I've been very fortunate to have met, and become friends with, a community of cyclists and not only from Colorado because many of the races I've competed in attract racers from all over the country and even abroad. Those relationships have delivered a lot of generous feedback and suggestions, including this recent (part of a) text message from a friend from North Carolina,
"... don't load up the legs with low cadence." - Chris Angelich
It seems like an insignificant piece of advice but that's misleading. In fact, it is the clue that finally led me to an answer to the following question: where have my legs gone over the last few weeks of racing?
Following three blocks of base training from January through March, each four weeks in duration, I was feeling strong and often riding faster in my lower heart rate zones than I ever had before. Most of this work was accomplished on a road bike at high cadence, 85-95 rpms, and low heart rates (i.e., base miles). The next block of four weeks combined base mile training with intervals and other speed work to increase performance in my upper, mainly anaerobic, heart rate zones. Those four weeks concluded at the end of April, and again, I was feeling stronger than ever. heading into May, the beginning of race preparation. At this point, training hours and intensity dropped-off somewhat, especially before scheduled races on 9 May, 12 hrs of Mesa Verde, and the Full Growler, 24 May. The Growler was my first "A race" for the year. The 12 hr event was cancelled before I started, due to weather, but a ride the next day confirmed that I was in my best form to date. And that form clearly held throughout the month given that I was able to deliver a first place age and 14th overall finish at the Growler. A few days after that celebrated finish, I competed in the 20 mile, short-fast, Gowdy Grinder at Curt Gowdy State Park, on 31 May. The following Tuesday, the triplet of near back-to-back races concluded with a short-track burst of high intensity racing (50 minutes) at the New Belgium Short Track Series in Fort Collins, Colorado. Following these races, I was fatigued, of course, but not concerned about it nor should I have been in hindsight, the problems I'll get to below hadn't started yet. My coach and I sensibly settled into recovery for a few days and then moved into the next block of training that would dominate the month of June ... which is where my troubles began and then finally peaked (I hope!) at the Silver Rush 50 on 11 July.
The first Saturday in June, 6-6, I rode familiar trails in (mainly) Lory State Park, Horsetooth Mountain Park (HMP), and Bobcat Ridge Natural Area. Despite the name that I gave the ride on Strava, the 'no mercy' part reflected the sections ridden in HMP: bobcat and back via no mercy. HMP is all up, and often technical. That day I rode for 6 hrs 58 minutes only stopping for water. Average elevation was 5842 feet with nearly 10,000 feet (348 meters) of climbing. I felt great that day, accomplished many top 10 finishes and personal records, I had not yet began to feel the effect of the 34 ring integrated into my 1 x 11 Sram XX1 drive train.
The following two Saturdays, 6-13 and 6-20, I positioned my mobile r-pod base camp below Mount Shavano not far from Salida, Colorado. The summit, at 14,235-foot (4,339 m), loomed above my campsite in the San Isabel National Forest. I established this camp site in order to have convenient access to the Colorado Trail and a portion of the Salida Big Friggin Loop introduced to me by another one of those friends from the cycling community. For these Saturday scheduled race-pace, race-duration, and race-elevation training rides, the portion of the big loop from Shavano to Cottonwood Creek appeared to be ideal. On 6-13, I was on the bike for close to 7 hrs and 15 minutes, average ride elevation was nearly 10,000 feet with sections well over 11,000 feet. For good reason, I named this ride, simply, 'all up' on Strava. Total elevation gain was a monstrous 11,000+ feet of climbing. Half-way through the ride, at about Princeton Hot Springs, my energy dipped, but no-where-near bonking. I rode on and felt better. The next dip occurred in the last 10 miles on the Colorado Trail heading back to the trailhead (blanks) below Mount Shavano, but this time relief only came when I finished the section and started the descent to camp. It wasn't a bonk, i.e., lack of nutrition/energy, it was fatigue from climbing so many feet/meters and especially with a 34 ring integrated into my drive train. Being stubborn, I nonetheless cleaned (kept me feet in the pedals) most of the climbs that day, even the ones approaching the trailhead. However, there was a cost to that thick headedness, keep reading.
On 6-20, feeling even more masochistic than usual it seems, I headed-out on my second Shavano and Cottonwood Creek out-and-back training ride, at race pace. This time I drank more water, I had speculated that dehydration was the reason why my legs seemed to somewhat abandon me on the last few climbs the week before. I felt pretty good out to the Mount Princeton area, and this feeling continued, for the most part, all the way to Cottonwood Creek. Just above Cottonwood Creek I picked a bad line, tried to recover, failed, and found myself in an airborne summersault still attached to the bike before dismounting on impact with the Earth before concluding back-side-down on the trail. I took about a minute to assess the conclusion from the vantage point of looking skyward. Re-establishing a vertical perspective was painful, and it was even worse over the first few tenths of a mile before the complaints quit and the mind refocused. Basically, it was a bad crash! And I only bring it up because a bad crash can negatively impact the remainder of the day. However, in this case, the "crash effect" was swamped by the effect of the 34 ring that I keep mentioning and the terrain which I should remind you of.
