Archive for July, 2012

Coming Down To Earth: Back to Sea Level

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra. Visit me on Google+ and Facebook.

I’m back to sea level after racing at altitude, and I don’t feel any different.

This is a big improvement on past years.

In 2011 and 2009 after racing at Sun Valley, Idaho, and Granby, Colorado, respectively, I didn’t feel that good coming home. I think it had to do something with the altitude “Death Zone” that I wrote about in my last two posts.

This is where I train.

This is where I train.

In each of those years I expected the opposite. I thought I would go to altitude for a few days, get lots and lots of benefits, and then come back to Florida as a supercharged cyclist.

What I experienced instead was a malaise. I felt awful. My legs were sluggish. I didn’t even want to be on the bike.

I think what happened in those years was that I never actually acclimated to the altitude.

In 2009 I was only at altitude for five days, total. In 2010 I was only at altitude for seven days.

In each case I never had a chance to fully acclimate, or more to the point I was in the middle of acclimitization. And since the Death Zone puts you under such stress (especially coming from sea level), I think the malaise I felt was partly due to being under that stress.

There’s also the issue of jet lag.

I was stuck on mountain time for the better part of a week this time around, staying up late and getting up late. It’s been almost seven days since I returned and I’m just getting settled back into the eastern time zone.

But so far jet lag has been the only issue. Which is better than past years.

But I still don’t feel superhuman.

Maybe it’s just that I’m worn out from all the traveling and the acclimitization experience that I went through. It could be that I’ve been training since January, I’ve peaked and now I’m coming down. Or maybe I’m just fated to be slow.

In any case, I miss riding in those cool mountains, but I don’t miss the altitude.

I’d love to know your experiences coming home from altitude. Just email me!

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at Strackacobra.com

Strackacobra racing powered by St. Augustine Team Realty, Sean Hess, Broker.

The Hypoxia Regimen: Acclimating to the Altitude Death Zone, Results

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra. Visit me on Google+ .

Sean Hess of Strackacobra / St. Augustine Team Marshalled for the XC race at US Mountain Bike Nationals

Lined up for the XC race

Last time I posted about something I dubbed the Hypoxia Regimen to help me get pre-adjusted to altitude.

Pathway or Pipe Dream?

To recap, I live and train at sea level, and I had to travel to Idaho for US Mountain Bike Nationals. I used a breath training device called a Powerbreathe Classic in intervals in the 10 days before I traveled in order to try and put my body through the oxygen stresses it would face at altitude. Like all intevals, I hoped it would create an adaptation so when I arrived at altitude it would be like day 11 at altitude instead of day 1.

My goals were to:

1) To create a situation of mild hypoxia whereby my body would adapt by creating more oxygen carrying red blood cells.

OR

2) To at least put my body and lungs under stress so that even if they didn’t create more red blood cells, the body and lungs would be acclimated to the stress it would be facing at altitude ahead of time, and thus not be subject to the performance robbing effects of altitude.

OR

3) BOTH

In reality I wasn’t trying to create better performance, just to preserve my ability to perfom against my peers as I would in any other race.

Results

As far as my goals of creating more red blood cells, I have no idea. I had no way to measure the oxygen content of my blood while doing the regimen or after I was off it. I stated the goal because I thought that would be the result if it really did work.

As far as the second goal, creating the stress and/or adaptation to altitude ahead of time, at least as far as I’m concerned the regimen worked for me.

From the moment of my first practice to my last race I always felt like I had strong legs and lungs. In the Super D race where I had the luxury of going as hard and fast as possible (as opposed to the XC race where I tried to keep a steady, consistent cadence), I was able to go absolutely all in and pin it to the max. I don’t think I could have went that hard or got as much out of my engine as I did if I weren’t acclimatized.

But then there’s the finish results to consider as well. Second to last in the XC, bottom third in the Super D.

In XC I was with the group until the ground tilted up. I could match the gear of my peers but I couldn’t match the cadence. My perception during the race was that altitude was not a factor. What I thought was a factor was the 1-hour plus climb on the double then singletrack…something I simply physically could not train for. I’ll put it another way, if my competitors all regularly compete in races where the climbing can be 1-hour plus, they have an advantage over me where I don’t. However, if they were to come to some of the races in Florida or Georgia, where I race, and where the contests are something like power intervals repeated over and over for the course of 18-20 miles, then I would have the advantage because their muscles wouldn’t be used to that type of climbing adaptation.

