Monday, September 18, 2006

2006 NC Bridge-to-Bridge Ride Report

I have been looking forward to the 2006 Bridge-to-Bridge Incredible Cycling Challenge ever since I took up cycling last year. The 102-mile ride is held here in North Carolina and traverses an area with which I'm fairly familiar (the Pisgah National Forest, including a very scenic stretch along the Blue Ridge Parkway). This ride, along with the Assault on Mount Mitchell, is generally considered one of the most famous cycling events in America. (Incidentally, both of these rides are described in some detail in the book Heft on Wheels in which the author describes his amazing transformation from fat alcoholic to fit cyclist, culminating in his completion of the 2002 Bridge-to-Bridge ride in pouring rain. It's a great book and one I highly recommend.)

Similar to the Assault on Mount Mitchell (which I completed in May with an official time of 7:02), the B2B is not an officially sanctioned USCF race but it is an extremely competitive ride that attracts many of the top road bike racers (Category 1, 2, and Pro) from not just North Carolina but all over the country. This year, the field of 860 included more than 300 riders from outside of North Carolina. In all, there were riders from 30 states, Canada, and Europe. Comparing this ride to the typical century ride, here are some things I noticed that make this event feel more like a race than a ride:

  • There's a mass start with a pace car that leads the pack for the first 55 miles or so.
  • Since the first 60 miles are comprised of rolling hills (i.e. no major climbs) a peloton of several hundred riders stays tightly bunched together at an average speed of 22.5 mph.
  • The huge pack can get extremely fidgety and requires a great deal of concentration especially when the whole group gets up out of the saddle to climb a hill.
  • During the first 60 miles, riders take up the entire right lane of traffic and often the entire road. Cars coming in the opposite direction are required to pull off the road to let the peloton pass.
  • On the 12-mile climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and on the famous Grandfather Mountain climb, hundreds of family members and volunteers arrive early to write on the road with chalk and cheer on the passing cyclists.
  • Everyone wears a timing chip and official times are announced at the finish line.
  • Results (name, order of finish, official time, pace) are posted on the Internet and the top finisher is interviewed for an article in the newspaper.
  • Nobody in the main peloton stops at any of the supported rest stops to urinate; they simply pull off to the side of the road in groups and let it fly.
  • Volunteers hold out water bottles and snacks for riders as they race past.
  • Numerous unofficial team vehicles are on hand to pass out musette bags to team members or provide a replacement wheel.

Of course, there are hundreds of cyclists signed up for the event who care nothing about competing against other riders and are in it solely for the personal satisfaction that comes from completing a challenging ride. With 10000 feet of total climbing culminating in a 1000-foot elevation gain in the last 2 miles (up the switchbacks to the top of Grandfather Mountain), the course is quite accomodating to those who like a challenge.

Earlier in the year, I set a 2006 goal to finish this year's B2B in under six hours. I also set a goal to finish the ride in under 5:30 sometime in my lifetime. For comparison purposes, the fastest rider each year typically finshes in just over 5 hours. I knew that in order to reach my goal I'd have to break the course down into four parts:

