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.

Pursuit of Aero

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I can tell you that is this is a fairly uncomfortable position and that the power drop disadvantage is clear. I think that my head positioning should be lower, but out on the road, I prefer to see way ahead because I am paranoid about accidents.

My size small Nike Tour De France 2006 (Floyd Landis) Yellow Jersey (gift from sister) is now quite baggy, but even then, my stomach is pretty compressed leaning over with my legs coming up.

Getting my VO2 Max Test with Revvo

As I use TrainerRoad for cycling training and listen to its podcast, I have become more curious about VO2 Max. What are my genetics, what is my ultimate potential?

In general, I like looking at data from TrainerRoad, Strava, Wattsboard, and Stravistix, even though I neither race nor plan to race, unless it’s to be part of a team as a domestique. At best, I want to hit the magical mark of 4 watts per kilogram (I’m currently between 3.5 and 4) and be a potentially good Category 3 racer.

Unfortunately, VO2 Max tests, which measure how much of incoming oxygen your body can process (think of it as oxygen efficiency), are quite expensive at $100+. Thus, when I had a chance to try Revvo‘s simulation of VO2 Max for free in San Francisco, I just thought, why not?

Revvo claims 97% accuracy (P value please!) of the real thing, and since most power meters are +-2%, that seems reasonably good.

My results:

VO2 Max Michael Nguyen 2018-02-08.jpgI was pleasantly pleased with the results as my performance was better than expected. Then, suspicion crept in and I kept reading to think about whether I should believe in them.

The two things I’ll point out are my measured VO2 Max at 61 and FTP (threshold) at 259 watts. 61 is 1 percentile for my age group. Wow! How badass am I? Even if we give Revvo a 5% error (versus claimed 3%) buffer, I’d still be at, worst case, around 58, which is really good. Unless I go pay for an official test, I don’t have much more to dispute, but imagining I can be in the top 1% of anything physically seems unreal.

The FTP test result, is a bit different. Revvo claims that my FTP/kg ratio is already 4. However, since I actively train and use a power meter, I think my actual FTP is perhaps 235. I say perhaps because my indoor FTP with TrainerRoad is 225, and even that is tricky. I always fail my FTP tests and just use that setting for my workouts. 225 works well (kicks my butt) for me except for oddly enough, VO2 Max workouts, which I’ve been reducing by 3-5% of FTP to complete them properly.

There are a few things that suggest my real FTP could be higher than my TrainerRoad one.

1) Indoor trainer power for many people is lower than outdoors. That may sound like I’m making an excuse to feel better (which I would love to do), but I can easily do 250 watts outdoors for a few minutes compared to indoors. For example, take this workout from 9 months ago in which I climbed at 271 watts (4.3 w/kg) for 4.5 minutes. I assume (when I first started using TrainerRoad, I didn’t have a power meter, so I don’t have an apples to apples comparison from one year ago) I am stronger right now, but I don’t think can do that indoors. I’ve read different explanations for this. Some of this could be due to heat (air flow is not as good indoors even with fans), some of this could be due to the type of power you have to use on an indoor trainer versus outdoor roads.

2) My mental endurance is kind of weak. Going through longer TrainerRoad workouts, I really do get lazy and have to fight to avoid stops mid-way through 8, 10, 12, 20 minute bursts. Therefore, as Revvo suggests, perhaps I’m capable of doing much more.

3) I use a Powertap G3 power meter, which measures power at the wheel. Most power meters are pedal or crank based, which means they measure power at the source (your legs and feet). When power is measured at the wheel, this is the real-world power that’s driving the biycle. The difference is power that is lost through that transition from the frame to the drivechain. From different opinions I’ve read, this difference could be 5-10% or around 10 watts.

4) The positioning on my bike right now is quite aero. I’m probably slightly small for the frame (which is an aero-oriented bike already), and this likely means I’m stretched out even more horizontally than normal. How this impacts FTP is that it’s harder to breathe, which affects power. The Revvo bike, however, is more upright and with geometry more comparable to a normal or endurance focused road bike. Therefore, I could be losing significant power due to my position. I’ve been setting aside money to get a new properly fitted (perhaps 49CM) super duper (Specialized Tarmac? Roubaix? Canyon Ultimate SLX?) disc brake road bike, and have set 4W/kg as a performance requirement before looking at a new purchase seriously.

I mentioned some of this to Siva, Revvo’s CEO. He agreed that the power would more likely come out during an extended climbing session such as on Mt. Diabo (which I’ve never done). Revvo’s equipment is built on the Wahoo Kickr.

One thing I confirmed that I had long suspected is that my maximum heart rate is lower than the predicted rate for my age. My predicted max heart rate is 183 bpm. I always felt there could be something wrong with me because I would want to die cycling a little above 170. My friend David’s heart rate (he’s the same age) is mid-180’s. Revvo measured my max at 173. Cycling outdoors, I felt like I could sustain 165 reasonably well, but thinking that my true max was 180+ made me feel that I was just lazy.

