Training the Old Hams
When I decided to go on the Yellow Jersey Tours trip to
France this July, the first thing I thought of was Jan Ullrich. Then I went
and stepped on my scale. Luckily, I'm a vegetarian who stays in decent
shape, so the news was good: I was close to fighting weight at 163 lbs. With
some hard training, that would drop a bit without any real effort (other
than the riding). The hard part would be riding myself into Tour
shape. With days on the schedule like a 65-mile ride ending with the ascent
up Mont Ventoux, I would have to really get in some quality miles to make it
through to Paris on my bike (and not in the car).
You see, I'm a cyclist, but I've never been a racer… I just like to go out
and suffer a bit on my bike occasionally as a part of my cross-training. I
started off riding with friends of mine who were club riders, and occasionally I
still go on club rides myself, but I'm not one of the guys you see flying off
the front a lot.
During the school year, it was hard for me to get away for rides longer
than about 2.5 hours. Fortunately, I live near
Griffith Park, which has some
nice hard little climbs and a varied terrain without much car traffic. The
views of Los Angeles are great, especially up near the observatory where you
can see downtown or the Hollywood sign. This was great for building up some base
miles, and I hit Griffith Park for 25-35 mile rides (mostly climbing) four days
a week starting in late April.
Click for larger image. Photo by Locutus ©2004.
Occasionally, on the weekends, I'd sneak off with my wife to Santa Barbara
(about two hours up the coast) and train on the roads there. Santa Barbara is
where I discovered cycling as a sport, and where I really began to spend a lot
of time on my old road bike. It's also the area where Lance Armstrong and the
U.S. Postal Service team have spent many of their spring training camps. I can
see why: the terrain has everything from flats to rolling hills to long, steep,
painful climbs. There is not a lot of car traffic most places, and the local
drivers have tendency to be very aware and tolerant of cyclists. Luckily my
wife's family lives there (and they like me), so I have a free place to stay
whenever I want to go up and get in some long, hard training miles.
As soon as I turned in my grades last week, I threw my bike in the car
and headed up to my sister-in-law Pam's place. I decided to do a little
mini-training camp of my own, tackling the hardest climbs I could find and
stretching my time on the bike to 4-5 hours per ride. Before I did anything,
however, I had to take my bike for a tune-up… that Saeco team-issue
Cannondale I won from Mario Cipollini's website in the 2001 Giro contest is
awesome, but it needed some major adjustments.
I went to Kenneth Acklin at
Bicycle Bob's, where he and his boys dialed up the bike and politely
reminded me how to lube my chain, adjust my saddle properly, and treat my
bike the way I should. They also threw on some new tires and replaced the
bottom bracket, which I thought meant that I must have really been hammering
during my training so far. A dear old friend and mechanic of mine set me
straight, though, clarifying that a weak hammer like me could never wear out
a Campagnolo bottom bracket in just one year, and that the part must have
had some defect to break down so quickly (thanks for clarifying that, Noah
old buddy!). Still, I was feeling pretty good about myself as I set out for
a few hard days on the bike.
On Friday, I met up with DP reader and local club rider/racer Gregor "Leg
Buster" Brown. I'd met Gregor in May on a weekend jaunt up to Santa
Barbara; he had slowed down enough to chat with me while I tried to avoid
puking on my shoes over some nasty climbs above Montecito.
Gregor "Leg Buster" Brown. Does he look like he just rode thirty
Photo by Locutus ©2004.
Today, Gregor was
in his Saeco team kit, which actually matched my Saeco team kit (we didn't
plan that, really!). He took me out on one of his 2-hour before-work spins,
about 30 miles up the coast and back through the foothills before descending
back past the Mission to downtown Santa Barbara.
Folks who saw us riding
along couldn't have possibly mistaken us for real Saeco riders, and that
wasn't because of Gregor: the speed at which I was climbing was a dead
giveaway that I wasn't exactly Cunego or Simoni (but instead, much more like
Cipollini, who was after all the captain on Saeco when I won the bike). If
Gregor hadn't stopped to tap a kidney, I'd have never seen him again on that
last steep climb up Las Canoas Road. Gregor is a great guy, and we had a
nice long discussion about the big pre-Tour races and what they meant for
July. It was a fun ride overall, and when I left him off at his house he
looked fresh as a daisy and I was cross-eyed and drooling on myself.
I then rolled over to Farmer Boy, my father-in-law's restaurant on upper
State Street, to bum some pancakes and coffee (mmmm… pancakes and
I actually look like a real cyclist here. Almost.
Photo © by Alice Karleskint.
After the quick
refuel, I remounted and headed out for the toughest climb in the area:
Gibraltar. When asked at the training camp press conference this year if he
had any messages for the locals, Lance Armstrong paused for a beat, thought,
and said, "They need to pave Gibraltar. Gibraltar is in terrible shape." The
climb to Gibraltar is several miles long (different people measure the climb
from different places…the climbing starts by the Mission, and is just around
nine miles by my reckoning). It is also painfully steep and relentless, with
the gradient changing constantly and few places that actually feel like you
get a respite.
