Category: RAAM

To Zwift Or Not To Zwift

Having been a Zwifter from day one, this was a platform that was going to revolutionize indoor training, and 3 years later it sure did. It continues to grow in functionality and rider/racer appeal; however a few new products have popped up on the horizon. One in particular is Road Grand Tours, which is boasting better cycling physics and more detailed high screen resolution. Just to preview some of the early features, click this link. The realism of RGT is unprecedented, from the bikes, racers, route features. The enhanced Start/Finish Gates, Leaderboards and scenery are as brilliant as you have ever seen to date. This will be an excellent platform in the future, once they get training, racer options, bike options, racing events and group rides sorted out, but it is visually pleasing. My Zwift kit closet is pretty full, so I am looking forward to some new options within RGT here in the near future. I have to admit it took a little time to get used to the cycling physics, as the avatar has a built in breaking feature, that will cause you to stop pedaling, and slow down as you take the corner. In Zwift, you can bomb through a corner at 50+ mph, but I have never done that in real life, but it sure feels fun. So kudos to RGT for adding that feature in.

They are currently accepting beta testers, so if you want to check out this new venue, give it a whirl you won’t be disappointed. Some of the features that I particularly like are the real re-creations of Passo Dello Stelvio, Mt. Ventoux and the Cap Formentor. I recently returned from a trip to Italy and have to say that the re-creation of Piensa, in Tuscany, is spot on. They also have Canary Wharf and Templehof Airport, which will set up very nicely for future crits. I have not jumped into an event yet, but will test it out in the coming days. I suspect the crits will be blazing fast as both circuits are flat as pancakes. Zwift on the other hand has weather and day/night features, which is pretty cool. They have a ways to go, but this will only strengthen the indoor cycling space as Zwift continues to break ground on many new and exciting features and it appears that Road Grand Tours is building from that early foundation. For now Climb Every Mountain and Ride On!

Cracked On The Climb

As they say, sometimes you get the bear and other times the bear gets you. After a great 3 months of training, the weather finally cooperated for a long ride and decided the Skyline Drive would be a great spot to get in some climbing. A group of 6 left the parking area and ventured up the first climb.  Just to refresh your memory, you are immediately greeted with a 6.1 mile climb of 1571 feet, with a grade of 5-6% for the duration. There is no place to get your legs warm, but hey that’s why we are climbing. Having had a great breakfast and being well hydrated and downing some Sport Legs to help beat down the lactic acid, I was ready. Well about 3 miles in, I slowly drifted to the back of the group, wondering what is going on. I am not the strongest climber, but with this group have always been near the front. Hanging in the back, I found my rhythm, but my legs felt like someone had poured concrete into them. I switched gears, stood up, sat down, shifted my weight. I noticed that I was already riding my 54×25, but while looking down, realized that was the end of the gear sequence. Mistake #1, if you are going to climb over 5,500 feet, you might want to have that climbing gear. My mind quickly started to rationalize, well of course this is why I am struggling up the hill. As I pressed on, I collected myself and started to edge from the back of the pack to the middle, as the climb was beginning to split our group, I was starting to feel better. We crested the first big climb and on the descent felt like now that I am warmed up and with a good 10 minute recovery descent, all would be good. Climb #2 is where the grind really began. Again nothing in my legs and now my heart rate was starting to creep up to max, not good. As I trudged up this climb, I started to rationalize that it must have been those two back to back climbs up Alpe d’Huez the previous week, Half the distance, but twice the grade. Oh that must be it, I’ll shake it off. Fortunately the second climb is bit shorter, so the grind was a little less painful. Same thinking on descent #2, but now, within seconds of the beginning of the third climb, I was in trouble. I downed a gel, an energy bar and started to rehydrate knowing that I could refuel at Elk Wallow Visitor’s center. It was a long and torturous hour over the next two climbs and on the descent into Elk Wallow started to rationalize my rehydration plan. In the shop, I started with a jar of pickles and added a few more energy bars and a coke. That should do the trick. After a nice rest and becoming the visitor center hero, by passing out free pickles. Everyone thanked me and said what a great idea to eat pickles. Feeling ready to roll, 200 yards into the climb, the demons started creeping in again and with each crank turn, wondered how long can I keep this up. Normally we break once or twice at the lookouts, to enjoy the scenery and catch our breath and get our legs back after these long climbs. I had to stop twice on the first climb, as my mind was not cooperating with me. After another long grind, I crested the first climb and a nice long descent followed. On the way back there are only 3 climbs instead of 4, I have never figured that out, but was very glad about that today. All my re-hydration didn’t appear to being helping, so the grind continued for another 45 minutes until I could finally see the clearing at the crest and lookout of the last climb. I rejoiced knowing that I now could cruise in for the last 6 miles back to the car. Well wouldn’t you know it, 2 other riders appeared and they decided that there was some sort of King of the Bottom (KOB) prime and the race was on. Oddly enough my body was completely comfortable with pressing it down the hill. Finally, the guard shack and the parking lot, just another minute away. I was never so glad a ride was over, but felt relatively good that I grinded through, but absolutely miserable. It was a very quiet ride home, the post ice cream stop was great. There is nothing with a delicious frozen custard to boost your spirits. The next two days didn’t make me feel much better and it looked like I was coming down with something. My mind was now satisfied that was the cause to this horrible climbing day, but off to the Doctor to see what is going on with me. More to come . . .

