Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Training - Half Wheeling

One of the mythical stories I've heard in the IT world is how two guys, bored at that moment, managed to bring down one of the world's largest bank's mail systems. One guy kept writing emails to the other, pestering him over something relatively innocuous. It got to be annoying so the second guy set up an auto response if he received mail from that particular first guy.

The first guy escalated a bit - he set it so it would send 5 emails back for every auto response.

The second guy escalated too - he did the same thing - something like 5 emails for every auto response.

So instead of just doubling the mail load every couple milliseconds, their little double edged sword was demanding five times as much mail for each response.

1, 5, 25, 125, 625, 3125, 15625... you get the idea.

In 15 minutes the mail servers, inundated with billions of emails, bogged down so much that email essentially stopped working. A denial of service attack, if you will. Suffice it to say that the bank was not happy.

Half wheeling is to bike racing what those auto respond emails were to IT.

Half wheeling is what they call it when two riders, side by side, are subconsciously trying to beat the other rider. One will inch forward just enough that his wheel is a half wheel in front of the other's, who, in response, does the same thing. A typical addendum is that both riders start off after agreeing to go for an "easy ride". So they start out at, say, 16 mph.

Then one guy slides forward just a bit, edging up to maybe 16.5 mph.

The other guy responds likewise, maybe upping the ante to 17 mph.

And, in 15 minutes, suddenly they're furiously time trialing at 30 mph, trying to get half a wheel ahead of the other guy.

That's half wheeling.

I normally negative half wheel - I sit so my front tire is even with the other guy's front skewer. On one ride in California my ride companion asked if I was feeling okay because the other rider felt like they were waiting for me all the time. Later, when I did a smooth pull up a long hill buffeted by gusty winds, I inadvertently dropped my ride partner. Afterwards I was asked if, rather than feeling bad, if I had been waiting for the other rider.

And although I swore a long time ago I'd never half wheel, I broke my vow, at least in a certain way, on a recent ride. Although I half wheeled only psychologically, the result was the same - an inevitable increase of speed, right up to my absolute threshold. A fellow blogger SOC had his bike, some time, and works nearby, so we decided to meet up and do a ride together. We'd only seen each other at races (even racing together in one) but never in "civilian" gear, so to speak.

So he dashed over after work, kitted up, and off we went.

Now if you compare us two, you get an interesting "compare and contrast". On one hand, I've been racing about 10 times longer than he has. This means I tend to ride in a more economical way. On the other hand, he is way more fit than me. And he's more willing to work in a race than I could ever afford to be, due to his fitness. Since he's fit, he can make slight errors (say sitting an extra few inches off a wheel) without necessarily paying for them. Or, as the case may be, he can alter his effort to match that of those around him.

We do have some similarities. We both have Cannondales. We both think of cycling as a hobby, not as a "life" thing. We're both enthusiastic about racing, in different ways perhaps, but in the end, enthusiastic. On our particular ride we both ended up very considerate of the other's pace and ride "wants" and tried to accommodate each other as the ride went on.

Except for one thing.


We started off on a standard loop I do, one that goes over Mountain Road in Granby. My normal time is about 30 minutes to the bottom of the road, 7-8 minutes to the upper part of the steep bit, then another 20 minutes (so about 30 minutes total) to the end of the road. Then it's a quick 30 minutes back to the apartment.

We started out in a unbelievably furious wind, one of these weather features that, on my own, probably would have kept me off the bike. Heck, it was strong enough that I'd think twice before venturing outside to get to the basement. But with the effort SOC made to do the ride I didn't dare chicken out. We rolled out determined to do the ride.

After a few minutes I actually thought about suggesting we stop and turn around, but the whole cognitive dissonance thing kicked in gear and I felt that since we'd gotten this far, it'd be dumb to turn around now. Gamely we plowed on, grinding little gears as we struggled north into the wind.

I went a bit harder than normal because two reasons - first off, I was feeling pretty cold, and second, this wind worried me. The temperature was supposed to be higher, so I optimistically wore very light clothing, even ditching the jacket for a long sleeve jersey and a wind vest. This was a critical error as the wind tore right through my sleeves and robbed my core of a lot of heat energy. I guess this is why the weather site has the actual temperature as well as a "feels like" temperature.

The other thing was a bit more safety oriented. Wind isn't my best friend, but I was more worried about the effect the wind would have on our pace. The late hour meant we needed to do the ride "on schedule", i.e. at a pace I expected to maintain through the ride. With this extremely gusty wind we weren't going very fast. On one section I normally cruise through at 25-28 mph, we were struggling to maintain 15-18 mph. Yes, the wind should become favorable on the way back, but if we lost 20 minutes going north and gained 5 minutes come back, it'd be kind of dark before we climbed off our bikes.

After a few minutes I started to die. I mean, I was doing almost 230 watts average until I pulled off, my heart rate was at race pace, and I used an upcoming light that just turned red as an excuse to ease up and pull off. SOC, a bit puzzled at my pace, asked, a little winded, if we were going straight. I grunted in response - I simply couldn't talk at that point.

