Thursday, September 18, 2014

LOTOJA Part 3--(by Rob Critchfield)

I apologize for the multiple posts on LOTOJA.  I don’t really mean to drag these out.  It is just that each segment of this ride is almost like its own ride.  The terrain in each segment is very different, and I think LOTOJA is such a fun ride I want to try and give you a flavor of what it is like.  It takes me awhile to write these, which is why you are getting them in segments.

In the last post, Rex and I had just made the turn on Highway 36, which is the start of a 22 mile climb.  We were a few miles into the second leg of LOTOJA, which is a 46 mile stretch from Preston, Idaho to Montpelier, Idaho.  The first 10 to 12 miles of this climb is a gradual uphill (something like 2 to 4%) with the occasional short uphill of 5-6%.  The first 10 to 12 miles is not difficult, but it does slowly work the legs.

As you may remember, Rex and I made a quick pit stop in Preston.  As we did that, there was a group of riders from our group who did not stop.  We caught most of them on the climb just outside of Preston.  The rest of them we caught when we made this turn. 

Not long after we made the turn, a race group of Cat 3 riders engulfed us.  I decided to hang on the back of this group and keep their pace.  I wanted to do this for a couple of reason.  I wanted to see if I could keep their pace, but I also wanted a group in front of me to cut the wind a bit.  There always seems to be a head wind coming down Strawberry Canyon.
Leg 2 Elevation Map

Elevation Map of just Strawberry Canyon
For the next 7 to 10 miles we road off the back of the Cat 3 group.  The ride up this canyon was a series of surges.  There was a group of guys on the front of this group who would ride slow on the easy sections then tick it up a notch or two on the steeper sections.  It got a little annoying but I am sure there was some strategy to this.  The leaders must have been trying to soften up the legs of the group. 

This was a really fun part of the ride for me.  It was fun to talk with the other riders.  I heard one rider from our group slip in behind me.  He must have been drafting on me from Logan to Preston.  He said, I am glad I found you again.  I am going to stay right here behind you all the way to Preston (for those of you who don’t know me, given my size, I create a huge wake behind me to draft in).  I don’t think he was there long, he got dropped on one of the surges.  

There was another guy that rode with us for a mile or so.  He was 6 feet 7 inches tall.  We acknowledged each other representing the Clydesdale group.  I mentioned to him that it was fun to ride with someone my size.  He stayed with us for a couple of miles and then drifted back.
I enjoyed talking with some of the Cat 3 riders on the back of the group.  There were several who were giving us the stink eye for riding with their group, but many of them were really nice.  One in particular who was hanging on the back was very friendly.  I was talking racing strategy with him.

The canyon goes through a national forest.  When you see the sign announcing the national forest you know things are going to get serious.  This is the point when the real climbing begins.  You climb for approximately another 10 miles.  There are two three miles sections that are approximately 6-7%.  As we approached this, the guy I was talking to on the back said “things are about to get interesting.”  You could tell the group was gearing up to tick it up a notch.

I asked him if he were going to work toward the front in case there was a group who went off the front.  He told me he was going to just hang on the back.  He said he was riding to finish and some of those boys on the front are incredibly fast (he was right as I look at their finishing times). 

As we approached the national forest sign and the series part of this climb, Rex and I, and maybe one or two other guys were all that were left from our group.  There were also a couple of relay riders we had caught up to.  As I have mentioned before, the relay riders are riding LOTOJA a segment at a time.  They have a team they belong to.  The team can be two to five riders, each riding a different leg.  So, when you ride with them, they often have fresher legs because they are not riding the whole ride but only a 35-40 mile section.

As the Cat 3 group started to ramp things up a bit, we had another decision to make.  Should we try to continue to keep the pace with the Cat 3 group or not.  As anticipated, the Cat 3 group ticked it up a notch and started climbing a little harder as the real climb began (or perhaps they just kept the same speed but could do it when it got steeper).  My gut told me I should try and stay with this group.  I wasn’t sure I had the legs to do so, but I wanted to give it a go.  I knew that if I could stay off the back of this group, the rest of the ride to Montpelier (the next food stop) would be a whole lot easier.

