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Tips from the archives

Getting ready to ride? Me too. In fact, I'm too busy (and/or lethargic) to write much of a new post right now, but here are some of the collected pearls of wisdom that I wrote before previous rides:

How much climbing is on ALC9?

The quick answer: about 22,270 feet. It shouldn't be a shock to you (especially this close to the event) that there's a lot of climbing between San Francisco and Los Angeles. How much? Using my best guess as to the actual ALC9 route, here is approximately how much climbing you'll do on each day of the ride, as well as my super-special "difficulty index" (more about that in a minute):

ClimbingDifficulty index
Day 1: SF to Santa Cruz4,29054
Day 2: Santa Cruz to King City2,67025
Day 3: King City to Paso Robles2,37036
Day 4: Paso Robles to Santa Maria4,00041
Day 5: Santa Maria to Lompoc3,00044
Day 6: Lompoc to Ventura3,54041
Day 7: Ventura to LA2,40039

OK, take a deep breath.

What's this "difficulty index"? Simply put, it's how many feet of climbing per mile you'll do, averaged over an entire day. It doesn't account for steepness of climbs or endurance, but it's a good, gross, high-level measure of how difficult many riders find each day, assuming that you already have the basic skills to ride long distances at roughly a consistent pace. By comparison, I find any ride with an index over 100 to be quite difficult indeed ... and none of the days of ALC even come close.

How is the climbing calculated? I used Bikely, which is the same tool that reports climbing for the Mountain View and Sunnyvale training rides. MapMyRide usually reports a little less than these numbers, and most Garmin devices seem to report a little more.

For those of you who did my Mountain View rides, here is the difficulty index for those rides:
Ride 1: 43
Ride 2: 42
Ride 3: 40
Ride 4: 36
Ride 5: 32
Ride 6: 41
Ride 7: 44
Ride 8: 29
Ride 9: 26
Ride 10: 23

And this year's SF Day on the Ride was rated 63.

Over the top

Thanks to an amazing donation that arrived overnight, I have now exceeded my $5,000 fundraising goal for ALC9.

Rider, roadie, donor, supporter, or friend: You're all heroes, and I'm honored to know you and grateful for your contributions.

Queen B*tch From Hell Day

It's a generally accepted ALC truism that, during the ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, most folks will have at least one day that we impolitely call the "Queen Bitch From Hell Day." (Men and women are equally susceptible.) Since I just had one such day today on my latest (107-mile, windy, hilly, and even a little wet) training ride (and I've had at least one on every ALC that I've done), this seemed like a good opportunity to write a little bit about this phenomenon. (Did I mention hilly? Damn hilly.)

What are the symptoms? In brief, you hate everyone and everything, and would you please just give me some space already!

What are the causes? Several common culprits are known:
  • Improper nutrition and hydration while riding. This can go hand in hand with bonking, and it can even be an early warning that a bonk might be imminent.
  • Insufficient rest. I did today's 107-mile ride on about four and a half hours of sleep, and I had to drive an hour to the meeting point. Not wise.
  • Other life stressors. Relationship troubles, issues at work, financial matters, family issues ... any or all of these can make you more prone to being easily annoyed. Let's just say that I've had some "other life stressors" as of late.

What can you do about it? That's a tough one. ALC lore (somewhat lost in recent years) was to respond "I'm a kitty, you're a kitty" to the offending party, perhaps even with annoyingly cute paw-like motions. I'm glad nobody ever tried to pull that schtick on me, because it most certainly would not have worked. The good news is that you usually can figure out when you're having Your Day. If you just need your space, it's mostly possible to keep to yourself for a while, even though you can count on roadies and friends to be perpetually perky. (They really are that happy. I don't know how they do it.) Take 10 or 15 minutes, find a quiet grassy corner, and just stretch out with your eyes shut. (Best to do this out of sight so that nobody thinks you're injured!) Most importantly, however, when you realize what's happened to you, be super extra vigilant about not passing your foul mood onto others. Be aloof, quiet, reserved, or anything else, but just don't make your bad day someone else's bad day, too. And if you're becoming downright angry while riding (yelling at other riders or roadies, perhaps), stop and take a break. Cycling while angry is as dangerous as driving while angry, and it's not fair for your anger to put the safety of everyone else at risk. If you can't get out of your funk and it's a really deep one, declare your day over and let yourself be swept into camp -- it's the safest thing for yourself and everyone else.

