Ft. Davis 2009 Review – 7th Place GC!

You know, sometimes things fall in to place. Sometimes, the right combination of racing, tactics, and fitness combine to give you a small edge. A small advantage that you can exploit to your fullest. I did it. I put together something I’m proud of. It wasn’t perfect, and I’ll explain why later, but overall, I am extremely content with this weekend’s efforts.

This economic climate has created something really challenging for a lot of people, and a trip out to the “Middle of Nowhere” for a bike race presents true discussions about “wants vs. needs”. As a result, several cyclists opted out of the trip, including the two people with whom I was going to drive. Knowing that a trip out there on my own would be pretty stressful, I sprung for a ticket to Midland/Odessa airport via Southwest Airlines, packed up my two bikes, and rented a minivan for the 2.5 hour drive out to Fort Davis, Texas, and the 2009 Hammerfest.

The race is a 3-stage event, with a 16 mile hill climb, a 16 mile Time Trial, and a 76 mile Road Race, separated out over 2 days. In previous years, I’ve had mixed results here. The stage race is so vexing, because you have to be a strong climber, a good time-trialer, and you have to have the stamina and strength to make it over 4 passes on the road race. All of this is at a minimum of 5000′ of elevation. In 2007, I had a good enough road race to help force a break, and finish 8th on the day, 14th overall. But the next year was a disaster, with a good TT, a bad hillclimb, and a RR start that was so cold that I was unprepared, and I DNF’d. I think one year earlier, in 2006, I suffered from food poisoning. So the remoteness, the altitude, and the terrain make for a serious challenge.

But this year, this was my “A” race. From November through March, I laid out my intervals and plans for just this event. Everything else was loblolly. Sure, I wanted to be strong enough to earn some points and try desperately for that upgrade, but despite my strong finishes, they weren’t strong enough to get the points needed, 25 in a 12-month rolling year. My results so far had been maybe 1 point. Geez. But back to the training. I used a combination of TrainingPeaks WKO+ and their TSB chart, as well as Philip Skiba’s RaceDay Form predictor, to come up with a combination of volume and intensity that would be right for me. The race requires a LOT of 4-6 minute Vo2 efforts, but it also requires a good bit of stamina for the TT, especially the outbound leg, which I’ll describe later.

Looking back, I think there were a couple of things that I could have done to better prepare, though, again, some of these things are hamstrung by time commitments, coaching, work, and weather. As a result, I was only getting maybe 7 hours a week in on average, about 60% of that on the CompuTrainer. The form predictors all pointed towards weeks T-9 to T-3 (18 days) as being the weeks where I really needed to pump up the overall volume, and sadly, besides racing and maybe one or two rallies, I didn’t get to do that. However, following my 20MMP as the predictor, my taper was just about perfect, and right before I left, I did a 20-minute Threshold test, throwing out a 305 at 66.9kg, my highest form for the year. I got a good couple of nights of rest, made sure I was hydrated, took all my supplements, and showed up in the frontier town completely rested and confident in my ability to perform as necessary.

A few anecdotes about the trip…

  • The minivan was a Toyota, with fold-down seats. It was PERFECT for the bike box, and it got pretty good gas mileage.
  • Since 2006, when I got food poisoning, I’ve been religious about buying frozen food at the local grocery store. That, a microwave and a mini-fridge, made things survivable. I think there are maybe 5 restaurants in town, anyway.
  • There was no coffee maker in the hotel room. Geez!
  • There was no TV in the hotel room – I started and finished two books in my ‘off’ time.

In recent years, the stage race has been run in this order: Time Trial, then Hill Climb, then Road Race the next day. This year, however, the race was switched around a bit, with the Hill Climb in the morning, and the Time Trial held in the afternoon on Saturday. I personally like this setup, since you can do the Hill Climb when it’s cooler, and the Time Trial is more greatly affected by the afternoon breeze. Well, it was hardly a breeze – more like a gale force wind, but more on that later.