When I was younger, I was also a lot stupider, and the climbing gear I
rode was very big and manly (a 42x23 for you gearheads). Needless to say, I
never made it to the top of Gibraltar until last year, when I used my wiser
old man climbing gear (a 39x28) to wind my way up. The beginning of
Gibraltar Road itself is painfully steep, putting the burn into your legs
from the get-go.
The bottom of the Gibraltar road as seen from the bike.
Click for larger image. Photo © by Locutus
After having my
legs already worked over by Gregor, this beginning section was particularly
fun. The middle section of the climb is not as steep, but then in the last
third of the climb the switchbacks get steeper and harder. As Lance pointed
out, the pavement itself is also a big problem on the climb. The pavement
isn't so bad near the bottom, but as you climb up it gradually gets worse
and worse. Several times on the top half of the climb I felt like I was
riding on cobblestones instead of pavement.
The previous year, this was
utter agony as I was riding on a regular old titanium Flite saddle. For many
of you who are advancing in years like me, you've probably experienced the
unique agony of riding a hard flite saddle over very bumpy terrain for a
long time. By the time I reached the middle of the climb last year, it felt
like I had a titanium flagpole wedged up my bum; by the time I reached the
top, it felt like my spine was fused to my seatpost. Thankfully, I invested
this year in a new Selle San Marco Aspide Arrowhead Gelaround saddle. It's
awesome: it weighs exactly the same as my old Flite saddle (210 g.), has a
cutout for those "sensitive male areas," and is lined with very soft and
cushy gel. I still get a bit saddle sore after a long ride, but as I climbed
Gibraltar this time around, the pain was in my legs, not my bum.
The weather on the climb this particular Friday was humid, cold, and
misty. As I suffered through the steepness of the lower slopes, the mist got
heavier, the visibility got worse, and the roads got wetter and more
slippery (this wasn't a real problem until the descent).
The wet fog envelops the switchbacks of Gibraltar road.
Click for larger image. Photo © by Locutus
On long climbs like this, a lot of things go
through your mind. I kept thinking about how cool it was going to be to ride
up Alpe d'Huez and watch the time trial from a good spot on the course this
year. I also thought about how I am going to get my butt kicked in France by
at least one woman every day on the bike, as American pro rider Nikane Xuen
Mallea - who rides in Europe for a Spanish team - will be one of our guides.
Eventually, I climbed my way out of the fog and mist and the sun beat down a
good 20 degrees hotter. I rolled down my arm warmers, and as I looked up I
saw some kind of red and black bird up ahead. It was perched on the side of
the road (which had a steep dropoff), and it was obscured a bit in the weeds
as the road curved up. I finally got close enough to see that it was a
vulture (no joke), and it had taken a keen interest in my slow, wavering
progress up this painful section of the mountain.
As I rolled by, it looked
me in the eye for a long moment just like I've seen coyotes do so many
times, and it sized me up. Now I probably should have started reflecting on
my mortality or something profound like that at this point. I mean, I had a
vulture mentally carving up my carcass into chops, steaks, and back bacon.
The mist clears to reveal a worse road surface, a steeper slope,
and blistering heat.
Photo © by Locutus.
instead, I just got really pissed off, and started cursing. I cursed my
gears, my legs, the crappy road surface, and especially that damned bird. If
I had been close enough to it, I'd have probably taken a swing at the thing
in some pathetic attempt to reassert the evolutionary hierarchy: hairless
apes on top, ugly, scabby, red-skulled birds somewhere below. Luckily, that
carrion-eating jerk turned and flew off as I passed it, leaving me feeling
like I'd somehow narrowly avoided a situation straight out of a Warner
I wish I'd gotten a picture of the vulture, but I was pulling too hard on
my handlebars to reach back for my camera like I had for the other shots you
see in this article. Eventually, I made it to the top and thought, I hope
this gets easier soon. The descent was hairy as hell, as I had to pick my
way through the slick, broken road surface and bad visibility to the point
where my fingers were slipping off the wet brake levers and my arms were
cramping. I kept it rubber-side down, and rolled into Pam's driveway very
tired, but satisfied. I'd ridden a hard 52 miles, sort of kept up with a
much better rider for much of it, and tackled the climb that had defeated me
so many times in my youth. Not a bad day, but I still have some more work to
do before I'm ready for Ventoux.
I didn't exactly open up a can of whupass on the climb, but I
reached the top.
Photo © by Locutus
Bonus photo! Me suffering up Old San Marcos Road a couple of days
The climb starts in the valley below, which you see in the distance.
Click for larger image. Photo © by Locutus.