How did I do today? Not as well as the above paragraph might suggest. I was visibly and demonstrably angry during some of the more difficult parts of the ride, but I was also aware that my anger was directed at me and not anyone else. My salty out-loud language at times would have made a sailor blush, but I was also careful (I hope) to vocalize only when nobody else was around. I made an extra effort to properly eat and drink, and I don't think I ever was in any bonking danger. The other crud going on in my life ... well, I couldn't fully compartmentalize that away for the day, and that hurt my performance. I'd give myself at best a B-minus grade for handling my Queen Bitchiness.

In two weeks, the stakes are higher. When your day goes bad, recognize it, embrace it, deal with it the best you can, and remember your commitment to the safety of everyone around you.

Ride report: Altamont Pass Double Metric (5/15/2010)

Go, riders!

Weather really does make a difference. The short-but-interesting history of the Altamont Pass Double Metric is full of horror stories about 100-degree temperatures and riders turning blue and getting sick in other unpleasant ways. But we had none of that yesterday; with temperatures about 30 degrees cooler than in past years -- and with winds that were surprisingly favorable most of the day -- our intrepid group of 32 riders (plus super SAG drivers Dennis and Gloria) tackled this 200-kilometer challenge in amazing form. An uncharacteristic south wind in the morning magically turned into a north wind just as we reached Hayward and began to head back toward San Jose. And low clouds stayed around longer than usual, keeping us cool and pleasant almost all the way to Livermore.

Day 1 of ALC9 is just three weeks from today, and this ride offered several experiences and lessons that can be very helpful as we get ready for the main event.

Although the longest day of ALC is "only" about 108 miles, the late stages of yesterday's ride was a preview of how your body might start to respond by Day 3 or Day 4 of the ride. Did you have difficulty with the pesky overpasses and tiny hills of Central Expressway in the last 6 miles? Did you feel as if your climbing muscles had already retired for the day, even though there really wasn't all that much climbing on the route? That's not unusual. It's a clear signal to conserve your leg muscles: Don't crank hard up hills, even short ones. Your knees will thank you in the end.

Proper nutrition becomes a huge challenge on such long rides. Depending on your build and your pace, yesterday's ride burned anywhere from 3,500 to 8,000 calories or more. If you're at the upper end of that range, you just can't take in that many calories while riding, and the lack of energy can be potentially debilitating late in the ride. Most nutritionists recommend a steady rate of caloric intake during a long ride, so that your body knows what to expect. The giant meal comes after the ride.

But even if you're taking in a steady amount of calories, the variety of rest stops on long rides often tempts you to take in all sorts of foods you'd never normally eat in combination with one another. Add in the physical stress of riding, and all the ingredients are there for an upset stomach. This can be a problem in June, where every rest stop is full of tantalizing treats. Sure, those graham cracker and PB&J snacks can be yummy, but if you've never had one before, rural Monterey County is not the best place to find out that your stomach doesn't like them. In June, I try to stick mostly to food that I know, and in moderate quantities. But I also carry a few pink bismuth (aka Pepto-Bismol) tables with me just in case.

Then there are the mental issues. As I mentioned yesterday morning, long rides can cause the mind to do really strange things, and it's all too easy to lose your rationality -- and not even be aware of it. Two years ago on the first Altamont Pass ride, this happened to me in the heat. I was having mechanical issues with my bike, and a SAG driver recognized my distress and offered to take me into the next rest stop. Thanks to the heat, I wasn't thinking clearly, and I got more than a little surly with the SAG driver, who left me to my own fate. Nothing bad happened, but there's an important lesson there: Outside observers, such as support crew members, often can spot when something strange is happening to a rider, even if you can't. Their suggestions are probably the best ones to take, even if you might not think so at the time.