Climbing Alpe d’ Zwift

Let’s just say that I have been thinking about this ride for a while and needless to say I got a big head even before I started. Zwift dangled the release Alpe d’Zwift for a few days before it actually dropped onto Zwift. There was a lot of speculation on whether this was going to be a true reproduction of Alpe d’Huez or Zwift’s version, which in fact it is. The new addition to the many miles of Zwift soars 7.5 miles into the pixelated sky, gains 3,400 feet of elevation by the time you reach the snow-capped summit, and grinds up and around 21 hairpins and switchbacks at an average grade of 8.5 percent. Some of the ascent ramps up to 14% grades, which really get your legs singing the blues. The new segment is part of Zwift’s Watopia Island course and can be accessed through the Mayan Jungle Expansion, which means it’s only open to Zwifters who have Zwifted long enough to have racked up requisite XP (experience) points. There are a few ways to experience “The Climb”, one being the “Fire To Sky Road”, which starts you in the Volcano and meanders through the Mayan Jungle for a nice warmup of about 3 miles. The second option is a little longer, but also gives your legs a chance to properly warmup before digging into the climb. As you power through the expansion gate from the Mayan Jungle, there is a slight descent as you are leaving the jungle and entering the Alpine Meadow. As you are staring straight into the eyes of the beast, you quickly hang a left and start the ascent. The grade in the beginning sections immediately jumps up into double digits, getting your mind already spinning negative thoughts, wondering whether this will go on for the next 7.5 mles. As always, Zwift had done an exceptional job on the scenery with some very lovely meadow flowers and some fine trees It is very clear from the beginning that this is a monster climb, but the adrenaline is really flowing now as you are about to conquer the Alpe, or at least so you think. The first kilometer up to hairpin #21 is covered with some motivating street art and gets you into the flow of the climb. As with all climbs this one is about finding that rhythm, but needless to say my rhythm has me already dropped down into a 34-24 gearing, which is making me wonder why Zwift doesn’t have roadside mechanics that could help me with a quick rear wheel change that has a 28 tooth or greater cassette, which would make spinning this climb a bit easier, so again my mind is wrestling with “Stop being a wimp” and “Shut Up Brain and Legs” and enjoy the ride. Some neat features in the early going include a snow protection tunnel and a few beautiful glimpses of the valley below. The map on the upper right of Zwift is now clearly showing the progression through the hairpins and we get our first glimpses of the alpine homes. Do you think someone would be out front with an Espresso to help fuel me for the rest of the climb, I can only imagine. Over the next 3-4 hairpins you are hugging the mountain and the other side gives way to some pretty steep drops. The road also is beginning to narrow and I am wondering if I hit the U turn button, if the road is wide enough for me to make the U turn or if I am going to go over the edge. At hairpin 16 we now are approaching the Alpine Village, which fits much nicer into the landscape than some of the plain structures