Thursday, September 25, 2014

LOTOJA Part 4--(By Rob Critchfield)

In the last post, I had just finished Leg 2, which took me to Montpelier.  This next leg has the remaining major climbing of the ride.  For the next 30 miles, you basically ride uphill with two major climbs.  The first major climb is over Geneva Pass.  The next major climb is the Salt River pass.  This is the highest point of LOTOJA and also the timed king of the mountain climb.

As I mentioned in the last post, I always find this section challenging.  I am not sure why.  There may be a number of factors.  As I think more about it, I think one reason this section is challenging for me is the elevation.  This whole segment is over 6,000 feet above sea level and at the highest point, the Salt River Pass, you ride to over 7,600 feet.  As a result, most of this section is at a fairly high elevation for a flatlander like me.  As a comparison, Paradise on Mount Rainer is at 5,400 feet and Sunrise is at 6,400 feet.

Another factor is the topography.  For some reason, I really have a hard time judging the grades in this part of the country.  I don't know why, but they look a lot less to me than what they really are.  Because I think mentally I should be going faster, I often try harder than what I should.  This drains my energy prematurely.

It is about 9 miles to the top of Geneva pass.  As I started out from Montpelier, I was riding all alone.  Last year I was in one of the last groups to start instead of one of the first groups and this section was covered with riders.  Being all by myself this year was a little eerie.  There always seems to be wind in this section.  My plan was to keep moving the best I could and if a faster group caught me I would jump on back.

I thought for sure that a group of riders from my group probably teamed up and would be catching me any time.  I also thought I would see a race group come through.  Instead, about a mile outside of Montpelier, a relay rider passed me.  With fresh legs in Montpelier, he blew by me and I was not prepared to jump on the back of him.  I probably couldn’t have ridden with him anyway because he was racing and was a cylosportive rider.

The canyon is fairly exposed to the sun and has quite a few bends.  You really can’t see that far ahead because of all of the turns and twists of the canyon.  This might be another reason I find this section challenging.  In addition, I have found in this area that I have a hard time judging the grades.  I am not sure why, but I will think a grade is much less than it is.  I remember looking down in sections and being shocked that the road had ticked up to 7% while I am thinking it is like 2% and why am I not able to ride faster.

I trained quite a bit by myself this year.  Although more difficult than riding with a group, it has given me the confidence that if I need to I can keep a decent pace riding on my own.  I just was not feeling particularly strong.  I again thought for sure the next race group would be catching me soon, but there was no one for miles.  As I approached the Geneva Pass (which is about 9 miles from Montpelier), I noticed a few riders catching up to me.

I started up the Geneva Pass climb.  I was not feeling particularly strong.  The Geneva Pass climb is about three miles long.  It is not particularly hard.  Last year, I felt really strong as I made this climb.  I passed a lot of riders.  This year, I did not feel as strong.  The riders caught me about half way up the climb.  Instead of a few riders as I had thought, it turned out that it was a tandem and another rider who had latched on to them.  The tandem riders were the first riders to leave Logan.  There is actually a race for tandem riders.  The tandem riders were strong, but it was still humbling to be caught by a tandem on a hill.  The other rider, his name was Matt, was a rider from my group.  I think he had ridden with the tandem for some time from Montpelier.  As he passed me, I realized I was no longer the lead rider from my group.  I expected to see more riders coming up behind me.  I turned to look and there was nobody.  The Tandem and Matt had opened up a hundred yard or so gap from me.  I decided to force myself to try and stay with them.  I should have done it earlier but my body really didn’t want to respond.

I was able to limit the gap but I was not able to make any gains.  On the descent, the tandem left us both.  Matt kept the gap he created on the climb and we both dropped down into the Geneva Valley.  We rode this way for a mile or so when Matt sat up and waited for me, realizing we would be stronger together than alone.  We started working together and trading pulls.  This definitely helped me.  I was finding that I could pull on the front fairly well, but it was helpful to get a break for a minute for a minor recover.  I was still not feeling great, but it was a lot easier working with Matt.  I believe we were able to pick our pace up a bit.  I was glad to have the company to ride with.
After the valley, the road turns north for a bit before crossing into Wyoming.  I have a love hate relationship with Wyoming.  I love the rustic beauty.  Wyoming and much of Utah are very dry and desert for the most part.  I have also spent way too much of my life traveling between towns in Wyoming.  The towns are generally small and spread out.  And generally, there is nothing in between the towns.  This part of Wyoming is no different. 

