Almost every year since I’ve moved back to Texas, and that was in 1999, I’ve made at least one trip out to Ft. Davis, Texas. I was convinced to go out and try my luck at the hardest stage race in the state by an early client whom I’ve sort of lost touch with, Wesley Keeton. He described the course perfectly; wide, empty roads that were pretty smooth, steep climbs, and wind. In my younger years I fancied myself as a Climber, and so every year, I went out there with one intention; to climb as best I could, and try to score some strong finishes.
The terrain, the elevation, the elements, and my sporadic ability to actually prepare for the event with specificity has always conspired against my ability to really perform at my best, and of course, the inevitability of age, recovery, and, yes, weight gain, further add to the challenge. I’ve had a few good years, many bad ones, and even survived a wildfire that left us stranded on top of the McDonald Observatory, watching Armageddon approach.
Last year, Tracy and I were still deep in the fitness hole of a startup business, and we’d just closed down one of our two locations, so we arrived in Ft. Davis completely unfit and decided to just use the weekend as an opportunity to ride, train, and run some video. YES, we were THOSE DORKS with helmet cams, handlebar cams, our own videographer performing interviews, and we were NEVER in the running for the race. I still have footage of that weekend that I want to use to promote the race, but again, time and money conspired against us, and we built maybe one video and half of another, never taking either to the web. That’s kind of a shame, really, because this race is in serious jeopardy of not continuing in the Stage Race format. In decades past, Cyclists came from all over the state, New Mexico, and even Northern Mexico, for the challenge. I do my part by sponsoring the event and trying to help with marketing, but it seems like TXBRA and the major cities where cyclists are centered, don’t want to travel, don’t want to meet the challenge of terrain longer than 1-minute hills, and don’t understand that races cost money to manage and promote. It’s frustrating, because it is an EPIC event, and it deserves a wider audience.
This year, with the situation at the studio at least a little calmer, Tracy and I agreed to head out and try our luck at the Hammerfest, and this time, we’d actually be prepared. I started training in late January, focusing on those low-to-mid-cadence efforts of 3-8 minutes, at Critical Power or just below. I slowly started raising my CP, along with the volume of my regular riding, doing most of my intervals indoors and on the E-Motion Rollers from InsideRide.com. But over the last 5 weeks or so, I hooked up with the owner of a wattage analysis website, Dr. Armando Mastracci, of Baron BioSystems and XertOnline.com. Armando has been a regular contributor on the Wattage forum, of which I am a Moderator, and his ideas have been revolutionary, to say the least. Here’s some background…
Training with Wattage for cyclists first started in the mid to late 1980’s, and I specifically remember seeing Don Myrah of mountain bike fame, racing a Trek Hardtail with an SRM at a NORBA National in the mid 1990’s. I embraced the wattage revolution with my first CompuTrainer purchase in 1995, but was unable to afford an on-bike system until the early 2000’s. Meanwhile, measurement of physiological responses to physical efforts – what I call the ‘merge’ between physics and physiology – started yielding a greater understanding of just what wattage meant, and how to use it. This was manifested in CyclingPeaks WKO, TrainingPeaks, and other similar programs, which I’ll call “Gen 2” software. Needless to say, it worked, and for over a decade now, we’ve had great ways to interpret fitness for cyclists, focus on specificity, and manipulate Frequency, Intensity, and Duration to optimize the aerobic and anaerobic systems.
In 2008, that technology and ability to plan for and predict performance took another leap forward with the introduction of RaceDay Apollo and the work of Dr. Philip Skiba. Skiba’s software was uncanny; using the performance predictor, in 2011, I prepared for the Ft. Davis Hammerfest by following a steady progression of 20 minute intervals and 3 minute intervals, and I tested roughly every two weeks, with a really hard, tough, maximal effort. Skiba’s software confidently upped its’ prediction abilities until it got to the point where I would specifically NOT peer at the predictions, would go out and perform a fangs-bared, all-out effort ----- and then, before uploading my ride data, would glance at the predicted wattage. I think it was within 2 watts every, single, time. So I went out to Ft. Davis feeling confident, knowing that I’d prepared, raise my Critical Power, and kept my weight in the 155-158 range.
AND THAT WAS THE YEAR THAT THE FIRES HIT. We were lucky to have survived.
Suffice it to say that the rest of 2011 and early 2012 were a fiasco in my life, as I blew up my marriage, stayed in North Texas, and got divorced. The race was again canceled in 2012 due to fires, and did not resume until a new Race Director showed up in 2014 to resume the operation. Peri Mashburn is a fantastic promoter, official, and general cycling enthusiast, and we can’t thank her enough for her hospitality and ability to make connections, local and state-wide, so that this venue and event can survive. Again – as a competitive cyclist, you owe it to yourself to come out and race this event.
As Tracy and I started our lives together, we traveled out to Ft. Davis in 2013, and got engaged at “DOM” rock, outside of Lajitas, and then traveled to another town, Alpine, to race the “No Country for Old Men” Ultra Event in the Fall of 2014, which we won. The studios got up and running, we got married in 2014, and we continue to push the envelope on Training with Technology, as we try to help others get the most bang-per-buck-per-minute out of their bodies.