And in June, if a roadie determines that you've gone into a condition where it's not safe for you to continue riding, they have immediate and absolute authority to stop you from riding and transport you to camp or another location. This can happen on the road, at a rest stop, or in camp. There is no appeal, and if you don't cooperate, you can be removed from the ride. Your health and safety -- and the health and safety of everyone around you -- are that important.

So, yes, we had some mind issues on yesterday's ride. For those who experienced them, I hope that the appropriate lessons have been learned: Your decision-making skills might be impaired, others probably can realize this better than you can, and the support crew really does care about you and wants you to end the day healthy and whole.

What's next? We still have two weekends of potential training left before the ride. For most of us, we don't want to end our training quite yet. You probably want to go on at least one more long ride -- say, of about 80 miles or more -- and several shorter rides, perhaps quick after-work spins during the week. Memorial Day weekend is probably the last chance to do any serious riding, although some trainers suggest that older riders might want to start tapering off a little before then. Many ALCers, including me, stay completely off the bike during the week before the ride; there's no training benefit to be had during that time, and doing so helps build the excitement and eagerness of getting ready to ride. Face it: We've done so many rides now that getting up and out for some of them has become a wee bit of drudgery. Day 1 is a time for excitement, not just "another ride."

This concludes our season of Mountain View training rides. We've had an amazing year, and I've been privileged to watch so many of you train beyond your wildest dreams and meet or exceed goals that seemed impossible just a few months ago. We've mostly dodged the weather during a most uncooperative winter, and we've navigated the many life changes that seem to happen way too often in this challenging economy. Your participation in AIDS/LifeCycle is a testament to the human spirit, and it is my honor to have served you for this training season.

Now, we can have some fun together! I'll see you on the road beginning June 6. Thank you for being part of AIDS/LifeCycle.

The ALC bubble

When we begin our ride to Los Angeles just three weekends from now (aieeeeee!), one of the most amazing aspects of the ride will be how it gives us the opportunity to disconnect from our everyday world. With everything carefully planned and scheduled for us, all we have to do is ride and sleep for seven days. In fact, it's common for participants to lose track of the day of the week; everything is referred to in terms of "Day 3," "Day 4," and so on.

In recent years, however, the growth of social media and wireless networking has changed the way that many of us ride. Facebook updates from the ride have become commonplace. Photos (and even videos) are posted online all day and all night. Participants use social media to stay in touch with their friends, both on the ride and elsewhere. This sense of connectedness is great for some folks, and it can help foster our sense of community. But it also can slowly drag us out of our "ALC world" and back into the real world.

And for those of us who do the Princess Plan, the hotel room offers an all-too-tempting TV to stay in touch with the world ... if only to watch the local news for coverage of our ride. Even an action as innocent as going to a local pizza parlor can break the bubble of the ride. And again this year, with a statewide primary election taking place during the ride, there's a temptation to learn the results.

What to do? The answer is different for everyone. The true purist -- if one exists at all -- would never leave camp and use a cellphone only in emergencies. The "global citizen" would transmit live wireless video 24/7 and continuously track their location with GPS. For most of us, the answer is somewhere in the middle.

In my first years on ALC, I was mostly ensconced within the bubble, and I think that contributed to my sense of amazement about what ALC can be. I've gotten away from that in past years, and I think that's been to my detriment (if not to your ongoing entertainment from my status updates while riding). This time around, my current thinking is that I'll try to disconnect more completely from the real world and the online world until I get to Los Angeles, choosing instead to focus on the ride and more intensely experiencing my role in it. This will mean you won't get the ongoing all-day updates like I've provided in recent years, but it also means that I'll have more opportunity to focus on why we ride.

Photo: Tents at Paso Robles, 2009

How long is ALC9?

