Biggest Loser? (aka The Case for an Off-Season)

I’m mostly writing this for my benefit. If you happen to read it and find it beneficial too, well, that’s a bonus.

You might’ve read a few comments from well-known endurance coaches or athletes about how if you want to really preserve your fitness over the long term, you need to keep pushing it all year round.

The logic goes something like this: It takes only two weeks to give a goodbye kiss to all of that cardiorespiratory endurance you spent all summer building up, so if you take too long of a stop, you could be setting yourself up for failure next season. Oh, the insecurity!

Now, the caveat to all of this is that that has been my mindset for the last few years. My off-season has consisted of three days of R&R each September. And in all fairness, I’ve had decent fitness going into the early season. So who am I to say it doesn’t work?

Enter: Bernard Lagat. The most decorated American middle distance (and possibly distance) runner in history, Bernard owns six or seven American records indoors and out as well as the second-fastest time EVER (emphasis on EVER) in the 1500-meter.

Ladies and gentlemen, behold the nicest guy you'll see on the internet today (present company not excepted).

Ladies and gentlemen, behold the nicest guy you’ll see on the internet today (present company not excepted).

Bernard has been to four Olympics and brought home medals twice. He’s also the only guy I know of who has scored gold in both the 1500 and the 5000 at the same World Championship.

So what does he have to do with the subject at hand? Well, as this fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal explains, Bernard takes quite the off-season every year — five weeks, in fact! Find me a 30-year-old triathlete who’s willing to skip out of five weeks of aerobic exercise at any point during the year. Go ahead, find one.

Bernard, it should also be mentioned, is also one of the older guys in this business. While most track athletes bow out in their early 30s, Bernard is about to turn 40 and is going strong. The guy went under 13 minutes in the 5000m last year, and he just set a new American record for the road 5k to boot!

But what really got me thinking about this is all the stuff I keep reading and hearing from Dr. James O’Keefe. O’Keefe, in case you don’t know, is a cardiologist who is promoting the idea (based on some research) that prolonged amounts or pronounced intensities of aerobic exercise aren’t actually healthy after all. As he points out, tests of runners just after they complete marathons reveal a high amount of troponin, which is a marker of cardiac damage. In other words, running a marathon may kick the snot out of your heart.

Of course, your heart may adapt to the repeated snot-kicking you give it by overdoing your workouts … by developing scar tissue, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (an enlarged heart) and irregular heart rhythms like atrial fibrillation or the much-scarier ventrical tachycardia.

(Before anyone freaks out, bear in mind that the evidence shows running 15 to 20 miles per week at 8.5 minutes per mile — for a total of just under 3 hours — will reduce your mortality risk, your likelihood of dying, the most. So, unless you can walk a 8.5-minute mile, don’t stop running just yet.)

The thing is, every time I read about the cardiac changes that occur as a result of repeated bouts of endurance training, the studies also suggest that some of those changes can be undone if you simply take a little time off. Scar tissue is a different subject, but you can avoid that with a simple behavioral modification: never run a marathon. Whew, that was easy.

Okay, granted, I’m not a cardiologist, and I don’t even play one on the internet (i.e. follow my advice at your own risk). But like I said in the beginning, this is more for me than it is for you anyway. So, self, the moral of this story is: Follow Bernard’s example and take an off-season once in a while, even just for a week or two. Doing so may help you reduce your risk of heart issues in the long term and help prolong your amateur endurance hobby.

The Great American Epic

“You drove all the way from Idaho for this race?” he asked in a tone of incredulity.

The absurdity was not lost on me. This year was the fifth time I’d made the four-hour drive down (and followed it by a four-hour drive back up) for my favorite bicycle event—the Widow Maker Hill Climb. In those previous four years, my wife had never come to watch, I’d scored a race medal only two times, and I’d even ridden the year we finished the race’s final 30+ percent gradients in six inches of snow.

But I was talking to someone I thought understood why I loved the race—a fellow competitor. It was only at this point that I realized the locals view this—my favorite event of the year, the most epic short racecourse I know, the ultimate combination of fitness and skill—as the mountain bike equivalent of the local 5k. For me, it’s, obviously, much more.