The Super D race convinced me that I did reach acclimatization early using my Hypoxia Regimen. I was able to go all out, 100% on the starting hill climb before the downhill and I nearly caught the two riders who started ahead of me at 1:00 and :30. I went gratuitously over my own redline and was able to sustain it for as long as I needed to get to the top of that hill. My final position in the race had more to do with having only once ever dropped 2,000-plus feet in a race in a single shot (and that other time was three days earlier in the XC race).

The Hypoxia Regimen, while I felt it worked for me, is not something I could do or would do except once or twice in a season. It was a miserable, hour-long series of oxygen deprivation intervals for 10 straight days. In the future I might do it for a big race if I thought it would give me an advantage for a big climb. Or, I would do it if I ever have to compete in a race at altitude again.

But otherwise, never again.

If you ever try this, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experience and perceptions. Just email me at Sean@Strackacobra.com.

Diary and comments (after arriving at altitude):

Sunday, July 1. 1st day at actual altitude (Salt Lake City), 4 days before XC race (10th day after start of Hypoxia Regimen).
Comments: Arrive at Salt Lake City prior to travel to Idaho. Notice no change due to altitude. Bad headache after going to sleep, but believe this was due to travel stress and little sleep the night before with a long day riding in planes, with kids.

Monday, July 2. 2nd day at altitude (SLC), 3 days before XC race, (11th day after start of Hypoxia Regimen).
Comments: Train on the Pipeline Trail at Mill Creek Canyon in Salt Lake City. Trail sits above 6,000 feet. Parked at winter gate, rode paved section up to Pipeline drop-in at Elbow Creek Trailhead to get a nice, slow warmup. Legs fresh and lungs strong. No shortness of breath…but that’s to be expected at the 24 hour point.

Tuesday, July 3. 3rd day at altitude (SLC), 2 days before XC race, (12th day after start of Hypoxia Regimen).
Comments: Still good. Lungs strong, legs strong. Did a 45 minute recovery ride in Mill Creek Canyon, 20 mins climbing on paved road in granny/granny to keep the pedaling light, then dropped back down on singletrack to the parking area. Only issue? Hamstrings a bit tight starting out.

Wednesday, July 4. 4th day at altitude (SLC to Sun Valley, ID), 1 day before XC race, (13th day after start of Hypoxia Regimen).
Comments: Travel day, nearly six hours (with stops) in the car (kids). A short practice with a few laps on last year’s prologue lap, including the short steep climb to the final downhill finish. Lift ticket office closed (don’t realize I already have a lift ticket in my registration pack), so I don’t practice downhill sections. Lungs strong, legs strong. Everything good.

Thursday, July 5. 5th day at altitude (Sun Valley, ID), XC race, (14th day after start of Hypoxia Regimen).
Comments: Finished 22 of 23 in 2:16. I never got the sense that altitude was a factor (as in past years). I never felt short of breath. Had good, strong lungs. When there was a steeper section or hard pitch I could dig deep, and recover fast. I think it really came down to something you simply can’t train for in Florida or even in the East: a 1-hour plus singletrack climb. My leg muscles and muscle memory simply weren’t developed enough to do it quickly enough. I passed plenty of riders out of class, just was near the bottom in my own class. As a side note, a guy I’ve raced against in SERC this year, Steve Mace, finished 13th in 1:59…but he came up to Colorado two weeks ago, did a race in the Mountain States Cup, and was acclimatized. At Ducktown in Tennessee he finished in 1:44, and I finished in 2:01…roughly the same gap between us. Assuming our gaps would stay the same, we were either both acclimatized or neither of us was acclimatized.

Friday, July 6. 9th day at altitude (Sun Valley, ID). 2 days before Super D race, (15th day after start of Hypoxia Regimen).
Comments: Rested all day; Super D practice rained out by late day lightning storm. Went to see the movie “Brave” with my daughter.

Saturday, July 7. 10th day at altitude (Sun Valley, ID). 1 day before Super D race, (16th day after start of Hypoxia Regimen).
Comments: Rested most of day. Did some driving outside Ketchum, and a very light and slow hike with my 2-year old son. Did one run on the Super D course, flatted early and had to retire for 2nd run due to no extra tubes (and didn’t want to hike down in darkness if I flatted again). Bonus? Got to see Adam Craig run the course up close (he passed me). Those youngsters hit motorcycle speeds on the fireroad section of the downhill.

