Monday, July 13, 2009

The Keys to the IMWI Bike Course...

I shot out for 100 miles yesterday on the IMWI course; one of my main concerns is developing mental toughness on the bike. It seems my standard operating procedure calls for some mental weakening from about miles 50-70 or so. So I'm increasing volume a bit this week to try and really address this.

I approached the ride having two purposes. The first, as I said, was the mental toughness, but more specifically to really experience the highs and lows. To learn what I'm feeling leading up to the lows, so I know better when they're coming and how to anticipate them. How to get through them while biking well, and develop some confidence knowing that, inevitably, they'll pass. So I really wanted to tune into my own head a bit.

The second purpose was to really analyze how to most efficiently ride this course. I've ridden it a bajillion times and raced on it once, but I think having a really close, analytical look at it is worth my time. So I really tried to study the course, and what I was doing and why, and I'd make a mental note whenever I encountered something that I knew, on loop 2, I'd want to do differently.

So here, for your perusal, are some of my discoveries. Your results, of course, may vary. And I'm not using a power meter or anything like that, so I don't have any empirical data about anything, just experience and anecdotes. And I'm no expert in anything, just a guy on a bike. This advice is geared certainly more for the MOP'er or first timer - if you're, y'know, trying to qualify for Kona then what the hell are you listening to me for. And, of course, this is just what I found is working for me. So. Do with as you wish.

• I like to divide the course into 4 sections. Each requires it's own strategy and approach, and an understanding of its place in context with the other sections. I call Section 1: From Madison to Verona, the start of the bike (well, and back again on the way home). Specifically, I think Section 1 ends at the turn onto Paoli Street. I think it ends there because A: that's when the terrain of the course takes on a dramatic change, as you head into the hills on Valley Road, and B: On Paoli is where the Special Needs will be after the first loop. Knowing this is the halfway point after the first loop creates, I think, an important mental shift. Section 2 continues until the top of the last hill before the roundabout in Mt. Horeb, just on 8th St. It's not enough to just think "Mt. Horeb", because Mt. Horeb kicks your ass with a hill that is too often forgotten about. More on that in a bit, and I'll explain my thinking on why Section 2 goes all the way to that last hill, specifically. Section 3 goes to the turn-off onto Shady Oak Lane, just after the last of what I call the 3 Bitches; the big hills in the meat of the course, the last of which is on Midtown. I think this is another important mental milepost; once you turn right on Shady Oak, it's downhill, and then a generally easy ride all the way back through Verona to the start of your second loop (or to the turnoff back onto Whalen, heading home). At the end of Section 3, the worst is behind you. Section 4, takes you back through Verona. Here's a helpful illustration:

I think the key to success on the entire bike course is how one manages Route 92 through the last hill before the roundabout in Mt. Horeb.. Let me say that again. I think the key to success on the entire bike course is how one manages Route 92 through the last hill before the roundabout in Mt. Horeb. This is a tough bit of road that gets none of the respect or glory that the fearsome hills in Section 3 get on this course. But it occurred to me yesterday that this stretch is a friggin' energy vampire. There are some rollers, nothing to write home about, but anything that looks like flat ground is mostly a false flat. So you keep coming off of a small ascent or descent and think, sweet, now I can just plug into the big chain ring and settle down for a bit, but pretty soon you realize that you're better off going back to the small chain ring because this sucks. And you do that over and over again because in your head, this doesn't look like it should be this tough. So meanwhile, you're wasting all kinds of energy dinking around in a gear that's too tough before you back off, or you let your ego drive the machine and push a bigger gear than you probably should because, again, it doesn't look like this should be too tough. This would be fine if you didn't have the hills in Section 3 waiting for you, or if you didn't have to do this all over again. I think the smart play is to love your small chain ring on this section. Of course move to the BCR when it's sensible, but you will use energy so much more sensibly if you just take it in the nuts on this section. Your speed will slow down, you'll be rocking 14, 15, 16mph and hating life, but if you get your head out of the way and just pedal easy, you'll be in so much better shape later on. The rest of the course, it really takes care of itself. You know you have a big hill, you know you have a big descent. It's obvious to gear up or gear down. This section tricks you. Don't get sucked in. It's pretty much uphill to Mt. Horeb, you just might not realize it. Relax and take it easy.

