Santos Vortex Spring Training

February 23rd, 2013

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

Vortex Spring Training

While pitchers and catchers are reporting further south in Florida, I’m at the Santos Vortex near Ocala working on my own skills this spring.

My Florida State Series races last fall were disasters.  If I wasn’t having a mechanical, it felt like I was pedaling in glue.

I spent so much of the last year training on the road I lost some of my edge on the mountain bike.  So my coach Tristan Cowie and I came up with a plan to just work on fundamentals this spring.  And since I’m in business it had to be based on SMART goals (Specific Measurable Achievable, etc.).

I went out and started filming myself in the Vortex in places I’ve always had trouble with, or where I knew it could be ridden better.

Most of the improvement I’ve gained isn’t in physical skills per se, but in mental approach.  The course isn’t changing, the bike isn’t changing, and I’m not changing.  But my approach to each corner, berm, and turn has changed.  In short, I am seeing a different course now.   I ride it completely differently and not only do I ride it faster I use so much less energy doing it.

It’s not always perfect.  One week on the Horseshoe Bend section I caught myself on tape crashing.  My kids make me rewind it over and over again and laugh mercilessly as I go down.  But to be fair, it is funny.

And some weeks I’m more distracted or out of sync than others.  On the Challenger Curve sections I felt like Session 1 was much better than Session 2 (though it turns out I had the flu in Session 2 and wouldn’t realize it until later in the day).

As I start consistently hitting my marks on a section I move on and film new sections.

It’s been an amazing spring.  It’s so much fun to ride the mountain bike again!

Watch me crash in the vid below, about the 1:20 – 1:25 mark:

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at

The SouthEast Cycling Expo

November 30th, 2012

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

So I went to the SouthEast Cycling Expo a week or so back and…

…it was soooo tiny!

Bob Roll at the SouthEast Cycling Expo in Orlando

Bob Roll at the SouthEast Cycling Expo in Orlando

It was held in the West Section of the Orlando Convention Center.  I had just attended a conference there a week before where we had the whole building, so I was thinking it would be something huge, like Interbike.

I took my 6-year old daughter because I thought it would be fun for her.

So we park, and we go up the elevators, and we walk the concourse over the convention space…and there’s nothing in the convention space.  Hmmm….

Then we go back down the elevators and walk all the way down through the building and finally, at the very end, is the Expo in a single convention room.  It took us maybe 20 minutes to walk around the whole thing twice.

There was a wheel dealer there, and I think an electric bike dealer, 5 hour energy, a bike uni manufacturer, and a few bike shops, and a few ride sponsors.  And a tiny, tiny little demo area (though there weren’t any bike brands at the show).

And there was Bob Roll, too, which was cool.

Positives and Negatives

It was a long way to drive for such a tiny expo.  It took longer to park and walk to the expo than it actually did to attend the expo.

There were no bike brands there, and for $25 to get in there should have been bike brands there.

But that being said, Bob Roll was a nice coup.

Going Forward

My guess is the organizers underestimated the time it would take to put the thing together.

I work with non-profits and it can take a year just to get a charity bowling tournament going.

It seems like I got the flyer for it in August…they probably should have started rounding things up a year ago August.

So next time they need to give themselves more time.

The second thing is they need brands.

Ever been to the Santos Fat Tire Festival?  Fat Tire in past years has had a demo with Specialized, Trek, GT, Giant and Cannondale all there at the same time.

You can’t have a bike expo without brands.  And if they have brands they need to have a demo area the size of a velodrome.  And kids need to be able to ride, too, not just 18 and up…not that there were really any bikes to ride.

I’m Being Bitchy Here

But it really was a good idea.  Central Florida needs something like this.

And it’s probably good to start small, get your chops busted, and do it better next time.

Besides, it’s not like there aren’t other things to do in Orlando.

We didn’t spend a whole lot of time there so I took my daughter to play Pirate Mini Golf and to Downtown Disney, and we had a great time!

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at



Carter Park 2012: Reinstating the Mountain Bike “Rules”

November 16th, 2012

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

Normally I lose a tire in a race about once every two years.  This fall season it has happened twice in the last three races.

Lousy tires?  Nope.

Lazy rider?  Yep.

I used to replace my tubes before every race, but tubes are expensive.  So this fall I’ve been going through my “used tube” bag and running on those.

And they are fine in practice, and they are making me pay in races.

Two flats! Three races!

Before y’all get “You Should Go Tubeless” on me I’ll just say, “been there, done that.”  Tubeless tires have never worked for me.

But what has worked for me is something I informally call the “Rules,” aka, the “Rules for Mountain Bike Racing.”

They are:

1) New tubes before every race.

2) No downer books the night before a race.  I read On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming one year before Bump N Grind…I was depressed the whole weekend.

3) Always make sure your warm up area is clear.

