How to Race Cat’s Hill and other very hilly races

Cats Hill Google EarthA lot of people get nervous when they’re looking forward to doing a hard, hilly race. Whether that’s a crit with steep punchy climb in it, like Cat’s Hill, or a hilly road race, I think a lot of people get too psyched up about the hill that they lose a little perspective on the course as a whole. Right now I don’t plan to get too in depth about it, but here’s a few thoughts on how to race the famous Mike’s Bikes Cat’s Hill Classic here in Northern California, and of course, much of this will also apply to other hilly races, short and long.Cats Hill Strava Profile

  1. Get a good warm up. Any race that starts off hard, like a crit, a time trial, or a road race with a hard climb at the start will require a good warm up beforehand. If you aren’t adequately warmed up, then things will be harder than they need to be when the race starts, to do yourself a favor and spend at least 20-30 minutes on the trainer or 30-40 minutes out on the road. If you aren’t warmed up, you’re not performing at your best, so that should be a part of your routine for any hard workout or race already. At Cat’s Hill, you need to be ready to sprint pretty hard less than 1 minute into the race, so just keep that in mind.
  2. Be ready for the hill. Know what gearing you want. Position yourself. A large part of how easy or difficult it is to maneuver your way around the course and up the hill has to do with your positioning going into the hill. I would try to move your way up so that you start the hill close enough to the front that you can respond to attacks if you need to and so that you can take it easier on the hill than the people around you and lose spots in the field but still have plenty of people around you to get a draft. If you start the hill near the front of the field, then you can give up a lot of spots and save a lot of energy but still be comfortably in the field getting a draft over the top of the course, but you will have saved a bunch of energy if you only do a 2/3 effort instead of an all-out sprint up the hill every lap. Also, on the topic of gearing, on any steep hill when you’re going hard, your front shifting won’t work well, so most people do well to set up in their small chainring a few moments before the turn into the hill. That way they’re already set when they lose all their speed up the steep grade and aren’t bogged down in a huge gear in their big chainring.Cats Hill photo
  3. Don’t get too excited and don’t panic. Many people get way too excited about the hill and sprint up it almost full-speed every lap. By the end of the race their back hurts and their legs feel like jelly, but every lap they still accelerate hard up the hill and immediately ease up over the top. Rather than doing that, just stay comfortably in the field or close enough to the front that you can reposition yourself over the top of the course. Save energy by being efficient. Feel free to give up a few spots when it doesn’t matter to the outcome of the race if you can easily regain them a few moments later at a lower energy cost… A mid-size male rider may do an 800 watt sprint for 20 seconds to get up it, but will then pedal at 300w over the top of the hill. They could just as well do a 600w sprint to get up the hill just a few seconds slower but then have way more in the tank to do 300w if they can or 400w over the top of the climb to respond to an attack or make an attack. All too often, because everyone else is going hard and because people are afraid of losing their position, they use up too much energy on the hardest part of the course when it actually only matters a little. So, don’t get dropped, but don’t be afraid to lose 5 or even 10 spots in the field. You can regain them later.
  4. Look for room to attack over the top when many people aren’t usually going as hard. Again, most people go crazy on the climb, but then they slow down across the top of the course. This is where you can potentially pick up a lot of speed and distance yourself from the field going into the downhill. Personally, that’s my favorite place to attack on that course, and most courses, right at the top or right after the top of “the climb” where everyone went hard. When people go hard and then ease up to recover, a lot of the time they’re not looking to attack and don’t think you will. This is where I’ve attacked several times to get away for short-lived breakaways on that course. And, the year that I won the race, I did it by attacking my 2 breakaway companions over the top of the course. I got a gap and it couldn’t be closed on the downhill and finishing straight away.
  5. Be safe. The roads aren’t great. Sometimes people drop their chain on the climb. There’s always things that can go wrong, so as with any crit, learn the course when you pre-ride it or during the first few laps so that you know where the good lines are, where the fast and safe lines are, as well as where the trouble areas are to avoid hard edges, rough pavement, etc.