I’ll talk about this more in another, separate post, but Armando’s software and technology should be considered Gen 4 wattage interpretation, programming and analysis. I began using Xert Online about six weeks ago, and followed the training protocol two or three days a week, and suffice it to say, at age 45, I FINALLY had a great Stage Race, and was modestly competitive at Ft. Davis. The trick is to make the intervals about 20% harder, and KEEP DOING THEM! Again, fodder for another post, but if you haven’t taken advantage of XertOnline’s free Beta program, you owe it to yourself to port your data over there, and start analyzing the results for yourself.
THE RACE – STAGE 1
Sadly, starting around February, Tracy started suffering from lingering knee issues, and the result was a delayed progression such that she was unable to adequately prepare for the event, and we both decided that it would probably be best if she used this weekend as a training and support weekend, instead of a competitive race that would leave her frustrated. I, on the other hand, started following Xert’s suggestions for intervals that would improve my 5-minute average Power. To get there, Armando and I looked at the modeling, and we both agreed that I could MAYBE handle intervals of 1:1 work to rest ratio, and that intervals in the 90-150 second AT 370 WATTS EACH would be most effective! Oh Holy Moses performing those intervals really, really hurt! That said, I was excited to see my Critical power Jump, and Armando’s modeling quickly got within 2% of predictions. I had a conversation with Rob Kitching of CyclingPowerLab.com, and given the altitude, we dropped my numbers by about 24 points, to be conservative, and I decided to use Stage 1 to race the terrain, instead of trying to race the racers. We also arrived a day early, so we could rest up and start hydrating and adapting to the elevation as best we could.
Ironically, the Friday before the race began, Tracy went out to attempt the Scenic Loop with David Bambaugh, from Houston, who was helping with race management. I provided SAG and just enjoyed the day and the geology in the area, reading a book about a modern author following Coronado’s Route through Arizona as he attempted to find the Legendary Seven Cities of Cibola. About 2/3 of the way through the route, deep in the mountains, the weather abruptly changed and the ceiling dropped until there was about 100 feet of visibility, and temps were around 42 degrees. Neither of the cyclists were completely prepared for this, and after climbing Fisher Mountain, we all agreed to call it a day. The clouds finally lifted late in the day, but not after depositing a chill near freezing all over the Davis Mountains. THIS was the atmosphere we were facing on Saturday morning as the Stage 1 Climb to the McDonald Observatory began.
I warmed up indoors, made sure all my kit was solidly layered, and we rolled out in 34 degree temps with the Women 1,2,3’s and the Men’s 50+ group, of whom there were almost twice as many racers as the 10 riders I was racing against in the 40+ field. As soon as the neutral zone ended, Team Crest, with 4 of the 10 cyclists, began some aggressive moves. I wasn’t sure whether this was just to warm up, or if it was all part of a plan, but I stayed near the front, and chased down a couple of breaks, just in case. However, after the Prude Ranch, and before the old “Heartbreak Hill” of previous years, John Murazek of Crest took off on a solo endeavor, and I followed. Soon, we were clear, and we did a 2-man paceline that got about a minute up the road and took us all the way to the base of the first climb, beyond the Gazebo and “Lone Oak” landmark. There, I actually climbed really well, and dropped him, not getting caught by the pursuers until almost at the top of the climb. This was the best I’d felt on that first climb in years, and I knew it was going to be a good day.
There’s a short recovery, and then the second hill, which I’ve heard called “Arrowhead Mountain”, began. This is the longest climb of the stage, and while it’s not overly steep, it’s just a long grind. Almost immediately, I lost some ground, getting passed by one 40+ rider in a group of about 7 or 8 50+ cyclists, and again, I didn’t panic, I just looked down at my rolling 30 second power, and rode against the terrain. Sure enough, one by one, several riders started to pop, and I reeled them in, bit by bit. I got to the top of the climb in good position, but there was a 40+ rider ahead of me that I needed to catch. I did get there, and while we all took a breather and prepared for that last, steep climb up to the Observatory, I decided to make a serious effort to pass him and put some distance between us. It almost worked – I made the climb in a strong position, but with about 500 meters to go, he literally rolled by on my right, about 3 rpm higher than me, and finished about 15 seconds ahead of me, in second place. I completed the climb in 3rd, and congratulated those ahead of me. This felt good, this felt right, and this felt like a huge burden had been lifted off my shoulders, as I’d finally climbed somewhere near my ability. I’m not as strong as I used to be, I’m not as light as I used to be, and I’m not as fit as I probably could be, but I was done, and actually in the running. Whew.
THE RACE – STAGE 2
Stage II was held the, and was a gentle climb for about 18 ½ miles of to the Crow’s Nest, which is a camp and retreat. Usually, this stage suffers from rising heat and wind, which blows up the peloton. However, that afternoon, the wind was actually at our backs. This made for a very fast, and tightly packed group, and to avoid any possible headaches, the first place rider and myself ended up just trading leads at speed to carry the group toward the finish line. My legs were not feeling hundred percent, but I finished with the pack in the Sprint, and I believe I finished fifth or sixth in my category. That said, I was really sitting my power for the long stage and scenic loop.