Call Me Ishmael
Have you ever read Moby-Dick? I haven’t. Lit teachers in Canada don’t make you read it in high school. But for 45 minutes on my trip down to Utah, I listened to one expert’s opinion on why I should read it. That tells you how boring that drive can be when your kids have busted your car’s CD player and you don’t have an MP3 port to plug into. But yes, he convinced me. I’m now looking for a copy of Moby-Dick, even though I know I don’t have time to read it.

I’d worked a long hard week at work, and I wasn’t even sure I could make the trip. But I got on the road and started driving—half-expecting my work cell phone to go off at any moment. To my surprise, it never did.

At one point, I passed a white minivan with Ironman® triathlon bumper stickers all over it. It took me a moment, but I realized I knew this van. Sure enough, as I drove up along next to it, I recognized BJ Christensen—a top Ironman amateur who’s clocked some near-pro times at the notorious Ironman Hawaii. I waved, but I knew that even if he looked my way, it was pretty unlikely he’d remember me from the sprint triathlon I’d met him at years ago. But just seeing him—driving a minivan with his young son (presumably) sitting in the passenger seat—gave me a hint of hope. Maybe you CAN have a family and improve as an athlete.

When I got to the campsite I planned to stay at, the sun had already set, and the site was (like usual) full. I think I may have a heart attack and die from un-surprise! Fortunately, this year, I had a backup plan. My brother now lives in Utah somewhere, so I drove to his place. After yapping with him about his personal life until midnight, I dozed off on his floor underneath my coat and actually slept pretty soundly. Life of a parent, I guess.

In the morning, I got to the resort just as the race organizers got there—i.e. too early. My brother needed to go to work, and I had nothing to do. So I wandered around the resort until some folks showed up I could chat with. Among the first competitors to arrive was Jessica—who shows up frequently in this blog because she does the same races I do and she kicks my butt pretty regularly. This year, I knew, Jessica was in better shape than ever before. She’d raced Powder Mountain five minutes faster than she did the year we rode together—and almost as fast as the pros! She dropped a time at Snowbird that I could only dream of.

I did my warmup the way I’d done it last year: I rode gorgeous singletrack and had fun doing it. I kept it pretty easy and trusted that this year’s running fitness would pay off. I met a handful of first-timers and dished out plenty of unsolicited advice, most of which went unheeded: “Don’t bother carrying more than one water bottle,” “Don’t overdress; you’ll get hot,” etc.

The Real Surprise
When the race started, a couple of guys (including Mike J., one of my perennial buddies at the race) took off up the road like the race was one mile long. I hung back with Jessica, taking the initial switchbacks conservatively, but I felt extraordinarily good. Besides, I knew that after an hour, I’d be turning into a pumpkin, since I rarely train much longer than that. So I picked up the pace a little. I passed Mike J. pretty quickly and was left with two riders ahead of me.

As I watched the second-placed guy reel in the early leader, it sunk in how comfortable I was feeling. Instead of gasping for air, I was rhythmically turning the pedals over and even using the middle ring on the lesser gradients. Behind me, Jessica had only lost 10 or 15 yards and was also pretty comfy.

Just as we reached the big switchback to Peruvian Gulch, I rounded the turn and bounced a rock with my front wheel. So in the middle of having the race of my life, I’d been forced to start walking because of a silly technical mistake (or so it seemed). Fortunately, the guy in front of me had to walk as well, but Jessica had no such troubles and passed us both. I realized pretty quickly that I’d made a second, more damaging mistake: walking instead of just remounting. Where’s my inner Ned Overend when I need him?

So the next time I got knocked off my saddle, I took maybe three steps before I remounted and started pedaling—right past the second-placed guy. I managed to ride most of Peruvian Gulch with Jessica in sight … until I got to the closing switchbacks.

I’ve already mentioned how I fully expected to turn into a pumpkin on the final hairpins, and that’s more or less what happened. At one point, I asked a pole-using hiker ahead of me if I could use the line she was on, and as she moved out of the way, she responded, “I thought walkers had right of way.” I tried to explain that I was in a race, and that she would have the right of way in any other circumstances—and then I gave up trying to explain and simply said, “I do appreciate you moving for me.”

When I came up to the final corner, Jessica was coming down for a warm-up. I’d lost traction a few more times, so she’d managed to extend her gap in the final mile. She said something to cheer me on, and I replied, “Thanks, Jessica. You’re awesome.”