The NorCal Racing Calendar

Every year, there are a lot of good races to choose from in Northern California, many of them are pretty exceptional events within 1-2 hours from the SF Bay Area. So, those of us that live here are lucky to have so many options. Most weekends from February to August there are usually at least one crit and one road race on the calendar. But, this can present some challenges as people around here choose which races they want to put on their own schedule, so here’s a rundown of some of the ones I’d most recommend to someone who wanted to try a mix of races across disciplines and throughout the year. This is a selection of popular events and personal favorites.

You can find the road racing calendar for Northern California here.

I’ll also include some notes on the fitness demands of some of the races, to give an idea of what kind of athlete is likely to do well or what kind of fitness you may want to work on while preparing for the race. I’ll refer to pure sprint ability, anaerobic capacity, aerobic capacity, threshold, and endurance fitness on a 5-point scale, with 5 being very demanding, and 0 or 1 being very undemanding of that energy system.

There are many races, but I want to get this posted so people can consult it as needed. I will add more details as I have time. Feel free to ask me about specific races, how to plan a racing season, how to train for specific races, or anything else, any time… nate@englishendurance.com

My mission is to use my knowledge and experience to help people get more out of their riding.

Cal Aggie and Cherry Pie Crits (Jan/Feb)

These two early season races are favorites among Bay Area residents who want to get the ball rolling early with their racing. Because they’re so early in the season, many people are still building fitness and aren’t looking at the race with as much ambition and intensity as they might if the races happened in May, but they’re a great way to check in on your fitness, remind yourself what riding fast in a group feels like, andcrit-profile to have some fun and boost your motivation as you look towards the coming months of training and racing. Like most crits, the kind of fitness you’d want to do well is going to be mostly sprint and anaerobic. To a lesser extent, your aerobic capacity and threshold fitness may come into play, especially if you ride a breakaway or try to take a flyer late in the race.

Chico Stage Race

This race is a relatively new race that’s been added to the calendar, but has quickly become the premier stage race in Northern California. It’s got an excellent circuit race on the Thunderhill Raceway with some open twisty turns and a couple of good rollers. The Paskenta Hills Road Race on day two is a favorite among those who enjoy a mix of smooth, rough, and unpaved roads. There are dozens of flats and an interesting dynamic with the gravel section, a few rollers, and some wind on that course. Often people get more anxious about the gravel, but I think the flat tires and the wind involved in this race are the key features of the race. The TT and crit on the last day are pretty classic. The TT is dead-flat and relatively fast. You can stay in the sticks the whole time and the winners usually have a pretty high average speed, for the pros it’ll be a little over 30 mph. The crit alternates between being open and tight, but is pretty fast overall, so it gets strung out and is almost certain to end in a sprint between the course and the GC interests involved.

Snelling and Bariani Road Races

These are two early season favorites with mostly flat courses that include some rolling hills and often some wind. They’re good races to go to if you don’t consirolling-rr-profileder yourself a specialist climber, sprinter, or rolleur, because if you ride smartly, you can finish well with a little luck. At the very least, they’re both going to be great workouts and you should be able to get to the finish in the main group coming off of a decent winter of training, even if you aren’t in peak form.

Cal Berkeley Streets Crit

This is a fun race right on the edge of the UC Berkeley campus with a s

hilly-crit-profile

Berkeley and Santa Cruz Crits

light uphill/downhill rectangular course that ends up making the race feel like a VO2-max interval workout. Every lap you hammer up Bancroft and try to recover on the Durant downhill. For people living in the East Bay or even in the city, it’s a very short trip to get to this race and given the timing is usually held with ideal weather conditions.

Santa Cruz Classic Crit

This is one of the very few races that I’ve never done, but it’s a favorite among many local racers. Santa Cruz is a cool town and hosts this crit on relatively narrow roads with a bit of a kicker climb. It’s a course for critters, but road racers with a lot of punchy acceleration for climbs and sprints can do well.