at the real Alpe d’Huez. As you pass through the village and exit through the gate, snow is beginning to become prominent on the landscape. The meadow also gives way to pine trees and a more rugged terrain, more Alp like. Just before hairpin #13, construction equipment is visible making me wonder whether this is for an expansion of some sort or may more development near the castle which sits prominently at the corner of hairpin #13. As you continue to climb the trees start giving way to a more rocky landscape and then with the 4.3 KM sign on the right there is also a Yeti crossing sign. Again, the distractions are excellent for as the next few minutes I am pondering, whether it is a Yeti crossing or a Sasquatch crossing. Not quite sure the Yeti comes this far west or the Sasquatch comes this far east. A few more rock tunnels make the scenery quite enjoyable at this point. The grade has nicely settled in at about 7-8% and my legs feel like they are recovering, but there are still 10 hairpins to navigate. It also begins to snow, so I turn on my feel to feel the cool air. Zwift also added a nice feature of snow blowing across the road, which makes you wonder if wind will soon be added into the application. As you are approaching hairpin #9 there is a dark looking figure at the corner, clearly I have found Sasquatch or are my eyes deceiving me. As it turns out they are, it is merely a dead tree, nice addition there Zwift. As you leave hairpin #8, the landscape give way to a winter moon scape as we are clearly above the tree line at this point. At hairpin #7 the Dutch have set up their camp ready to cheer on their favorites. Go “Johan Cruyff” should be painted on the road here, oops wrong sport. As you take this corner you also get your first clear glimpse of the summit, with what appears to be quite the sculpture, but I can’t quite make it out just yet. Having seen the top, gets the legs spinning a little quicker now, but as it turns out that is more because the grade is 6-7%. As you continue your ascent you are now riding through a wall of snow as the road gets even narrower and the snow wall is well over 6 feet tall on both sides of the road. As you are now realizing you are going to make it, the grade kicks back up to double digits, but you’ve made it this far, so a few more kilos can’t be all that bad. At hairpin #3, I am thinking of Marco Pantani and his explosive blast up the mountain at this point. The last few kilometers the snow disappears and give way to a true mountain top barren landscape. As you crest the summit the sculpture turns out to be a guy and gal holding up a wheel. As you blast through the finish gate and realize that you have made it you have a good 3-4 minutes of flat land pedaling before you realize you are going to now descend this mountain. All I will say here is that it was a nice 48-52 mile an hour descent and some of those hairpins are a bit harrowing, so you may have to close your eyes once in a while. To summarize this is a great addition to Zwift, I can only imagine that it feels very similar to the real thing. As it turns out I loved it so much I climbed it again two days later, and took 3 minutes off my ascent time, but now my legs are killing me. With the Tour of Watopia having just launched, I just discovered that stage 3 is back up the Alpe. I can hardly wait. Ride On!!!