After I crossed the line, I looked around and couldn’t see the first-placed guy. He and Jessica had been the only ones who’d beaten me. Getting on the overall podium was a new experience this year, even though I knew it was just because a lot of fast guys had stayed home. But that said, the winner had crossed in under an hour—a fairly speedy time—and I’d kept him in sight right up until that one big switchback I referred to earlier. I rode the race on the lightest bike I could slap together, but it was still at least 21 pounds. It left me wondering what would’ve happened if I hadn’t been bucked off so many times.

The Widow Maker attracts some really cool people. Sure, I’ve met my share of egomaniacs there in years past, but I’ve also met some really awesome folks—Jessica, pro rider Heather Holmes, Mike J., Lance W., Brian B., Justin and Joe G., etc. After the race this year, I added at least four of them to my Facebook friends list (though I still can’t find Mike J. for whatever reason). I invariably find myself chatting with people long after we’ve crossed the finish line. Even the year of the snow, Jessica and I yapped the whole way down the mountain in the tram.

So when Brian B. asked me why I come down all the way from Idaho, it was like Starbuck questioning Ahab about his obsession (this coming from someone who hasn’t yet read the book and isn’t certain his analogy works). It was as if the idea of staying home hadn’t occurred to me. I didn’t have a very good explanation—I know of only three or four other MTB hill climbs in the United States, and they’re all very far away—but I still intended to come back by the end of the conversation.

I’d love to say it’s because the race relaxes me or puts life in perspective or something. But the truth is that I’ve taken that race too seriously before (2010) and come away feeling smashed and angry at the world. I’ve been completely overwhelmed by it (2011) even when I didn’t take it too seriously. But for the most part, I’ve really enjoyed it for whatever reason. I’ve never ridden the course except on race day. Every year, there’s a section of the course that makes me go, “I completely forgot that was there.” And every year, I’m left feeling like, “If I just tweaked this, I could go faster.” And even if I know I’m not in good shape, I still want to show up and do it.

If the Widow Maker is my white whale, then I guess part of the attraction is knowing I’ll never really catch it—and being okay with that.

Throwing the Switch

Just as the clouds parted and the arrowhead of Rendezvous Peak came into view this past Saturday, I knew I’d had it. I wasn’t going all out, and I wasn’t giving it all I had. I couldn’t. My legs were toast. My hip flexors were long since gone, I had a persistent pain in my left calf, and I was pretty sure my neck would even be sore from the Camelbak I’d already hauled up nearly 4,000 feet in the previous 80 minutes. Thing is, I’d crawled up that trail feeling smashed before. I always feel smashed on that trail.

What in the heck was I doing up there, on foot, with no bicycle between my legs? Let me explain:

I started this year out with the intention of rebuilding my road bike attack strength. I knew how to get it, but I also knew that if I overdid it, I’d completely lose any desire to ride a bicycle.

Well, the season started out according to plan. I was climbing well in April and May, and I was psyched to get started at the Snowbird Hillclimb in August. I got on the podium at the Spring Sprint, and then, figuring I’d have a little running fitness left over, I decided to check another race off my wishlist: the Targhee Hill Climb … a mountain running race.

This year, two-thirds of the race would be brand-spanking new—a course unlike the one used in previous years. I figured it’d be a fun opportunity to try out something different.

How do you dress for a running race in 90-degree heat that goes up the side of a ski hill? I didn’t know, so I gambled and tried to do Targhee in my triathlon duds—spandex, that is. I felt ridiculous.

How do you pace yourself in a running race in 90-degree heat that goes up the side of a ski hill when you’ve hardly done any running? I didn’t know the answer to that one either, so I leapt off the line like it was a 5k … which it was … with 1,840 feet of uphill mixed in.

I blew myself up in the first mile, just as the trail narrowed to singletrack. The course necessitated hiking anyway: It took us up the spine of the mountain—this narrow ridge within full view of Grand Teton and Table Mountain littered with loose, jagged rocks and weaving in and out of the neighboring trees. I knew I was having an off day, so I picked a random racer to pace myself off of, a lady named Dawn. I figured if I could just stick with Dawn, I’d be okay, so when she pulled over and told me to pass at one point, I responded, “No, you’re doing great,” and pushed her back onto the trail.

