dear friends Kelly (search for him here) and John M. (same as for Kelly, but also here) had decided to join me at Lake Henshaw, before the climb to Mesa Grande, and to ride with me all day long and into the night to the finish - from where they still had the Montezuma climb ahead of them to return to their car!

John and Kelly half-way up the Mesa Grande climb

As always, I am slower than John and Kelly; and when John asked how I was doing, I blamed my heavy breathing on the dinner (including the dessert) from the night before. But I was happy enough about the wonderful riding on Mesa Grande towards Santa Ysabel that I soon forgot about it. After all, it was nearly all downhill now to the lunch stop at the Oceanside beach; and as we progressed, it appeared that we were clearly well ahead of my times from last year.

Oceanside: best lunch stop ever!

I also felt much better than last year at the same spot and was confident to get my revenge on last year's trouble on Lilac Road where I seriously overheated on the climbs. There was not much risk of overheating this time: temperatures were pleasant enough that I pulled down arm and knee warmers, but stayed relatively cool. I made myself sweaty anyway, because I was determined to show John and Kelly that I had progressed (or at least, that I was making a big effort to minimize their slowing down for me). In contrast to the past where I always hedged my bets and was worried about the distance, I went all out as if there was no tomorrow, or as if there was nothing left to ride in this event. It feels great to be exuberant and to believe that one is now much stronger than in the past!

The steep, long Cole Grade descent brought us quickly to the famous "Smoothy Rest Stop" in Pauma Valley. We enjoyed it very much, but I admitted that I was confused. I didn't remember at which time I passed there last year when the ride was a week earlier and we still had daylight savings time. Now it became quickly dark, and it seemed that we were falling behind my times from last year, even though I was convinced to be faster. But - no time for meditating: we were on the approach to the 5-mile climb on Hwy 76.

This road is among the more annoying pieces of the whole route: no shoulder to speak of, but occasionally pretty ruthless traffic with a high proportion of over-powered and over-wide pickup trucks, while the slow uphill riding is sapping the strength from the legs. And then, suddenly: no strength left. "Major power loss," as Kelly put it (talking about me). I finally had to pay the bill for my exuberance some 20 miles earlier - very embarrassing. But Kelly always has a trick up his sleeve; and after following his magical incantations ("walk twice counter-clockwise around your bike, then twice clockwise; now stretch!") I was able to continue. Towards the top I could pick up my speed again, enough to claim that I was still faster than last year (when I was alone on that climb). But, somehow, we had lost the belief that we could still arrive at the finish at 9:45 p.m. as I had predicted.

It was getting chilly again along Lake Henshaw, and the increasing altitude towards Julian didn't help. But I always liked to climb up to Julian - even though I was unable to hold the wheels of Brian and Clyde with whom we left the last rest stop. Instead, I set the pace for John to whom I explained that he was benefitting from my more "moderate" approach: he should save his legs for the Montezuma climb which he still had to do when I would be under the shower and in bed already, later that night!

In exchange, having the better lights, I led John and Kelly on the long Banner Grade downhill back into the desert. Only the comparatively tiny (less than two miles long and not steep either) Yaqui pass was remaining, barely ten miles from the finish. Again, John stayed with me while Kelly effortlessly drifted ahead whether he wanted it or not. As usual, he waited for us at the top; but this time he was not alone: he had found Jim at the roadside, and Jim didn't look good. Kelly didn't need a doctor to come up with the diagnostic and prescription: some Gasex pills (which he always has in his handlebar bag) will do. Jim clearly was not pregnant or nursing, and so the risks of overdosing were mitigated. The three of us did what we could to combine our moral support and to shepherd Jim through the last ten miles or so to the finish. This included letting Jim lie down in the desert sand for a while - even in walking distance from the finish - and helping him to get back up on his bike. But above all, this generous display of randonneuring ethics (both John and Kelly wore their RUSA jerseys) provided a wonderful excuse for being late at the Christmas Circle finish where Ghislaine and Fabienne were patiently waiting for us.

Kelly and John ready to set out for their remaining 35 miles - at 11 p.m.

It has been reported that Kelly had a bit of a sleepiness struggle to go through on the last miles (when I was in bed already). Maybe this was because he was overdressed? Or maybe John didn't talk enough to him? - No matter what, both John and Kelly made it home safely as well. And I am sure the three of us will from now on cherish the memory of this ride. I promised to come "down South" to them for more big rides together next year.

P.S.: Check out this page for particularly nice pictures and background information about the Anza-Borrego Desert.