Climbing Sky Mass

Over 6,875 feet of climbing over 81 miles, is a slight less than the Skyline Drive 100 Miler, but its that last climb that has your legs screaming.  The ride was slightly more than 87 miles (see ride profile below) out and back starting in Front Royal. I parked below the toll gate (cyclists must pay fee) at the entrance to the Skyline Drive and I was immediately greeted with a 6.1 mile climb of 1571 feet. What a way to warm up. The average grade was about 5%, with a few sections with 6-7%, so it wasn’t too bad. Immediately following the climb, you are rewarded with a nice 2 mile descent, which allows the legs to recover a bit. On to climb #2, which is much shorter, 2.5 miles, with the gradient ranging between 5-7%. The road leveled out for the next 2.5 miles, again allowing the lactic acid to escape some already tiring legs. On to climb #3, another 3.5 mile jaunt with 700 feet more of elevation gain. A quick descent and onto climb #4.  This climb seemed much easier, it must have been the legs being really warmed up. This climb was another 3 miler with an elevation gain of 800 feet. If you have made it this far the reward awaits in the 3.8 mile descent into the Elk Wallow Picnic Grove. You can fill up your water bottles here and grab a snack or if you missed breakfast they have a little café where they will make you a delicious egg sandwich.  Hey I deserved it. At this point if you haven’t being doing the math the 4 climbs so far covered 15 miles with an elevation gain of over 3700 feet. Not bad for the first 21 miles. After a quick recharge at Elk Wallow, your legs can get loosened up on a nice 7 mile false flat and then unlike the Skyline Climb at mile 30 you hang a right hander and you are off on an eleven mile winding and technical descent into Luray. If you choose to skip the break at Elk Wallow, Luray has plenty to offer in the way of restaurants, fast food stops and 7-Elevens to refill those bottles. In the past there were a few gas station/market type places, but they all look boarded up at this point. If you are running low, you are pretty much out of luck over the last 40+ miles, so get the goods while you can. I would even suggest taking a gel or espresso (or 2) at this point as you are about to take on a short but spectacular climb over Massanutten Mountain. Let me emphasize the ride up Massanutten Mountain is brutally hard, but after the swift descent, you have the luxury of riding some very beautiful rollers back into Front Royal. After climbing the punishing last big climb, which is 3.2 miles in length with over 1,100 feet in elevation gain. The climb features a few ramps that top out at over 16%, which you might be thinking what is up with this guy, but after climbing the better part of 5,000 feet, the legs may be wishing for a sag wagon. The trip down the west side of the mountain takes into the George Washington National Forest where you might stop at a small campground looking for water, but surprise, there is none there. The rollers are a welcome relief as my legs were pretty well shot at this point. The best part of this last segment, is that you are cruising through some very shady areas, so you do get a break from the summer heat. At around mile 72, you hang a right on oddly enough, Mountain Road, and can cruise the slight descent over the last 9 miles back to the entrance to the Skyline car, where the TT was a welcome sight. If you are heading back to the DC area after the ride, make sure you head back through Front Royal via Rt. 522. and you find a great little ice cream shop just before you jump onto I-66. Ride On!

Climbing the Skyline Drive


Over 10,660 feet of climbing doesn’t seem that tough over 100 miles, but it more than I had anticipated.  The ride was a 100 mile (see ride profile below) out and back starting in Front Royal. I parked below the toll gate (cyclists must pay fee) at the entrance to the Skyline Drive and I was immediately greeted with a 6.1 mile climb of 1571 feet. What a way to warm up. The average grade was about 5%, with a few sections with 6-7%, so it wasn’t too bad. Immediately following the climb, you are rewarded with a nice 2 mile descent, which allows the legs to recover a bit. On to climb #2, which is much shorter, 2.5 miles, with the gradient ranging between 5-7%. The road leveled out for the next 2.5 miles, again allowing the lactic acid to escape some already tiring legs. On to climb #3, another 3.5 mile jaunt with 700 feet more of elevation gain. A quick descent and onto climb #4.  This climb seemed much easier, it must have been the legs being really warmed up. This climb was another 3 miler with an elevation gain of 800 feet. If you have made it this far the reward awaits in the 3.8 mile descent into the Elk Wallow Picnic Grove. You can fill up your water bottles here and grab a snack or if you missed breakfast they have a little café where they will make you a delicious egg sandwich.  Hey I deserved it. At this point if you haven’t being doing the math the 4 climbs so far covered 15 miles with an elevation gain of over 3700 feet. Not bad for the first 21 miles. After a quick recharge at Elk Wallow, your legs can get loosened up on a nice 7 mile false flat and then the climbing begins again. Climb #5 is a 4 miler with 1200 feet of elevation gain. Most of the grade is not too bad, but after the first few miles there is one section that jumps up to 15%. A real leg screamer!!! After another recovery descent, you face climb #7, 3.4 miles and 700 feet of elevation gain. The roller coaster continues all the way to mile 50 with 2 more short, but daunting climbs. The final climb into the Big Meadows Visitor center is a real grind, as the wind was blowing off the meadow directly into my face. After a second break to grab fresh water, it was time for the return leg. the first 50 miles generally has much more gain than loss, so the return leg is much easier and definitely much faster. By the last descent, I was very thankful for a nice 6 mile descent back to the car at 40+ mph. All in all it is a great ride, but will have to say that is by far was one of the more challenging rides I have accomplished.  I met a rider who was doing the Sky Mass loop (80 miles with on 6085 feet of climbing) I think I will try that one next.