There were 38 starters on the Hill Climb, and surprisingly, this time, there were no efforts at a breakaway. Everyone knew that it would be a risk, but usually, some riders will take the chance that they can break away and get up the hill ahead of everyone else. But that was an afternoon trick, and this year, no one was up for it. We  made it over the first of the three major ascents as a pack, but it’s always the second climb that separates the men from the boys. In September of last year, I’d finished second in this competition, at the CycleFest, and I was determined to NOT lose contact with the leaders or the pack this year. And sure enough – for a good chunk of the 7 minutes we were climbing, I was in the front 8. I did have one small performance hiccup right at the top, and I lost contact with the leaders, but it was no more than 100 feet, and surprisingly, at the top of the second hill, everyone slowed, and I was able to rejoin. We made the steady ascent to the “Lower” parking lot of the McDonald Observatory, in a group of maybe 15, maybe 12. But with half a mile to go, we approached “The Monster” 12-19% grade climb, as a pack.


After that, it became a fight for survival. One by one, the stronger riders separated themselves from the pack, and with about 500 meters to go, I was in maybe 12th place. Finishers were already up at the top, but I was in a group of maybe four, all people that I knew. But with about 100 meters to the finish, the slope changed and became a bit easier, and by golly, I ended up with a Top 10 finish, just 50 odd seconds out of first. I couldn’t believe it. I’d basically passed my first test of Ft. Davis!!

At the finish line on Stage 1's Hillclimb

At the finish line on Stage 1's Hillclimb

We stayed at the top for a while to let our legs and lungs recover, and to discuss things, tactics, strategies, other riders, etc. The day  was beautiful and the winds hadn’t yet picked up, and while it was cool, it wasn’t cold, and the sun on the back side of the observatory was warming us up. We made the descent as a group, and I rode back in to town with David Orteaga, the young rider from Duncanville who has impressed us all with his performance all year.  I headed back to the room, peeled off my jersey, took a shower, and rested up to prepare for the afternoon TT.

Now here’s where it gets good.

I woke up around noon to the sound of wind howling around the building. On Friday, I had driven out to the TT course and had ridden with two different types of front wheels, to make sure that I would be fast, but also be able to keep the bike under control. As much as I love the Nimble Crosswind (the name says it all), I opted to go with the Aeolus 6.5’s, simply because it felt like I had more control. But that was on Friday, when the winds were coming out of a slightly more southerly direction, which made it a crosswind on the outbound leg. On Saturday, before the race, I checked Weather Underground, and the report made me shudder. SUSTAINED winds at 35mph, at 252 degrees on the compass needle. Checking the road’s direction via Google Earth, the road ended up pointing at, guess what, 252 degrees. So I was going to be racing a 1% grade uphill 9-mile out leg in a 35kt headwind.

I took a look at Hed Cycling’s site, since they have a pretty good set of pages that describe the forces on the rider in different given headwind/crosswind conditions, and with the wind roaring right down my throat, apparent wind speeds were something like 50-60 mph. So I decided to stay with the Aeolus, and try to keep my body as small as possible in the frontal surface area department.

Around 3 o’clock, maybe just after, I clipped in, got my hold, and took off. The P3 I time trial with is an aluminum version, and it has an Ergomo power meter plugged in to it, and I’ve calibrated it pretty well, so I think the data on it is sound. Last year, I’d had a good TT, but there are a few things to consider when looking at pacing a TT. The first is that your position alone will drop your Functional Threshold by about 10% if you’re not used to it. Secondly, at altitude, you can expect your FT to drop another 5-8%. So that 304w/20 yields a 289w Threshold – at sea level. Drop that by 10% for the TT position, and you get a 260. Drop it by another 7%, and you come up with a 241. So I SHOULD have known that I could theoretically hold 240-245w for 60 minutes in the aero tuck position, and maybe a 250w-255w for 20 minutes.

It didn’t quite turn out that way. I misled myself in to thinking that I was going to be the wattage-pacing king, and my first 4 minutes I was averaging a 268. It went down hill, even while pedaling uphill, all the way.

Uh, it's certainly not supposed to look like THAT!

Uh, it's certainly not supposed to look like THAT!

Wattage dropped, speed dropped, cadence dropped, ambition dropped. I got dropped (passed) by my 30 and 60 second men, and my outbound leg average speed was, kaboom! 14mph! Wow. OUCH. The crazy part was, on the way back, Everyone spun out their gears at 120 and 140rpm, hitting 45-50mph. One guy had a big old honking 58-tooth gear, and he spun out at 58mph! WOW!

This HAD to be on a return leg, because I'm in the big chainring!

This HAD to be on a return leg, because I'm in the big chainring!

