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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The Great Cascade Classic Stage Race

The Cascade Classic has long been one of my favorite stage races. Ever since I got into stage races, I loved the format, the strategy, and the difficulty of having to perform well for several days in a row. I’ve always had a lot of fun trying to survive and end up near the front of the field at the end of the week.

Check out a video I made along with this article. It goes over much of the same stuff if you want to listen instead of read or if you want a few extra little examples… I’ll be posting more videos in the future, so go ahead and subscribe to my youtube channel if you’re into podcasts or informational youtube content.

Not everyone can be a good general classification stage racer, but most riders can get something valuable out of stage racing. Because there’s a lot going on with individual stages, teamwork, the overall classification, recovery and nutrition to take care of from day to day, you have to set reasonable goals for the week and keep your priorities straight. Don’t waste energy on things that don’t matter to you or your team. It’s easy to get caught up racing hard on a stage that doesn’t matter to you or your team, but you should keep your head straight and do what is helpful in working towards your goals.

If you want to go for the GC, you have to be focused every day. As much as you might want to, you don’t have to win anything to win the general classification or to be on the overall podium, but you can’t ever afford to mess up and lose significant time. You have to be within striking distance of the front of the race on every stage. The podium is almost always made up of the three guys that were among the strongest 10 or 20 riders, but in most cases they’re the ones who made the fewest mistakes. This could be tactical mistakes made during the races, or it could be shortcomings in training, nutrition from day to day during the race, sleep, recovery, or equipment. You may not have to do everything perfectly, but you have to do everything without any major blunders.

Even if you aren’t a GC rider, you can go for stages and come away with a result. If your team has a GC rider, your help can be invaluable to achieving a GC result on your team. You can save all of your cards for the one day that suits you well. You could sit in and wait for moments of opportunity that may come at any moment during the race. But you may have to be content to sit back and save energy when it’s easy and the race is up the road in order to have more energy for tomorrow’s race. Or you may need to lose time early in the race so that you can go up the road in a breakaway on the last stage or the most prestigious and difficult stage. Even if you’re 20 minutes down in the GC, but you win the queen stage, that’s a huge success. Or you may be a sprinter who can’t train for great endurance, and you might be able to win the crit, even though you’re just hanging on in the other stages. Again, this is a success by most standards.

Always look for opportunity and try to take advantage when it’s available.

Going into any stage race, you should really make a plan. Look at the stages and try to identify where your strengths and weaknesses will show themselves throughout the week. Look for opportunities where you are strongest, but more than anything, look for ways to keep your weaknesses from becoming liabilities where you’ll lose time or get a bad result. Or, if you’re going for stage results and not the overall, identify stages that don’t matter to you. Go into those stages with the intention of working for your team and saving energy wherever possible. It may seem like the race will be hard no matter what, but really, if you’re just trying to get through it and not get time-cut, then you can save a lot of energy. A lot of riders go hard on days when they really shouldn’t, just because they are motivated to ride hard simply because it’s a race. Just keep your priorities straight. Remember that it may be a bike race, but it isn’t necessarily your race, you’re just along for the ride as you wait for, say, tomorrow’s stage where you’re going to go for it.

Set goals for each day and for the race as a whole. Make sure you know what you need to do each day so that you can focus on what’s happening right now and not stress about the week as a whole.

Know your focus and ignore everything else to stay on track.

 

How to win a bike race!

Over the years, my thoughts and perspective on racing has evolved significantly. The ways in which I frame the task of racing to win or get results has changed as I have raced more and more and tried to learn a lot from those experiences.

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Very briefly, I’ll summarize by giving a few basic guidelines or heuristics I would consider using in most any race situation:

  • Do the least amount of work possible to accomplish the immediate goal.
  • Don’t hold back from doing the necessary work to accomplish your goal.
  • Take calculated risks. In order to win, you can’t be too afraid of losing.
  • Minimize potential downside. Try to steer away from losing scenarios.
  • Be Stoic and limit any emotional, irrational choices, they often lead to wasted energy and losing scenarios.
  • Watch more than you act, but when you act, do so decisively. Half-measures often lose races.

Really, there’s a million ways that any race could go, and a number of ways that you can approach them. Just as with anything, there can be different ways of viewing the same situation or problem, and there can be different successful ways of addressing that situation or solving that problem. But, it’s good to find a way of framing the situation so that you can see possible solutions that have the potential to work for you. So, the rules above are not necessarily the only or best ways of looking at things, but they are general principles that I’ve found to be pretty effective for me in bike racing. And, as with many things, what can help you to be effective at training for endurance sports or successful at sporting competition often carries over into other spheres of activity. Without getting too far afield of training and racing topics, I think that this is one of the things that I value about bike racing is that it has the potential to teach lessons and skills that can benefit us away from the bike as well.

