Cycling At 40

For a couple of years, I have been slowly inching towards the performance benchmark of 4.0 watts / kg. In cycling, w/kg is the standard way of measuring performance, pound for pound. You may produce more watts because you’re bigger, but what happens when we climb that mountain?

W/kg is not the perfect performance comparison tool but it’s the best cycling has.

This year, I started really strong – I just felt like I was making clear gains on a weekly basis. I came back to the US around New Year’s after a month in Asia. My FTP (a measure of power output) was at 225 watts (I was very sad), but I got up to 250 watts (this is a big jump in a short amount of time) within the spring. I was at 3.8 w/kg with another month or two of work I hoped to reach 4.0 with another gain of 10 or so watts.

Of course, since we’re talking about 2020, COVID blew up. A few months later I moved out of California to the altitude of Colorado, where breathing isn’t quite the same. From reading anecdotes, people often drop around 10% in power going to 5K feet. And that’s what I saw, back to 225w.

Now, at the end of the year I’m around 245w but I just had to send my Saris H3 trainer for repair, and I’ll be without it for a few weeks. I don’t have time to bike outdoors.

I originally hoped to hit 4.0 w/kg to coincide with my 40th birthday, but now I want to hit it during my 40th year (counting western-style). As a cherry on top, I’d love to win any race on Zwift in my current category B during the next year. Racing on Zwift….so hard.

What does it take to finish Old La Honda in 20 minutes?

The simple answer: An FTP above 4.0 watts/kg. Old La Honda in Woodside is one of the Bay Area’s benchmark climbs: long enough to make you hurt but short enough where it’s not truly an endurance climb. Nonetheless, it sees like the climb that everyone competes on to have a reference point against everyone else.

To finish this 3 mile / 8% average gradient climb in 20 minutes puts you firmly in the top 10% of all entrants. As of June 2020, almost 27,000 people have completed it and tracked it on Strava.

My best time: 21:06, ranked in the top 10.3% of all cyclists, riding a Canyon Ultimate CF SLX with Ultegra DI2, Disc Brakes. Canyon’s lightest Ultimate frame. I brought along one full water bottle, a rear light, and a bike computer – my minimum, no-accidents-please setup. Low tire pressure at 60/65 front/rear PSI using GP5000 tubeless tires on Roval CL 32 wheels. My guess is the bike + accessories was around 19 pounds.

I probably weighed 142 lbs (I’m 5’6), having eaten no breakfast. Average power during the climb 261 watts, about 4.04 W/KG. My estimated FTP going in was around 3.87 W/KG at 250W.

To be able to shave off that final minute for a 20 minute time, I think that I would need another 10 or so watts, which would take me to 4W/KG.

What Happens When You Headbutt a Bee at 25 MPH?

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(Above) That’s what happens – I was road cycling at a good pace yesterday and I felt something hit my forehead. I knew it was too soft to be a rock, and then suddenly, stinging pain – I had actually slammed into a bee, and as its last act, had injected me with its venom right in the middle of my forehead. You can see the pink spot of injection right between my eyebrows.

When I got home, everything actually looked ok, but when I woke up this morning, there was clear swelling and it’s been getting worse since then. I feel like I have a mask over my eyes because my vision is slightly blocked off and the edges of my eyes near my nose now go very deep because of all the puffiness. My wife could not stop laughing when she saw me this afternoon.

I saw a doctor this morning and this may last a week or so.

RIP Mr. Bee, I am sorry we crossed paths.

 

Game Planning with Best Bike Split for the Tierra Bella Bicycle Tour

I’m a regular listener of the TrainerRoad Ask a Cycling Coach Podcast. In it, the hosts discuss using Best Bike Split quite a bit in preparation for their events, particularly races. Best Bike Split can take your riding profile, including your power and aero profile, event goals, and course map to create segment-based power recommendations.

I was really interested in trying out the service for Tierra Bella (more on that experience here), and the free version will let you do power-based goals. Paid versions let you to optimize for time and speed-based goals and really drive down into the customization.

In my plan, I set an Intensity Factor (IF) of .75 (actual result was .72) as my goal.

Based on this, BBS predicted:

  • Ride time of 7:14 (actual: 8:13)
  • Net Power of 175 (170)
  • Variability Index of 1.05 (1.14)
  • Training Stress Score of 405 (430).

I didn’t know how well I’d adhere to the plan, so my approach was to spend most of the time in aero down in the drops to get some (I had set up the BBS plan to simulate me primarily riding on the hoods) free speed. The plan called for me to be around 160-170 watts most of the time, which I felt I could maintain in the drops. I would have been unable to maintain 200 watts in the drops for longer periods, however, due to being much more compressed on the bike (legs get closer to the stomach, making breathing more difficult).

Even though I wouldn’t be putting in max power (and thus not maximizing air resistance benefits) on the ride, spending a lot of time in aero position would have cumulative effects.

Why was I so slow compared to Best Bike Split?