I crawled back in to my hotel room, sore and dejected. CURSE THIS STAGE RACE! YOU CRUEL ELEMENTS! It took another shower, some stretching, some lotion in the saddle area, a meal and actually some beer to move on and start thinking about Sunday morning. Late that night, around 10pm, I gathered at the results sheet in front of the Limpia Hotel, sure that I was out of the running. Surprisingly, however, I was still in 10th place in the GC! I’d only lost one position! Wow! I still have a chance at this thing!

Then I remembered – the wind was there for EVERYONE. That’s why they call it the “Race of Truth”. Some people had jumped ahead, others had fallen behind, but overall, we’d suffered equally, and because I had not given up, I was still in the running. THAT was a relief! I went to bed knowing that I could certainly pull off a strong finish tomorrow, and take something home in the overall.

Interestingly, the Cat 3’s were the last to go off on Sunday morning, so we had a few more minutes to sleep in, get some breakfast, warm up, and, well, warm up. It was pretty cold! Around 9 o’clock, I was still shivering, so I went up to a lady and asked her if she had any tape. When she said yes, I had her duct tape my arm warmers to my jersey. I was NOT going to let them drop down on me!

Before the race, I’d spoken with several friendly competitors whom I admire, and since I had no teammates on the roster, I made some side deals to see if we could make something work. I was in it to preserve and possibly improve upon my final standings. I still harbored some hope that I could actually score some upgrade points. But I also wanted to help them out. One erstwhile buddy mentioned that he was going to go on an early break, and that there was one team we needed to watch out for. Sure enough, he went, and took one of those riders with him, but myself and a couple of other cyclists worked together on the outbound leg, and somewhere around 40 minutes in to the race, we merged with those two, and formed a break of about 10, and BAM, we were gone.

Some of the usual suspects were left behind, while others were in the break. There were teammates who were blocking and trying to bring us back in to the fold, but the horsepower was still present, and we winnowed it down to 7 riders as we climbed the first true obstacle, “Bear Mountain”. After that, it was like needlework. We pushed, pulled, worked together, and made gains on the pack, as we climbed and descended our way out the back road to the Observatory. It was beautiful. It was fun. But about 500m from the last feed zone, it became momentarily tragic for me.

I’m known for my solid pulls, my communications skills, and my ability to hold strong tempo, and hopefully, I’m known for holding my own on the climbs. However, today, on the second-to-last climb, which is a particularly steep 5.4% grade, lasting just about a mile, I lost contact with the lead. They just…. waltzed away. I pedaled as hard as I could, but by the time we’d gotten to the feed, they were about a minute ahead of me. And once you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind. I unconsciously backed off to set my own pace, and dithered a bit at the feed, trying to take the time to consume about 400 calories, and not remembering if I had water in my water bottle, or sports drink. Looking back, I should have had an extra 400 calories at breakfast, and an extra 400 calories earlier in the race, but once again, you live and you learn, and bingo, if you run out of fuel, even just temporarily, it’ll doom you.

Google Earth image of the final climb at Ft. Davis.

Google Earth image of the final climb at Ft. Davis.

One of the guys later said that if he’d known I was off the back, he would’ve told everyone to slow down and wait for me, but by the time he figured it out, it was too late. I appreciate that. I know I did my share of the work, maybe more, to set the break and hold the pace high, and shell some of the other riders in the break, but I didn’t know how much it meant to the others who were there, at least some of them.

Refreshed with calories, but alone, I made the final climb up to the Observatory, descended as absolutely fast as I felt I safely could, and finished in 7th overall, several minutes back of the lead 6. David Orteaga won the race – on my borrowed Nimble Crosswind! But still, I’m not disappointed. I proved that I could hold my own in a Cat 3 race, and finish strong, if not at the top, well, darned near it.

Rolling across the tape after 73 miles.

First and Second in the race moved on to Cat 2 status after the event. So did 9th and some other finishers. They’d had enough. They earned their positions, and were going where their talent and determination had taken them. Me? I’m about 22 points shy of that, and there are no real big stage races or climbing events in my future for the rest of the year. Ft. Davis beckons again next year, but if not as a ‘2’, then possibly as a 40+, though I’m not ready to call it just yet. I know that I came up just short, but I also know where I stand, where my strengths and weaknesses are, and where I need to go to improve upon this year’s result. Physically and physiologically, I know I can get there. Between the ears, however… that’s going to take more practice.

Thanks for reading – I’ll try to update you on the Lancaster Rally sooner than 10 days out from the event passing.


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