Tempus Fugit TT

If you want to test your aerobic fitness, there aren’t a ton of opportunities to do time trials or hill climbs, but this out-and-back test against the clock in Castro Valley is convenient and a great way to test your high end aerobic fitness and maybe your TT position. It’s well worth doing if you want to race without some of the pressures of mass-start events, too. I general-tt-profilethink that time trials are underrepresented and under-appreciated in the US cycling community. Whether people spend thousands on a fast TT bike, carbon wheels, skinsuits, helmets, and go crazy geeking out over every detail, or people just ride for fun and fitness, it’s always great to have a goal, try to get fitter, and check in on your progress. Runners may only do a handful of races throughout the year, and I think for cyclists who are not interested in the intensity of mass-start racing, time trials afford them the opportunity to have goals and train for something other than the simple routine of training. Obviously, I think there is a huge value in training for the sake of staying fit and enjoying cycling, but for many people, doing Merckx-style time-trials with no pressure is a great way to add focus to your exercise program.

Copperopolis RR

Copperopolis is definitely one of the most famous NorCal races out there. It’s long and tough with climbs, rough roads, wind, and a finish on an uphill roller after a descent on terrible roads. A lot of people consider this one of their favorites, but it’s definitely hard hilly-rr-profileon you and can be hard on your equipment. Most people will race their normal race gear, but some people who have nice carbon race wheels will race with their training wheelset just in case they brake a spoke or pinch-flat on a hard asphalt edge somewhere.

The race laps start with a couple miles of flat through the feed-zone, and then climb for 15-20m on rolling and then steep uphill roads. It’s a little more shallow at the top, but it comes right after the steepest section and it’s really rough all the way up. Many people who naturally climb out of the saddle are forced to stay in the saddle, so their wheels don’t bounce around. When it does start to level off, you’re already pretty gassed and sometimes it’s a struggle to stay with your group if people attack or pick up the pace over the top.

Once you’re on the pleateau above the race-start, there area few rollers and usually abit of a breeze. The lane isn’t terribly wide, so it can quickly become challenging if it’s windy. After a series of short 20-30s rollers, it opens up to some dead-flat land for a few miles on rough roads that can be plagued by crosswinds, so it can be tough through the far-side of the course.

The second half of the lap meanders back and forth for a few miles on essentially all rough pavement. There’s a few rollers, and finally about 5 miles to go, you climb over a few hills, still on really rough roads, and then descend on what seems to be some of the worst pavement on the loop down to the finish. It flattens out for a moment and then kicks up maybe 150-200m up what looks like about a 5% grade to the finish. The Pro 1/2 field does this lap 5 times for a total of close to 110 miles. It’s pretty awesome, and tough. It’s one of the more demanding courses, because there’s really little room to take it easy on any of the laps and the race is about as hard as people want to make it. Anywhere on the loop, people can attack and try to get a breakaway going  or try to make a split in the field, whether it’s in the wind, over climbs, or just on rough roads where there’s only one or two good lines to take to minimize all of the bumps.

It’s a classic race that you could call the Paris-Roubaix of NorCal, because it’s long with rough roads and always has dynamic racing.

Sea Otter Classic and the Central Coast Road Series

The rolling hills around Moterey are a great place for the Central Coast Road Series and the Sea Otter Classic events. The Sea Otter Circuit Race on the Mazda Raceway is famous for its corkscrew turn and is a fun, tough course. All of these courses demand some good aerobic fitness as they all have lots of short climbs, but that’s part of the fun. The Sea Otter road race traditionally finishes on a challenging climb after long circuits with a very steep 2 minute climb on the start of each lap. If you want to learn how to race hilly courses well, the CCCX races provide a good venue for practice.