I still can’t believe that the next race group hasn’t caught us yet.  I had not seen a race group since the Cat 3’s left me on the Strawberry climb.  About three miles or so from the king of the mountain climb, and the culmination of this segment of LOTOJA, there is an old store.  LOTOJA always puts some honey buckets at this location.  I told Matt that I was going to stop.  It had been since Preston that I had last used the restroom and I wanted to use it before the climb.  Matt told me he was up for stopping also.  We did a quick pit stop.  As we were getting back on our bikes, the leaders of the next race group came through.  These were the leaders of the Masters +45 group.  We had bad timing with our rest stop.

There was a young woman who was a relay rider who had been riding with this group.  She was dropped about this time and we came up on her.  She started trading pulls with us.  We rode this way until the start of the Salt River pass climb, which was also the king of the mountain.  With 1km or 2km before the climb, there is a sign announcing the climb is coming up.  I was still not feeling great, so I told Matt and the other rider to go ahead.  I sat up and started to eat and drink.  I wanted to go into the climb refreshed.  Matt and the other rider started the climb about a minute before I did.

It took me 1 hour and 42 minutes to ride from Montpelier to the start of the king of the mountain climb.  I had the 51st best time out of 720 of the males in my category.  Matt did it in 1 hour 39 minutes, which was 25th (he had made up the couple of minutes lead I had on him in Montpelier).  It was also my fastest time compared to my prior two LOTOJAs.  However, this is one section that I really need to improve on.  Most of the racers in the categories I would race in ride this segment in about 1 hour and 30 to 32 minutes (the Cat 1s do it in about an hour and 25 minutes).  I did stop for a pit stop which was probably 5 minutes, but I do need to be several minutes faster in this section.  I do not know how much faster I would have been if I had been riding in a group like a lot of them were able to do. 

Many riders will throw their water bottles away at the bottom of this climb.  They are usually empty for one thing, but at the top, the LOTOJA support will be giving hand ups.  They are clearing their cages to receive those hand ups.  I got to the bottom of the climb, finished off the last of the one water bottle, and then threw it in the pile of water bottles that were accumulating.

My strategy to carry four water bottles worked out much better this year than in prior years.  I have always gone into this climb really suffering because I was low on liquids.  This year, I had plenty of liquids and it felt good to fill up on them before the climb.  In addition, I still had an extra bottle full of only water that I had carried from the top of the Strawberry climb.  This would allow me to cool myself off on this climb.    

The first time I rode LOTOJA, I did this climb in 21 minutes 15 seconds (which was 35/530 riders in my category).  Last year, I did it in 19 minutes 46 seconds (which was 63 out of 804 riders in my category).  One of my goals was to improve on that time this year.  I knew going into the climb, it just wasn’t my day to climb at this point.  I still have a ways to go to be competitive on this climb compared to those who race it.  The strongest racers do this climb in the 14-16 minute range.  Many racers do this climb under 18 minutes.

The climb starts out rather flat comparatively for the first three quarters of a mile.  It then ticks up to be between 7-9%.  It is a long sweeping climb and you can see far ahead.  You can’t see the summit from the beginning of the climb but it sweeps to the left and after a mile and half, the last mile is wide open so that you can see the remainder of the climb.  On top of the summit is the next neutral feed zone.  The neutral feed zone is stocked with orange slices, other fruits, and of course liquids.  I don’t know if oranges have ever tasted better to me than they do at the end of this climb.

My strategy last year was to attack the climb hard while it was flat and then hang on for the steeper part of the climb.  I started to try the same strategy this year, but I just didn’t have the power to ride the bottom part of the climb hard.  Instead, I settled into a comfortable climbing pace and just got comfortable.  I was not killing it by any means, but the pace felt good to me.  On the way up the climb, I was passed by more of the 45+ Masters.  I decided not to try and keep their pace because there was really no way I was going to be able to.  I kept thinking, I am riding this slower than I did the first year.  I just decided to relax and enjoy the climb, and I did.  There were several racers who passed me, but I just stuck to my pace.  Like last year when I recovered on the Strawberry climb, I really started to feel better on this climb.

I am still trying to figure out why this climb can be hard.  On paper, the grades are not that difficult.  It is exposed and usually hot, but I am not sure that really plays into.  It is also true that you climb this at around mile 100 (think Cayuse on RAMROD but it is not as difficult as Cayuse).  For some reason, it can be challenging.  The weather this year was perfect.  Last year it was warmer.  There were riders stopped on the side of this climb looking like they were about to die last year. 

This year, I did not suffer on this climb like I did in past years.  I rather enjoyed it.  Because I didn’t kill the bottom, I got stronger as the climb wore on.  The relay rider that I let go just before the climb and who started the climb before me, I caught about halfway up the climb.  Matt, the rider from my group who also started about a minute before me I caught just before the top.