There are definitely a numbers of factors. I was able to maintain BBS’ power goals on flats and moderate climbs pretty easily, but I was not as good on sustained climbs and descents. BBS would ask for around 100 watts on descents, not much, but as I’m a shaky descender who didn’t know the roads and who also wanted to avoid the hoards of cyclists climbing the other way (I was on small lane roads with below-average road conditions), I focused on safety rather than speed. I am guessing BBS may have an option to tweak this. On sustained climbs, I found that getting up to 90% FTP after miles 50+ was getting tougher and tougher, especially as the weather moved from 43 degrees F (at 7AM) to a peak of 95 (during the Hicks climb) without airflow. I had to be careful about not overexerting myself – I didn’t want to bonk (run out of energy) with 40 miles to go.

Because I didn’t overextend myself on the climbs and didn’t work on the descents, I was pretty confident I had some energy left to use after reaching the last rest stop with about 12 miles left in the 124 mile (200KM) ride. I did these last segments with 15% higher power than BBS’ goals, making up for some of the lost intensity from the previous 100 miles.

If I look back at my other metrics, this is what I think happened. Overall, my per minute intensity was less (.72 vs .75 IF) than projected, but I worked for much longer, leading to a higher total stress (9 vs 8 hrs, 430 vs 405 TSS) score. Since I had descents of essentially zero effort but then tried to make up for these at the end of the ride, this led to more variability in the power, leading to perhaps less efficient use of the power in terms of speed. I lost out on a lot of potential gain by not putting power on the descents, but also taking them relatively slowly. For example, the Henry Coe descent is 10 miles.

There’s one stretch in the ride that I think can serve as a good example of what BBS thought would happen, and what actually did. BBS does consider weather conditions such as wind direction based on historical data, with premium membership including more data.

From the Henry Coe descent on to Bailey / Morgan Hill, Best Bike Split gave me a 10 mile flat segment of 156 watts on the hoods. I actually spent the entire time in aero.

BBS Prediction Wind

Best Bike Split Prediction (#102)

BBS Prediction

In the first image, you can see that Best Bike Split was expecting a tailwind (see lower right corner of image), which explains why I’d be doing 20.78 MPH at only 156 watts. Keep in mind that this prediction was for me on the hoods, sitting more straight up with increased air resistance, not in the drops (aero) position.

Strava Output

In reality, looking at my Strava record above, I was consistently over the goal – my guess is I was around 15W above for the 10 miles and still 3MPH below BBS’s expected speed, again despite being in aero. This was a 5 minute loss on this segment alone.

I was able to integrate the BBS plan with my Wahoo Elemnt Bolt; one problem I noticed is that despite having the power levels pop up on screen, I would not get directional information on the display. Thus, cues would be for new power outputs, not road directions. I’m not sure if the original map for Tierra Bella is missing this information, but my guess is that BBS overrides it. As a result, you have to use the Elemnt’s map display – it took me a bunch of wrong turns on the course before I realized this. The disadvantage of having the map display on all the time is that you have access to fewer data fields. There could be ways to get both power and directional cues, but I will have to look into that more next time.

Overall, I liked working with the BBS plan. It gave me power levels to focus on while giving me the confidence that I wasn’t overexerting myself. I knew I could last the 125 miles.

Best Bike Split costs $20 per month or $120 per year to be a premium subscriber. Since I am not a racer and don’t do many events, it’s not worth subscribing, but I’d be open to paying per event (ex. $5-10 per event with more features than free but less than full premium).

The Tierra Bella Bicycle Tour – 6745 Calories over 200KM and 8825 Feet of Climbing

Last weekend, I completed the Tierra Bella Bicycle Tour, organized by the Almaden Cycle Touring Club (ACTC). I achieved new highs in distance (124 miles versus 92), climbing (8825 feet vs somewhere in the 7K range), and paced things fairly well with the help of Best Bike Split.

profiles-2017.jpgAbove: the official climbing map for my route. I’m not sure why ACTC’s numbers are so different from mine (600+ feet difference in climbing).

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Watts/KG for the ride (in Net Power) came out to around 2.7. Starting right before 7AM, I crossed the finish line around 9 hours later, having spent an hour total at rest stops and traffic lights.

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With an average heart rate of 146 across the 8+ hr ride, this was 83.4% of my max heart rate (175), or on the lower end of Zone 4 / Lactate Threshold.

Overall Impressions of Tierra Bella

The tour is a great value. It’s fully supported in terms of food, with 6 rest stops and a post-ride meal for the 200KM route (technically, there’s 5 rest stops, but one repeats), and the cost is only $75. If you want to add someone for the post-ride meal (for example, my wife who did not ride), that’s another $10.

$75 is about two-thirds to one half the cost of a normal gran fondo-like event, and if you live in the area (Morgan Hill, Gilroy, San Jose), it’s an easy 30 minute drive to Gavilan College and the start line. I came from Mountain View, which is about an hour away, close enough that I didn’t need to sleep at a hotel overnight, saving further on costs.