What I was really concerned about was the last 10 miles before Montpelier.  After the climb, there is a fast downhill that kicks you into some very larger rollers for another few miles, as overall you still are traveling downhill.  At the end of the downhill rollers, you are in a flat section that is really flat.  You then have 10 miles to Montpelier, which is usually in the wind.  The last two times I rode this section, I rode it in a group of 10 to 15 riders, which made the miles slip by fast.  My fear was to get stranded in this section by myself. 

One of the keys to LOTOJA is to be efficient.  The race is so long, you want to save as much energy as possible by working with others as much as possible.  Getting stranded really hurts your time.

I started to ramp it up when Rex told me he couldn’t go.  So, we let the Cat 3 group go.  Instead, I settled into a comfortable climbing pace hoping Rex could recover a little bit.  I think hanging on the back of the Cat 3 group had soften his legs up a bit.  For the next mile or so, I would catch a glimpse of the Cat 3 group up the road just heading around a turn but they were slowing distancing themselves from us, and then I quit seeing them.  After another mile or so, Rex told me the pace I was keeping was still too hard for him.  So, I backed off again.

It was amazing Rex was even riding this race.  He had quite a bit of adversity to overcome to ride LOTOJA this year.  Five (5) weeks before LOTOJA, Rex was starting out on a training ride leaving his home on South Hill.  He wasn’t half a mile from his home when an oncoming car without any signal or warning turned into him.  The car was making a left hand turn into an apartment complex just as Rex was riding by.  Rex only had enough time to pedal really hard for a few pedal strokes.  This was just enough acceleration to keep him from being run over, but not quite enough to avoid the car altogether.  The car clipped his back wheel sending him flying.  This accident tweaked his back and ankle, which hindered his final preparations for LOTOJA.  It turns out the driver of the vehicle had been drinking.  Rex was lucky to be alive let alone riding LOTOJA.  

In addition, Rex works for Boeing.  He goes to work at 9:00 p.m. and gets home early in the morning.  He is usually sleeping during the time we were riding LOTOJA.  I think that fact alone probably impacted his day.  His body didn’t know what was happening.

After riding at Rex’s pace for a mile or so, I had another decision to make.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I did quite a bit of preparation looking at times from previous LOTOJAs.  I had determined approximate times for each segments that I needed to and thought I could make in order to meet my goal of finishing under 10 hours.  I had written these on a piece of tape and put the taped it to the top tube of my bike.  This way I had a reference for how I was doing along the way.  I knew our ride to Preston had put me in an immediate hole.  If I kept this pace it would be difficult to meet my goal.  I also felt like I needed to push my legs a little bit.  They still were feeling a little sluggish and I was hoping the climb would wake them up a bit.  On the other hand, I really didn’t want to leave Rex.

The prior two LOTOJAs that I have ridden, there were segments where I waited for people I was riding with.  In doing so, I lost significant time both years.  I had to decide if I was going to wait again this year, or ride my own ride.  I made the somewhat selfish decision that this year I was just going to ride at my own pace and ride my own ride.   I never know if I will get the chance to ride LOTOJA from year to year.  Not only is it a lottery, but it just takes a lot of time to prepare for, and time has been something I have not had a lot of lately.  It also takes a significant time commitment to train and just travel to the ride.  I never know from year to year if I will be able to ride in it again.  So, I didn’t want to regret not riding it to the best of my ability this year.

In addition, I enjoy climbing.  This is my favorite part of the ride.  I am nothing great compared to many of the other riders riding this race, but it is what I enjoy.  I wanted to enjoy the climb by riding it at my pace this year.   Rex is a better downhiller than me and he is probably better in the flats.  I really thought that he would latch onto a group and they would probably catch me in the flats heading to Montpelier.

I settled back into a comfortable climbing pace for me, I started to walk away from Rex and the remaining riders from our group.  It did my legs a lot of good to open them up a little bit on the climb and I was starting to feel better at this point.  As it turns out, it just wasn’t going to be Rex’s day.  That was the last time I saw Rex until the finish.

