Sunday, July 18, 2021

From the Archives - Daily Peloton: Everest Challenge 2009


I originally wrote the following story for Daily Peloton. Their servers crashed a couple years ago and all their content was lost, so I’m gradually re-posting my dp articles here.

You may have noticed that I already did a post on this topic (in fact, here it is now). Well, that was the report I sent around to my bike club, adhering to our standard format of focusing mainly on the food and the camaraderie. My dp story was about the actual race. This is about the closest thing you’ll ever see on albertnet to a true race report.

Racing the Everest Challenge – September 25, 2009

I was encouraged recently by some cycling friends to join them in racing the Everest Challenge, the California-Nevada Climbing Championship. It’s a two-day stage race covering 206 miles with 29,035 feet of cumulative vertical gain. (The name refers to the total elevation gain being equivalent to the height of Mount Everest, which I’ll admit I didn’t grasp right away.) Being a large guy much better suited to fetching things from a high shelf than to riding a bike uphill fast, but having suffered gloriously in similarly brutal races (like La Marmotte), I was naturally intrigued and decided to take the plunge with four of my Bay Area cycling pals.

Now, if you had infinite time and patience, I would give a full background on the five of us, worthy of The Deer Hunter, but I’ll try to keep the following bios brief. Three of us are on the East Bay Velo Club—Lucas, Craig, and I—and we’re pretty big guys. Lucas is the most serious racer and not coincidentally the fastest. Craig, who used to play football, came to cycling only a few years ago but is strong like bull. The other two riders in our group, Paul and Jamie, who race for other teams, are built more like climbers, and (not surprisingly) climb more like climbers. Jamie is in the Masters 45+, and the rest of us are 35+.

This story is an eye-witness account of my experience, not full coverage of the race. I’m sure the winner of the pro classification did far more glorious things than I did, but I wasn’t there to see it. Continue reading only if you’re interested in the humble struggle of a mere mortal against man, nature, and his own limitations.

I’m not big into goals, and simply hoped to finish this race with some semblance of dignity. (My ever-optimistic eight-year-old daughter, on the other hand, predicted a top-ten finish). My strategy, to the extent it existed, was to pace myself well and hope the other racers would cramp or something. I learned the hard way during my first La Marmotte effort not to go out too hard; pacing myself more carefully made my second try less horrific. Craig also had experience with this kind of race, having done the Everest Challenge the previous year, and we advised Lucas, who is a fire-in-the-belly, impetuous type, to control his baser impulses and pace himself. His response was impassioned: “I’m gonna race! That’s what I do! I’m a bike racer!” Needless to say we gave him endless crap for the unspoken rebuke buried in this wild speech. Meanwhile, the three of us joked about taking advantage of our non-climber physiques by team-time-trialing for the flat section before the first climb, after a brief neutral section, to try to gain an advantage over the guys who weren’t doomed at birth to struggle in the high mountains.

It was a seven-hour drive to Bishop, where the race is based. As soon as we reached town, we got a taste of a) the community’s awareness of the event, and b) its sense of humor:

[A note on the above: I’d gotten this photo from Paul, and discovered, well after the fact, that this Wendy’s wasn’t actually in Bishop, and it was probably pure coincidence the sign talked about a challenge. Thus this was a factual error in my dp story. I’m leaving it here as a warning against unintentional fiction in bike race stories.]

We did a quick evening ride around Bishop to spin the legs, then headed to the local fairgrounds for a free pasta meal and a mandatory pre-race meeting. A whole bunch of volunteers from the community were serving the food, and the mayor of Bishop gave a speech. The hospitality was charming, and the food was good. Lucas, a born competitor, tried to match me plate for plate on the pasta. The fool! He had a stomachache the rest of the night. (If I could design my own triathlon, it’d be cycling, typing, and eating.)

After dinner the race director, Steve Barnes, gave us a slide show with instructions and advice for race day. This could have been a boring affair, but slides were mostly beautiful, sometimes terrifying, and above all useful. Meanwhile, Steve has a great sense of humor. Several times he said, with great relish, “You’re gonna be cooked!”—the verbal equivalent of rubbing his hands together in glee at the suffering that was to be had. Advising us not to run the stop sign at the end of the neutral section on Stage 2, he said, “Don’t worry about gaining a few seconds. Listen, when you wake up on the second day, you’re going to be asking yourself if it’s even a good idea to have bikes in your life.”