Going into a little more detail on these points:

  • It is obvious that you should do the least amount of work possible throughout any given race, so that when it matters, you will be fresher and have more energy. Sometimes you need to get to the front of the race to avoid yo-yoing at the back of the pack or to be in position for a climb or technical part of the course. Or, maybe you see a breakaway forming that you recognize is one that you need to be in, but somehow you missed it and want to either shut it down or get across to it. Instead of attacking to get across as soon as you have an opening [like many people do] or putting your head down and blowing yourself up right away trying to chase it back [also something very common], just wait for two seconds and look for opportunities to accomplish that goal with the least amount of energy that you can manage.

In this example, if you wait for the right spot on the course, you may have a much easier time attacking and bridging across. Even if the gap is bigger in 3 minutes’ time, but there’s a good hill that’s sufficiently long for the bridge effort, then you can just relax, focus, hold off, and then go at the right moment. Or if you want to have the field re-group and not let that breakaway get away, then you could wait to see if someone else is also anxious about it. You may not have to chase at all. Or, maybe you have a teammate or a couple of friends that can help chase it back. Or, if you’re all on your own, then consider when and how to most effectively shut down the breakaway.

I’ve been in a lot of races over the years without any teammates where I was one of the riders other people would play off of, because I was one of the stronger riders in the field, and rightly so. It made it harder for me to win, but it was great fun, a great challenge, and made me learn a lot over the years. Keep in mind that I’m a strong climber and time-trialist… My two favorite tactics for shutting down a break that I didn’t like, assuming that I didn’t want to try to bridge across to it was 1) just put my head down and pull it most of the way back as soon as I saw a good opening. This was only made better if it was on a hill or in a cross-wind, because then my effort would help everyone get to the break, but it would hurt their legs as well as my own. Or 2) jump hard, but not too hard, to make a bridging effort, but not one that I really cared about. Whenever someone attacks in a race, people take notice, and almost always someone will respond, especially if people are on edge about seeing a breakaway forming and riding away from the field. So, if I want a break to come back and it has 10 or 15 seconds, I might try to float back to 10th wheel and then wind-up at 80% effort to jump off the front of the field and get 2/3 of the way across the gap. If you do this right, then someone else will get on your wheel and 3 or 4 other people will get antsy and chase after you. Before you know it, you’re most of the way across the gap with the field scrambling to catch you and regroup, but at that point, the breakaway is barely ahead of the field, which has a lot of extra momentum. At this point the field will regroup as the break sits-up, someone else in the field assumes the chase, or a few other guys see their opportunity and jump to the break, closing the gap.

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Those are just examples, but hopefully you get the idea. There’s often more than one way to get what you want, and you just have to look for the easiest one.