I was riding strong at the end of the climb.  The whole time I was climbing, I kept thinking that I was going too slow.  As it turns out, I didn’t meet my goal of improving my time from the prior year, but I didn’t do as bad as I thought I was doing.  I had in my mind that I was probably over 23 minutes.  Instead, I climbed it in 20 minutes and 18 seconds, which was 32 seconds slower than last year.  I ended up 61st out of 716 in my category.  If I would have been racing this, I would have been in the Masters 35+B group more than likely.  Next year, if I were to race it, I would be in the Masters 45+ group.  If you put my time compared to both of these groups, I would have been 17th out of 59 in one of the 35+B groups and I would have been 12th out of 27 in the Masters 45+ group.  I guess it is a respectable time, a little better than half in each category.  However, if I want to be competitive, I really need to get faster on this climb (which means I need to lose some weight to be more competitive).

Rex had some struggles in this segment also.  His body was shutting down on him.  He also took a rest stop at the same place I did.  After he rested a bit and recovered, he felt much better.  He was able to do the climb in just over 21 minutes.  He cut nearly 6 minutes off his time from the previous year.

This segment and especially the climb seem to separate the race groups into the lead group and everyone else.  Most years, a group of anywhere from two to six or seven riders will use this section to create a break away.  The rest of the riders play catch up after that, which is often difficult through Star Valley.  As a result, I need to improve through this segment so that I could keep any gaps to a minimum.  You can see parts of this segment on the youtube video I have been posting at  From 3:59 to 4:58 of this video will show parts of the rid to the bottom of the King of the Mountain and from 4:58 to 5:55 will show parts of the King of the Mountain climb.

When you get on top, there is about half a mile of flat on the top of the summit before it heads downhill.  LOTOJA had multiple volunteers who would stand with water bottles and you could grab them as you went by.  I grabbed two and put them in my cages.  The following quick video gives a good shot of what the top of the climb looks like

I looked to see where Matt went.  If I didn’t want to ride alone in the Montpelier stretch, I really didn’t want to ride alone in Star Valley, which is the next part of LOTOJA.  Star Valley is 50 miles long.  There is usually a stiff headwind or wicked crosswind in Star Valley.  If you are on your own, it can be a very long day.  Matt was a strong rider and we had worked together well, so I thought it would be good to continue to ride with him.

As I was just about to hit the descent, I looked back to see that he was stopping.  He was going for the oranges at the top.  When I passed him on the climb, I could see that he was really suffering.  I turned around and started heading back to see if he wanted to continue to ride with me.  But I instantly remembered my plan, which was to keep my stops to a minimum.  I knew that if I waited for him, I would probably lose 10 minutes at least on this stop.  I also knew that if I got caught in Star Valley into a headwind by myself, I would use up a lot of energy.  I made the decision that I was going to make my own opportunities and not wait for anyone.  I decided I would follow my plan.  If I was going to stop, I wanted to do it in Afton, which was the next supported feed stop and was only 17 miles away.  So I basically rode in a circle at the top and headed down the descent.  As a road in the circle, a racer with a red jersey (I forgot his name) from the 45+ group passed me and headed down the descent, which will turn out to be an important part of my ride.  

It wasn’t until I really started analyzing the times of my prior LOTOJAs that I realized what this race is about.  I have always loved riding it for the first 100 miles.  I enjoy the climbs better than the last 100, which is much more flat.  But, in looking at things, I realized that the race is really about the last 100 miles.  Those who ride LOTOJA fast can make mistakes in the first 100 miles, but they all ride the last 100 miles fast.  They average around 25 miles an hour through Star Valley, and then close to 23 or 24 miles an hour through the last 46 miles to Jackson.

Before, I had the wrong mentality when I was riding LOTOJA.  When I got to the summit of the Salt River pass I would think to myself, the fun part is over now I have to endure the flats.  This year my goal was to ride the last half of LOTOJA must harder than I had in prior years.  I knew, if I had any shot of finishing under 10 hours, I had to ride the last 96 miles really strong.

As I started down the descent, I initially thought I would just coast.  But I looked up ahead and saw the rider in the red jersey who passed me when I turned around on top about a quarter mile ahead of me.  He looked to be coasting down the downhill.  Chasing Conor all summer down the descents on Rainer has helped me become better at the downhills.  My competitive juices started flowing and I wanted to catch the guy in the Red Jersey.  So I turned on the power.  Somewhat to my surprise, I had the power that I felt was lacking earlier in the day.  My legs were finally waking up.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was about to ride one of the strongest 50 miles I have ever ridden—to be continued (only two more segments left, I promise).

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