Mike’s Bikes Cat’s Hill Classic

This is one of the most well known crits in the Bay Area and one of the longest running. Greg Lemond won the race back in the late 70s, and a number of famous riders have won it over the years, as well as a bunch of local riders. But it’s always a combination of skill, smarts, and luck that get the win. The course is famous for it’s steep climb up “the wall,” a short climb of maybe 80m up a 20% grade in the middle of each lap. The course is L-shaped and has the one steep uphill, a bit of a roller, and then a long 300m descent back down to the finishing straight-away. The descent and finishing straight away have less than excellent pavement, so you have to pick your line well to get a fast place for your wheels to roll. Every lap it’s hard to sprint up the climb, so you have to be ready to go from the start and need to be prepared mentally for dozens of 20 second sprints up a steep grade.

Wente Vineyards RR

This is one of the tougher race courses on the calendar. The whole race is hilly or windy with relatively little time where you can relax. Any time someone in the field wants to hilly-rr-profilemake the race hard, they can. At the same time, anyone who wants to get in a break away or split up the field can probably work to do so as long as anyone follows with them, but it makes the timing of those efforts all the more important, because it could be an attack on the first lap or the last lap that gets the winning move going, but it’s hard to tell. It’s a very dynamic race for this reason. I’d say it’s similar to the Berkeley Hills RR, Pescadero RR, and even Winters RR for this reason.

The racing is hard and dynamic. If you’re a strong climber, decent on the flats, and willing to suffer, it’s a great race for you. Within reason, anyone that is a strong racer can finish well in this race, but whoever wins it will have to be a good climber, because it finishes in an intermediate climb that has several minutes of shallow grades and finishes in a few minutes of steep climbing.

Berkeley Hills RR

Berkeley Hills is the longest running road race in the US, and a favorite. It’s probably the most centrally located course and one that many locals ride dozens of times every year. hilly-rr-profileUnfortunately early this 2017, heavy rains led to significant erosion and a collapse of part of the roads used for the traditional course. The course is usually held around “the Bears” loop just over the hills from Berkeley. For 2017 there may be a new course, which I can’t comment on at the moment, because I don’t know what that may be, but the traditional course will no doubt continue use in the future.

It is a rolling course with a lot of false flat uphill and 2-5 minute climbs. Throughout the loop there are two extended flat sections of road where the field is likely to stick together, bhrr-profilebut you can’t assume too much, because the riding along San Pablo Dam Road at the beginning of each loop is prone to being windy, and it can be enough of a crosswind to cause some damage to a tired field a few laps into the race. 1/3 of the way through the loop, there’s a descent onto Castro Ranch Road that then goes over a couple of pitchy rollers. They don’t look like much on the course profile, but they’re enough to cause some serious discomfort or allow for splits in the field if people want to attack and get a break going. The second 1/3 of the loop is mostly false-flat uphill and is usually uneventful, but because it’s slightly uphill, nobody gets a free ride. The roads are also narrow here, so if a break is up the road, it can be tough to get a chase going if that’s in your team’s interest. Finally, the last 1/3 of the loop goes over a handful of short to intermediate climbs and a few rollers. You get about

Pescadero RR

The Pescadero Road Race is great race in coastal California half-way between Santa Cruz and San Francisco. It’s got two sets of hills on either end of the course, and several miles of false-flat uphill and downhill between them.  The rollers at the start are short, but hard. The feed-zone and finishing climb is tough and requires great climbing speed or smart tactics ahead of the climb to allow for the win. Everyone who wins this race earns it.

I like this race because it’s very dynamic. There’s enough climbing to make it demanding and requires a good amount of high-end aerobic fitness, but there’s enough flat-land riding that team tactics and durability matters as much as climbing ability. The times I’ve done this race there have been multiple breakaways, but you can see them come back, break apart, or you can see riders or groups bridge up to the break. Even with a minute or two gap between the break and the field on the last lap, you still can’t say what will happen at the end.