I really enjoy this climb.  It is a fun canyon and they close off one of the lane we ride for LOTOJA so you don’t have to worry about cars.  I initially had some hope of catching the Cat 3 group, but after a few miles the thought came to me that it would be like trying to catch Conor on a hill after spotting him a head start, ya right!  So, I quickly gave up any hope of catching the group.

After leaving Rex, I was riding by myself for most of the climb.  I would pass an occasional rider relay rider.  As I neared the top, I came upon a relay rider.  We were near the top, so I settled in behind him.  He wasn’t riding that much slower than I was, and I really didn’t want to ride the flats by myself.  He had started in Preston and was only riding to Montpelier.  Near the top of the climb is a neutral feed station.  They were handing up water bottles.  I took the hand-ups without stopping, and finished climbing to the top.  I lead over the top of the climb and the relay rider latched onto my wheel and followed me through the downhill.  Here is a picture of the relay rider and me nearing the top of the climb  To get a feel for the Strawberry climb, you can watch the following video from 3:26 to 3:55

The downhill is a fun downhill.  It is not as long as the climb up.  There are very few turns so it is not very technical.  Once you leave the national forest, the canyon opens up into a huge valley.  You ride these very large rollers  relay rider and I finished riding the downhill together and we started into the last leg of this segment.  We gave each other a knowing look that both of us were concerned we were in the flats without a group.  We both talked about how we thought the next race group would be coming through and hoped we could latch on the back of them.  I told him let’s start riding and they will likely catch us.

We started trading pulls.  As some of you know, I really don’t like riding the flats.  I would rather climb than ride the flats.  However, my weight is less of a disadvantage in the flats like it is on the hills.  My legs were feeling good and the relay rider and I started working well together.  We would each take a minute or two pull on the front.  We were maintaining 25 to 27 MPH through this section.  As an aside, I wrote in a prior post how I struggle with the oxygen being less at this altitude.  I may be bonkers, but it feels like I am faster at altitude.  It is probably all in my head, but the air seems less heavy if that makes any sense and I just feel faster.    

In the past, I have always ridden this section with a larger group.  The larger group helps cut the wind and because it is so flat, you can really move without expending too much energy.  I would say in the past the groups I have ridden this section with have maintained approximately 27 MPH.  Working with the relay rider, I definitely had to work harder in this section than in prior rides, but we were able to maintain close to the same speed as the larger groups that I have ridden with. 

When I got on the front, I think I was able to pull us along a little faster than when my new found buddy got on the front.  As always, I surprise people.  They look at my size and instantly judge me.  It wasn’t long before he was calling me “a horse” when I took my pulls on the front.  I took that as a compliment.  The relay rider told me he was a mountain biker and was riding as a relay rider for fun with friends.
At one point, we came upon and passed a tandem.  I was surprised that a larger group didn’t catch us.  I thought for sure another race group would be coming through, but it just didn’t happen.  And, what that really meant is we were keeping a good pace.  With a few miles to go, I was really putting some power down when it was my turn to pull.  I probably extended myself a little too much and also probably didn’t eat and drink as much as I should have through this section.

As you approach Montpelier, the road goes over a steep little overpass to get you over the railroad tracks.  As we got to this little hill, I had just taken a pull and my legs just died on this little hill.  I couldn’t keep the pace anymore.  My relay rider friend dropped back to pick me back up, but I told him to go ahead.  I knew he was just about to trade off the relay and I didn’t want him wasting time on my behalf.  He left me and rode the remaining quarter mile to his exchange point.

In thinking back, it is likely I didn’t fuel property from the time I submitted Strawberry canyon until Montpelier.  Because there was just two of us, I didn’t have the luxury of hanging on a larger group and drinking and eating.  In any event, I got myself back together and rode to the feed stop.  I will gripe because I got stopped at one light in Montpelier (which was the only time I was involuntarily stopped the whole ride). 

