Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Carolina TT Series 06/06

Last night I participated for the first time in the Endurance Magazine Time Trial Series at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, NC. It's a 10-mile cycling time trial held every few weeks during the summer and early fall with as many as 400 participants starting at 10-15 second intervals. I'm not a huge NASCAR fan, but the thought of being able to ride my bike around the speedway seemed pretty cool to me.

My only previous experience with time trialing was about a month ago when I did the 20km bike leg of a Sprint triathlon as a member of a relay team. That event was fun enough that I bought an inexpensive set of clip-on aero bars and began to incorporate aero position riding into my regular training plan.

My goal for this first trip to the speedway was simply to "learn the ropes" and hopefully not make a fool of myself. I really had no idea how fast I would be able to go on a pancake flat course with no turns or stops but I had hoped to finish in under 24:30, the average Cat5 time from the previous two events this year. A buddy of mine was nice enough to come along for the ride and after an obligatory stop for a bag of M&Ms and a meatball sub--elite athletes can't perform on an empty stomach after all--we arrived at the speedway about 45 minutes before my start time where we were ushered into a parking spot inside the oval next to the garage. I had forgotten my Cyclops trainer, but there were plenty of places to warm up on the infield, which was convenient.

One of the first things I noticed was that there were a LOT of very serious cyclists and triathletes at this event. It was a veritable expo of high end bikes, team kits, and full disc rear wheels. I would guess that well over half of the participants had a dedicated TT bike and a surprisingly large percentage of that group had a full aero helmet and a one-piece TT suit. It was a little bit intimidating but the nice thing about a time trial is that your only competition is yourself. Besides, it's better to exceed expectation on a scratched up late-90s road bike than under-perform on a spotless $6000 carbon rocket.

Before I go on, I should point out that I didn’t do the best job of preparing (read: resting up) for this event. On Saturday morning I had done a fairly intense V02Max workout (warm up, six sets of 5 minutes as hard as I could go, cool down) and then immediately headed to the gym to do my first leg workout in several months. Why I decided to work my legs after such a long lifting layoff is anyone’s guess but on Sunday morning I was extremely sore and yet I still felt the need to go on the 70-mile endurance ride I had planned. On Monday I was so sore I could hardly walk and on Tuesday (the day of the Time Trial) things weren’t much better. Nevertheless, my warm up on the speedway infield wasn’t too bad and I figured the worst case scenario would be I’d cramp up, fall over, and get run over by someone going 30mph. What the hell, nothing to lose.

I put on my chip strap, pinned on my Tyvek number, and headed to the start line. Just like in the Tour de France there was one guy to hold the bike so you could start with your feet already snapped into the pedals and another guy doing the count-down (5-4-3-2-1). I could hear Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwyn talking:

Phil: “Zimmerman’s really got his work cut out for him now.”
Paul: “Yes, Phil, Zimmerman’s really got his work cut out for him.”
Phil: “What, no water bottle? You’ll be done in 20 minutes.”

Actually, it was one of the guys at the start line who made the remark about the water bottle, but in my daydream perhaps I misunderstood what he was saying because I certainly wasn't planning to have the composure and wherewithal to actually reach down and take a sip of water during this 25 minute trip into the depths of hell. Fortunately, the sudden fear of not having enough water was immediately pushed aside by the much more imminent realization that I was assuredly going to topple over sideways as soon as the guy let go of my bike. As it turned out, I got off OK without falling over and stood on the pedals for a few moments to gather speed. Once in the saddle and into the aero bars I tried to focus on staying smooth and ratcheting my effort right up to the edge of sustainability without going over. My legs were definitely sore from lifting weights but not tired to do more suffering.

I've done several 2x20 and 6x5 workouts on the trainer in the last month so I felt like I had a pretty good idea what I could sustain. The highest I had ever measured my heart rate in previous all-out cycling efforts was 183. During my 20km triathlon ride, my heart rate had averaged around 175, so I figured I would try to stay in that same range. The goal was obviously to go hard enough to be completely miserable and wish I could make it all stop but not so hard as to burn out early, but whether due to the adrenaline rush or the Mountain Dew I drank with the sub sandwich, my heart rate jumped up to 180 bpm within the first 30 seconds of the start. My intensity during the first half lap was probably a bit to high but I soon settled into a sustainable rhythm. I felt pretty good; uncomfortable, of course, but good. Still, my heart rate stayed high, averaging anywhere from 182 to 185 beats per minute for each of the 10 miles. Within a mile or two I simply decided to not worry about it and focus instead on staying aero, keeping my upper body relaxed, and maintaining my cadence sweet-spot of 100-105 rpm.

I was surprised to find that even on a flat track with no abrupt turns there were still some sections that were noticeably harder than others. Based on my GPS readings I believe one end of the track is about 20 feet higher than the other end and there appeared to be a small amount of wind (maybe 5mph) blowing into the final turn. I tried to just keep a constant effort and not worry too much about my speed but I could tell that it was just above 25mph on the “fast” sections of track and in the mid 24s on the “slow” sections. As the seconds ticked by at an agonizingly slow rate, I predicted that I would finish with an average speed just shy of 25mph and that’s exactly where I ended up. My time was 24:17, slightly better than the goal I had set for myself but in retrospect it would have been great to break the magic 25 miles-per-hour number.

As I think about what I did well and what I need to improve, I’m pretty happy with my pacing, my pre-race eating/drinking, and my warm-up. I have to wait until I see some pictures to know if my position was adequate but there’s always room for improvement there. I also feel like I probably should have requested a later start time since I had to do quite a bit of weaving to get around slower riders. I obviously should have been better rested for the event and at some point if I continue doing these time trials I’m going to invest in a dedicated TT bike. For now, I’ll simply upgrade my wheels and work on the engine. Depending on how that goes, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think I can break 23:00 by the end of the season, so that’s my goal.


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