Sunday, July 8. 11th Day at altitude (Sun Valley, ID). Super D race, (17th day after start of Hypoxia Regimen).
Comments: Finished 21st of 27 in an open class. First part of race featured a .5 mile – .75 mile climb starting from the Roundhouse at 7,800 feet. Absolutely pinned it and could dig as deep and as hard as I wanted to. I think altitude was a factor in the sense that the start was pretty high and it made things more difficult, but from an acclimitization stand point my perception was that I went as hard as I was physically able without leaving anything on the table. I went so hard I was literally sucking air like a ’76 Torino with a bad vacuum leak when I hit the top of the climb, completely all in. I nearly caught the rider 1:00 and :30 seconds ahead of me at the top of the hill where the downhill section started. As for placement in the race…it was my second ever Super D, and having never seen speeds like that on a downhill, I think I did okay.

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at Strackacobra.com

Acclimating to the Death Zone: a Hypoxia Regimen for Cycling

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra. Visit me on Google+.

The Worst of Both Worlds

Cycling is a beautiful, graceful sport punctuated by bursts of brute force and power. But behind its beauty, strength and grace is a monster.

Like wrestlers and gymnasts we can take weight loss to extreme and unhealthy places. Like NASCAR crew chiefs we can obsess over the tiniest technical details that might give us only a fraction of a second advantage. Our athletes describe our sport done correctly as “suffering” and “misery.”

In short we can take the best of ourselves and make it the worst.

Powerbreathe Classic: Pathway or Pipe Dream?

Powerbreathe Classic and the Hypoxia Regimen: Pathway or Pipe Dream?

There Is Not Enough Suffering

If suffering describes bicycle racing done right then we try to put our hardest races at altitude to ensure there is, if it is possible, even more suffering.

This year is no different with the US National Mountain Bike Championships being held Sun Valley, Idaho.

This is the fourth straight year the championships have been held at altitude. Some purists would argue that with an XC starting at a mere 5,800 feet and topping around 8,400 is simply a let down. After all, the 2009 & 2010 Nationals held at Granby in Colorodo started at 8,000 feet with the course topping out above 9,400.

It’s a wonder the race has never been held at on the Leadville 100 Endurance race course in Colorado, where the elevations routinely hit 10,000 feet.

The Death Zone

On June 22, 2012, GU racing gels held a webinar on the upcoming Leadville 100, with past Leadville champ Rebecca Rusch and Charmical Training Systems coach Dean Golich. Since I am coached by CTS (coach Tristan Cowie) I found out about the webinar on Twitter and tuned in.

One of the questions asked was, “How does a lowlander adapt to the extreme altitude of the race?”

The responses jived with pretty much everything I’ve ever heard or read on the subject.

If you are coming from a low altitude you either try to get there 24 hours before the race, or you try and give yourself two weeks to acclimate. Rusch said even at two weeks you might only be 95% and it might take months to fully acclimate. Golich called days 3-10 (after arriving at altitude) the “Death Zone.”

Rusch described how she felt like she had no pop while in the Death Zone.

I come from Florida and I live at sea level. My personal experience at altitude has been one of extreme suffering (Granby 2009), or not much suffering at all (Sun Valley 2011). In fact, at Sun Valley I couldn’t get myself to suffer. I came into the finish with fresh legs. It was like my engine had a governor on it: no matter how fast I wanted to ride there simply wasn’t enough oxygen pressure to burn the fuel to turn the legs as fast as they were capable of turning.

It occured to me that my two races this year, XC and Super D will be on day four and day eight, right in the middle of the Death Zone.

So while I was still listening to the webinar I started googling “altitude tent rental” and “altitude mask rental.” This is the other bad side to cycling…we’ll spend stupid money on anything that we percieve will give us an edge. No matter that the kids might need new shoes or there’s groceries to buy, Daddy needs an altitude tent for an cat-2 amateur race that no one will ever see and no one but the participants will even care about.

Alas, there was no place in the region that rented altitude tents to sleep in. But there was a website from a company called AltoLab that is selling a device called a Portable Altitude Simulator. But at $189 for the lowest priced model…even if I could get it overnighted…somewhere sense and reason collided in my brain and I backed back into reality.

It’s just an amateur race. And that is why I signed up for Super D in addition to XC. Super D is pretty much all downhill and altitude doesn’t matter, just bike handling.

The Powerbreathe Comes off the Bench

And then a lightbulb came on.

Sitting on my shelf almost unused these past three years was something called a Powerbreathe Classic.

The Powerbreathe was supposed to increase the strength of your lungs, presumably creating a greater ability to use your lung volume and thus creating faster times. I used it as intended during the runup and first part of the 2008 or 2009 season but dropped it. At the time I couldn’t tell if it worked on increasing my speed or not, so I gradually quit using it.