THE RACE – STAGE 3
Sunday morning, the race for 40+ again at 9 AM, and it was considerably more than the previous day’s races. Once again, I warmed up indoors for about 30 minutes, make sure that I had at breakfast, and continue my diligence on staying hydrated. Right before getting of you, however, I looked down at my front tire and noticed that I had a large slice it. I called time and was allowed to go to the wheel and grab my spare, which I quickly installed in place the errors.
The road out was at a neutral speed, and John Murazek, who was in first place in the general category, service up to paceline counterclockwise as we once considered up towards Crow’s nest. This have the combined effect of making the race quick enough to get somewhere, but also comfortable enough to avoid getting chilled or board. I made a point of eating as much as I could the first 90 minutes, and drank both bottles before the first feeds zone, but the pack largely stayed together until about 6 miles from Bear Mountain. A single 50+ rider went off the front, quickly gained several minutes, and no one gave chase. We were all focused on the second half of course, which started at Bear Mountain.
Unfortunately, my legs were not as fresh as they had been the day before, and I was dropped beginning of Bear Mountain. Once I got to the cattle guard, I was able to pedal more strongly, and I reached Tracy and the bottle about one minute 15 seconds down. After Bear Mountain, there is a 6 mile descent, and I connected with David Richardson and Bill Shirer and, as they were old team mates of mine, I think we clicked really well. We worked together to try and bridge to the lead group of writers, which included first, second, and third in the 40+ group, as well as several 50+ riders. We were able to get within 20 seconds of this group, when the second large climb started, and once again I fell off the back by about 45 seconds. Bill and David remained just with insight, and just outside of reach, for the next several miles, and I continued to try and ride hard, and descend quickly so that we could reconnect and work together.
Ever since I started writing out in Fort Davis, Fisher Mountain has always been one of the most challenging segments. It starts on the opposite side of a creek bottom, and quickly goes through 8 to 13% gradients in a left-hand, then right hand, and then left hand climbing chicane. Then, it climbs straight up the mountain at about 6%, until you reach the second feed zone at the top. I’m actually really proud of the way that I rode this, as I did not blow up, and did not lose more than about five seconds to build and David. I also ended up passing several of the category three and category four stragglers. The second feed zone is at the top of this mountain, and Tracy said that I had 45 seconds to catch up with them. I made the descent as quickly as I could, and by the time I reached the final climb out that ends up that McDonald Observatory, I was closing the gap.
I remember watching the cyclists ahead of me passed by shadows and road signs, and I quickly took mental count of the seconds that I had to go to catch up. 40 seconds became 30, 30 seconds became 12,12 seconds became eight, and at the top of the file climb, I rolled up to them and said “I’m back. Let’s reel them in!” I think I took maybe a minute to recover, and then we began about 18 miles of rotations and strong pulls, to try and catch the leaders.
I’m convinced that the fact two runs known for years, helped make a big difference in the chase. David, Bill and I are all familiar with each other, we know how to communicate without speaking, and we encourage each other. I believe that I was a little more fresh for some reason, and so I insisted on taking longer holes that may have been a little stronger, and in my head I counted to 8four to eight times in a row before wiggling my elbow and moving to the back. We continued to reel in stragglers, but when we reached the Prude Ranch, which is only 4 miles from town, we knew that it would be really, really tough to catch the leaders. We were just running out of real estate. I continue to push, and eventually as we approached the edge of town, we came upon four of the 50+ riders, including a teammate of Bill’s. Build attempted to slingshot off the draft of the riders, but when he made the right hand turn into town, we were all set by a stiff headwind, and it brought him back to hide and recover.
The eight of us, and basically congratulated each other for a good effort and a great time together, and with about 600 m to go, I asked David what he wanted to do. He said, “Well, I guess we’ll have to Sprint.” And I told him that I did not believe I have the legs to try that. I then said “I’m going to stay by the white line, you take the yellow line, let’s let these guys do their Sprint first.” The 50+ rider stormed through the gap, and David beat me by three or four bike lengths to the finish line. He took forth on the day, while I finished in fifth.
Afterward, we all grouped together at an intersection hundred meters down the road, and congratulated everyone on the race, a great time, the fantastic course, a few day, and good camaraderie.
I always approach this race with a bit of anxiety, but also a sense of elation. It is by far the most beautiful venue for racing in Texas. It is also the toughest. In order to do well, you have to think about it and plan for it almost 4 or five months in advance. If you do not, and you show up unprepared, be prepared for disappointment. There have been years in the past where I left the race before it was over, or have beaten myself up over four preparation. But this year, I really think this was the most complete race that I have ridden in years. Cyclists have to be prepared for terrain, wind, and stiff competition. Furthermore, success does not always come in the form of a strong finish. It comes instead from solid preparation and knowing that you have had a very great experience. I urge all of my fellow cyclists who compete to come back out in future years and simply ride this venue is spectacular, but it is the act of cycling in this remote and beautiful region that sets it apart from anything else.