“Them wheels are cool as shit.”
The young man, canine tooth missing, mouth agape, sits across from a young woman behind the wheel, another male in the back seat. He wears wonder on his face, which switches to embarrassment as I turn, smiling, standing astride my bike as we pause at a stop sign, waiting to cross a busy road.
A genuine taste of local culture, perceived atop a mountain of invisible biases about ‘the South,’ that is, the American South; we’re in the Carolinas. Crosses of epic proportions dot the landscape we’ve been riding all week, ubiquitous as Tim Hortons across Canada’s populous regions. “God Died For You,” they read, stark type painted in blood red against the whitest white.
“Thanks, man” I reply, at the same moment as he catches himself: “Oh, sorry!”
He’s embarrassed, perhaps for ogling, perhaps drooling…it’s impossible to know. What’s clear is his amazement at the sight of us, six fully grown men straddling flashy bikes while wearing equally or even more flamboyant costumes. Against the brown and grey of this early spring day, punctuated by the odd tree bud of purple patch of flowers in the sun, we don’t fit in. We’re not from around here.
“I mean, I’ve never seen bicycles like that before! Those are hot as a motherf@#$er. My grand-daddy used to pull bicycles out of dumpsters for me to ride, but they were always pink or white or some shit. He’d paint them red so the other kids wouldn’t make fun of me! Those bicycles are cool as a shit!”
Off they drove.
I don’t tell this story to poke fun. Instead, I bring it up as illustrative of the vibe our Tekné CC crew of 6 experienced while in the Carolinas for a week in March. We rode our expensive bikes through some very, very poor communities. We brought our biases – implicit and explicit. We knew the drivers in the region (Table Rock, South Carolina) had a reputation for being patient and considerate. We knew politics would be best left off the agenda when conversing with locals. We knew we’d been fed a lot of stereotypical content over our lives about the South. I don’t think any of us expected to experience so many positive interactions with locals. This was but one. And of all the trip’s revelations, this was easily the most heartening.
Why South Carolina? In short, if you want to ride bikes in reasonably nice weather mid-March, South Carolina hits the sweet spot in terms of drive time – 16 hours from Ottawa – to terrain, weather, and hospitability of local drivers. A couple of our guys booked a cabin in Table Rock State Park that accommodated 6 back in December, and we piled on. The drive was pretty easy for two reasons, which I’ll cast as the first of the trip’s many lessons:
Lesson 1: Start long drives around 0500, knock off 4 hours by 0900, feel awesome about your progress, and keep jammin’.
Lesson 2:Podcasts. This could be a whole post – and I have been meaning to do one on this topic for a while – but I’ll just list the ones we brought with us: Radiolab, Freakanomics, Planet Money, TrainerRoad, VeloNews, WTF, Missing Richard Simmons. Honourable mentions we didn’t hit on this trip: Crosshairs Radio, Clipped In, Cycling Tips, Invisibilia, Revisionist History.
I wasn’t prepared for how good the terrain from Table Rock, South Carolina was. Simply, it was the best I’ve ridden. What does that mean? Amazingly, the contours of the roads we hit over 7 days were all unique in character. Each road had its own personality, composed of the confluence of elevation change, pitch, curve radius, and road surface texture. No two climbs felt like any other, each descent was its own beast. The only stretch of road that felt familiar over the week was the Blue Ridge Parkway, which was almost indistinguishable from the Gatineau Parkway over a couple kilometres! For your reference, it was boring compared to the rest of the roads we spend time on.
There’s something about climbing for 20, 30 minutes at a time that feels good when you’re riding at tempo. I’ve never said this before: I loved the climbs. We rode some absolutely bonkers steep grades (26%), but the majority was around 5-9%. The terrain in the region is almost never flat, so you’re always doing something.
Descents. Oh. My. Again, unlike anything I’ve ridden. The Carolinas span a portion of the Appalachians, the oldest mountain range on earth. Many of these ancient peaks have been reduced, via erosion, to rocky bulges dotting the landscape, often steep. Whereas we don’t have more than one or two switchbacks in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, the Carolinas are rife with them. When you can look down the slope and see two, three switchbacks car-free below, you can use the whole road and rip these cambered bad-boys. Ok, well, it’s relative. Having never ridden descents like this, I was on a learning curve, and Mike Reeves took some time out of me on a few descents where I simply braked more, but I did come awfully close to a KOM on the most intestinal tract from Saluda to Lack Lure. That one came down to disc versus rim brakes; I had discs, and I pushed them hard!
Lesson 3: The Carolinas have incredible terrain for cycling, and you don’t have to be a climbing specialist to enjoy the roads.
Lesson 4: I have, and will always have more to learn about descending. It makes me happy to know I can go to the Carolinas and come back a better rider. If you are not a skilled descender, expect to burn through a pair of brake pads.
Riding day after day is fine if you have a plan
I’ll be honest: I wasn’t sure how I’d feel after the first three days of riding. I’ve never done more than three big days in a row before (outside of mountain biking in BC and Moab, which were different, fewer hours each day), so I was really curious to see how I felt on day 4. Heading into the training camp, I set a plan way back to train well into it, lean out as much as I could (slowly), and take the weak before sort of mellow, focusing on sleep. I executed each of these elements well, and arrived having ridden about 15 hours a week all winter. That left the how; how would I ride?
