Part of the start line for the Cypress Challenge, Photo courtesy Glotman Simpson Cycling
I discovered something this weekend – maintaining an average heart rate of 170 for 49 minutes really takes a lot out of you!
For a change of pace, the friends that I ride with on the weekends decided to enter the Cypress Challenge, a “fun ride” up Cypress mountain (according to my iPhone, a 12 km ride at an average 5.8% grade) to raise money for cancer. I thought this was a great idea, and prepared for it Friday night by staying up way too late watching a movie, having some wine, and having a small dinner. The alarm Saturday morning came way too early – a mere 5 hours after going to bed. This was going to be fun…
I met with my friends, we drove out to Cypress, signed in, and by 8:50 were at the bottom of the mountain (just past the highway exit) surrounded by 200 other cyclists. I figured this would be interesting, I’ve never ridden in a group like this – although that would only last until the real climbing started.
The announcer over the megaphone reminded everyone that this was a fun ride not a race, so you could take your time (everybody laughed – I don’t think you’re allowed to buy a bike unless you have a competitive streak), then he pointed out that we had a local celebrity at the front – Sebastian Salas who has just set the Grouse Grind record at 23 minutes, 48 seconds, so he might be a good wheel to follow up (if you could).
The countdown went … 3 … 2 … 1, the horn sounded, the bikes started to roll, then the woman in front of me couldn’t get clipped in, and was having trouble pedalling. I hadn’t even crossed the official start line, and I was already falling behind!
Getting around someone when you’re in the middle of a pack of 200 bikes isn’t easy – it took me a bit to do it, and I saw there was already a gap between my group and the next set of riders. My friend / riding partner Mike had done this last year and told us that you should go fast at the beginning, and I decided to follow that advice – I figured if I truly fell behind at this point it would be really hard to catch up, so I pushed a bit, got forward to that group, and this time stuck to the outside so I could move easier. I got through that group and realized that the next gap was to the lead group – it was small enough to cross, but getting larger. So I pushed a bit harder, crossed that gap and got onto the lead group. I knew there was no way I would hold with them all the way up, but every bit I could sit with them was a extra few seconds I wouldn’t have to make up later.
Now that I was settled down a bit I glanced at my speedometer, and and reflected that I’m pretty sure I’ve never done 45 kph uphill before. This was definitely going to hurt, but it’s amazing what you can do when being pulled along by a pack.
The group I was in maintained that pace of over 40 kph until the first sharp right turn, when the hill really kicked up, then the pace dropped significantly and as expected we started to spread out over the hill.
I had a game plan in mind – I know this climb, I know it’s 12 km until you hit the false flat at the end, it’s fairly even (there are 2 points where it levels out enough to get a bit of a rest), and I know my lactate threshold is around 164 bpm – so my goal was to sit just under 164 bpm for most of it, then maybe for the last 3 km sprint hard. I usually do between 11kph and 13kph up the hill.
We were at the 3k point, and I took a look at my readouts – heart rate 177, speed 16kph.
Okay, this was going to hurt. But I felt like I could keep going at this rate, so I threw the game plan out the window.
I hit the lookout (at the 6k mark) in 17 minutes – my legs were burning, but that meant I had averaged 21 kph – 13 mph – for the first half of the race, which I was very happy with; I had just rode 6 km at an average 4% grade at 21 kph – and had been shifting better than Andy Schleck. I considered asking the race officials to let me stop here and just enter a finishing time of 34 minutes, but I couldn’t find anyone to ask.
We rounded the switchback at the lookout, and for the next little bit the hill gets steeper and I couldn’t maintain the pace anymore – so I cut back to 13kph, and noticed that kept my heart rate still over 170, and it had been over 170 for nearly 20 minutes now – ouch. I was actually impressed that I was managing to keep turning my pedals. I looked around and realized that nearly everyone was pedalling faster than me (even though we were going the same speed). They had some extra gears that I didn’t – on the next bike I want compact gearing.
Now it just settled down into a slog. As I’ve said before, the goal of road cycling is suffering – if you don’t suffer you aren’t riding. I was suffering. I spent about 90% of the time sitting and trying to spin (I’ll admit there was a lot of mashing, that was in large part due to my gearing and just outright being tired), and about 10% standing just for a different muscle movement and a kind of rest.
I continued like this – slogging up the hill, sitting and concentrating on turning the pedals, standing for a bit to rest, watching the heart monitor and wondering how long I could keep my heart rate over 170 without just falling off the bike, and constantly thinking about how nice it would be to just get off the bike and abandon. I didn’t pass very many people, but very few people passed me, so that seemed a reasonable tradeoff.
At about 9.5k the battery on my bike computer went kaput, and I lost my distance readout. They had markers up at each km point, but it was nice to know where I was in-between (especially since with only 2.5km left to go, I had to consider if I could accelerate – although my heart rate monitor was saying that was unlikely – and it would be nice to know what speed I was maintaining).
Finally a bit past the 11k marker, we “crested” onto the false flat at the top and I could see red pylons a few hundred metres in front of me – the finish line! I figured this was time to go all out, shifted up into the big ring, and accelerated – I got to somewhere over 30 kph (not an easy feat on an uphill when you’ve been climbing at max effort for 45 minutes), and sprinted for the finish – only to discover that wasn’t the finish. The pylons were directing us around a switchback and up a hill that I didn’t know existed.
Oops. Now I was really, really, really hurting.
I dropped back to my lowest gear, and came around the corner on a bad line – I was way too far to the outside and had to ride over some pretty badly cracked asphalt. But I could see the real finish line just 40 or 50 metres away. I thought “screw this” (yes, I literally thought that), put the bike back onto the big ring again and sprinted up the hill. I thought I was going to die – when I crossed the finish line, I couldn’t just stop, I had to ride a few loops of the parking lot to slow my body / heart down.
My final time came in at 49 minutes – an average speed of 14.7 kph (9 mph) up the mountain, and an average heart rate of 170, good for 79th place. My goal was to finish in the top half, so I was happy. The winner – the aforementioned Sebastian Salas, completed the climb in 31 minutes. That’s actually slower than last year – I assume he’s tired from setting the grind record earlier in the week.
I’ve just checked, and my previous recorded best up this climb was 55 minutes (with a warmup ride that started at Science World). In retrospect I think I went too hard at the beginning, and that hurt me near the end; although I need to change the gearing on my bike – when I got it I thought it was cool to have completely standard gearing, but now I understand that if Fabian Cancellara thinks those gears are too big for him to go mountains with, maybe I should consider getting some lower gears too. Sure he uses standard gearing on a flat, and when I can do a 50k time trial in under an hour I can go back to standard gearing too.
Next year maybe I should try to get some sleep before this event – who knows, maybe I can keep up to Sebastian !
Spinning is when you use your legs to pull the pedal around the entire circle – pushing down, and pulling up; it’s very efficient because your using more of your muscle groups; mashing is when you just keep pushing down on the pedals and nothing else
 Or at least stay ahead of the 70 year old guy who finished a minute faster than I did