I think that grading events like this is unique among endurance athletes, because no other athletes have events where they don't really care that much about the outcome (i.e. C Races). Certainly, all athletes have some competitions that they take more seriously than others, and teams will sometimes try out different strategies or combinations in games against teams that simply are not as skilled. But I think that only endurance athletes sign up for an event, pay an entry fee, and let themselves get beaten by their competitors for the sake of training. The Duke men's basketball team may not have spent much time thinking about their opening game this year against Shaw, but I'm sure that they would not have dared to lose it. (Perhaps this is also why they were upset so early in the tournament this year: because they treated the second round like it was a B game rather than an A game.)
Of course, my A race for the first half of 2012 is Ironman Coeur d'Alene. Every workout I have done since January--including a couple of C events like the Tony Serrano Century and the Wheels O' Fire century--has been designed and completed with that race in mind. On Sunday, April 22, though, I toed the starting line of my first B race of the year in hopes of getting a good result.
And I did!
The Cheaha Challenge Gran Fondo Report!
The Cheaha Challenge Gran Fondo is a timed 102-mile ride that goes over several climbs. The highlight is the summit of Mount Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama. Here's the view from the top:
It's an out-and-back, which means that it goes up both sides of Cheaha. In addition, there is some really rough pavement between miles 21-35 and 65-80. It bills itself as the "Toughest Ride in the South," and having done several tough southern rides, I can attest that it's certainly in the top five alongside the Six Gap Century, the Tour de Cashiers, and a few others. I can also attest that the support of the volunteers and the people who live in Piedmont is unmatched.
My first B race of the season was nearly ruined when my alarm did not quite work. Fortunately, I woke up on my own, albeit twenty minutes later than I had planned. I quickly pulled things together, ate some oatmeal, and ran out the door. I did not see much fuzz along the way, so I was able to make up that twenty minutes on the drive.
My goals were based on my finish at the Cheaha Challenge two years ago, when I rode very well but finished third overall in 5:00:29. Goal one of the day was to be at the front at the start, since two years ago, I missed the start and spent nearly the entire first sixty miles of the ride chasing the leaders solo. Goal one: check. (This one was easy.)
The ride this year was chip-timed, which was cool. In addition, they invited two pros from the United Healthcare Team--Ben Day and Jeff Louder--to ride along. They wouldn't count in the Gran Fondo results, but they would be in the pack with us and we could benefit from their strength. And very strong they were: Ben Day was the 2003 Australian time-trial champion and Jeffrey Louder competed for Team BMC in the 2010 Giro d'Italia.
The ride started as most rides do: with a large group. We benefited from tailwinds in the first twenty miles, and by the time we hit the first uphill, the group was about fifty-people strong (plus the two pros). After the first serious uphill, we were about twenty people strong (plus the two pros). That uphill was followed by another that reduced us down to about twelve (plus the two pros). And that uphill was followed by another that reduced to about six (plus the two pros). We stayed in that group until the base of Mt. Cheaha, around 41 miles into the ride.
Goal two was to win the King of the Mountains category that they introduced this year for the first time. They timed one climb--the three miles from the bottom of the Cheaha climb to the top--and whoever was the fastest won the designation. Within the first quarter mile of the climb, the two pros and I dropped the other half-dozen riders in our group. Around the two-mile mark, the two pros both dropped me. I didn't go to my absolute limit since I was aiming to beat my competitors in the Gran Fondo, not try to out-ride the super-human professional cyclists that weren't wearing chips. I crested the top about thirty seconds behind them, but about a minute in front of my competitors. No one in the other groups behind us was close. Goal two: check.
The pros rode off and I cruised along, recovering from the climb and preparing for the others to rejoin me. I knew that I could not ride the rest of the ride solo with several people working together behind me, but I also knew that I would need the buffer over my competitors so that I could refill my bottles at the turnaround. I maintained a sufficient gap to be able to refill my bottles, and a group of three caught me around mile 55. It would stay this way for the next long while. Here is a shot of the four of us cresting a climb in the rough pavement section around 70 miles into the ride:
Trust me: four of us were there, even though you can only make out three. We stayed this way for a long while, and we were working fairly well together. The pros were still up the road, doing their thing.
Around mile 80, things began to happen. First, the fella in the snappy green helmet that can be seen in the picture above flatted. Down to three. Then, we came off the rough pavement and found that the two pros were only about 200 yards in front of us. I put my head down and we caught them just as we were about to turn into a windy section of the course.
Things soon got harder. The pros and I began trading pulls. One of my remaining Gran Fondo competitors was immediately dropped, and the second sat at the back and didn't pull through. Thus, it was two pros and me trading pulls into the wind for about twelve miles. This was very difficult. For one thing, I was having to produce enough wattage to match the speed of two pro cyclists (on faster bikes, with faster wheels) after having already climbed about 8000 feet, sometimes over rough pavement. I was not all out, but at times, I was very close. For another thing, the pros kept switching up the way that we would pull through based on the changes in the wind. They would yell out to me what they were doing, but I was kinda in the dark. To be honest, I felt like a boy among men . . . like it was my first time on a bike. As if I didn't know it already, I became keenly aware of the difference between pros and amateurs. At the same time, this was AWESOME! I was riding with top level pros, and we were hammering the last stretch of a tough ride. When will I ever get to do this again? Of course, if I paused to smell the roses, a gap would immediately open up and I would have to punch it closed.
As time went on, my pulls got shorter and the pros' pulls got longer. With around eight miles to go, the other amateur that was riding with us pulled through for the first time, but then didn't pedal when he got on the front. That evidently upset Day and Louder, so much so that they decided to kick it up another notch. After that, the speed went up, the wattage went up, and I never took another pull. I had to really work to keep them close. The last 21 miles of the 102-mile Gran Fondo into the wind--which took around 55 minutes--was probably the most difficult 55 minutes I've ever spent on a bike.
Goal three was to win the Gran Fondo. With around three miles to go, I realized I was going to make it to the finish with the pros even though there could be no relaxing. Just as I was trying to decide how to get away from the only other non-amateur left, he pulled up next to me and told me that he would not sprint for the finish given that he hadn't done any pulling for the last twenty miles of the ride. Thus, we left Ben Day--the 2003 Australian TT Champion!--on the front, and he dragged us to the finish line. The final time was 4:46:11, fourteen minutes faster than last year. I crossed the line first among the Gran Fondo competitors. Goal three: check.
I was particularly happy with this finish given my frustration two years earlier. In 2010, two riders left me sitting on the front in the last ten miles, only to sprint around me in the last straightaway. One of them--the one that crossed the finish line first--never took a pull the entire day before sprinting around us for the win. I felt that this was very unsportsmanlike behavior for a Gran Fondo. The Anniston Star picked up on the redemption theme for their story about the ride the next day.
The other striking thing about this years Cheaha Challenge was how hard I had to go (and, by extension, how fast pro cyclists can go). I texted my wife afterwards that I hadn't hurt myself that badly in a while. I sat in my car with my legs propped up for several minutes before I could walk to the post-race party and get something to eat and drink. Last year, I did the accompanying 55-mile road race, and finished second in Category 3. That was a very hard race, but I can unequivocally say that winning the Gran Fondo this year was harder. For those who dig numbers, my normalized power for nearly five hours was 282w. My TSS was 419. I created about 4200 joules, or about 890 per hour.
Thus, I could take pride not only in having performed well in a B race, but also in the training effect that it would provide for the A race to come. It would also redound in other B races, like . . .