Eventually, the trail reached a steep chin-scraper section and Dawn made a slight wrong turn. I pointed the trail out to her, and she got back after it, but the damage was done, and I hiked away. I jogged up the last little bit of the trail and crossed the finish line after less than 45 minutes. I met a few really nice people, took a terrifying ride down on the ski lift, drove home and … resumed training as a bike racer.

Well, in case you don’t know, my first road bike hill climb of the year got delayed by six weeks and moved to mid-September. So I had to do some reorganizing. I’d just move my focus, I thought, to the next road bike race on the schedule—the Powder Mountain Hill Climb on August 24th.

If you’ve been reading here long, you know how I felt about Powder Mountain: I loved racing there each time I went. So it should’ve been a no-brainer. But, for some ethereal reason, I felt conflicted about it this time. I couldn’t bring myself to make the drive down there. I just couldn’t do it. I looked at the race calendar and I picked another race that was on my wishlist—the Rendezvous Mountain Hillclimb … the running version.

So, this past Saturday, instead of driving to Utah, I took a little trip to Jackson Hole Resort.

A cloudy Saturday in Jackson Hole

A cloudy Saturday in Jackson Hole

When I drove over the top of Teton Pass, the valley was completely obscured by cloud. And as I got closer, the fog only got thicker. On Moose-Wilson road, I couldn’t see the 4,000-foot mountains to my left, even though they were less than a mile away.

I got to the ski hill and signed up for the race, worrying that I’d, again, chosen the wrong outfit for the occasion—this time not bringing enough clothing. I still couldn’t see the mountain, and the tram was even delayed because of “inclement weather.” I asked the race director what the temperature at the summit was, guessing it was around 35, and she responded, “No, it’s sunny up there. It’s actually [pulls out smartphone to check the temps] … 35.”

Walking around the resort before the start, I bumped into a couple of guys who were going to start a hike on the Teton Crest Trail that day. We chatted about the hike for a bit, and I told them I was jealous. Then, they asked me what I thought was a funny question: “So what did you do to train for this race?”

“That’s the thing,” I said, “I didn’t really train for it.”

I then explained that I wasn’t sure I could run 7.4 miles of flat road, to say nothing of 7.4 miles mingled with 4,139 feet of uphill. But I’d ridden a mountain bike up the road, I don’t know, four times. So I knew the route. And to be honest, it was a little comforting that I couldn’t even see the mountain from where I was.

When the race started, I deliberately held back. I tried to keep my pace as modest as possible, but I soon found myself at the head of a group of about five or six runners—at least three of whom were women. (“I’ve never been chased by so many girls!” joked a guy named Keith behind me.) We’d already been gapped by the lead group, but I was enjoying the singletrack trail so much that I just kept going, leading most of the way to the junction with the service road.

When we spilled out onto the road, the runners who’d gotten ahead of me slowed a bit, and I managed to work my way into no-man’s land (aka the place I ALWAYS find myself in hill climbs). But no matter how far ahead of the racers behind me I got, two of the younger girls from our group just seemed to get farther ahead.

Finally, with about two miles left to go, an older racer caught up to me. We chatted as we reached the second water station and then the trail steepened again. And I dropped him. Yes, he caught me again later, but I realized that the steeper the trail, the better I seemed to do.

A few minutes later, two other racers, including Keith, caught up to me. “Hi guys,” I said before explaining that I hadn’t done much running and had already spent everything. “I’ve already gotten what I wanted out of this race,” I told them—and it was true.

“Did you do the Targhee Hillclimb?” the woman asked.

“Yeah—are you Dawn?” I replied.

It was Dawn, and once again, I found myself running with her. She, Keith and I jogged our way to the summit, chatting most of the way, and I put in a last-minute trot to finish just a second behind them.

I’d never felt welcome among the Jackson Hole cyclists. They always seemed to have an air of superiority—”You’re not a European,” they seemed to say down their noses. But the Jackson Hole running crowd was nothing like that. The older fellas were all very friendly, the young recent-college-grads made for great conversation, and Dawn and Keith and I seemed to have become instant buddies. The women’s winner (who was one of the girls I’d paced through the opening singletrack) even asked me about my daughters and my family as we talked at length.

After hanging out with the running crowd (the awards didn’t start until more than an hour after we got down off the mountain), I snapped one last photo and left for home.

Rendezvous Mountain once the clouds had cleared.

Rendezvous Mountain once the clouds had cleared.