Essentially the Powerbreathe is like breathing through a tube with a restricted airflow…imagine trying to breathe through a tube packed with gauze. The Powerbreathe has nine levels / settings, and each time you increase the setting it restricts the flow even further. Your lungs and the muscles around them (including in your neck) have to work really, really hard to draw a breath.

When the Powerbreathe setting is too high you almost can’t draw a breath. So I figured that if I set it at just the right point…not where breathing was easy, but not where I was suffocating either…I could create something like the air quality and/or breathing experience one encounters when first arriving at altitude. I came up with a regimen for it based on AltoLabs regimen for the Portable Altitude Simulator, to wit, 6 sets of 6 minutes with 4 minutes rest between.

The Hypoxia Regimen

I dubbed it the Hypoxia Regimen and I started that night. My goals:

1) To create a situation of mild hypoxia whereby my body would adapt by creating more oxygen carrying red blood cells.

OR

2) To at least put my body and lungs under stress so that even if they didn’t create more red blood cells, the body and lungs would be acclimated to the stress it would be facing at altitude ahead of time, and thus not be subject to the performance robbing effects of altitude.

OR

3) BOTH

In reality I wasn’t trying to create better performance, just to preserve my ability to perfom against my peers as I would in any other race.

It was an extrodinarily hard regimen to complete. I went from being strong on day 1 one to weak on days 4-5, to then being strong again and getting stronger after day 6.

I didn’t have any oxygen monitors for my blood, any prescribed “breaths per minute” or (like on a powermeter) a set “power” to breathe at for the 6-minute intervals. I just jumped in and had at it. Some sessions I was able to increase the setting to keep it at the balance point, some sessions I had to reduce it.

If nothing else, even if I did not accomplish any of my set goals, at least it gave me a psychological edge in that I knew I was doing everything I could to beat the effects of the Death Zone.

Here’s the workout as completed. I’ll do a follow up with results on this just to let you know how it turned out.

Hypoxia Regimen

Friday, June 22, 2012 (13 days before XC race, 9 days before altitude)
Powerbreathe 6 x 6 mins, 4 mins rest between. Total 36 mins breathing.
Comment: have that kind of tingling you get when you are tired behind the ears on the back of the skull. Started light and worked up to 2-2.5. Felt short of breath when I went to bed.

Saturday, June 23, 2012 (12 days before XC race, 8 days before altitude)
Powerbreathe 6 x 6 mins, 4 mins rest between. Total 36 mins breathing.
Comment: have that kind of tingling you get when you are tired behind the ears on the back of the skull. Started at and worked to 3. Felt short of breath when I went to bed.

Sunday, June 24, 2012 (11 days before XC race, 7 days before altitude)
Powerbreathe 6 x 6 mins, 4 mins rest between. Total 36 mins breathing.
Comment: have that kind of tingling you get when you are tired behind the ears on the back of the skull. Started at 3, but had to go down a bit. Level 3 felt a bit like suffocating. No longer feeling short of breath in bed. Some phlegm build up.

Monday, July 25, 2012 (10 days before XC race, 6 days before altitude).
Powerbreathe 6 x 6 mins, 4 mins rest between. Total 36 mins breathing.
Comment: tingling starting to go away but still there in background. Started at 3 and dropped immediately to 2. Tried to go up a level but could barely manage 2.5 for one of the sets. Some phlegm build up.

Tuesday, July 26, 2012 (9 days before XC race, 5 days before altitude).
Powerbreathe 6 x 6 mins, 4 mins rest between. Total 36 mins breathing.
Comment: Hit the wall. Started 2 and actually dipped into the 1s. Lungs are tired. Is this what day 5 at altitude feels like when training? Maybe this is working? Some phlegm build up.

Wednesday, July 27, 2012 (8 days before XC race, 4 days before altitude)
Powerbreathe 6 x 6 mins, 4 mins rest between. Total 36 mins breathing.
Comment: Starting to feel a little strong again. Started at 2 and was able to work my way up by quarter turns to 2.5. Hard work but I was starting to handle it. When it feelt like sucking my eardrums into my skull I backed off. Some phlegm build up but not as much as Sunday, Monday, Tuesday.

Thursday, July 28, 2012 (7 days before XC race, 3 days before altitude).
Powerbreathe 5 x 6 mins, 4 mins rest between. Total 30 mins breathing.
Comment: Muscles on side of neck beneath ears on both sides sore this morning. Starting to taper. Level 2 felt easy…this after getting home late from chaperoning a trip down at Disney. Moved up to 2.5 and it was a good balance of just being hard enough to pull a long breath without hitting that feeling of suffocation. Some phlegm build up.