I wanted to look more at VO2 Max as a meaure of performance and found this breakdown:

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This chart suggests that I have a lower bound Cat 2 VO2 Max. If I adjust the FTP results for watts/kg, it suggests a 4w/kg power to weight ratio and about 250 watts.

So if we consider my indoor training FTP, wheel-based vs pedal based power measurement differences, and sitting position, is it possible I’m much closer to 250 and 4w/kg than I think? It’s possible. We’ll know more once I start to do more outdoor runs on my own (Strava KOM time!), but I prefer to keep training for the next couple of months to make sure that I’m at that level.

Here’s hope!

When Bicycle Riders Become Cyclists

(Otherwise known as the Obligatory Bicycle Photo by Cyclists and Kestrel Talon Ad  – photo taken near the top of Montebello Road)

I’ve been cycling for the last year and a half. After some occasional riding last summer, I started training with TrainerRoad in the Fall, and I’ve enjoyed riding outdoors since the Spring. I’ve totally been sucked into it – I love to talk about it, read about it, watch it, and gazingly look at my bike for no reason (it’s stored indoors), much to my wife’s chagrin.

I also worry about it – why I can’t be faster, how to take curves more dangerously yet not so dangerously, etc.

Along the way I’ve learned:

  • It is god-damn expensive. I aggregated all my bike-related expenses and it’s now nearing $4,000(!), despite always looking for deals and used items when possible. This also doesn’t include the cost of events (often $100+ not including travel and housing). Yet, the bike itself (as pictured), has me cost about $1,850 after getting two amazing deals – the all-carbon Kestrel Talon (originally $2,500) was $600 and used for 500 miles. I bought my Jones Precision Wheels Carbon Wheelset (originally $1700+) for $400 WITH a Powertap G3 Power Meter ($599).
  • $1850 for a bike is a lot, and yet, it’s really not (if you’re a cyclist, you understand).
  • You have to take a photo of your bike standing sexily by itself, ideally with a view behind it – thus, this blog post. There are even right and wrong ways of taking photos! For example, photograph the drive (right) side, push it in the highest gear possible, put any wheel decals at 12 O’Clock, put the pedals at 3 O’Clock.
  • N+1 is real – this is the thinking that no matter how many bikes you have (N), you have to have one more (N+1). For example right now, I’d like to get a cheap, used Cyclocross bike to improve my overall bike handling skills by riding on dirt. But what I really want is the 2017+ Specialized Roubaix, which will make me such an awesome rider (especially descents), I will make everyone cry. It’s a fact!
  • I interchange between getting sick about the money I spend, and thinking about where I can store the next bike. I don’t even have space for it – can I do an ICO (Blockchain) to fund this habit? I am a fiend.
  • 10g (.022 lbs) of weight is everything, and I obsess over whether I should pay $25 to get 10g less weight on a bottle cage. So what if I drink a bit of water, it’s easily more than 10g of added weight in my body? Don’t you dare use intelligence on me! I’m a cyclist, no brains required.
  • If you say “suffer” to a cyclist, they interpret it as “going to heaven”. I have not yet gone to heaven. Jesus, you master of suffering, show me the way!

As shown in photos:

The Pain of Cycling

A lot of people wonder if taking EPO is risky to health. I’d like to reply to that concern with the following list: Elbow Shoulder Collarbone (twice) Back Hip Fingers (multiple) Ribs Wrist Nose Those are the bones I’ve broken during my racing career. This is not an unusual list in our profession. It’s funny: in the States, everybody connects bike racing with health. But when you get to the top level, you see the truth: bike racing is not a healthy sport in any sense of the word. (As my former teammate Jonathan Vaughters likes to say, If you want to feel what it’s like to be a bike racer, strip down to your underwear, drive your car 40 mph, and leap out the window into a pile of jagged metal.) So when it comes to the risks of EPO, they tend to feel pretty small.

From: The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France
Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle

Cycling injuries aren’t just for racers. The more I read about cycling and actually ride, the more I understand a painful fall or crash is a question of when, not if. I may be in the best shape of my life (13% body fat), but there is a price to pay when you’re trying to become a better cyclist.

Case in point:

On the left: my left arm. On the right, my left hip, before the swelling.

Climbing the Palo Alto (Page Mill) hills yesterday morning around from 6-7AM, a slight rain started (California rain in September?!). I was about 1.5 miles away from the top (and getting really cold) when I decided to head back, concerned about the wet traction. On one of the very first corners heading down, my bike slipped out from me and I fell on my left side.

Road rash.

The oddity of my fall is that from my trepidation about high speed downhill cornering in general, I had approached this descent slowly, well aware of the wet ground. I also have carbon wheels, which exhibit poor braking compared to alloy wheels, and are even worse in wet conditions. I have no idea why I fell except for perhaps 1) “first rain”-like conditions created less traction 2) I may have gone over a darker patch of pavement (looks like a small add-on layer), one that wouldn’t give me cause of concern normally but perhaps doesn’t absorb or handle water as well.

Thankfully, I didn’t suffer anything more serious (but…emotional pain of scuffing up my new Ultegra shifters) and was able to finish the descent (slowly) to eventually get home. My hip will likely need close to a month of healing before the bruising goes away.