  1. The 59 miles of rolling hills in and around Lenoir. The key to this section of the ride is to stay with the peloton, stay alert, and hope you don't go down when the pack screeches to a halt when someone in the middle of the group has a flat or drops a chain. It appeared that the Cat Pro/1/2 riders were content to average 22.5 mph during this 2 hour 38 minute stretch (i.e. there was no breakaway) but there was still plenty of tussling for position as everyone wanted to be near the front. Having enough water on your bike but not too much water in your bladder is essential here because you aren't going to be able to catch back up to the peloton if you have to stop for more than a few seconds. I thought I handled this stretch almost as well as could be expected: I made sure I anticipated hills so I wouldn't be caught in the wrong gear, I watched out for squirrelly riders, I tried to stay smooth and stay in someone's draft, I remembered to eat and drink along the way, and I was fortunate to avoid going down. Next year I need to arrive at the starting line a bit earlier so as to be able to start near the front of the peloton instead of near the back. I also need to get a bit lucky as there will always be flats and freak crashes that take out a few undeserving riders.
  2. The 12 mile climb on US181 from Lenoir to the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is where the pack breaks apart and the cream rises to the top. Crashing is no longer a concern but measuring out the appropriate amount of effort is crucial. My goal was to average 3.7 watts/kg (i.e. 275 watts at 74 kilograms, excluding bike weight) during this section, meaning that this climb would take me just under an hour. Since my very best well-rested one-hour power is currently about 4.1 watts/kg, this type of effort would be challenging after nearly three hours in the saddle but would hopefully leave me with enough left in the tank that I could still finish strong. As it turned out, my normalized power for this stretch was 3.75 watts/kg so I'm extremely pleased with how things went. I had decided prior to the start of the race that the rest stop at the base of this climb would be the best place to use the bathroom and refill my bottles (I brought 4). My rationale was that the pack would disintegrate at this point and I would be unable to stay with the leaders anyway so why not stop. My stop took about two minutes and cost me the equivalent of about 15 watts for the duration of the climb. Next year, I'm going to try to take my potty stop about 10 miles earlier and then work to move back up in the peloton prior to the start of this climb. There are lots of people handing out water so there's no need to refill water bottles so long as I have two of the four left. I'm also going to work on my threshold wattage and try to get down to 155 pounds so I can average over 4 watts/kg on this climb and still have energy left. That won't be enough to stay with the top few guys but it will allow me to be in a faster group for the next section.
  3. The 29 miles of ups-and-downs on the Parkway and Highway 221. This is a hard section to plan because there are sections where it's really beneficial to be in a pack but there are a number of mile-long climbs where you can gain time. My plan was to find a pack and "sit in" to conserve enough energy to be able to complete the last two mile climb. I was able to do just that (normalized power of 222 watts) but I found myself wishing the pack would go a bit faster (we averaged about 18.4 mph). Unfortunately, I did not have enough energy left in my legs to push the pace or to break away in search of another group. Next year I need to do more 5 hour rides in the months leading up to the event and I need to push the envelope over the last two hours of some of those rides.
  4. The final grueling 2 miles inside Grandfather Mountain park. With over 1000 feet in elevation gain after 100 miles of riding, this section requires the proper granny gear (I chose a 36x27) and enough remaining energy/stamina/willpower to make it up the switchbacks to the top. I was very fatigued at this point and went as hard as I thought I could go without cramping up. It took me a LONG time and my power output was pitiful compared to what it would have been had I been fresh (7.1 mph at a normalized power of a mere 245 watts), but at least I stayed on the bike. I noticed others who were apparently not so lucky. Lots of very good cyclists end up having to walk some stretches of this climb. Next year I need to work on some big-gear hill efforts to develop stronger legs for the 10-20% grades on the switchbacks and I need to hit the steep hills hard at the end of my long rides to develop staying power.

Although I have a number of things to work on for next year, I am very happy with how things turned out this year. My official finishing time was 5:29:02 (61st out of the 860 who started the ride) so I can't complain. I was a bit worried that the post-traumatic vertigo I had been feeling since my bad crash last weekend would negatively affect this ride but it was not an issue. I'll admit to feeling a little dizzy when the volunteers helped me dismount from my bike when it was all over, but I think that had more to do with having climbed 1000 feet in altitude at the end of a 102 mile ride than anything else.

Obviously, it's great to achieve a lifetime goal and see the fruits of the last year of effort (with the last 12 weeks of training being dedicated solely to this event) and yet I'm already scheming for next year. My new lifetime goal is to finish in the top 25, which would have meant finishing in 5:18:35 this year. Since this year's winner is in his fifties (16-time U.S. National Road Race champion and professional Masters racer Dave Leduc who finished with a time of 5:01:41), there's reason to believe I may have a few good years left to reach my goal.

2 Comments:

Blogger ScottFromUtah said...

Zowie, man! What a fabulous ride. Compounded with your recent crash, achieving the lifetime goal in the first attempt is an incredible feat.

September 19, 2006 3:06 PM  
Blogger Dial_tone said...

I remember seeing Dave Leduc race at Athens Twilight about 15 years ago. I think he was racing with the 3's (or maybe it was the 4's) because he was just getting back into racing. He ended lapping the field more than once if I remember corectly.

October 08, 2006 11:25 PM  

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