Friday, July 29, 2011 (6 days before XC race, 2 days before altitude).
Powerbreathe 4 x 6 mins, 4 mins rest between. Total 24 mins breathing.
Comment: Continue taper prior to altitude. Neck muscles below each ear on each side, and lower towards the base of the neck both a bit sore…was probably due to going harder yesterday and not much rest night before. Kids running around house distracting while trying to breathe…they call it my “Darth Vader Mask.” Started at 2.5 and dropped to 2.25 for last three intervals.

Saturday, July 30, 2011 (5 days before XC race, 1 day before altitude)
Powerbreathe 3 x 6 mins, 4 mins rest between. Total 18 mins breathing.
Comment: Final Day. Finished taper.

Sucking Air in the Super D – Licious at Mountain Bike Nationals

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra. Visit me on Google+.

In case you didn’t get to race the Super D at this year’s Mountain Bike Nationals in Sun Valley, I’ll describe the hill to you. It was a BIG hill, right at the start of the race and about three quarters of a mile long. It started at 7,800 feet just off the gondola landing at the Roundhouse, it had three separate pitches, and the middle pitch was the bitches of the pitches.

I really pinned it going up that hill. Just pedal to the metal, time trial, field test style pinning it.

And baby I was sucking air like a carbureted ’76 Ford Torino with a vacuum leak by the time I hit the top.

I went so hard I nearly threw up…at the bottom(!)…an effort like that will do that to you.

Sean Hess of St. Augustine Team / Strackacobra riding the rock wall at the 2012 US Mountain Bike Nationals

Riding down the rock wall at the end of the Super D.

This was only my second-ever Super D. Here’s what I learned:

The guys that showed up for the race were there just to race Super D. These were elite downhillers. Their seriousness and skill showed me how to approach a downhill race.

Second, you have to place your wheels perfectly in a downhill race. Like skiing, running lines loose or wide costs you time.

Third, you have to get your practice time in.

Practice Time

The XC races are the darlings of the Nationals, so practice time for the Super D is limited while the races are going on (the Super D course was ran mostly on the XC downhill).

So when a thunderstorm rolled in one night for the allotted Super D practice…I didn’t get to practice. And when I finally did get to practice the night before the race I flatted on the first downhill section. And the choice was either to re-run the course with no backup tube and a chance of walking down in the dark, or to just go home and rest.

I chose to go rest.

But I did get to see the hill on that single run. And the section where I flatted wasn’t on the XC course either…so I was able to prepare for that better, i.e., be careful in that corner, dude.

The Benefits to Flatting

I flatted on the first switchback of the downhill section. It was super loose and chunky heading in, and the switchback was blind.

Loads of riders were missing the switchback corner and crashing, stopping or falling.

Basically, there was an outside line and a more extreme inside line. At the last second you saw the turn, and then hesitated as you saw the inside line. That last-second hesitation was causing a lot of riders to go down.

The benefit to me, anyway, was that I had plenty of people to talk to.

I remember telling a guy, “I raced a 19 mile cross country race with no problems and I flat on this five minutes in…”

And I got to see Adam Craig come by while I was getting ready to go, which was cool. The dude was smooth like butter. He was defending national champion and he would win the whole thing again the next morning.

When pads go bad they still provide consistent handling.

When my pads went bad I kept them in the race because they still provided consistent handling.

Prepping the Bike

You want to see some brake pads well past their prime? Then look at the pads I raced on.

I put on new pads before practice but they were too responsive.

So I put the ones that were shot back on. Because at least I knew how they would handle at speed.

Burlier tires?

That would be nice. The problem was my Larsen TT 2.0s were back in my in-law’s shed in Salt Lake because I forgot to bring them up. Shipped them all the way from Florida and forgot to take them to the race.

So I am possibly the only guy in history who’s raced a downhill event on 1.90 tires (Maxxis Larsen TTs).

But it worked out okay. And those 1.90s were fast up the hill.

The Race

Warming up for a Super D is a trick. You have to go so hard off the start it really pays to warm up. But if you warm up too hard you can end up tiring early…there’s no time to warm into it like an XC race.

So I warmed up on the fireroads near the roundhouse to get my climbing muscles firing…high tempo and low tempo, then bombed a bit of the fire road just to get used to the drift and feel of the gravel.

We had individual start times so I got called up to the starting gate at 10:53 am. There was a digital clock counting down and a race official telling me when it was time to go.