• The hill into Mt. Horeb is formidable, and as tough as any of the 3 Bitches, but because it's not grouped up with them, I'm going to call it Little Bitch. But it's not little. But there you go, and now when you see that billboard for Cave of the Mounds you can say to yourself, ah, hello Little Bitch, I have come to destroy you. But here's the thing about Little Bitch, and why you need to be smart about it - it's not over when you think it's over. It looks like it's over when you see the "crest" after the overpass, but it's not. It winds to the left and keeps taking you to that high school or whatever on the right side. But, then it crests and you get a small descent and think "ah good, that's over" - it isn't! You crest again just after the high school and get a bit steeper small descent, and you think, "ah good, that's over" - but it still isn't! You get one last little climb, the top of which has you overlooking the roundabout to which you're about to descend, and now it's over. So again, don't be dinking around when you get to the high school and hit this little descent, thinking you'll move to the big chain ring. Just stay in the small chain ring, even through the little descents, until you get to that last little crest. "Ah, who cares," you say. "It's not such a big deal to move around the chain rings." Possibly, especially if you're a strong cyclist. If you're a Middle-O-Pack-er like me, though, or this is your first IMWI, then I think these little things matter. I think tiny mistakes, or at least opportunities to not make mistakes, can have a huge impact on how you're doing on this course when you're on the second loop - not to mention the marathon. I think even a momentary burst of wattage while you push too hard up a tiny hill just because you shifted too soon or something adds up if you do that several times over the course of the ride - which this bike course will do to you if you're not careful. So I say - when in doubt, take it easy.

• I'll repeat this same story for how to handle the first 2 Bitches in Section 3. You hit the first big hill - it's long, and it winds to the left, and you get a false flat in the middle of it. This is on Old Sauk Pass. You get to the top and you think, "ah, that sucked, glad it's over", and you get a small descent with some gentle rolling for the next half a mile or something. When you start that descent, it's easy to want to get into a bigger gear, maybe mash just a little to really build something on that descent. You think, "now I'll get some back after that hill". The road winds right onto Midtown and now you hit the second Bitch, which is a friggin' wall. Short, but steep. So I say, between the two Bitches, just stay in the small ring and rest. Don't descend for speed, descend for rest, and spin easy while you can between them. I think you just don't gain anything valuable if you try and push between the two hills.

• Last bit of specific insight, then on to a few more general things - Whalen kind of sucks. Especially leaving Verona and heading back into Madison. The first few miles of Whalen is kind of sketchy road - it's not in great shape. As soon as you turn onto Whalen heading home, the first thing you get to do is climb a bit. And there are a few other rollers. Nothing on Whalen is terribly sinister - the worst is definitely behind you - but they will get your attention. It's easy to think, once you're done with your 2 loops and heading back into Madison, that "whahoo! Home free now!", and that's not an entirely bad attitude to have, I don't think, but do keep yourself in check a bit. Don't have spent everything you have on the Verona loops so that you're struggling to get those last 16 miles home. Don't have raced smart only to let adrenaline get the best of you and push too hard going back into Madison. Try and settle down and keep riding smart, not hard.

Okay, some general thoughts:

• Any kind of significant wind on this course is a pain in the ass. You're just never really in a good position to take advantage of a tailwind, and the course is already so challenging that a headwind can be really demoralizing. Especially if you have a headwind heading home on Whalen, or on County G or Route 92. Each of these "long" stretches still require focus to manage the rolling hills, and a headwind can just kind of make you want to punch somebody in the face. Again, you just need to deal with it; that's racing. Trying to power your way through it will kill you by the second loop, nevermind the marathon. Depending entirely on the weather, it may mean whatever "speed" you're used to on the bike is dramatically slower. Again, you have to just let your ego go with that and ride smart, so you can run smart later. This course isn't made for PR's. It just isn't.

• Get to know your small chain ring. Get to love it. Spend quality time with it. Give it a name, buy it gifts.

• Get your machine dialed in before race day; you'll have never shifted so much in your life. You very realistically may use every single gear you have. Know you can shift easily and with confidence. This means a clean, well-lubed chain, too. Be sure your bike is getting a lot of love in prep for IMWI.