  • Many people realize how important it is to be efficient and save energy while racing bikes, but this leads to a lot of racers being too complacent, too often assuming that other people will do the necessary work. Sure, it’s smart to let other racers do your work for you, but when people become too passive and only race negatively, it doesn’t make for fun, exciting, dynamic racing, and those riders who do absolutely nothing until the finishing sprint or climb usually don’t get the best results. Rather, always look for the decisive moments or situations in every race and be ready for them, willing to put in the work required to make it. Sometimes you need to dig deep to get over a climb, make it across a gap, or make a split in the wind, but you need to be willing to bury yourself if and when it’s necessary. This is a part of why cycling is such a great sport. You win races by being smart but also by being willing to turn yourself inside out if and when you need to. Sometimes these moments are predictable, because the course has a hill on it that you know will get harder every lap until the last lap or two it will shatter the field, or because there’s a strong wind and half-way through the road race there’s an extended stretch of crosswinds where the field will break apart. Be ready for those predictable moments. Also watch and pay attention to what the field is doing. Sometimes there are unpredictable moments when you may have to put in a lot of work to make things happen. Often these are the moments where that work may not pay off with anything but fatigue, but they may allow you to win or get on the podium where if you hadn’t acted, you would have had no chance of finishing well.
  • Racing to win has to be proactive and not just passive or reactive. Sure, you can get top 10 results or even top 5s and occasional podium spots, but in order to win you have to either be stronger than everyone else [usually not the case] or you have to make a decision or series of decisions to put yourself out there and invest in pushing a position that may win or lose you the race, but at least you have a shot at winning, whereas if you sat back, you would never win it. This isn’t license to just put your head down and hope for the Hail-Mary solo move from 10 miles out. Yes, these suicide moves can work, but usually they don’t. Rather, look for the moment of weakness in your competitors or look for where the race course will be hardest or suit you best. Look for hesitation, inattentiveness, or complacency. When you think the odds might be in your favor, and you think you might have the legs for it, you just have to go for it if you want to make things happen. There are many instances in which this won’t work out. You may waste a lot of energy, but if you’re smart and stubborn, you may still win it if you keep your eyes open and don’t let yourself give up. Sometimes you may lose the race, but if you had never done anything in the first place, you would never have at least had the chance of winning. You will lose most of the races you start, but if you keep at it, keep training, keep learning, and putting in your best effort, you may well get on the podium or win. [Again, something that applies to other activities throughout our lives.]
  • Over the years, I think that I started being less anxious about winning or losing, and that freed me up to go for it more freely when I did in fact go all-in. It also meant that I could often take more of a step back and observe, look for opportunity, and try to take advantage of situations that presented themselves. I’ve always been an aggressive racer and more often than not was one of the people forcing the race to go a certain way, but the better I got at racing, the more I think that I wasn’t looking for ways to win and trying to force that to happen so much as I was looking for the ways in which I was likely to lose the race and try to avoid those scenarios. There’s many ways to win a race and you can’t necessarily know until it’s done which way is going to be the right day at that particular race. But, there are a lot of ways to lose a race and those are often much more predictable. Doing a ton of effort for little or no reason, putting a lot of energy into a tactic or strategy with little chance of success, or missing the key move are all things that greatly increase your chances of getting a poor result… On the starting line of any race, there are a lot of people that could potentially win the race if the circumstances are right for them, but by the end of the race there are usually only a few riders who still have a chance. Between the start and the finish, the potential winners usually avoided falling into losing situations, whereas the people who are no longer fully in the race are the ones that put their efforts into the wrong moves, the wrong tactics, missed the big moves, or wasted energy making up for blunders. If you can minimize all of the scenarios that you see as working against you, then you will slowly but surely home in on an end-race scenario that has better chances of a good result than when you started the race. But, of course, realize that you can’t control the race. You can be proactive and help shape it, but never see a loss as a failure. Losses just show you yet another way that a race can go and you can look back on it to see where you might have done things differently to get a better result. [This is no doubt true elsewhere in life. You have to see failures as learning experiences. Anybody that does anything interesting or exceptional in life no doubt sees a lot of failures, shortcomings, or detours before they see success. You just have to learn and keep going.]
  • Emotions are great, or can be. They make things interesting and if we didn’t have them, we literally couldn’t enjoy anything in life. But, it also exposes us to pain and fear… We have to be aware of these things and keep them in check when we make decisions racing. A lot of mistakes are made because people are anxious in races, angry, or question themselves and lack confidence. Sometimes people are afraid of losing or afraid of pain. Much of the time, the self-talk people may engage in or the anger, doubts, or fears they have will influence the decisions they make, and often this isn’t working in their favor. If you’re afraid that you can’t win a sprint finish, then you attack 5 miles out and hope for a solo win off the front. [I’ve done this.] If you’re afraid that you can’t sustain your effort as long as you have to, you ease up and stop suffering, and get dropped over the climb or through the crosswinds when really, everyone else was suffering too and if you had just held on for another minute or 30s or even 15s sometimes, you could have stayed with the group or been just close enough to catch back onto the group on the descent. Sometimes if you are angry at another racer for something they said or did against you during the race, then you might proactively race against them, but hurt your own chances in the long run… Emotions are fine, just be aware of them and try to make a fair assessment of the situation that isn’t too heavily colored by your feelings about the situation. Being Stoic like this can help you out immensely in races.
  • Lastly, be just a little more patient and watch the race just a little more than you do. Or maybe a lot more. If you watch and read the race better, then you can be more decisive when you act, and you can act less frequently. The less you react on impulse at every little twitch of the field, the more energy you save. The more you watch for the key, decisive moments, the more you can be ready to give the necessary effort into the task at hand. Smart racers don’t react impulsively. They watch and wait. Sometimes you may not be sure and have to just make a choice to act or hold back. Sometimes you may question your choice, but until you reach the finish line, you won’t know for sure… Sometimes you may be forced to make a half-measure of doing some work but not fully committing. If you are engaged in a half-measure, be sure that there’s a good reason for it. Hedging in races is smart, but only if you’re hedging in the right ways. Sometimes your only option is to go one way, and when it is, you have to go for it.

There’s a million ways that races can go, and you can keep learning for years through hundreds of races how to race better and smarter. Above are just a few thoughts of mine on how I think about racing and how to win races. I hope some of that is useful or interesting to you, and again, there are a lot of ways that you can frame things in your own head. It isn’t right or wrong to think of things in these terms or another, but for most of us, it just matters whether we can work towards our desired results, so hopefully some of this helps you to that end. Or if you have your own way of thinking about racing, just be sure to evaluate from time to time whether your way of thinking is effective or needs some change… Life is change, after all. I’m pretty sure we stop changing, learning, and evolving when we die.