From there it was all sound and fury. Hard up the hill. Careful in that loose corner. How the hell did the chain come off? Just keep downhilling until there’s a rest then fix it. The fireroad…follow that guy in the orange…ride it like he does, like a motorcycle drifting just a bit in the corners. Last corner on the fireroad and set up for the single track entrance. Hit the lines right. Switchback-switchback-switchback…roll through the corners then sprint-sprint-sprint. The Rock Wall…set up on the far right side, rear brake only till it clears then let go. DONE!

21st place out of 27. Not bad for the only other guy from east of the Mississippi (and one of only four from east of the Rockies).

I can do this.

Super D Boiled Down to Its Essence

There is a ton of handling skill involved in running a downhill race.

But be that as it may, it’s not really a race against the mountain or even against the other riders. It’s a race against yourself.

The only thing you have to do to win a downhill race is to simply never touch the brake.

Yes, you do have to touch the brake to make certain corners and switchbacks, but in the end it’s really a race against your own fear. And your fear is measured in how hard and how often you pull that brake lever.

And at the end of the race every rider except the winner can say they pulled the lever too much.

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at Strackacobra.com

US Mountain Bike Nats: Them Mountain States Boys Can Be Beat, Just Not Going Uphill

Friday, July 6th, 2012

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra. Visit me on Google+.

Gravity Sucks, Literally.

While I may have discovered the poor man’s way to beat altitude, there is simply no way for a Florida rider to get around gravity.

Gravity pulls you to earth. It pulls you back towards level ground. It makes you sit differently enough on your bike that your muscles develop and get stronger in different places.

Starting the race at Nationals.

The prologue: the last fast section before the downhill!

And if you don’t have those muscles developed enough by the time you hit a certain 9 miles of climbing, say in the XC race at the 2012 US National Mountain Bike Championships held in Sun Valley, Idaho, it’s going to be a long day.

“You think it’s over, but then it just keeps going…”

I was mentally prepared for the long climb. And I was fit and felt physically prepared. I was even prepared for the altitude (unlike last year).

But being prepared, and actually doing something really extreme for the first time, are two different things. There simply is no break in periond for climbing nine miles, over an hour plus, from 6,000 feet to 8,400 feet, without having done something like it before.

The grade wasn’t bad, it wasn’t technically difficult and the really steep sections were thankfully short. The climbing was mostly buff singletrack, with just a bit of scree here and there.

It was just the length. There is no way to prepare for it living in Florida. There may not even be a way to prepare for it living out East…I don’t think even North Carolina has a singletrack climb that long.

I came up a long exposed ridge thinking, “Well, we have to be close to the top.” And so I went around the ridge…and a mile away in the distance you could see riders climbing another ridge.

“Well, sh*t.”

So I went along this new, long exposed ridge and thought, “Well this may not be the end, but surely the end must be close.”

And I finished this ridge, went over the top, and…a mile in the distance I could see another ridge with riders still climbing uphill.

But these weren’t the most soul crushing climbs…

Eventually I did hit the top and started the descent. I started passing people, too.

And then in the middle of the descent…apropos of nothing…another ridge to climb. Twice in fact. WTF!? I’m done already! Let me go downhill! I DON’T WANT TO CLIMB ANYMORE!!! WAAAAHHHH!

I didn’t sit up. I kept climbing as hard as I could. But that’s when I knew the race was really and truly over.

So, Western riders, my hat’s off to you.

The Mountain States Boys Can Be Beat, Just Not Uphill

When you live in Florida you have to be:

a) A really good technical rider because of all the rocks and rock gardens you see in practice.

and

b) Really good going downhill if you are going to race, because you’ll never be able to hang with guys from the North Carolina and Tennesse mountains on the climbs. Descending well is the only way you can win, or hold the places you’ve gained.

So I was ready to bomb the downhill.

The downhill sections at Sun Valley were as buff and sinewy as the climbs, a bit rocky here and there, but not overly difficult.

What made things technical were the speeds.

Think about it. You climb up 2,400 feet. You descend some, and then climb up high again. And descend again. There must have been 45 minutes of downhill at Sun Valley, and all of it really really fast simply because of the distance you had to drop.

On a section of fireroad I got a bit spooked for a second. It occurred to me that I may have never went that fast on my roadbike going downhill…and I’ve hit 50 mph on my roadbike. Spooooooky.

The trails had a bit of a tique too. You would set up hard left early for a hard-to-moderate right turn around a blind corner. You go around the corner and there would be a tree in the apex at the edge of the trail. Apex…edge of trail…not supposed to be the same thing. These corners were just a bit tighter than I was reading. I started looking for them and railed every corner, but not before…

One of those trees got me. It was early on the downhill. I dirfted too far left on a corner and discovered a HUGE burned tree. I faced (no pun intended) the same situation once at Bump N Grind and managed to stop the tree with my jaw. So in the split second I had to decide I was able to make the right decision.