I returned to Mount Princeton Hot Springs, climbed the valley road, begged some water from a home owner, and then initiated the ascent out of the Princeton area heading in the direction of Shavano. A few miles later I was really struggling and often, as a result, off the bike and pushing up the steep hills. Eventually, I was even pushing up the not-so-steep hills. By those last few miles above the trailhead, the ability of my legs to climb the next hill, and my mind to push those legs despite their complaints, completely gave out ... and I was walking as often as pedaling. In hindsight, I knew the climbing had been steep and otherwise difficult (loose rocks, etc), but I was still thinking food, water, sleep, the normal stuff. But I was off, way off in my assessment. And of course, when the answer to a question eludes you, then you're likely to make the problem worse, as I continued to do.
I'm not a specialist in biomechanics, biochemistry, or sports medicine, if I was then I suspect that I would have reconsidered turning my 34 ring at extremely low cadences for many, many minutes, up monstrously steep climbs, weekend after weekend. However, despite my lack of education in these fields, I'm beginning to understand at least the effect ... and why someone would suggest,
"... don't load up the legs with low cadence." - Chris Angelich
The strain that "load[ing]" up the legs places on the quads and other muscles responsible for turning the crank is amplified as the athlete struggles to put enough power into the bike to maintain rotation. Evidence of a struggle is generally revealed by a cyclists cadence, i.e., how quickly or slowly they're turning over the pedals. If their climbing a steep bitch and barely turning over the pedals, say just 30-40 rotations per minute, then they're overloading the mechanics and chemistry of their legs. For now, I'm going to have to leave the details of why this is a problem to the professionals. However, one detail is absolutely certain at me at this point: repeated overloading of the legs on steep climbs at low cadence will annihilate your legs. This is what I was experiencing on the second ride in two weeks on the Colorado Trail ... but I didn't know it ... and so, sadly, I kept repeating the dose.
On the 27th of June I competed in the brutal '40 in the Fort' mountain bike endurance race. Then the following two Saturdays, the similarly tough, but much higher elevation, Firecracker 50 (Breckenridge, Colorado) and Silver Rush 50 (Leadville, Colorado) races. At the outset of the Firecracker, I was dropped on the first climb, a 6 mile ascent towards Boreas Pass, as badly as I had been in 2013, my rookie racing season. I went on to finish the race only as fast as my finish time in 2014, a year of training hadn't given me any advantage, why? This was repeated, but worse, at the Silver Rush. Dropped on the first climb early by the fast studs in my age class, and at the end of the day I finished slower than 2014! Again, why? See my previous blog for a deep introspection that includes how I was feeling, mentally, after the Silver Rush 50.
I now know, with a great deal of confidence, why, and I'm in debt to Chris Angelich and other friends for the insights, the clues, that led to the answer: I repeatedly and severely overloaded my legs at elevation (probably not insignificant) by extensive sessions (many minutes each) of very low, high-load cadence. And I repeated this over three Saturdays before attempting to race three back-to-back endurance-style mountain bike races. In hindsight, I think I drained every remnant of what I had in my legs at '40 in the Fort', that left my fate sealed for the Firecracker and Silver Rush 50's, and that ... is now in the history books.
It's interesting to me to reflect on the other clues that led me to this very comforting conclusion, it's always best (comforting) to know the answer to a question. I've been watching the various tours this year, first the "Giro" and now "the tour" as they're popularly known. Even on the biggest climbs, the pros do their best, and often succeed, at maintaining a relatively fast cadence. There must be a benefit if they do it, of course. And while racing, especially in the Growler, but also at the outset of the Laramie Enduro last year, thanks to Steve Stefco, I noticed my pro competitors using a high cadence, higher than my own, on the climbs. I eventually smartened-up and mimicked the guy in front of me at the Growler, no doubt that contributed to my finish time in a positive way. In short, I keep getting reminders of cadence as I ride more, watch, race, etc. And, reminders of a related topic, the "gearing" that one chooses which, as was demonstrated to me by Jeff Kerkove in the name of one of his Strava rides, can change depending on the venue. Gearing is the 'solution to' and the 'underlying problem' reviewed in this blog entry. Enlightened and no longer despairing over poor performances relative to my preparation, I've now become a dedicated gear head!