Stage 1 was 122 miles long, with 15,465 feet of climbing. The Masters 35+ and 45+ started in one big group, five minutes behind the Cat 3s. After the short neutralized section, Lucas inexplicably—yet all too predictably—went straight to the front and lit it up. I learned later that one rider had gone off on his own, and his buddy had boasted to Lucas, “He’s going to solo the whole thing and win it.” What would normally be standard-issue smack-talking had the effect, on Lucas, of the mind-control techniques of a Jedi master. Lucas couldn’t stand the thought of some guy winning in such a bold manner, so he totally threw down. By the time we hit the first climb, we’d caught the Cat 3s and absorbed them into the frantic serpent our peloton had become.

Here’s the profile of Stage 1:

The first climb, the oddly named Mosquito Flat, was 22 miles long, with an average grade of 5%, for almost 6,000 feet of total vertical gain. It was brutal from the very beginning. The pack stretched out like a rubber band and then blew apart into a bunch of separate echelons. As Craig would later put it in a haiku he e-mailed to the club:

First climb of the day
Lucas drills it at the front
Scattered peloton

As you can see, these aren’t the lush, green mountains of the western slope of the Sierra Nevadas, or of the Rockies. These mountains are stark and barren, almost lunar. Mother Nature isn’t offering the moist, fresh, fragrant breezes mimicked by so many air fresheners, but rather a dry, hot wind blowing across expanses of plain rock and low, scrubby brush. The terrain seemed to say, “You not in for a refreshing alpine vacation—you were brought out here to die!” And yet, there’s a stark beauty to it all, which I managed to notice even as I buried myself in the effort.

I knew better than to try to hang with the leaders, being well aware of my limits. I’m no Alberto Contador; in fact, I’m more like the UPS guy: not necessarily talented, but well trained to do things efficiently. My main ability in cycling is marshaling my resources effectively: I strive to stay out of the wind, avoid accelerations, and ultimately do less work than the next guy. So I sought out guys tapping out a similar pace, so I’d have someone to draft who wouldn’t destroy me.

The climb ground on for close to two hours. It’s an out-and-back deal, so eventually I started seeing my pals coming down the other way—Paul, Lucas, and Jamie (I can’t remember in what order). Craig was somewhere behind me and I hoped to regroup with him later. Finally I reached the first summit. This was the high point of the whole race, 10,250 feet above sea level (incidentally, more than 1,500 feet higher than the summit of the Col du Galibier, frequently the highest point in the Tour de France). Volunteers handed up bottles of energy drink. I started the first descent.

As a rule, I cut through the wind pretty well. I must have heavy bones, like a penguin. But I didn’t exactly bomb the downhill … the road was unfamiliar and had deep cracks in it, causing lots of lost water bottles. The lower half of the descent was smoother but had long, sweeping curves that were a bit hard to judge. Several times, riders ahead of me went into a curve too fast and ended up on the wrong side of the double yellow. I slipped back a bit—I’m a father of two, after all, and a son, and a husband. Why take unnecessary risks? After all, the whole race is unnecessary; in fact, the whole sport is unnecessary. Moreover, there was always somebody behind me to come by and help me close the gaps on the straightaway.

On the flat section before the second climb, I was in a group of at least twenty guys, and it looked like we might actually get a rotating pace line going. But alas, there were too many riders whose experience didn’t match their strength, and the line broke down again and again. It was frustrating and futile, like trying to herd Ewoks without a proper whip. Finally I resigned myself to dawdling in an inefficient, disorganized collection of individuals.

At the base of the second climb, Park Creek, eight miles long at 7% for 3,000 feet of gain to a 7,425-foot summit, our group blew to pieces. This time I didn’t make any effort to match anyone, and settled in to my own private slog up the mountain. The first climb hadn’t been too hot, only touching 80 degrees, but now the exposed asphalt was absolutely baking in the sun, the temperature well into the 90s. One really fiendish aspect of this climb was that it looked almost flat. I thought something was wrong with me—here I was in my small chainring, on a flat road! My bike computer set me straight: what looked flat was 5 to 6%.

