How to CRUSH the Diablo Challenge!

Every year for a while now, the Diablo Challenge has been held at the end of the racing season, usually the first weekend of October. It’s a mass start unofficial race up Mt. Diablo starting at the Athenian School at the bottom of South Gate Road and goes all the way to the summit of Diablo. It’s a fun event and has been used to raise money for the Save Mount Diablo organization.

Many people just do it for fun and to support the charity that aims to preserve lands around Mount Diablo. Some also do it for the challenge of racing up the long 11 mile climb up about 3,100 feet of elevation. It’s a great climb, and one of my all-time favorite places to train and test my fitness. I’ve ridden it hard dozens of times and it’s always great.

I’ve won the Challenge a few times and have some fast times up the climb, even taking into account the fact that the Tour of California has finished there a few times. My best time from South Gate to the Summit still ranks in the top 10 on Strava. Not too long ago, Phil Gaimon tried to set a fast time and was a little faster, but didn’t get a chance to get all the way to the summit, since there was some snow at the top and the road was closed for a few weeks at that time.

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In any case, I have some experience on the climb and know what it takes to ride it fast. I wanted to put out a few thoughts on pacing and basic strategies to try to help you if you’re trying to go out and train on the mountain, if you’re using it as a test of fitness and want to do your best efforts there, or if you’re doing the Diablo Challenge. Personally, I’d recommend doing Diablo at least a few times a month if you live in the East Bay and want to be a strong climber, road racer, or time trialist. Even if you’re not a racer but want to be strong for group rides, Gran Fondos, or a big bike tour, it’s hard to beat Diablo for high aerobic training in the Bay Area.

So, here are a few thoughts on riding the mountain:

Power: If you have a power meter, hopefully you have a good what your peak power curve is like and a reasonably good idea of how long it will take to complete the climb. You can use that information to target your peak power for the climb. So, let’s say that you are trying to break an hour, you’ve ridden it in training recently and have done the climb in 1:01 or 1:02 at about 250w, then you could probably aim to do the climb at 250w or maybe even 255w. If you are fresh and motivated, then you can usually squeeze out a few extra watts compared to an average training ride. Sometimes you can surprise yourself and do an extra 10 or 15w more than your recent training sessions, but this is not usually the case, so you shouldn’t count on it. If you head out at 260-270w for the first 10m, even though this may feel easy at the time, it’s usually not the best idea and in all likelihood you will slow down later.

Mt Diablo from Vollmer Peak-2

The climb is a little steeper on the second half (about 7% grade) than the first half (about 5%), and you’re going slower. So, if you go out too hard, it doesn’t help you as much in the first half as the same amount of extra power would help you in the second half of the climb. So, try to keep it steady, or if you can, maybe try to do a negative split with a few extra watts on the top half than on the bottom.

Throughout the climb, there are a number of short steeper pitches and a number of brief periods of shallower grades. Use the shallow bits to try to recover, drop your power just a few watts and catch your breath. Use the steep bits to pick up a couple of seconds here and there. Throughout the climb, an optimal strategy will include a few dozen small fluctuations above and below your threshold of up to 5-10%. Below, I’m posting a screen shot that shows those spikes in power as well as some major dips. You can see my HR drift downward throughout those periods of easier riding. That extra reserve of cardiac output helps you to feel much more comfortable and gives you the ability to attack the steeper portions of the climb with a little extra power.

Heart Rate: Heart rate is incredibly helpful for longer threshold efforts. I find it very useful for pacing long training efforts, hill climbs, and time trials. Your heart rate does vary fairly significantly from day to day and week to week depending on how well recovered you are, how much glycogen you have in your legs, whether or not you have had caffeine, and how excited or focused you are. But, if you pay attention to your HR numbers on a regular basis, you can usually tell very well what your HR values will be on your ride today and you can adjust your expectations up or down a few bpm accordingly. Any time you’re racing you can usually expect to see slightly higher HR numbers than in training, because you are ideally a little fresher and more motivated than on a normal training ride.

Diablo Peak from half way-2

Allow yourself several minutes at the start of the climb to let your HR drift slowly upwards. You don’t want to see peak HR numbers within the first 5 or even 10 minutes. If you’re maxed out early on, then it’s hard to recover and still maintain high power throughout the climb. For people who aren’t used to training with power, they are often surprised to see that their power is slowly but steadily dropping even though their HR is remaining constant on a long climbing effort like Diablo. Try to avoid this. Ideally you see a sharp rise for the first few minutes, then a slow rise for another few, but then it should plateau and just inch upwards another couple of beats per minute [bpm] towards the later portions of the climb.