4) Always ride the first 1K of the race course before the start.

5) The warm up is the most important part of a good start.  I hate warming up.  I would just jump on my bike and go if I could.

6) Bring an extra wheel.  Bring extra everything.  At Tsali one year I broke a wheel in pre-race warmups…and had no replacement.  A five hundred mile drive for nothing.

7) No spicy foods the night before.  One year before the Chicksaw Race Classic my cousin took me to a Mexican place where we had some wild, spicy Tex-Mex burritos.  When the spices met the pre-race butterflies it made for one very long, very miserable night.  Now it’s bland, baby, bland.

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at

Haile’s Trails 2012, A Cut In My Sidewall Leads to Cutting Film

October 2nd, 2012

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

In my first XC race of the fall season I took a cut in the sidewall with about 6 mins to go in the first lap…ouch!

So I changed the flat, got to the pit, grabbed another tube and co2, checked the pressure and went off again.

Then I noticed something flapping on the tire (I thought it was a loose lug hanging off…saw it earlier on one of the climbs coming out of the quarries) and it turned out to be the tube bulging through the cut…

It must have happened early on, maybe even on the time trial Saturday afternoon.

Since I’d already stopped twice and figured it would take another 5-6 mins to change into a new tire, and I’d be a half lap back, I just called it done.

So I grabbed my smartphone camera and took some footage of the yellow wave coming through the rock garden and last technical climbs near the start finish.

At the end you see a rider avoiding a climb by going around a hill…is that legal? Because if it’s legal I’m going to do it on ALL the hills next year!

Check it out:

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at

So You’re a Small Business and Want to Sponsor a Bicycle Team?

August 31st, 2012

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

So you want to sponsor a bicycle team?

My Team

I am a partner and owner in a real estate brokerage in St. Augustine, Florida, and I sponsor my own race team. I am currently the only member of this race team. It’s called (and it’s a mouthful): Strackacobra powered by St. Augustine Team Realty, Sean Hess, PA. On the jerseys the “PA” is replaced by “Broker” for semantic reasons.

I also own the company Strackacobra, which is a graphic arts firm that sells mountain bike themed T-shirts online.

The primary purpose of the team is to train, and not to race.

Strackacobra powered by St. Augustine Team Realty

Kit logo for the team.

It’s actually written up that way in the sponsorship agreement.

The Primary Purpose is to Train, Not to Race

Strackacobra/St. Augustine Team Realty is a mountain bike racing team, and nearest mountain bike race is about 90 miles away.  In fact, the majority of races involve an eight hour drive, and about the only hills you’ll find around town are the two bridges over the Intracoastal Waterway.

But to race you need to train, hundreds of training hours in fact, all put in on local roads. And each and every one of those training hours…sometimes eight or nine hours a week…includes the blue and yellow oval and the big blue “SA” of St. Augustine Team Realty.  Actual racing time, in comparison, may only involve 25 hours in an entire season.

And since the typical training ride is done on busy roads during morning drive time, the result is that my company gets in front of a lot of eyes and gets a lot of advertising exposure.

To me it’s a like a daily billboard that builds local brand awareness. And though it can be expensive (think $350 for a PowerTap refit, $160 for a derailleur and hanger combo, $175 for shifters, plus mileage and lodging…which is part of my particular sponsorship agreement), it’s not nearly as expensive as a billboard (which can run $1500 to $3500 or more a month with a 12 month commitment).

Plus it has these benefits:

It shows my company promoting a healty lifestyle.

It puts a name with the logo, a face with the brand.

Best of all I can pick and choose where I ride and when I ride to maximize brand visibility. You can’t do that with a billboard unless you pay some very extreme dollars.

I can’t tell you how many times I go to a business function and someone will tell me, “Hey, I saw you out riding.” Or how many people that have never worked with our company recognize our logo and brand when I introduce myself.

And it helps that it’s such a bright and easy-to-read logo. In fact in the next version of the kit, the “SA” will take an even bigger stage to make it even more visible.

So Where Does Racing Come In?

Here’s where the racing comes in.

You can’t train in a vacuum. As a broker I simply could not go out and ride every day in all weather conditions just for brand exposure. I needed a goal.

Racing is that goal.

It motivates me to get out and train hard and to put in the hours. With such long drives to races, for me it’s important to not just show up but to race as well as possible. This drives the training, and the result is that it benefits my company with exposure.

I’m Not Even Allowed to Wear My Road Kit to Mountain Races

In my sponsorship agreement I am expressly prohibited from wearing my “SA” kit in mountain bike races unless it’s a retired kit or the race is held in this county.


So the kit is always in pristine shape for training and brand exposure here in St. Augustine.

For mountain bike races and practices I wear a fully branded Strackacobra kit. This benefits Strackacobra’s branding and t-shirt sales where it matters most, at events where there are large numbers of mountain bike riders.