Because I obsess about such things, I looked at the day-by-day route descriptions on the official ALC website. Some of the distances are a little different from what was listed on the route sheets for ALC8 last year:

Day 1: SF to Santa Cruz79.479.4
Day 2: Santa Cruz to King City107.6107.6
Day 3: King City to Paso Robles66.763.4
Day 4: Paso Robles to Santa Maria97.794.1
Day 5: Santa Maria to Lompoc67.767.7
Day 6: Lompoc to Ventura85.585.5
Day 7: Ventura to LA61.561.5

Now, of course, I know nothing at all about the official route for this year. But I won't let that stop me from speculating wildly about what the above changes mean:
  • We'll still leave King City via the pedestrian bridge, but we'll be back on River Road instead of Hwy. 101 into Paso Robles.
  • We won't do that horribly steep Halcyon Hill past Pismo Beach; rather, we'll use one of the other two hills that we've tried in recent years.
Check back on June 12 to see how amazingly right -- or stupendously wrong -- my guesses are.

P.S.: You'll also note that the total distance is actually 566.1 miles, not 545. Just thought you'd want to know.

The wacky weather keeps on coming

Here we are in the second weekend of May, and training rides are still being cancelled due to rain. Fortunately, today's 69-mile ride in Hollister went off as scheduled, but conditions were more like February than May -- as this photo from this morning amply demonstrates.

ALC has been historically a rain-free week ... at least until last year when Day 6 was washed out, the first full-day cancellation in the history of California AIDS rides. And with winterlike weather continuing well into spring again this year, it's time to start preparing for any of the many weather events that could occur during the ride next month -- especially if you're coming from out of the area and have to pack in advance before traveling to San Francisco.

Any or all of the following conditions can happen on the ride, sometimes even within the same day:
  • Thick fog, sometimes turning into light drizzle.
  • Chilly winds.
  • Strong, hot, blast-furnace winds.
  • Hot, blazing sunshine that drives the official temperature to over 90 degrees (and the in-the-sun temperature to well over 100).
  • Daily temperature spreads of 40 degrees or more.
  • Strong tailwinds, crosswinds, and/or headwinds. Wind gusts of greater than 30 mph are virtually guaranteed at least once during the week.
  • Showers, possibly turning to rain. As we learned last year, there's a point at which too much rain can cause a shutdown, but that call is made on the scene by ride officials after considering the safety of riders, roadies, and other road users.

I don't say all of this to scare you. The reality is that, even in "good" weather years, the ALC route passes through countless climate areas, and we have to be prepared to deal with all of them. If you've never bicycled in any of these conditions, doing so is good experience to have before trying to do so with more than 2,000 other riders around you. Of course, don't put yourself at undue risk this close to the ride, but if there's a particularly hot or windy day anytime soon, try to get out in it for at least a few miles to learn how it feels and how you'll need to take care of your body.

Beginning about two weeks before the ride, longtime rider and ride leader Bob Katz posts daily weather updates to the ALC discussion forum. That alone is sufficient reason for you to check the forum, and you'll also find plenty of other discussions, queries, and hints for making your ride a success.

Ride report: Distance Training #9 (5/1/2010)

Go, riders!

With the possible exception of a little wind, our group of 19 intrepid riders could not have asked for finer springtime weather on today's 111-mile ride to Gilroy and back. (Gilroy! We went all the freakin' way to Gilroy! And back! That's quite amazing when you think about it, isn't it?) Special thanks to super SAG drivers Dennis, Al, and Drew for providing outstanding support -- especially Drew, one of our regular riders who couldn't ride today because his bike is in the shop and who offered to come be part of the group anyway.

Today's ride was just a little bit longer than the longest day of AIDS/LifeCycle, and it had about the same amount of climbing, so you can be confident of your ability to handle just about anything on the route next month. Of course, our 108-mile day is immediately followed the next morning by Quadbuster, so it's still very important that you get some experience with consecutive long-mileage training days. Fortunately, the mileage of the event in June has evolved to the point where it's basically long, long, short, long, short, long, short, so when you make it through the first two days, you've had the worst of the consecutive mileage. But don't relax too much -- by a "short" day, I mean "less than 70 miles."