That’s not a particularly steep grade, of course, but that’s what these climbs were like—through their sheer length, they killed you softly. (Fortunately this phrase didn’t occur to me until later, or I might have gotten that “Killing Me Softly” song stuck in my head. That, of course, would have unraveled me psychologically.)

When my head wasn’t down I gazed out over the very strange terrain—countless little scrubby mounds of bush, like oversized razor stubble on the mountain’s face. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Sweat drips painted my handlebar stem. My legs still felt great, but the rest of me was questioning the whole enterprise. This was the kind of scorching weather that normally keeps a sane person indoors—the kind you rush through on the way from the air conditioned car to the air conditioned house. What were we doing out here? Happily, the climb was “only” an hour long, and before I knew it I saw my pals, then the summit a few minutes later. (My altimeter was malfunctioning, so the summits came before I expected them. I wasn’t complaining.)

After a brisk, fairly simple descent I hit the flat section leading to the base of the third climb. The wind was back, blowing its hot breath right in my face. I stopped very briefly at the car to snatch a couple of bottles of my preferred energy drink and then resolutely plowed through the wind for about ten miles. With nobody to share the work, I really suffered. I went pretty hard, with my forearms on the tops of the bars to get more aero—effective, but hell on my forty-year-old back. Finally the third climb began—not that this was a respite of any kind.

This climb, South Lake, was another killer—over 20 miles long, averaging 6% for a cumulative gain of 5,410 feet to a max elevation of 9,835. It was the harder for our having done eighty miles and two grueling climbs already, and the temperature was still in the high nineties at the base. My legs were plenty heavy by this point, my back in great pain, my feet burning, and one of my toes felt broken. But nothing had gone seriously wrong and I felt I was making pretty good time. The question was, how long could I keep this up?

I came upon a lean, compact rider with whom I’d shared the pace making on the first climb. He had stopped to take a leak, but I knew he’d catch back up. When he did, however, he went sailing right by me. “I guess he found his legs,” I thought. But over the next mile, he gradually came back. This race is like that. I rode with him for a while and he complained, “I’m from L.A. and haven’t been able to train for two weeks because of the fire.” Where had I heard this before? Ah, from this same guy, during the first climb. Frankly, I was a bit insulted. Why should he have to make excuses for riding at my pace? What am I, chopped liver? But I humored him, saying, “If it’s any consolation, I’m coked to the gills on EPO, HGH, testosterone, and pot belge.” No, of course I didn’t say that. I just kept quiet, and a couple minutes later the guy dropped silently off the back and I never saw him again. Guess he lost his legs.

I went as easy as my gearing, a 39x27, would let me—which wasn’t very easy. I’d been warned by everybody to get a compact crank for this race, but I refused. This sport is already too damned expensive—I’m not shelling out $600 for a new drivetrain for this one event. So throughout the stage I did my best to keep something in the tank for the grand finale of the climb, a 15% section in the last mile, known to stop riders cold. Mile after mile I grinded patiently along, wondering in all seriousness how many more pedal revolutions I had in me. The trouble with the shallow grade is that it takes forever to achieve the vertical gain you need; the distance between elevation markers seemed endless.

It started to rain. This felt great, and lasted just long enough to cool me off. At these higher elevations the heat had largely subsided and we had some cloud cover and a the cool sighs of tall evergreens. The main difficulty now was how long I’d already been out, and how long I still had to go. I couldn’t wait for this climb to be over. The joke was getting old.

Finally, I hit the really steep section I’d been warned about so many times. I was actually happy to see it, because a) it meant I was almost done, and b) I suddenly seemed to have plenty left in my legs to mount an assault. It was steep, sure, but nothing worse than the brutal pitches on my standard Berkeley Hills training ride (which I call the Hill Climb Extravaganza). For the first time all day, I didn’t hold anything back—I had no choice, after all. Before I knew it I had crested the summit, and thought to myself, “Is that it, mountain? Is that all you got?!”