For me, I may expect a hard TT effort up Diablo to have an average HR around 160-165. I know from experience what power is reasonable (about 400-410w when I’m in good shape) and I know what it feels like. I’ll take into account all three of those inputs in gauging my efforts (i.e. HR, power, and perceived effort). Always listen to your body. So, if you look at this particular effort of mine, you can see that I averaged 162 bpm and 415w, but you’ll notice that I never saw my HR at 162 until several minutes into the climb and only briefly. After the first 10m to the Pay Station, you can see that my power dropped and my HR followed when I rode through Rock City. I think that recovery is crucial. During the Diablo Challenge, you can often get a draft if you can find a few riders to rotate with at that point. Past Rick City and the helipad right below the junction, you can see that my HR started to hover in the low 160s. Finally in the last 1/3 of the climb, my HR finally remained in the upper 160s until the end of the climb. I averaged 166 bpm from the Junction to the Summit for this particular effort. But, you’ll also notice that I did 420w for the first half of the climb and only 410w for the second half of the climb. I think that I could have gone a few seconds faster if I had paced it a little more evenly.

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You’ll notice that even late in the climb near the final ascent up the wall to the Summit, I tried to get a few moments of recovery before hammering up the last few hundred meters up “the wall.” Even just getting my HR down 3-4 bpm for a few moments allowed me to relax, focus, and dig deep up the last portion of the climb.

Clearly, I’m a bit of an outlier, but it’s always very useful to look at peak performances to see what a perfect or near perfect performance looks like. Whether you’re trying to ride faster than last year, trying to break an hour for the first time, or trying to win the race, it can help to look at the pacing of the top one or two performances that you see on Strava leaderboards. Usually the KOM on any competitive segment is a pretty ideal pacing strategy.

Coyote on Diablo-2

Perceived effort: Perceived effort is not something that is often discussed in training or sports performance articles, but it’s very important. I always pay close attention to how I’m feeling when I’m training and racing. I’ll definitely also be looking at what my HR and power numbers look like, but I consider them all to be valuable pieces of data that inform my pacing, racing, and training decisions. Even though you can’t put a precise numerical value on this, it’s good to listen to your body.

Along with HR, I would suggest going into the Challenge or any time trial type effort, whether in training or racing, with a specific expectation of how hard it will feel ahead of time. I would pace it so that you don’t feel like you are at your limit for the first 1/4 or 1/3 of the climb. After you get settled into your pace, you should feel like you’re inching towards your limit, but until the last 1/3 of the effort you shouldn’t feel like you’re at your limit.

Hydration and food: I would recommend having a bottle of mix with you while you ride any long climb at a hard pace. Keeping your mouth and throat wet helps your breathing to feel more comfortable and may provide a marginal advantage in its own right, because your lungs need to be wet/humid to do their job. But, mostly it’s good to stay comfortable and not feel lousy with a dry, cotton mouth. It’s also good to take in a few carbohydrate calories during a long hard effort like this. You can actually absorb and use some calories, but you won’t become glycogen depleted over the course of a single 11 mile climb. Still, blood glucose is an important fuel source during hard efforts like that. And, studies have shown that putting sweet things in your mouth (like drink mix) is performance enhancing.

Because the climb is short enough that you can’t run out of glycogen by the time you reach the top, you don’t need to worry about taking in a lot of calories during the climb. But still, some people may benefit from having an emergency gel that they may consider taking while they ride through Rock City. Or you could take a few chews. Really, I think that for most people it should be ideal to just have on bottle of mix for the ride and that should be sufficient.

Warm up: In order to perform your best at any kind of intense effort you need to have a good warm-up. The more intense the effort, the more thorough your warm up needs to be. For less intense efforts or longer events, you don’t need as much of a warm up. Professional racers have good habits here because it’s very important to them and their livelihood basically depends on their race-day performance.

Before time trials, mountain bike or cross races, or intense road races that start with a hard climb or something like that you’ll usually see longer and more intense warm-ups. For longer events that won’t start very intensely, you’ll often see athletes doing more relaxed warm-ups just to get loose.

For something like the Diablo Challenge, I’d allow at least 15-20m to ride at a comfortable pace and then another 10-15 to do a few moderate efforts. Start easy and slowly ramp up until you’re riding at a decent clip a little below your threshold. As you feel more warmed up and ready to go, consider doing a few short efforts above your threshold. Finally, in the last 10m before your event, you may want to stomp on the pedals for a few 3/4 effort sprints for maybe 8-15 seconds at 150% of your threshold power. This way your aerobic systems are all warmed up, but also your nervous system is ready to engage your muscles at a high level and your muscles will be better prepared to clear high quantities of lactate. Some athletes find that they even want to do 1 or 2 short VO2 max intervals that are long enough to make their legs start to hurt. When your legs start to ache or burn it’s generally a sign that you’re doing a moderate to high amount of anaerobic metabolism and feeling just a little bit of that before racing intensely can make your legs feel more comfortable once the race or time trial starts.