I still don’t know how I did it but I jumped off the bike. The bike went left, I went right, we both went down, but neither of us got hurt.

Three riders in a group passed me as I was getting up, but these would be the last people that would pass me on any descent the entire way down.

The trouble was those two nested climbs in the middle of the descents that I mentioned earlier. These climbs were long enough that people I passed on the downhill sections were able to pass me back on the climb. Argh.

But I learned one thing. Those boys from the West can be beat by an Eastern rider, just not going uphill.

A Great Course, A Great Venue

At 19.5 miles (a 1 mile prologue followed by the 18.5 mile amateur loop), the distance was fine for an XC race.

My only criticism of the course would be that, because the climb was so extended, the selection was made well before the race was half over. The downhill played no role in the selection. And since the selection was made by then anyway, why on earth have more climbing in the downhill sections? It just made for prolonged agony.

Plus, such an extended climb takes a lot out of even the best, most ready riders. It’s a lot to ask someone to climb a hill then be on point for such a long and, at times, harrowing downhill.

But that being said, even despite it’s length and toughness, it was a great course. The singletrack was first class all the way through. Heck, even the doubletrack was great. It was like a worst-to-first improvement over last year’s course. It had a little something for everybody…even a mile so of flat (paved bike path) at the beginning that favored we few-odd Florida riders.

And there is the reality that you only have so much trail to work with.

The alternative was a punishing type of extreme grade on a shaley fireroad that the Pro XC riders will face on Saturday. Or, like last year, as starting climb on a trail that really wasn’t the best for uphill racing.

So, all in all, a great job by the trail crew in Sun Valley. Excellent set up, marshalling and registration by USA Cycling. And super friendly folks around town here in Ketchum.

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at Strackacobra.com

Riding the Pipeline at Mill Creek Canyon in Salt Lake City

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra. Visit me on Google+.

As a warmup before this year’s US Mountain Bike Nationals (held later in the same week in Sun Valley, Idaho), I needed a place to ride while staying with my inlaws in Salt Lake City. They recommended a local favorite called Mill Creek Canyon.

Mill Creek Canyon has quite a few trails, and the Pipeline was perfect for what I needed: a trail challenging enough to get me used to Western riding, but not so hard it would wear me out before racing. Sitting above 6,000 feet, it would also do its job getting me used to altitude.

On the Pipeline Trail in Mill Creek Canyon

On the Pipeline Trail in Mill Creek Canyon

I followed local advice on the internet and parked just below the winter gate (about 4 miles into the park). Driving up the road to the winter gate (on a Monday morning) there were plenty of road cyclists using the grade for training…always a good sign.

I pedaled up the paved road to the Elbow Creek trailhead where the Pipeline starts. The trail is mostly smooth dirt with sections of gravel and scree over the dirt…the rocks and scree get bigger and more serious the further you go towards the overlook finish after the Rattlesnake Gulch trail split. But the cool thing was that the dirt (for me, anyway) was super sticky, and my tires held firm when I was hitting the turns harder later on, even beneath the rocks.

There are some steep, short and fast sections with switchbacks. I was going pretty slow when I hit these sections because I was still dialing in, still discovering what the tires would do on the corners, how and if they would hold or go loose, and just getting the general sense of the trail.

Unfortunately, even though the drops were short and the trail was buff and sticky, if I was dialed in still I don’t think I would have bombed it. There were lots of hikers and even a few mountain bikers (!) using the trail. The trail sides are grown up with grass and trees and it’s hard to see past corners and you can’t see down the trail very far until you get to the exposed sections at the end. While working my way down one of the steeper sections of switchbacks a hiker popped out, but I was moving at half speed so it was a good encounter. On another moderate corner just after a small downhill I nearly plowed into a family walking two dogs. I was paying close attention so this close encounter also turned out fine.

Aside from the short steeps the trail is extremely level. The vistas get prettier and prettier as the trees and grass started to give way, and I saw the road I drove in on, and it was way down at the bottom of the canyon. I started bracing for a steep drop down to the road.

But the trail never dropped, as it pretty much followed the contour line at the elevation all the way out. That’s why the locals parked at the winter gate…a short, paved climb to the trailhead and then a fun, level trail with not so much climbing.

That trail ends at a gorgeous overlook with the whole Salt Lake Basin opening in front of you at the mouth of the canyon.