Too many times I’ve finished a race only to have the officials fail to spot my number. In theory this wouldn’t happen here, with racers trickling by one by one at low speed instead of flashing by in a giant pack. On the other hand, I reasoned, this might be a bit like the X-ray at airport security, where a firearm can actually slip by an inspector who’s gone so long without seeing anything interesting that his eyes have glazed over. So as I passed the officials I yelled out, “I’m number 96. Did you get that? Number 96?” Two officials called back, “Yes, 96!” I replied, “And that’s the finish line? And I’m done?” They assured me, laughingly, that this was the case. It seemed too good to be true.

By this time, Paul, Jamie, and Lucas had settled in nicely, having already located their bags of warm clothing (shuttled to the summit by the race organizers), and were relaxing in chairs, eating tasty hot food and telling war stories. I found my clothing bag, slumped in a chair, dragged arm warmers squeakily over my sticky arms, and dug out my camera. Hence these photos.

Soon Craig arrived, found a chair, rested a bit, and joined in the merriment. Note my bluish lips in this video … I’m a little low on oxygen.

And note the salt deposits on Craig’s face.

You know what feels really great—like unbelievably great, better than any spa treatment? It’s sitting around, not pedaling, after a race like that. We took our time, drank Cokes and V-8 juice, ate bean and cheese quesadillas and homemade soup, and I enjoyed a tall stack of real Oreos. I happened upon the race director, Steve Barnes, and thanked him for putting on such a great race.

Whatever curses we’d earlier hurled—at the mountain, the race, God, or whomever—were now forgotten as we basked in the triumph of completion and an end to the suffering.

After our battles on Stage 1, the return to civilian life was a bit rocky. The descent back to the car was a blast, and our second dinner went smoothly enough, but when we returned to the motel and tried to get organized for the following day, we found we couldn’t think straight. All we had to do was lube our chains, set out clothing, pin our numbers, pack our bags, and mix up some more energy drink, but this seemed to take hours. Though our spirits here high, we’d become temporarily stupid; groping in vain for simple words, we substituted profanities, sometimes using the f-word as a noun, adjective, and adverb in the same sentence. Moreover, Lucas made a shocking discovery: his effort the previous day had cracked the left arm of his crankset! (Actually, it’s worse: this was a compact crank on loan from a teammate.)

As tired as we all were, nobody slept well. Twice I woke up from nightmares of crashing on a descent (which is odd, because I don’t consciously fear descending). I did have one pleasant dream, though: it was of being at the summit of the final climb of Stage 2, eating hot food, having some laughs with my buddies, and above all enjoying the huge sense of relief at actually being done with the Everest Challenge. Alas, when I woke up from this, during the wee morning hours, I was hit with the unpleasant realization that it had only been only a dream—I still had another day of brutal racing ahead of me! If I’d been nervous about the difficulty of Stage 1, the prospect of mounting my bike again for yet more abuse now had filled me with intense, bowel-constricting fear.

Results and stats

We didn’t get our Stage 1 results until the next day, but I’ll give them to you now:

  • Paul: 4th place in the Masters 35+
  • Jamie: 5th place in the Masters 45+
  • Lucas: 6th, M35+
  • Dana: 9th, M35+
  • Craig: alas, the officials failed to get his number

Some quick notes on the following graph:

  • My bike computer does a rudimentary power calculation based on my weight, my speed, and my elevation gain (f=mgh), ignoring wind and rolling resistance, so the wattage is on the low side
  • My altimeter was reading low as well, compared to the elevation marker signs
  • The vertical line down each graph shows where the stage finished
  • In each graph, the average values listed along the right-hand column ignore the final (untimed) descent; note the net elevation gain of 5,067 feet!
  • My average heart rate not counting descents was 149
  • The temperature readings are often exaggerated in these graphs, probably due to the sun baking the asphalt (of course, the rider feels this too)
  • You’ll want to click on this image to zoom in, obviously

Tune in next week for my Everest Challenge 2009 Stage 2 report!

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