Wednesday, April 29, 2009

My 2009 racing season so far

Like usual, my season is a mixed bag: A bit underwhelming at first glance, but still with some glimmers of promise.

Executive summary

I would have to say that I started off the season more relaxed than I should have. I really slacked off at Merco when I could easily have been further forward for the finish. That one really sticks in my craw! Menlo Park was similar, except that I really did try to move up but the huge pack bunched up and pushed me back... my fault, but more of a misjudgement than slacking off. I feel I rode well at Brisbane and Santa Cruz, but was just outraced.

The nitty-gritty

Here's my list of races in 2009, to date (with links to my race reports and the results):

  1. Early Bird Road Race (not listed in results for some reason; I should have been 19th though)
  2. Merco Credit Union Foothills Road Race (21st place)
  3. Tri-Flow Menlo Park Grand Prix, criterium (28th place)
  4. Ronde Van Brisbeen, criterium (8th place)
  5. Ronde Van Brisbeen, circuit race (11th place)
  6. Santa Cruz Classic Criterium (30th place)

I have been very happy with my fitness, thanks to Team Bicycle Trip Coach Mark's programs, but my form has been lacking as I pretty much always "train through" my races without "peaking" for them. I still haven't decided on any races to peak for, and have intentionally kept that to a minimum in the interest of concentrating on achieving my maximum fitness potential instead (every time we peak we actually lose some fitness). That was something I started in fall 2007, and so far I have managed to stick with my regular year-round regimen of non-stop intervals, skeptics notwithstanding!

All of that yields me a measly 3 points toward upgrading from Category 3 to Cat. 2. Not that Cat. 2 is my goal, really, but it's something to use as a measure of progress. I had about 26 points last year, plus a 1st place, but the points are starting to expire as they only count points earned in the last 12 months toward upgrades.

The future

This Saturday I am racing Cat's Hill Classic in Los Gatos, one of my favorites even though the course doesn't favor me at all. Plus I'm racing in the Cat. 3 race with all of the crazed young guns, so that won't be easy. At least it's a super-cool venue! After that it's on to Berkeley Hills Road Race and Pescadero Road Race (I'll be the team's water-bottle carrier at those!), and whatever else I can fit in. It would be nice to get on the podium at least once this year though...

Arrivederci!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Training with power: Love/hate

Last December I bought a used Saris "CycleOps "PowerTap" power meter kit that I saw on Craigslist.org. Basically it's a bicycle-wheel hub that has an internal Watts meter. That is, it measures how much power I'm sending to the rear wheel, in Watts. Neat device that is helpful in training, and also allows you to save each ride's data to your PC for detailed analysis and record-keeping.

Car engines are measured in horsepower, but we mere humans put out only between 0.1 to 1.6 horespower, so we measure it in the more impressive-sounding Watts equivalent: 75W to 1200W. (That is my typical power output range, by the way, from easy cruising to full sprint.) The PowerTap includes a cyclometer (bicycle computer; the kit's CPU) with an LCD display that mounts on the handlebars, so you can constantly check your power output, plus the usual speed, time, etc., and also heart-rate. This picture shows a newer wireless unit; mine is the older wired type.

Actually, I have two older PowerTaps now: The first PowerTap I bought (black CPU with serial dock) had a semi-faulty CPU that dropped the data from the hub about 30-40% of the time, and also never worked with the older serial dock connecting it to my PC (it didn't work with a newer USB dock either). I ended up buying a second used full PowerTap kit (newer yellow CPU with USB dock). I tried to save money, oh well, but the good news is that I now have two PowerTap wheels and wiring harnesses so I can keep one on my 10-speed training bike and the other on my 9-speed commuter bike. Still, I may sell the extra wheel, HR chest-strap and wiring harness (the semi-faulty CPU and the serial dock are included free!), so if you want a slightly used PowerTap hub on a Bontrager Aero wheel, drop me a line using the "comments" link below.

Without a power meter you have to rely on carefully-staged, timed rides to measure your training progress. You might, say, use Old La Honda Road in Woodside to measure your speed during 20-minute intervals (well, for me, as that's about how long it takes me to climb that hill). Ride that several times a year, using the same bike and other equipment, and keep records, and then see if you are getting faster or slower. Trouble is, things like wind, temperature, road conditions, barometric pressure, tires, chain lubrication etc. all add up to create substantial variables that can overwhelm your actual training results. I know this from personal experience! The PowerTap, on the other hand, reads accurately no matter what. Power is power. And you don't have to test on one specific section of road to measure your progress. Just ride as hard as you can for whatever interval you want to compare, on whatever road suits you at the time. 20 minutes at full power is always the same regardless of the conditions... well, sort of: Your body still reacts to your diet, your form, etc., so power still varies accordingly. But at least you eliminate the outside variables so you can compare how your body is progressing.

So, how has this PowerTap changed my life? Well, in several ways:

It has helped me refine my pacing during intervals:
That is, I can use the PowerTap CPU's display to read my current power, and I just ride at the correct power I am capable of for a given interval length. I now know what my power output should be for various interval lengths between 5 seconds to 20 minutes and even longer. This is a huge help in training because I have discovered that I was riding too hard in my longer intervals, but not hard enough in my shorter intervals. Also, I have discovered that I was riding too fast at the beginnings of my intervals, then fading toward the ends. Using my heart-rate monitor for pacing was partly to blame, because HR is slow to respond to workout intensities, but it's also human nature to go too fast instead of pacing ourselves smoothly.

It has helped me further define my relative strengths and weaknesses:
This is the "love/hate" part: You can't hide the results when you use a power meter! It's cool to see your strengths, and to see confirmation that your training is making you faster. But it sucks to see high-tech confirmation of your shortcomings. Some of the experts have come up with a "power profile" chart you can use to gauge your power compared to other cyclists that ranks you within a range from "world-class" to "untrained novice." According to this chart I'm still very much a sprinter! A pretty good sprinter actually. Not world-class, but not bad at all. And I'm not much of a climber, though I'm still fast enough to keep up with the fast guys some of the time. It's kind of reassuring to know this stuff. I haven't finished my complete power profile, but will try to do that soon. I'm really curious what my maximum 1-minute power is, but figuring that out is a demanding test that's hard to fit into my routine.

In the future:
The PowerTap, combined with better software, will allow me to better assess if I'm training too much or too little (you'd think our bodies would tell us, but they often lie!). I just need to spend more money to buy the more sophisticated "TrainingPeaks WKO+" software. I'm still using Saris's "PowerAgent" software which is pretty good, but lacks some of the cooler features of WKO+. Specifically, the "Normalized Power," "Intensity Factor," and "Training Stress Score" that WKO+ tracks really indicate the long-term training load we are under, and can predict very accurately whether we need to back off or go harder during the season.

And soon, once I have enough ride records with power data, I will know better whether the rigorous year-round training Coach Mark got me started on is helping or not. But for now I just have to hope that is is!