On the way in I encountered a group of school age kids hiking out. One of these 10-year olds informed me to watch out for rattlesnakes because “they are everywhere because this is Rattlesnake Gulch,” while another sagely informed me that if I “fell off the side I would surely die.” Which was true; the Pipeline has steep dropoffs everywhere. If you are afraid of heights this might be a trail you would want to avoid.

Heading back, I passed the Rattlesnake Gulch trail split (marked), the Church Fork trail split (unmarked), and then dropped back to the road via the Burch Hollow trail (also unmarked). This was more good local advice from the internet. A short climb up the paved road brought me back to my car.

The trick was counting the trail splits to get the right one. The worst case scenario was ending up back at the Elbow Creek trailhead where it all starts.

All and all, a really fun, excellent trail.

In case you were wondering, I was riding Maxxis Larsen TT 1.90 tires on a dual suspension bike…so this trail can handle the skinniest mountain bike tires. This was a hot July day and it looks like there hadn’t been a lot of rain, so the trail was buff. There’s a $3 fee for using the park (no fee if you ride the bike in)…you pay when you leave.

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at Strackacobra.com

Rebuilding a Bike After Shipping

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra. Visit me on Google+.

Luggage Forward, UPS and the Samsonite Gorilla.

Someone had a crush on my bike box!

Well the bike showed up in Utah. And Thank God it was well packed!

Back in the day there was this TV commercial for Samsonite where a gorilla took a suitcase and quite literally beat the living sh*t out of it. The gorilla pounded it on cement, he pounded it on the bars of his cage, he even chucked it as hard as he could against the wall. This gorilla clearly had issues with luggage. But the Samsonite case would not break.

Well, that gorilla got his hands on my bike box on the way out to Utah. It came in crushed.

The box had been through so much that a small box of tools (packed and SEALED) individually inside the main box exploded. At first I thought someone opened the box and stole the tools…because the tool box was on top of the bike and empty when I opened the main box…but I found them scattered across the bottom after pawing through it. One minor tool was damaged, but nothing to write home about.

The crank, ziptied to the frame through the pedal holes, oriented forward and backward so nothing would touch it (as opposed to oriented toward the bottom and top of the box) were hit so hard that the ziptie broke.

So but for the Grace of God the packing was up to the task and the bike and the wheels survived.

I kind of expected something like this. When I shipped it out last year for nationals it came through pretty beat up, but nothing like getting serious love from the gorilla.

I sent it through Luggage Forward and the bike was initially picked up by UPS. I’m not holding any grudges…and they picked it up and delivered it to the correct address and on time…but I don’t think I’m going to use them if I ship it again!

I’m a little freaked that I have to send it back through them though (already paid for). Better double up on the bubble wrap.

Rebuilding the Bike

A makeshift bike stand using a two-by-four and two trash cans.

A makeshift stand worked fine.

Normally building up a bike, even with its pedals and handlebars removed, is a pretty easy task.

I complicated it a bit by ordering a new rear derailleur and derailleur hanger after the bike shipped out.

The bike shop had it fixed but thought the derailleur itself might have been bent (not the hanger) due to some damage I inflicted on the bike on the last day of practice.

When I was preparing the bike to ship I saw they were right. Earlier in the year I tried racing with a bad rear drivetrain with horrific results (on my repairs, not the bike shop’s). So I decided, with all the training and sweat I put in this season, just bite the bullet and have it new and right for the race…no excuses for failing equipment.

So after putting the handlebars, seatpost, pedals and front wheel back on, I removed the rear wheel, derailleur and hanger.

A derailleur hanger bolt Dremeled to the right size.

A derailleur hanger bolt Dremeled to the right size.

The hanger (“hanger #12″) just bolts on to my Stumpjumper and the derailleur (XT 10 speed) just bolts on to that. The trouble was one of the hanger bolts was too long and obstructed the cassette. So out came my brother-in-law’s Dremel, and after one or two trips to The Home Depot later (to get the right cutter), I can report that the bolt found itself at an acceptable size.

Then I had to adjust the upper and lower limits on the derailleur itself, because out of the box it wouldn’t drop to the little cassette, and wouldn’t shift up to the biggest. I also replaced the cable and part of the housing (I had the foresight to ship extra cables and housing out with the bike).

Using a two-by-four laid across two trash cans I made a makeshift stand to do all the adjusting, and it worked just fine.

When I test rode the bike at Salt Lake City’s famous Pipeline Trail (at Mill Creek Canyon), everything worked fine.

Now on to Idaho and Sun Valley for Mountain Bike Nationals!

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at Strackacobra.com