I hadn’t placed in my age group—not even close—but I’d enjoyed doing something new and different. And I told Dawn that next year, I’d actually train and try to pace her to a sub-40 at Targhee.

Driving up the 2,286-foot Teton Pass, though, I passed a cyclist making his way up the long, steep section that makes that climb so brutal. I rolled my window down and yelled out to him to get up out of his saddle. And as I watched out of my rearview mirror and he rose over his handlebars, I couldn’t help but think about all the bicycling fitness I’d built up, and what I might do with it.

The short end of it

Blah blah blah—those are my excuses for not writing blogs lately. I’ve been busy, okay? If someone’s still looking forward to my blog posts, I apologize. If not, then I take it back.

I’ve had a hard time writing about the sprint triathlon I did last month because I’m not sure how to write about it without venting. My wife made us really late in the morning through a combination of taking her sweet time and closing out of the google directions I’d looked up on my phone. When we arrived at the race, they very nearly turned us away because we were so late.

After a brief eternity, we lined up for the time trial-style race start as my grumpy mood began to give way to some race excitement. They’d divided everyone into a bunch of subjective categories for the swim (1 = swim team fast, 2 = masters fast, 3 = regular joe fast, 4 = slow, 5 = walking the swim), so I found a spot right in between two categories. When I started the swim, the 50m pool felt spectacular, and I comfortably crawled through the laps. My swim time, like usual, was only so-so, but I did pass a few people.

Yes, this is what comfortable looks like.

Yes, this is what “comfortable” looks like.

I nearly mounted my bike before leaving the transition area, which would’ve gotten me DQ’ed, I’m sure. But once I got out there, the bike felt just right. I took the first hill feeling great and passed my wife and her sister. When I crested, I had two riders in front of me for the descent, one of which I caught quickly. I didn’t close in on the second until we got back to (nearly) level ground. But when we got there, I realized he had a fairly nice triathlon bike. I gave him a thumbs-up as I went by, and he gave me a blank stare that said, “How are you doing that?”

The second hill went even more magnificently, with one exception: the course had obviously changed from 2010, and when I got to the top of the hill, there was an unfamiliar section. Instead of going straight to the main road, we were suddenly taking a twisting, turning, diagonal side road to the main road. I lost some time going the wrong direction and getting mixed up, but I quickly got on the right path.

Back on the flats, I found myself trading passes with a gal named Brittany, who was cranking out the watts on her tri bike. (No, I didn’t draft.) I got back to transition just ahead of her and we took off on the run together—though I quickly dropped her. I was slowly reeling a guy in on the run, so I thought it was going okay. Turns out, I was having one of my slower triathlon runs.

See? It even LOOKS like I'm running fast right? I'm not.

See? It even LOOKS like I’m running fast right? I’m not.

I caught the guy just before we entered the Olympic Oval, and as I did, the female winner (who I’d passed easily on the second hill of the bike) caught up to me. The three of us crossed the finish line a stride apart and quickly started the game of waiting to see how we did.

It appeared at first that I’d missed third place by, get this, 27 seconds—seven MORE seconds than last year. So I quickly moved from elation to “not again!” My sister-in-law had handily won her age group (owing partially to the fact that it consisted of her and only one other girl) so we stuck around for the awards. And then, oddly, they called out my name for third place in my age group—the AG winner had bumped up because he came in third overall. So, as it turned out, I really did take third place in the AG competition.

My wife also had a good time at the race, but not exactly how she expected. She’d anticipated having a fast swim, a mediocre bike and an even less impressive run. Well, her sister dragged her up to the front group of the swim, so right out of the gate, she got passed by a couple of lanky guys who were impersonating Michael Phelps. She then cranked out an unexpectedly decent bike ride before having exactly the miserable run she’d anticipated. In the end, she was just glad to finish. And I was glad for her.

Measured breaths

Alaska HwyRight now, I want nothing more than to steal away into my hills—to run my way up and down to and from the caldera at the top of my local hill, leaping over the volcanic shelves and tapping rhythmically through the ruts the rain carves in the soft dirt.

It’s so odd. Work has gotten quiet in the last couple of days, but I’m finding myself overwhelmed—my mind isn’t quiet. My baby slept through the night a few days ago, but I couldn’t seem to coax myself to drift off. I need to let the anxiety go somehow, to take a few deep breaths and soak up some exertion.