Lodi Cycle Fest Crit

This race is a great mid-summer event that usually draws good attendance because it has a good course and good prize purse. It’s a flat figure-8 course with one small loop and one longer rectangle with one overlapping corner. Most of the pavement is good, but there are a few small bumps, and enough turns to keep things interesting. For the most part it’s a pretty fast, wide-open course with room to move around. This means that there are plenty of opportunities to attack, but also room for the field to chase down breaks. Usually it’ll end in a bunch sprint, but small moves that happen late in the race can get away and make it to the finish ahead of the field if they time it right. The heat can be a factor and making sure you stay cool and meter your effort can make a big difference in whether you finish strong and animate the race or whether you end up limping in at the back end of the field.

One year I made a promising move with a few laps to go and got a good gap, but really, it’s a race for the sprinters. As expected, I got caught with about a lap to go and our sprinter won, but for the stronger time-trialists without top-end speed for sprints (like me) you can use your strength a few laps out to help your team’s sprinter by letting them get a free ride as the other teams chase you down. This is a great tactic in any race, and seemingly overlooked as people often bide their time thinking that they have a chance at winning, when they may not have.

Loyalton Time Trial

I would say that this is the NorCal time trial. It’s the regional championship event, but it’s also classic because it’s dead-flat at 5000 feet of elevation. It’s perfect for laying down fast times on a full 40k course. There have been two courses over recent years. The original course was pancake flat except for one very minor roller that may have had a total of 15 feet of elevation up a 2% grade, or something close to it. It used to be mediocre pavement with winter-cracked roads, but was then repaved and nearly ideal for the most part. But, a few years ago, the USAC Elite Nationals was held in Tahoe and they started using another course just a few miles down the valley, which is the course they currently use. This course is similar, and even a little flatter. It’s got decent, chip-seal textured pavement, and a few minor turns that you can almost pedal through at full speed.

Davis 4th of July Crit

 

San Rafael Twilight Crit

 

Albany Crit

 

Patterson Pass RR

 

Dunnigan Hills RR

 

Suisun Harbor Crit

 

University RR

 

Winters RR

 

Vacaville Grand Prix [Crit]

 

Mt Diablo Hill Climb TT

 

Esparto TT

 

Oakland Grand Prix [Crit]

 

Everest Challenge Stage Race

 

New Year, New Season, New Goals

For many athletes, this time of year can be both exciting and daunting at the same time. Depending on where you live, in January it may be freezing cold and snowy outside, or it might be intermittently rainy and a little cold like it is here in California. You may have been riding outdoors most of the winter or maybe you haven’t seen your bike outside for months. Either way, the days are getting longer and now or relatively soon the weather will be getting a lot nicer and if you’re doing any racing or special events, those are getting closer. It’s time to get excited for that, to make plans, and to prepare for whatever you’ll be doing this season.

Now is a great time to take a look back at the last few months and consider how your training has been going. It’s a good time to look forward to what you’re trying to do this coming year as an athlete, and how you should be training and planning out your season. Everyone can benefit from having a direction that they want to move in and an idea of how to do so, even if not everyone can count on their schedules being the same from week to week or if they have work or family responsibilities that may impact their ability to plan on doing certain events. For those athletes who have target events that they want to prepare for, it’s good to plan out what your training should be like, what works for you, and when you can make it happen. Maybe your goals are as simple as trying to complete a century ride with your buddies in the summer, or as challenging as winning a national championship or major international event. I’ve had the pleasure of working towards that full spectrum of goals, both for myself and my clients. I’ve worked with people trying to set a PR or complete an event, and people who are trying to win national championships I’ve worked with people who have the flexibility or total commitment to follow almost any training plan we deem appropriate, and I’ve worked with athletes who try to get in training when they can, but want the reassurance of knowing that their time will be well spent in helping them meet their goals.

