Saturday, April 23, 2011

2011 Amgen Tour of California - The Heat

Minden Airport with Lake Tahoe in background to the West
I've been looking at the first 4 stages of the Amgen Tour, and nothing will be decided in the first 3. The first stage in Tahoe is at about 6,000 ft of elevation, but the next two are downhill and low altitude stages respectively, so if you've been training at altitude, it won't help much because you'll have dumped most of those red blood cells before stage #4 when the going gets tough.

Of course, there is something to be said for the cardio development that comes with high altitude training, but the trade-off is slower recovery in thin air. If you want to keep the advantage of high altitude training I have a couple of suggestions. If you want to train in the coastal range, Patterson is cheap and provides great access to stage #4 climbs.

One, you can stay in Tahoe. Think France. Expensive and snooty. Or you can go over the mountain and stay in Minden, Nevada. Think Greece. Cheap, warm, and inviting. Minden is part of the high desert that forms on the back sides of the California Sierra Mountains, and as such, has heat to rival Phoenix. (hint, runway direction will indicate prevailing wind direction any place on Earth)

The last year we had a winter like this was '05-'06, and our long, cool, wet spring turned into a week of scorching hot 112-117 degrees of heat after a whole 3 days of 'spring'. I'm going to go out on a limb and say, this year, the big surprise of the Amgen Tour will be the intense heat - especially on stage #7, the Queen Stage in the San Gabriel Mountains north of LA - but also climbing Mt Hamilton.

I DNF-ed on Hamilton in 2008 in 100+ degree heat, having burned through 3 24oz bottles and 2 donated bottles from a rider returning on the Canyon Classic's Mt Hamilton ride - an out and back. I finished with ease the next year in cool, cloudy, rainy conditions. The road to Hamilton is very sheltered from wind, the asphalt is stripped of stone and pitch black (hellishly hot in the sun), and is gooey and pulled off the roadbed, forming an asphalt washboard. You should also be very comfortable with cattle grates for this stage.

The official stage description is pretty accurate, although RideWithGPS has the grade a bit higher at 9% on average. (drag the mouse over the bottom ride profile ribbon and you can select any arbitrary segment to zoom in on) This trace was taken in '09 in 1-Second mode with the Garmin Edge 305 mounted on a carbon tube zip-tied to my aerobars. The signal strength reported on every ride by the old Garmin site was always, without exception, 'Excellent'. This is as good as it gets.

The descent from 'The Junction', where Mines Rd meets Del Puerto Canyon Rd (last year's stage #3 took this turn and descent into Patterson) is 1,000 ft, and the road is largely straight, and fast, with good surface. There are some wicked twisting descents where there will be crashes, because the surface prevents adequate braking if you're out of position, so keeping your team at the front, or at the rear might be a good strategy.

As you descend, Hamilton will loom larger and larger, and the pastures on the right side of the road will get greener and greener. There are two lakes right at the bottom of the descent. Remember those. When you pass the 2nd one, you have 5km before the start of the approach climb, and 7km before the main climb. Time to bring the team up front, putting your strongman to work, with the goal of flying past the leaders right at the crest of the approach climb. This will stretch the peleton out and give you some maneuvering room while the road is still straight and wide.

Note that this approach climb is quite steep. If your team has a big, strong rider like Thor Hushovd, or George Hincapie, I'd want him at the front, pulling the team's climbers down the backside and into the initial part of the Hamilton climb. There's an intense switch-back at mile 5.6 on the trace. Don't be out of position there, or expect to get dropped. The pack will probably shatter and fall apart right there, as there isn't much room to cut the corner.

Have your climber out in front and he'll have a good chance to lead the rest of the stage. and perhaps, the race. (Tony would find a lot of fellow countrymen at the Minden Airport, as it has the best glider conditions in the world, and attracts many German glider pilots)

For training, I've put together two training rides, one out of Minden that takes in most of The Death Ride climbs (Kit Carson on hwy 88 is left as an option), and one out of Markleeville (or Picketts Junction, where 89 Ts into 88, has a nice parking lot) that includes Kit Carson Pass, but features the fearsome Sonora Pass climb.

Sonora Pass is signed at 26% grade, and has fantastic views. Once over the west side of Monitor Pass, the approach to Sonora Pass is lots of warm to hot 5,00-6,000 ft fast flat-ish hwy 395. The top of Sonora is 9,624 ft, but it's the tight, twisting, steepness that makes it such a great training route for coastal range routes like Hamilton. We had a lot of snow this year, so it should be scouted to make sure it's open, or check the CalTrans website.

There are some mom and pop stores/gas stations along 395, so you don't really need SAG, but the shoulder is narrow iirc, and truck traffic is plentiful, though courteous. There's a USMC mountain training center just after you leave 395, before Kennedy Meadows, and before the main climb. If the road is open that far, ride down to MiWuk Village, refuel at the general store, turn around and head back.

Ebbetts Pass is also packed with tight, steep turns, has a NE exposure, a nice USFS campground with good water and bathroom facilities, and is a climb similar to Hamilton. If the pass is open, you can go all the way down to Bear Valley ski lodge. Climbing Ebbetts from the west side is part of the Death Ride, and will make a worthy addition to your training.

To all of this year's Amgen Tour competitors, I wish you the very best of luck, and hope you feel a little more at home in our beautiful state after reading this. If more competitors knew about these passes perhaps they would find their way into the race. Cheers!

This is what Hamilton looks like with 500X the power. If this looks fast to you pros, this is how you look to us mortals! :)

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