Climbing Mt. Evans

Thanks to Mike Cotty and the Col Collective I decided to give Mt. Evans a go this summer. I was heading to Denver for a week of R&R, so I figured why not. Mt. Evans boasts the highest paved road in North America. The ride is 27.9 miles in length with 6,944 feet of elevation gain. The average grade is about 4.6%.  The ride begins at 7,526 and ends at 14,130 feet. Having done rides up to 10,000 feet in the past, I figured that last 4,000+ feet can’t be too hard. Oops. It is an absolutely wonderful ride in the sense that you leave the mining town of Idaho Springs with its quaint shops, restaurants and mining culture littered all along main street. Once you turn out of town and hang the left you get your first glimpse of Mt. Evans and start the journey winding through a very nice forest with a river running along the side of the road. As always I was hoping for a nice little warmup, but the climbing kicked right in and was a bit intimidating. The road was perfectly smooth, but the climbing was mostly a 6+ percent grade, not much of a chance to get the legs into a rhythm. This continues on for about 12 miles, with no chance to regain your legs. I was chased by a fox at mile 4, which,  silly me chose to out wit the fox by sprinting away from him. Just in case you think this is crazy, I snapped a picture of the fox as he lost interest in me. It worked, but also put me into the red for awhile. It was a lot like “American Flyers” but with a fox instead of a dog. For several miles this occupied my mind thinking about what would possess a fox to chase a bike. Having gotten my mind back to the task at hand I continued to cruise through the switchbacks and lovely alpine terrain. It is important to focus on getting your body into a rhythm to be able to sustain this long effort. There is nothing quite like hearing a babbling stream and the wind through the Aspen trees. As you continue to climb it will gradually warm up and you’ll be working harder and harder, and starting to strip off layers some layers.At mile 12 you crest a slightly steeper ramp and you pop around a corner to grab an absolutely drop dead gorgeous view of Echo Lake. The view also gives you another view of Mt. Evans in the distance. When you get up past Echo Lake at you can feel the temperature start to cool off a little bit. In only a few short miles you will leave the beautiful alpine landscape and enter the moon like terrain as you exit the tree line. The elevation is measures in at 10,579 feet, but the cycling rhythm still feels comfortable. Vegetation ranges from lower spruce-fir and lodgepole forests, through 2,000-year-old Bristlecone pines and krummholz near treeline, to delicate alpine vegetation reaching all the way to the highest peaks. Some of the Bristlecone pines are ancient and up to 2,000 years old.  The road levels out for about 1/2 mile, but it is enough to let your legs shake out that lactic acid. You can replenish your water at the Echo Lake Lodge at the entrance to the park.  You hang a right on Highway 5.  As you ride past the toll booth the next few miles ramps back up to about 6% as you continue to cruise through the tall pines.   As the forest begins to thin, you can now see the road up ahead and your mind starts playing tricks on you as you begin to think it is a really long way to go, even though you are now well over half way to the summit.  As you focus on the road ahead, it the climb begins to feel steeper, which also plays on your mind, but as it turns out it is the altitude talking and not that little voice in my head. There is no lack of distraction as you continue to grind up the mountain.  After you’ve passed the bristlecones, all that’s left are a few unfortunate krummholz, and then the trees disappear entirely. At that point, it’s just you, lichens, grass, extremely hearty wildflowers and I was promised some wildlife (pika, marmots, mountain goats and bighorn sheep) So far outside of the fox not another animal insight. As you round the bend, there is a little descend, that takes you down to Summit Lake. Another gorgeous view and you now realize that the views of the lakes alone are worth the effort.