Like a trooper he maintained the pace and I used every bit of my quarter century of wheel sucking experience to get on his wheel.

It was a lot easier sitting on than in the wind, and when he pulled off I maintained our pace. The wind blew us around a bit, and although he commented on how hard we were going, I think I couldn't focus on anything except not getting caught out in the dark. The fact that my hands were sort of numb never left my thoughts, but because that didn't affect SOC, it wasn't my primary concern. That was the oncoming darkness because such a thing would affect him.

And that just wouldn't be right.

Incredibly we came to the base of Mountain road in well under 30 minutes. I have to admit that I asked SOC to ease up about 100 meters from the hill - hitting the base of the climb with my heart rate already at my threshold would have been a bad thing. He politely eased, waited for me, and turned left. He went quite hard and after a brief stint at an unsustainable 400 watts, I dropped back to an extremely painful 300 watt pace.

SOC didn't seem to mind the pace too much since he got so far ahead he actually turned around, rode back a bit, and then rejoined me. Politely he rode behind me, letting me set the pace. I simply went as hard as I could go, the late hour always at the front of my mind. We passed by my first marker in under 7 minutes, about 10 seconds off my fastest time. Incredible - and he'd turned around a third of the way up, ridden down a bit, and then simply followed me. Based on that I figured he could do it in under 6 minutes. Jeepers.

He accidentally distanced me again at some point on this forever climbing road. Finally we rode a bit side by side, not half wheeling, but really so we could keep an eye on the other's tempo and adjust accordingly.

In other words SOC slowed down when I started gasping.

At some point I big ringed it on a tiny descent, then, as the road ascended again, dropped the chain back down to the small ring. This was pre-Nokons and the front derailleur was sticking (due to some damaged cable housing), and when I forced the chain down, it dropped off and dislodged my SRM pickup.

Although I can ride without wattage, contrary to popular belief, I was afraid the expensive ($90?) mount would get chewed up by the chain. So I stopped to fiddle with this, my numb-ish fingers no help.

SOC came back, asked if he could help (he couldn't - as it was I could barely get my fingers at the sensor), and finally I resorted to using some emergency electrical tape I wrapped around my chainstay. Electrical tape wraps and unwraps a few times before it goes bad - and I got in the habit of leaving a few inches of the stuff wrapped around something on the bike, "just in case". I took what I had and wrapped it around the sensor - it worked well enough to get me home. I have to admit that I lost all power data after a few minutes, probably during the bumpy descents.

We finished up the climbing at the end of Mountain Road. Normally it takes something like 57 or 58 minutes. That night, after stopping for about 5 minutes to fix the sensor, we hit it in 53 minutes.

It would seem like that would be enough to ease my mind about the daylight left but it didn't. The sky seemed ominously dark and we started heading back. I revel in descents, my compact size and higher weight (remember, I'm dense) lending themselves to accelerating me down slopes faster than my better-climbing colleagues.

I forgot about one hill on the way back, really just a 90 second effort, but in the midst of all the high speed and high gear bursts of high effort, the hill promised to hurt. Going along my "need to set the pace" tactic - a survival tactic, because if I let SOC set the pace, I'd get dropped - I went to the front and put in a mammoth effort, big ringing it, doing something like 600+ watts for the first 30 or 40 seconds. I slowly died, slowly eased, and let SOC to the front.

When I finally got my head out of "we're late" mode, I looked around a bit.


We were about 10 minutes away from the apartment. 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Something like 30 minutes before a hint of sunset hit the sky.

Without a sense of impending doom looming over my head, my legs suddenly lost their impetus. Exhausted, fatigued, I actually lost SOC when he went tearing off after a minivan or something. When I finally got back to him and pulled through I went much, much easier, changing the tone of the ride. He quickly understood and we rolled back to the apartment. I had started to apologize already for my high tempo, but he was all grins. No problems.

It was after I checked my SRM data that I realized just how hard I'd pushed. Until I lost my power data (due to that wiggly pick up), I'd essentially done a full out time trial - 234 watts average over 20 minutes. I did a 20 minute test sometime later and could managed exactly one more watt of power over the test. With this knowledge I repeated my apologies for my increased tempo, but SOC seemed seriously unperturbed. I only realized why a bit later.

234 watts is not that hard for most racers, and many of them would easily beat this number.

So, for me it was an insanely hard ride. For SOC? Probably a "decent tempo" ride.

The only half wheeling I did that day was to myself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is MUCH better than my post about this ride - probably because I was actually hurtin' worse than you might have thought. Add to that that for the first 1/3 of the ride my front wheel was actually on backwards(!) ...And you thought I was just stopping on that climb to take a pic - had to catch my breath as WELL as fix my wheel. Outstanding ride, great route and fabulous company!

I'll have to provide a more detailed "other side of the story" at some point.

Thanks for another great post (and my apologies for not seeing it sooner - just catching up on the blogs...)