“People change. The earth is always changing.” –author and physics professor Jack Weyland to me in a private conversation 12 years ago

It seems like change is the only immutable constant anymore. And if you don’t make it happen, it will inevitably happen to you. And who wants to have life happen to them?

My wife signed up for a triathlon a few weeks ago—one with a pancake-flat bike course. Her goal was just to finish. Today, the race organizer announced a switch to a much hillier bike course. That got me excited, but it left my wife pretty stressed.

When I called to let her know, I knew I’d stress her out. I probably should’ve saved the call for later, but it gave me a chance to stress out about something else besides my own work pressures. Sometimes, it’s nice to stress out about a race instead of work.

Then tonight, I got a phone call from my brother. He’s running in a half-marathon in the morning, and he knows he’s not sufficiently trained for it. “But doesn’t that make it all the more exciting?” I asked.

I love that. I feed off of it. Standing at the foot of some mountain, or at some snow-covered finish line 11,000 feet above sea level and knowing—knowing—I’d bitten off more than I could chew. And feeling completely overwhelmed.

There’s nothing quite like it—it’s like feeling alive.

Back in the Saddle

I keep writing blog posts and then deleting them. You, evidently, are an intimidating audience, whoever you are. (On that note, I used to check my blog stats and think, “How do I get these higher?” Now, I look at them and think, “That’s odd—who’s been reading my blog?”)

Spring time!

Spring time!

Spring is here. The grass is brown, the snow is melting, the dirt roads are mushy and muddy, and the fun’s beginning. Can’t wait to climb some serious hills and mountains this year. My tentative schedule is looking something like this:

• Targhee Hill Climb sometime in June (running race—that’s a change)

• Snowbird Hill Climb August 3rd

• Powder Mountain Hill Climb August 24th

• Widowmaker Mt Bike Hill Climb September … 14th, I think(?)

No triathlons in there. Maybe that’ll change. We’ll see.

The Experiment
With all of these hill climb races, I keep thinking back to my first year in cycling. I went mountain biking with a friend in April that year on some dirt road and when I wasn’t able to drop him, I started to wonder if I’d wandered into the wrong sport. (Side note: it is interesting that cycling tends to bring out the narcissism in us, isn’t it? How completely arrogant and/or contemptuous of me to assume I’d be dropping people in my first season.)

Incidentally, that month, I had to cut back on my cycling time as I entered my last two semesters of college classes, started freelancing, kept my part-time job, worked for the college newspaper and just outright bit off way more than I could chew. So I cut back on cycling and switched to a high-intensity interval regimen.

In July, my schedule relaxed a little (not much) and I bought a road bike and started riding with the local club. Right away, I was out-climbing the main guys. On one climb, I led the fastest guy in the group to just under the top, nearly dropping him, and then watched him barely crest in front of me.

No, I hadn’t taken EPO. On the contrary, I’d found a training system that worked for me. Where did I find it? From watching videos of cyclists online—one cyclist in particular: Marco Pantani.

Now, to be clear, I know Pantani was a doper, a louse, a scoundrel, a liar and a generally unenviable guy. But, to be completely honest, I still find it entertaining to watch him climb.

So it is that I’ve found myself watching YouTube vids like this one lately. And it’s not because I’m a huge doping fan or something. I just remember what it felt like to ride like that—on smaller climbs anyway.

That’s one of my goals this year: to get my uphill attack back.

The Science
Trouble is, I’m learning, I’d have to do something similar to what I did in college—cut back on riding in general—to pull it off.

I was following the Gatorade Sports Science Institute Exchange on Twitter just a few weeks or months ago (the hashtag was #GSSIXP if you want to check it out) when they mentioned some interesting stuff. For starters, strength gains don’t come with concurrent endurance training. They just don’t mix.

So that means that at some point, I have to let the endurance and fill-in-the-blanks rides go and focus on the hard stuff. For how long? Hard to say. Can I do that and not drop my aerobic fitness? That’s hard to say too.

In that first season of cycling, I found I could hardly keep up on the flats due to lousy aerobic conditioning. I eventually built it up, but I was never quite up to snuff on the flats, even though I could play with the big boys on the hills. I’m sure the group didn’t appreciate having a leach sucking off their draft the whole way and then dropping them on the climbs!