Again, listen to your body and do what helps you to feel ready to ride hard. That’s all you need, but you can’t do your best if you aren’t fully warmed up.

This might look something like this:

15-20m starting 50% of threshold and slowly increasing to 90% of threshold

2-3×1-2m at 105-110% of threshold

2-3 short powerful accelerations (8-15s at roughly 130-160% of threshold)

5-10m easy spinning before lining up for the event

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Should I do some fitness testing?

Fitness testing can be a very useful tool. If you’re looking to have a standardized way to check up on your fitness from time to time, if you’re looking to set benchmarks before engaging in a new training program or a new season, or if you’re just curious to test yourself and get a number to label something with, then by all means, go for it. To a certain extent, if you train hard and do hard efforts on a regular basis, you’ll probably have less of a need to test your fitness because you’ll already know what your best power is for a given duration, what your best time is on your favorite climbs, or what your max sustainable HR is going to be for time trials and climbs.

How can you test your fitness? Well, there are a few ways. You can do any of the following:

– go to a lab and have them do a threshold test
– go to a lab and have them do a VO2 max test
– go out on the road and do a maximal 15-30m test to gauge your threshold power/HR/fitness
– go out on the road and do a mix of different maximal efforts (15s, 1m, 5m, and/or 20-40m)
– go out and just do your normal hard workouts

So, what could you have to gain from each of these tests? Well, I think the main benefits for each of these would be as follows:

– You’ll get an accurate measure of your threshold power and HR, as well as having the fun of probably getting your blood lactate levels tested. Getting your blood lactate levels measured can be a good indicator of how fit and efficient your aerobic systems are at the time, and probably also a good indication of how much fast and slow-twitch muscle fibers you have. Knowing how much fast and slow-twitch muscle fibers you have can help you choose which workouts to do and how to conduct them.

– You’ll get an accurate measure of exactly how much oxygen your body can consume. This will be a good measure of how well your lungs and heart can process oxygen, and more importantly, how well the mitochondria in your muscles can take up that oxygen getting delivered and use it to burn fuel. This latter feature is key, because even when you aren’t in peak fitness, your heart and lungs may well be able to process large amounts of oxygen, but if your muscles aren’t adequately trained, that potential won’t be fully used, either because your nervous system isn’t recruiting enough muscle fibers or because your mitochondria haven’t been grown enough by training that they have the ability to process as much fuel as they could with more training.

– If you have a power meter and HR monitor, then you’ll basically establish a good measure of your threshold, but just without the extra cool-factor of the blood lactate numbers. Those numbers are fun, but I think their real value lie in revealing how much of various muscle fibers you have, and to a lesser extent, how well you’ve trained your anaerobic energy systems.

– Doing maximal efforts over the course of 2 or 3 different days throughout a given week can potentially give a pretty complete picture of your overall fitness. Sprint efforts can reveal how much fast-twitch muscle you have, how well you can recruit the muscle that you have, and to a lesser extent, how coordinated you are and how effectively you can apply force to your bike. 1m efforts can reveal how well your anaerobic capacity has been trained for maximal efforts. 5m efforts can provide a good indication of how well your maximal aerobic capacity is trained. And, of course, a longer, time-trial effort will show what your threshold fitness and power is like. All of these things together, can help show what your overall fitness is as well as where you have the most room for improvement. Especially if you have a lot of previous data to look back upon, you can see where you’re doing well and where you should maybe focus on making up ground.

– The last remark is obviously somewhat of a non-answer, but basically, if you’re doing hard, well-rounded training, you’ll be doing all of these sorts of efforts on a fairly regular basis. Even if few or none of those efforts are fully maximal because they might be done as a part of a larger workout, you will probably still have a very good understanding of what your best efforts are like and what they could be like if you were to attempt a fully maximal effort… If you’re doing well-rounded training, then you’ll already know what you’re currently capable of, and won’t really need a fitness test to tell you. But, the extra numbers you could get from a lab like blood lactate or VO2 can be fun and interesting.

With that in mind, I feel like the real value of fitness testing, whether lab or field testing, is found in gauging where you’re at in your fitness before beginning a new block of training. Whether you’re starting training at the beginning of a new year or season, or maybe you’re coming getting back into it after a brief mid-season break, fitness tests can be useful.

If you’re in the middle of normal training, you won’t need fitness testing. But, if you’re in the middle of steady training, and you don’t know how fit you are and feel like you need a fitness test to tell you, then you have a bit of a problem and should reevaluate your training approach. If you don’t have a good idea of how fit you are from your training, and you’re in the middle of a normal stretch of training, then you’re probably not riding hard enough on your hard days and/or not riding easy enough from time to time to recover well for your hard training and race days.