We also got a good sample today of the type of rural roads we'll be riding for much of the event. One of the biggest differences is that you can go miles and miles without a stop sign or a traffic signal. That's nice if you like getting into a groove; that's not so nice if you like frequent short breaks, the type you can get at a signal. Even out in the middle of nowhere, it's OK to stop and take a quick break to stretch, drink, eat, or just take a photo and enjoy the scenery. Just be sure to signal, stop, and move your bicycle completely off the road (into a driveway or side street, for instance).

Also on rural roads, it's very, very important that we always ride single file, just as we do everywhere else. This is one place where ALC rules are more restrictive than the California Vehicle Code, but it's an area that ALC takes very seriously. If we ride two abreast on rural roads and hinder traffic flow, we can lose permission to use those roads, and that could potentially be the end of ALC, so don't let that happen. But even when there's a marked bike lane, ALC rules still require us to ride single file. In a group of our size, there are always riders wanting to pass other riders, and we need to give them the space to do so safely. Word on the street is that this rule will be enforced heavily in June, and penalties could range as high as not being allowed to ride for a day or more. Save the conversations for the rest stops; we've got plenty of them.

As I've mentioned before, the mental challenge of ALC is as important as the physical challenge. For a lot of cyclists, 100 miles is an important threshold ... and it's one that isn't crossed all that often. When you crossed the 100-mile mark today, did your mind start to tell you that the ride was over? That's normal, even though you knew that you had another 11 miles to go. But if you let your mind trick you into thinking you're essentially done, you run the risk of losing efficiency or even your presence of mind to be aware of what's going on around you. This only comes up on Day 2 of ALC, but it's something to be aware of -- particularly if you plan on riding the Altamont Pass Double Metric in just two weeks.

This really is getting into crunch time for our training. Most of us should plan to reach our peak training level sometime in the next two to three weeks and then taper off as we approach June 6. Some trainers recommend that older riders (those, say, over 40) have a little more "down time" before a big event, perhaps as much as two weeks. But "down time" is not completely off the bike. Occasional short rides are still recommended up until one week before the event; most of us will want to be off the bike in the final pre-ALC week. You really want to be eager to ride -- not tired of riding -- on the morning of June 6!

Once June 6 gets here, you'll probably want to start riding in "endurance mode" if you aren't doing so already. Did you shift your riding style today? My sense that was several folks did just that around mid-ride. In training mode, you're always wanting to get through the ride as quickly and efficiently as possible. But in endurance mode, the goal is to find a pace that allows you to keep riding "forever" ... or at least for seven days in a row. I often shift down to one lower gear than I normally use, and I take my climbs very conservatively, going to the granny gear far more often even on ascents that aren't all that steep. You've got about 20,000 feet of climbing in ALC, so there's no point in wearing out your legs and knees by the end of Day 2.

What's next? We've got just one ride left in our Distance Training rides, and it's the crown jewel. On Saturday, May 15, we're running the third annual Altamont Pass Double Metric. This special event is the longest single-day training ride on the nationwide ALC calendar, but it's very doable by everyone who rode with us today. You'll have 14 hours to ride 125 miles, with about as much climbing as we did today. You'll get to see the historic Summit Garage at the top of the original Altamont Pass on the Lincoln Highway, the original transcontinental highway. And like today's ride, you'll have a bit of everything from busy city streets to remote rural roads. Completing a double metric is an accomplishment that very few cyclists ever achieve, and this is one of the most doable double metrics out there. We'll have two SAG vehicles to help us through the day, and riders who finish in less than 12 hours will be able to take advantage of a street festival in downtown Mountain View.

If you're considering riding in the double metric, please RSVP so that we can keep you informed as the ride approaches. There's also an extensive list of frequently asked questions about the ride.

We ride out on Day 1 of ALC9 in just 36 days. Thank you for being part of AIDS/LifeCycle.

Photos by Dennis Soong