At Summit Lake, there is a small parking lot and a small shelter.  There are no services available, but I notice a lot of people in cars cheering me on or stare in wonderment at seeing a cyclist on a bike at 13,000.  From this point, there are only five miles, 15 switchbacks, and 1,300 feet of climbing left.  This is when the climb started to become a bit desperate. Cycling at this high of an elevation is like nothing you may have experienced as the lack of oxygen is now the foremost thought on your mind. I was told after this climb, by my friend who is a pilots for FedEx that they have to wear oxygen masks over 10K in non-pressurized cabins.    As you continue above treeline, it turns out you are completely unprotected and the wind starts to kick in.  The temperature has dropped by 10-15 degrees, so the jacket comes back on. I am glad I tucked it under my jersey.  At about 13,500 the  summit observatory comes into sight and it looks tantalizingly close. Adrenaline kicks in, and I start to pedal faster only to realize that I am now gasping for air.  My heart rate monitor says I am still at a comfortable 130 bpm, but being challenged to get enough air in my lungs, I slow my pace.  I chug up at least a dozen more switchbacks and then realize on more switchback and I am into the parking. That last switchback seems like a 30% grade, but it is still only 7-8%, but with the lack of oxygen it makes for an extremely difficult last push.  As the grade eases up, I can now easily pedal to the end of the journey. Still no Mountain Goats, they must be on vacation, but who cares, the views from the summit are beyond amazing. As it turns out it was really not the summit, you had to climb up that mound of rubble to be able to say you made it all the way to the summit, but as far as cycling, I reached the end of the highest paved road in the U.S. After several photos and even being ask to snap a picture of a family who is on vacation. Clearly this will be their Christmas Card. They gingerly ask if I would mind being in a photo with them, because they indicated that no one would believe them when they tell them that people cycle up Mt. Evans. I guess I may be in there Christmas Card, I hope they don’t forget to send a present. After a small time at the top, the weather report was calling for rain, and noticed the rain in the distance, it was time to go. Not having put much though into the descent, figured it would be a breeze and very cool ride. Let me just say that it took over 3 hours to climb, but 55 minutes for the descent. The descent was a little harrowing as there are no guard rails on much of the road, with some really steep and far drop offs, but not to worry, I had my super grippy tires on. All in all it was and amazing 56 mile journey and my first 14er.

Climbing Mt. Ventoux

Everyone says that Mont Ventoux is one of those epic climbs that you just have to try. Well, with the winter in full swing in Virginia, I thought I  had to to give it a whirl and thinking that I was prepared for this climb was a bit of an understatement. Newly equipped with my Wahoo Kickr and FulGaz (Advanced Virtual Cycling) I had the opportunity to ride it in the comfort of my cycling studio. More on that in a future post. It seems that besides Alpe d’Huez this is one of the most feared climbs of the Tour De France.  At 1,912m, it is the highest mountain in the French Alps and has been nicknamed the “Beast of Provence”, the “Giant of Provence”or “The Bald Mountain”. The start for the route leaves through Bedoin.  It is worth noting that the ascent from Bedoin is the most difficult of the 3 routes up Mont Ventoux, “my bad”.  For the first 6 km, the climb seems somewhat normal and then there is this dreaded hairpin to the left and all of a sudden you are staring at a much steeper grade.  The gradient seems to hover around 9-10%, more near 10%, but who is counting. The Kickr does an amazing job of matching the grade through FulGaz taking control of the resistance on the trainer.  There are a few bits of the climb that jump to 12-13%, just to let your legs know who is in charge. Let the sufferfest begin. At about the 16 km point, you break out of the trees and you enter the lunar landscape of Ventoux.  The bald, rocky peak is now visible and it is very intimidating staring at the tower realizing there are still 6 km to go.  As your near the summit, you notice the granite markers with some gifts, left at the site to honor Tom Simpson. Top British rider Tom Simpson died on the ascent of Mont Ventoux aged only 29, the marker has become a pilgrimage for many cyclists.The gradient is a little less forgiving at this point, but the climb is still relentless. When the grade drops down to 4-5% in a few spots, you feel like you are spinning at some tremendous speed, but the power meter says different. The power numbers are climbing, but the speed does not seem to match the speed numbers so well.  The adrenaline really gets pumping as you near the summit, only to make that right hand hairpin turn and realize the grade just jumped up over 10% again.  To sum this ride up, it is possibly one of the most feared climbs and is not for those who are new to road biking, but rather for experienced riders looking for a challenge, and what a challenge it is.  The particulars for this climb are Distance : 21.4km, expected time to complete : 2 – 3hr with a Vertical Gain : 1639m. The Pros can complete the climb in an astonishing hour, for me 2:12, but I will take that.