But there’s another reason this is a tricky balance: I’m racing hill climbs, not short power climbs. There’s a significant aerobic component to an hour-long hill climb (as compared to our 10-minute climbs here in the Upper Valley). I can’t just let go of my aerobic fitness and expect to race well.

Regardless, I’d like to get my attack back. I’m as light as ever (floating around 130 pounds), and I think if I can build up some power to match that weight, I’ll be in a position to do put up some good results, y’know?

I’ll let you know how the experiment goes.

The Upside of Lance’s Confession

A lot of folks are (appropriately) pretty frustrated about this whole Lance Armstrong confession deal. I know that a lot of people were holding out hope that Lance really was clean. If you’re one of those people, I have to say that I feel for you. It stinks to have your sports heroes admit being dirtbags, and it would’ve been nice if Lance—cancer survivor, father, activist, etc.—could’ve been the exception.

But the truth is, some of us have been trying to explain this to the rest of you for a long time. It took me a half a decade to reach the conclusion that Lance was doping, and after that, I willingly told anyone who asked what I thought about the subject. The internet was different. If you bashed Lance there, you got hammered and flamed.

So, amid this “truth will set you free” rhetoric, I want to point out just a couple of the silver linings, the reasons why Lance admitting that he doped is a very, very, very good thing. There are more reasons than what you’ll see here. These are just what’s on my mind right now:

1. We can all stop trying to figure out how he did it.
Lance’s success never made any sense. He wasn’t built like a climber, and he was never an overwhelmingly good time trialist before 1998 or ’99. He didn’t have the strongest legs, the highest VO2 max, the largest heart or any other particularly outstanding physical characteristic that would make sense out of his victories. So it must’ve been his training, right? Everyone wanted to know what the secret session was, what the winning training protocol was. Well, now we know: it was EPO, cortisone, HGH, testosterone and a cocktail of other junk—actovegin, etc.

That’s a really good thing to know. We no longer need to have the argument “well, Lance does it, so it must be right” about how we ride our bicycles. Whatever the secret session is, Lance couldn’t have done it without the dope either.

2. We can give Greg Lemond his respect back.
With Lance’s admission, a whole host of people can have their credibility back: Betsy Andreu, Emma O’Reilly, Stephen Swart, Prentice Steffen, and yes, even Greg Lemond.

Years ago, I wrote a post entitled Why Isn’t Greg Lemond More Popular. In the end, I concluded that it was because Lance told us not to like him. Same goes for all of those folks. Lance told us not to like them, and we, like lemmings, said, “Okay, we won’t.”

I remember hearing photographer Graham Watson describe Greg Lemond not as a jealous, bitter old man, but as an “outrageous character.” He was fun, he was a phenomenal athlete, and, in my opinion, he likely won the Tour de France clean. He was the real deal, and the greatest American cyclist in history.

3. We can all be friends again.
Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve been pretty convinced about Lance’s PED usage for the last three or four years. I can’t remember exactly when I realized it, but I think it came down to physics: how does a rider go from being an average time trialist and a lousy climber to dominating all of the time trials and the climbs? Unless Lance had just never trained before, there was only one way.

But I quickly learned that if I shared my opinion online, the Lance faithful would rip me to shreds with senseless arguments and lines right out of Lance’s PR strategy. Well, the conflict’s over now. Lance did it, there’s no reason to believe otherwise, and there’s no reason to keep the argument aflame. You can now go back to arguing about other arcane topics like whether weightlifting helps you be a better climber.

Trouble is, some folks don’t know the argument’s over. They want to keep it alive with statements like “it was a level playing field,” “everyone was doing it,” or “he would’ve won seven Tours anyway.” Doping does not create a level playing field, everyone was not doing it, and the idea that Lance would’ve won anyway is patently ridiculous. As Kathy Lemond said after Lance told her and Greg that he was going to win the Tour, “How could he think he was going to win the Tour when he only finished once? He just wasn’t a Tour rider.”

4. Hero worship aside, cycling is still fun.
The one other benefit of Lance’s admission that I’ll mention here is that we can all get back to riding our bicycles because we enjoy it. Cycling is fun. Racing a bicycle is fun too, even when you don’t win. You get to meet cool people, enjoy the outdoors, exert yourself, break a sweat and feel like a kid again. Cool, right?