No matter where you want to go, no matter where you’re coming from, and whatever your constraints, there are always ways to make the most of your training and maximize your training time to get as close to your potential as possible. Of course there are limits to what you can accomplish while working a full-time job and raising kids or going to school, but I can say with confidence that realizing your athletic potential is determined mostly by consistent and effective work. Not all of us can become world champions or record holders, even if we had all the time in the world to train, but whatever your potential is, I’m sure that you can get very close to it even while working full time and fitting workouts around company meetings, sales trips, sick kids, or whatever else is going on. Whether it’s in training, racing, or in life, things happen that may seem to help or hinder us on our way; try not to focus on the obstacles. Rather, focus on the multiple possible routes that you can take to move in the direction you want to go. Whether it’s in the middle of a race, in the middle of winter training building your foundation, or maybe even in the middle of your career or life more broadly, there are always challenges that come up. As long as we have goals that are important or valuable and worth pursuing, then it’s our ability to see paths through and around obstacles and our ability to keep putting in the effort towards our goals that allows us to succeed.

In training, being able to move forward you need to have goals or directions. If you know the target you are going after or the direction you want to move in, then you can make plans that will move you in that direction. If you have a reasonable plan, then you can submit yourself to pursuing it day by day and trust that you’ll get where you want to be going. The more you can make your training a habit of your daily life, and make your workouts happen as a part of your routine, the better your long term outcomes will be.

Your personality and past experience may determine whether it is best to set specific goals (sub-20 minutes on Favorite Local Climb by August) or to have goal vectors (improve peak VO2 max and threshold power in the 10-40m range this season). You may not know what your best time on your favorite climb can be this season, but you may have a good idea, so maybe you set a specific goal. Maybe having that number taped to your bathroom mirror will help you get out every day to train.

Some people would say that having a direction is better than having a specific goal. If you want to improve your climbing, then that’s something you can work towards and you aren’t restricted to an arbitrary benchmark. If you have a goal and don’t meet it, then you may see yourself as having failed. If you meet it, that could be satisfying, but then what? You may not be sure that you did all that you could have. After all, my goal was sub-2o and I rode 19:48. Maybe I could do 19:30? Maybe 19 flat? Maybe you need to set another goal, but in the meantime, you accomplished your goal. Either way, if you know where you want to go, then you can have a good idea how to plan to get there.

What do you want to do this season? Do you have goal events? Do you have fitness goals? Do you have mileage goals or other training goals?

Come up with a few goals. Often having 2-4 primary goals is perfect. If you have more than that, you should simplify or eliminate some. If some of those are trivial and very short term or easy to achieve, then take them off your main list because they are really intermediate goals. Your main goals will provide a broader guiding principle for your training. If you only have 1 or 2 goals, then look at how you can create a few intermediate goals that will help you move towards those bigger goals. You’ll see this a lot with Olympic athletes whose main goal happens only every 4 years. Many recreational athletes don’t have a horizon that’s 4 or 8 or 12 years out, but in many cases, that may be the best way to approach your goals. Sometimes focusing on one feature of your fitness for one year, another feature the next, and finally trying to put it together to reach a new peak in the third year may be the best approach for reaching new heights.

Once you know where you want to go, look at what you need to do to get there and look at how you can create routines and habits that are sure to get you there. What workouts are going to help you progress? What cross training will help you? What kind of daily and weekly routine do you need to design in order to make your day to day life support your work and family obligations while allowing you to get in the training that you need to do to progress? What ways can you look to make your training as efficient as possible? How can you make your recovery as efficient as possible as well? How can you plan to absorb setbacks or interruptions? What is the ideal training volume and intensity you would want to reach your goal? What is the minimum?

Work out a plan of action. Plan for obstacles and setbacks. Realize that it will not be the end of the world when those things happen. Be ready to look for ways over the hurdles and keep moving forward.

This season I’m looking forward to working with some new athletes, and working towards new goals. This is always exciting. I personally get a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment out of seeing my athletes get stronger and faster, I love it when they win races or set PRs, and I love working to get the most out of their training given their schedules. This year, one of my athletes is pretty new to racing, and I’m excited to work on his training. I’m also excited that we’re going to work together to document this process both in text and video, so stay tuned. We also plan to produce videos about training and riding that isn’t specifically about our work together. Look for that to be coming soon.