• For the love of pete, conserve energy. I was behind this dude for awhile yesterday that, on every single ascent of any significance, got up out of the saddle, stood up and mashed. And I don't know, maybe that was his goal for the ride, so I'm not wanting to be critical of him in general, but - pick your battles. If you need to stand up and mash, know what you're doing. You almost always use less energy, and go no slower, just staying in the saddle in your most comfortable climbing gears, putting your head down, and getting it done. When you're descending, rest. Let me say that again. When you're descending, rest. When I'm training, it's fun to push the pedals on descents and see how fast I can go. But when I'm riding "for real", I realize how valuable that time and energy is for when my legs are called on to do real work. Any opportunity to stop pedaling, however briefly, I take it. I actually have a mental image, where whenever I get to stop pedaling my "energy gauge" start to fill back up. Your legs will thank you for loop 2, and especially the marathon. Let all those crazy cats in carbon disc wheels churn by you on the descents, who cares.

• So to recap; what you do in Section 2 is critical to how you manage Section 3. And Section 3 is your litmus test; your marathon may be defined by how you ride it.

• Oh by the way, I struggle with every bit of this, all the time, just about every time I ride. It's a constant effort to ride for a marathon, and not to just start cranking, or descending crazy, or whatever. Why they call it Ironman, I guess.

That's what I know. What else do people think? Please contribute your own $.02 in the comments. Best of luck out there. Ride smart, not hard!


Erin said...

This is truly invaluable advice. Every other sentence I was saying, "Yes! Yes!" You've nailed the essence of this course. As I told the women I rode with this weekend: this course is technical, but it's fun...and it only gets a bad rap from those who don't take the time to really think about it and prepare. Also, two bits of advice that I still credit for a fantastic bike leg (i.e. fantastic as in finishing with energy to RUN the marathon): 1) Pick a top speed (for me it was 17 mph) and under no circumstances do you allow yourself to go over that (unless zipping downhill) until the last 5 miles of the bike course. and 2) Rest as often as you can...if you can maintain speed and not spin the pedals, then do that. Conserve, conserve, conserve. Which is what you said. So, perfect advice!

Great post!

IronVince: My Ironman Wisconsin 2009 Story said...

Thank you. I've got one ride of the course under my belt and several more rides planned before September. I will definitely put this advice into practice on my next ride of the course.

Thanks again.

MadisonDuo said...

Great post and as much as I've ridden it, I agree 100% with everything you said.

I love the name you gave the Mt. Horeb hill 'Little Bitch' - now every time I see that damn Cave of the Mounds sign, I am going to yell out 'Little Bitch'

Bill Ruhsam said...

I finished an olympic yesterday and I might have been less bothered on the run if I had coasted the downhills. However, it's too much to give up the chance to make up that time!

Matt Getting said...

Thank you for the advice, I'm doing IMWI this year and am planning on going up to Madison for a ride this summer - I will for sure use this!

JK said...

Thanks X -

I'm planning on heading out to Mad-town the weekend of July 31 to ride the course.

I have your number from TSchell, if you're around let me know I'd love to be able to ride with you.

Iron Girl Nyhus said...

Nice recap. Thanks for the detailed info. I like the visual you have of every time you stop pedaling downhill your "tank" fills up.

robert said...

Nice write-up, my only additional comment. If you're not going to pedal for any reason, get your arse out of the saddle and give it a break too. Six+ hours on that torture device is a long time.

bigmike600 said...

Having ridden it as well, I agree totally. One of the members of our tri club did about a 6 1/2 hour bike (not super spectacular but good) and he said NO BIG CHAIN RING ON THE FIRST LOOP. Period. In the second loop, use it as you see fit. Too much big ring on the first loop and you will suffer on the second loop. Great to see you, Erin and Robert at the aquathon last night. Good Luck at Door County.

J-Wim said...

That was an awesome read and good advice. Now if I can follow it....

My strategy is when I get to the top of a tough hill, I tell the hill "You can suck it." I say it a lot on the IMWI course. Not sure it helps, but I feel better. :-)

IronVince: My Ironman Wisconsin 2009 Story said...

Thanks again for the post. I rode two loops yesterday. Hot and a nice wind from the WSW. Verona to to Mt. Horeb was definitely the key. I kept telling myself to relax and enjoy that section of the course. For some reason the rollers in that section got bigger the second time around. Feeling fairly fresh after those loops was a nice confidence booster.

Mike said...

One thing I would add is that if you're going to coast and recover on the downhills, be sure to power over the top of the climb and get up to speed first. I see a lot of people start to rest at the top of the climb and they're barely moving and the lose tons of time. Power over the top, get some momentum and then coast and stretch your legs out a bit.