To summarize how I was doing after the second leg, out of the non-relay riders in the cyclosportive class, I had the 117th fastest time to Preston.  From Preston to Montpelier, I had the 10th fastest time.  It took me 2 hours and 15 minutes to ride leg 2.  I was about 7 minutes slower than the rider who rode this segment the fastest.  If you were to just look at my age group, I was the fastest in the age group I was riding (35-44).  There were 8 young bucks (younger than 35) that rode it faster than me, and one rider who was over the age of 45 who was faster than me by 11 seconds.  Again, these are all non-race riders.  I think the distinction is important.  What I realized is the racers are all strong riders.  They are able to ride in groups for the most part, which helps them draft with each other.  As such, their times are faster (in addition to the fact that they are all amazing riders).   The fasted racer rode this section in 2 hours and 1 minute.  I was just a couple of minutes slower than many of the racers who were racing my age group (the Masters 35+).

As a result, given that I got caught with just one other rider in the flats and likely could have pushed it a little harder on the Strawberry Canyon climb, I feel like my ride from Preston to Montpelier for the most part was strong.  It really got me back on track to where meeting my goal of being under 10 hours was still attainable.

In case you are wondering, in looking at the times of the Cat 3 group, it looks like there was some action after they went up the road from us.  About half the Cat 3 group were able to stay together and they arrived in Montpelier about 10 minutes ahead of me.   
After finishing the climb, Rex told me he got caught in the flats without anyone to ride with.  He rode much of the last 10 miles to Montpelier by himself.  He would get to Montpelier about 15 minutes behind me.

As you may remember, my nephew was going to meet me in Montpelier and hand me water bottles.  As you ride into the feed stops, it is just like a pit stop on a NASCAR race.  There are numbered spots.  You tell your crew what number to wait at.  It is still not the smoothest because there are hundreds of people in each spot waiting for their rider.  I will talk more about the support team in future posts.  My team had some funny stories that I will share in future posts.

 My nephew was at the food stop.  I stopped for about 15 seconds, dumped my old water bottles and grabbed new ones.  Then I took off.  It was a grab and go, which was part of my strategy.  If you don't have support, there is a neutral support but it takes much longer because you have to fill up your water bottles.

This year I did the Seattle to Portland ride.  You may remember it was a hot day that day.  Temperatures climbed well into the 90s.  Because of this, I tried a strategy where I rode the Seattle to Portland ride with 4 water bottles of my Scratch Labs drink mix instead of 2.  The strategy was that I would drink more and eat a little less.  I was also able to ride further without stopping.  Stopping kills your time.  The strategy worked really well for me that day, so I had decided to incorporate the same type of strategy.

I took on four water bottles at this stop.  In the past, I have really struggled through the next section.  I am not sure why, it is likely mental.  But, it has always been a challenge for me.  There are two climbs with the last climb being the King of the Mountain climb, which means the 3 to 4 mile climb is timed as its own segment to determine how fast you do the climb. In addition, this section is really exposed to the sun so it is usually the hottest section.  The past two years two water bottles were not enough for me and I have really wanted a drink about 7 miles from the King of the Mountain climb.  I was determined not to do the same thing this year.  My decision to take on four water bottles would really pay off this year. 

I had decided to carry enough food in my back pocket to get me to Afton, which was well over half way.  My strategy was just to grab the water bottles and not worry about the food.  The interesting thing about rides this long is that nutrition because almost as important as the training.  It can be disastrous for riders to put in so much training time and effort only to see it derailed because of nutrition or hydration issues.  You really need to be eating and drinking about every 15 to 25 minutes throughout the ride.  For the most part, I did really good at this, but there were some segments due to my effort or whatever I failed to do this.  It usually caught up with me a little later when I struggled through sections. 

I was now the lead rider of my group.  The only ones in front of me were three race groups, and the race relay teams.  If I was worried about riding the flats to Montpelier alone, I really didn’t want to ride this section alone.  My worries came to fruition.  This next segment would be my most challenging and most lonely.  To be continued

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