The College Hill 200k: Early Chill And Confusion Prove Helpful

PA Route 191 heading south at the very start of the Fox Gap climb. You can see the gap in the upper left. The top is 2.7 painful miles away. (Photo by Christine Newman)

Sometimes, the way I feel at the beginning of a ride does not foretell accurately how I will feel at the end. In fact, I can think of several rides where I was feeling downright ill at the start, but somehow felt great a couple of hours later. Yesterday’s College Hill 200k was one of those bad start/good finish brevets.

My alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. and I dutifully got up, but I felt unfocused and disorganized. Somehow my early season enthusiasm had waned. This could be my last brevet of 2010 and I felt like something undefinable was wrong. I started packing my bag and loading my bike (two things I do the night before when I’m organized) but by the time I was supposed to be outside ready for my friend Roy Y. to pick me up at 5:30, I was still inside my house, looking for stuff. I was 10 minutes late getting the bike on his rack, and then I later realized I’d brought only one water bottle and no Camelbak.

We got to Easton, PA and I felt like I had two left feet (and I’m right handed and right-footed). I loaded my solitary water bottle with Gatorade and figured I’d have to nurse the contents carefully over the 37 miles to the first checkpoint in Portland and then make sure I ate a lot there and at the other two intermediate controls at Stockton (mile 86) and Ottsville (Mile 104). I couldn’t afford bonking on this 128-mile, 10,000-foot elevation gain ride.

What was worse, the temperature at the 7:30 a.m. start was close to freezing. I headed out with about 30 other riders, while shivering and wondering what I was doing out on this ride and when I was going to fall off the back of the large group I was in. But the cold and the forgotten Camelbak had a good impact. I was seriously worried about my readiness to ride and it made me more conservative at the start.

I have a tendency on brevets to go too hard at the beginning, instead of pacing myself. That didn’t happen yesterday. At the start, I stayed at the front less than usual. Even when others held back and it seemed like I should step forward again, I didn’t unless I hadn’t taken a turn in a while. I simply did my share of the work, no more, no less. In the first 25 miles of the ride, which took us to the foot of the biggest climb, the 2.7-mile Fox Gap climb, my power numbers were 167 watts/207 watts normalized power. The last 25 miles were done at 151 watts/193 watts normalized power. That’s less than a 10 percent dropoff.

Compare the previous two years on the same or very similar ride on the College Hill 200k:

2009 First 25 miles (172w/202np), last 25 miles (129w/176np)
2008 First 25 miles (183w/221np), last 25 miles (135w/166np)

Last year, I was at the front a lot the first 25 miles, although my power numbers are similar. Yet I still faded significantly later.  I think I was just not motivated after the stress of the PA 1240k last October. The 2008 numbers, however, are stark indeed.  They show an unsustainable 221 watts NP for the first 25 miles, fading all the way to 166 normalized power the last 25.  That’s a huge dropoff.

When we reached the foot of Fox Gap yesterday, I was still cold and wishing I were anywhere else but at the foot of this always painful, 9-percent climb. But somehow I found a comfortable rhythm that I maintained all the way up. I averaged 253 watts and got to the top in 20 minutes and 9 seconds, just 10 seconds off my personal best time of 2008. But unlike my experience two years ago, I still felt reasonably good at the top. This was so, even though my time was close to my best ever and a minute and 13 seconds faster than last year.

Usually I burn myself out on the first climb and do the subsequent climbs much more slowly. This time it didn’t happen. I generated 239 watts on average for climb No. 2, Lomasson’s Glen/Buckhorn/Castner’s, which took 17 minutes and 53 seconds. This was probably my best ascent of that climb by a wide margin.  My numbers last year were 191 watts and 23:11. (Two years ago, my computer wasn’t on for the first part of the climb.) That means I improved by 5 minutes and 18 seconds.  Last year I remember doing a long pull into the wind just before the climb and my legs were shot.  This year I took a shorter pull.

For Climb No. 3, the shorter Staats Road climb out of Bloomsbury, I averaged 230 watts and took 11 minutes and 22 seconds, compared with 204 watts and 13 minutes and 23 seconds last year. That’s about a two-minute improvement. Two years ago, I finished it even slower, at 13 minutes and 26 seconds.  Again, my legs had something left.

My power numbers at the finish were 157 watts and 196 normalized power. My official finish time was 9 hours and 28 minutes, but my actual time on the bike was 8 hours and 17 minutes. That meant I spent 1 hour and 11 minutes off the bike, which is a lot for me. In 2008, for example, I finished the same course in 9:25, but I spent 8:45 on the bike and only 40 minutes off of it.  Roy and I even finished in the lead group of six riders, which was nice, along with Jon C., who rode most of the ride with us and looked very impressive up the hills on a single-speed.

This was probably my second strongest finish on a 200k in the five seasons I have been using a power meter and for which I have a valid basis for comparison. The only time I’ve ever finished with a higher normalized power number on a 200k was on my May 27, 2006 finish of 171 watts/205 np.

This ride reminded me a little bit of my finish in 2004 at the Hillier Than Thou century, where I finished in 6 hours and 47 minutes, about an hour faster than my previous best.  I had a very sick stomach at the start and told my friend Jim W. that I wasn’t sure I could start, much less finish.  I also lost my computer readings during the ride when my battery failed.  But I felt better as the ride went on, the stomach improved and the computer was eventually forgotten.

Yesterday my legs were tightening up by the finish, but I still had a little bit left. Chalk it up to just having a good day, which is another way of saying performance is something of a mystery. But I’m also convinced that the cold and confusion at the beginning made me a more sensible rider. At the beginning of brevets, especially very hilly ones, it pays to curb your early enthusiasm.

WEEK 11 hours 7 minutes
GOAL 11 hours


1 comment to The College Hill 200k: Early Chill And Confusion Prove Helpful

  1. Roy
    October 29th, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    It was a very sweet ride; it was especially nice of you to wait for me. Frankly, you seemed very strong late in the ride. I’m happy to see my impression was validated by your power numbers. Still, when you compare to last year, we ought to keep in mind there were some differences that contributed to your more powerful pace:

    1. Last year was rainy and it stayed fairly chilly all day and we rode the last hour in the dark. This year, the late afternoon warm sun daylight made you faster.

    2. This year, buttermilk was added at the end. This added an extra 1000 vertical feet (7400 instead of 6400) to the ride. The extra hills pushed you to keep up your intensity late in the ride.

    3. Last year, your big ride (Endless Mtns 1240) was much closer in time to the College Hill 200k than this year’s big ride (Quadzilla) was this year. Also, Quadzilla was about half as long. I think you were definitely not recovered from the Endless 1240 when we did the College Hill ride.

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