The only time I’ve ever worn the “SA” in a race was during a crit held in our local downtown. The only other time I pull it out for races is for post-race promotional photos at mountain bike races, but never actually in the race.

For me it is a really perfect combination of team and sponsor.

So You Want to Sponsor A Team

You should have some goals if you want to sponsor a team.

Is it brand awareness? Is it to sell widgets? How do you measure your return on investment?

How and where, and under what circumstances will your team display your logo? Is your logo too small to see clearly on a uniform?

And you have to think about the riders that will be on your team, because they will represent your brand to other cyclists and passing motorists.  Make sure they aren’t the type of riders who blow through red lights or flip the bird to passing cars.

Your cycling team may be the first or only way a consumer is aware of your brand…make sure it’s a positive experience for them.

It’s Up To You As the Small Business Owner To Make the Sponsorship Work 


Yep, it’s up to you to promote the team, not the other way around.

In other words, it’s up to you to package the team for the image you want to present, as it relates to your business.

For example, I actually think my team is going to grow in coming years. And I want to keep the the same goal: brand awareness.

I’m thinking lots and lots of road hours on local roads. More and more opportunity for past and potential customers to see my brand everyday in a non-threatening, non-invasive way.

But selling real estate is my role, not my rider’s role.

About the only time I would ever want them to interact with the public would be in a situation where we’re helping out at a bicycle rodeo or other good works function.  And sometimes I’ll write a presser highlighting the team’s accomplishments as a another way to expose the brand.

Otherwise I just want them to ride and get the brand seen by as many eyes as possible.

And on race weekends it’s about the graphics side selling t-shirts.

Have a Written Sponsorship Agreement

Even though I own or am part-owner in both companies, I still have a written sponsorship agreement which delineates exactly who pays for what.

It also outlines (as I mentioned above) exactly which uniform kit is to be worn and when.  If you are the sole sponsor or the dominant sponsor of a team you’ll be buying the kits, so make sure you have that kind of veto power.

You’ll also want to have…if not veto power…an absolute and clear understanding of where your logo will be placed if you are a co-sponsor.

There may be no point in sponsoring a team (in my opinion) if your logo isn’t visible enough.  On the other hand, it’s up to you to make the sponsorship work.  So if you can be a co-sponsor for a realatively low price, and if you’re good about writing pressers, and good about having images of the team in your office or store and website, and tying yourself to them, it may work afterall.

For example, you may own a health club and decide to be a minor co-sponsor of a bike team.  So at every opportunity let your customers know you sponsor a bike team and that it promotes a healthy lifestyle.  And then your customers will start looking for the bike team, and identifying you with the bike team, and it will dovetail nicely.

Just don’t expect the team to drive traffic to you.

You Want to Know When and Where they Train

For safety reasons you don’t want to dictate the when and where of training…leave that to the riders.

But you do need to know how much exposure you’re getting.

I can pull up my TrainingPeaks logs and see exactly how much exposure time I am getting.  And since I am the team at this point, I know the exact when and where as well.

You are going to want to see something similar.

For example, how many riders were training this week and for how many hours and on what roads?

If you had five riders who each totalled 8 hours of road time in a week, that’s about 40 hours worth of exposure.  Based on how your business is doing as you approach renewal of the sponsorship agreement, this type of data can really help you determine your return on investment.

In Conclusion

If you are Bob’s Window Blinds and you’ve been pitched a bike team sponsorship because you participate in someone’s group ride, don’t be afraid to ask a lot of hard questions, and don’t be afraid to say no.

Will the bike team get your name and logo out consistently in front of the right people?

Will the cost and responsibility of the sponsorship produce a greater return on investment than you could get for the same cost in a different medium?

How much space will you get on a uniform? Will you be competing with other brands for the same space?

Does the team, and do the riders on the team, have a good reputation? Are you aware that your reputation rides with them?

Lots to think about!

But if done right, like any advertising medium, it will pay dividends.

I would love to hear your questions or comments, just email me at .

See Strackacobra’s mountain themed T’s at . 

Changing Servers, and the City of Rocks

August 24th, 2012

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

Hi there!

Well, after moving servers we nearly broke the blog. But it’s up and running and this is a test post to see if everything is working!

The photo below was taken after the recent trip to US Nationals. It’s at City of Rocks, the fabled climbing mecca in southern Idaho. Plenty of dirt roads but I don’t think you can ride MTB on the trails there.

I was wearing Strackacobra’s “Here There Be Rocks” shirt that day. Ironic, huh?

City of Rocks, Idaho

Wearing Strackacobra’s “Here There Be Rocks” shirt at City of Rocks in Southern Idaho. Ironic, huh?

Coming Down To Earth: Back to Sea Level

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

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

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.


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.



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.


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

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

Acclimating to the Death Zone: a Hypoxia Regimen for Cycling

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.


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.



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

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