While Tierra Bella is a fully supported ride, I’m not sure how they handled mechanical issues. Unlike the Sea Otter Classic Gran Fondo, there doesn’t seem to be support from Velofix, a mobile bike shop, or other support staff driving along the route. Last year at Sea Otter, I ran into two flats within the first ten miles.

Because of this, do not expect any frills (finishing medals, beer, celebratory finish line, photographers to sell you photos, etc.), which was perfectly fine with me. The ACTC staff is super nice and was genuinely fun and encouraging to talk to at the rest stops.

I wasn’t that fond of the route overall. A lot of this might have been that I was familiar with a good chunk because it crosses back into Morgan Hill, an area I’ve ridden quite a bit in the past. I like these big touring events mainly to experience new roads, with new sights. It felt like there were three or four main highlights on the tour, between which you had to criss-cross 15 miles each way to get to them – these “commute” miles felt a bit empty and boring, but again perhaps I felt that way because I knew the roads.

Despite all the heavy climbing, none of the descents were particularly good. The initial descent, the Canada loop, was likely the best, while Henry Coe suffers from poor roads (super jittery on my 25 inch wheels at 90 PSI) and small lanes (someone cracked his one week old carbon handlebar on the descent), and Hicks is just too vertical to enjoy (I had to worry about others struggling uphill wile going down and carefully control my speed).

Nonetheless, considering everything, Tierra Bella is a solid event.

Breakdown of the Ride

I was in bed by 8PM the previous night, but didn’t get very good rest (this has been a lifelong problem when I have to get up early for something important). I was up before 5AM and got to the start location around 6:30AM. There wasn’t a mass start, and so I was off right before 7AM.

See a Strava Flyby comparison of others who did the same route here.

Things were going well after the first 20 miles or so, I was gradually moving past other riders at around 160 watts. I don’t remember much from the Canada Loop, and I skipped the first rest stop. Before the Henry Coe climb, however, I got pulled over by police by skipping a stop sign. I couldn’t protest it at all, and just admitted to the failure. Luckily, I was let off with a warning. I also learned that if I had received a ticket, that would have counted as a moving violation on my (car) driving record.

By the time I got to the second rest stop, I knew it was time to eat and went for some wraps and fruit. The Henry Coe climb was a big pain, however. I hadn’t studied the map beforehand, so the whole course was a big surprise. This is my fault. Henry Coe is a 10 mile climb that lasts over an hour at 3W/KG. I just felt like I was going forever, and I became mentally tired after finishing a mini-crest and then seeing another mile of climbing up ahead. I hadn’t planned on taking the third rest stop, but I wanted the break after such a sustained climb.

Descending from Henry Coe was a bit troublesome as the road pavement quality isn’t very good. I didn’t have to worry about cars much, but I had a jittery ride all the way down and had to constantly look for bumps and potholes.

Making my way from the descent, I crossed over west to Bailey Road in Morgan Hill, enduring a 10 mile flat stretch in a headwind.

I was definitely feeling a bit of fatigue by the time I hit the fourth rest stop, and I really went after the food here, getting Oreos, Gatorade, an instant cup of noodles (first event I’d seen this, but hot soup felt really good in my stomach), and other items. In fact, I overdid it, and was starting to feel stomach cramps shortly after leaving on my way up to Hicks. Thus, I relaxed a bit on the power, and hoped I’d feel ok by the time I needed to make the climb. I noticed I was able to make huge gulps of my Gatorade / Cytomax drink mix, so I was a bit concerned I might be getting dehydrated. At the same time, I started to feel twitchiness from my left calf muscle, as if it were cramping. I’ve only experienced a muscle cramp (in any activity) once in my life, so I wasn’t sure, but this was another sign that I needed to drink more, not push pace, and pedal in a way that would not exacerbate the issue. I was unclear if there was a way to pedal without making it worse, but I was determined to keep going.

I guess the drinks and food all got absorbed in time, because both the stomach and muscle cramps were mostly gone by the time I arrived at Hicks.

Hicks was an evil climb considering my state. It’s only 1.5+ miles but at a 10 degree incline with significant parts over 15 degrees in the heat. I hadn’t felt too bad in terms of heat before this, but once I started going uphill, the air flow died around me and I could feel heat radiating from the ground. I later found out it was 95 degrees on the climb. I felt like I needed to do 3W/KG (200 watts) just to marginally move up the climb and I was scared of standing up because I didn’t know if I’d blow up. If you had read my mind then, you would have heard a lot of cursing.

At this point, I was 85 miles in and I had serious thoughts whether I could finish it.

But I did, and the rest of the ride downhill and back to Gavilan College in Gilroy was pretty much okay from there.

In thinking about future events, I think 125 miles was a bit much. When I finished, my lungs were a bit tired, which I’m not sure I’ve experienced in the past. I think I would have been fine with 10K feet of climbing and 100 miles total distance. At a certain point in a ride, you just want to go home, and I was definitely less enthused about the ride once I finished the Hicks climb (around the 95 mile mark). However, I realize this may have partly been due to the course map, knowing that I wouldn’t be seeing anything new the rest of the ride, and the high heat.