Our group, composed of Dave Jones, Mike Reeves, Todd Fairhead, Scott Emery, Aaron Kyle, and myself, was mixed in fitness level and experience, but it was no secret that Aaron and I would be climbing at a higher level. How would I ride to ensure I got the most benefit out of the opportunity and make sure the others were having an equal amount of fun?
My approach was to focus on pedaling economy and climbing technique for the week, NOT high end efforts. When we climbed, I’d work on my cadence (high), form (locking core while staying relaxed), and economy (smooth pedaling, avoiding working against myself through opposing forces and tension). I would also build on the out of the saddle riding I do on the trainer, and put in some long climbs ‘like Contador,’ just much slower. This would allow me to improve my technique and hone a ‘tool’ I can use at Rasputitsa, as good form out of the saddle uses the glutes far more than the quads, sparing the latter.
For rolling terrain, I’d pull more than the other guys and try to keep the momentum up wherever they could benefit from drafting the most, backing off on the climbs enough to keep things smooth. This was a really fun challenge, and I’m happy to report we all improved our tight fast-rotating paceline skills over the week, especially when we were riding incredibly fast-rolling spans of road around 45-55kph! Those were amazing fun!
What did it feel like? We cracked off 122k on day 1 (I’ve linked to the Relive video, which has photos embedded; you can click through to the Strava file), and definitely rode the hardest of the week, almost 30kph average speed. Todd, Aaron, and I climbed well together up Caesar’s Head at tempo, and it felt fantastic. Day 2 felt fine, even though we missed our turn to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Instead, we rode a stellar descent and knocked off 131k.
Day 3 was to be the big one, and the plan to avoid going deep was working. Taking in 2800m climbing over 214k and 8 hours in the saddle, I kept my effort steady, felt good, and froze with the rest of the guys as we descended Caesar’s Head in a rain and hail storm. Todd was particularly stoked about holding up really well this day, having done less training over winter than he’d hoped. It was a turning point for him, a major confidence booster. This was a highlight of the trip, from my perspective. But how would we recover for day 4?
Just fine! We just kept on riding. 4:20 on day 4, 4:55 on day 5, 5:35 on day 6, and 3:30 on day 7, all saddle time. Focusing on eating and recovery the whole week, avoiding really big, deep efforts, we were all without issue. Sure, just about everyone had some soreness in the legs toward the end of the week, but nothing approaching debilitating. No joint issues, no injuries of any sort, no bonks, no mental breakdowns. Over 7 days we logged about 36 hours on the bike and almost 1000kms, with something like 16,800m climbing. Waking up early Sunday morning for the final 8 hours in the car home, we all seemed to feel ready to rock another day on the bike.
Tips for recovery? Perhaps primary: eat all day as you ride, and don’t eat well before and after you’re on the bike. Training camp isn’t the time for cutting calories, it’s the time for fuelling your effort and taking in enough nutrition to recover and do it all over again. Eat well!
After riding, it’s recovery time. Make sure you get some quality sugar into your system within 15 minutes of stopping riding, which will go right to restocking your legs’ glycogen. Optimally, I’d take a shower, then spend some time on the foam roller (not too vigorous!), followed by stretching (focusing on hips and hamstrings), and muscle flossing. Aaron tried my bands for flossing, and ended up loving them. I feel they are a very useful tool, check them out.
Next up, time for dinner! If I didn’t already have some Vega Sport Protein with banana, I’d likely have some of that now, followed by a meal. My staples over the week were baked sweet potato and quinoa. I find these work really well for me in general, and did not disappoint during the trip. I prepared sweet potato at home that lasted a few days, saving me food-prep time while I needed to be recovering. The more you can do at home, the more time you have for serious recovery at camp. Put those legs up!
Lesson 5: You can ride more than you think. If you don’t push too hard, all you really need to do is keep eating, and you can keep riding. For a long time.
Lesson 6: Recovery takes time. If you’re going to do a training camp, and want to get the most out of your time in the sun (hopefully!), nutrition, recovery strategies and techniques, and sleep are all key. All of this stuff takes time, and if you’re doing enough, you probably won’t have much time for a whole lot of other stuff. I tried reading one night for a bit and was simply too tired.
Lesson 7: Prepare your routes ahead of time: Mike Reeves was exceptional on this front, preparing a slew or routes for us to cover across the week. We made some little tweaks, and eventually figured out how to use RidewithGPS to load our Garmins for alerted turn-by-turn navigation, which consumed a lot of time. You want to know how to do this in advance so you don’t waste recovery time on it.
Lesson 8: Don’t assume all the riders in your group are riding as smoothly as they could be in pacelines. It’s worth it to check in regularly to make sure that what should be a smooth effort is indeed smooth. If riders are doing over/under efforts in a paceline, adjustments need to be made. Help each other smooth out the rotation so that the effort doesn’t spike each cycle. This is how the group will cover the most ground with as close to the same effort per rider as possible. It’s all about preserving momentum, smoothly. I referred to us above as a ‘crew’ and I mean that. The idea is to work together so everyone has the best time possible. Attacking every climb and looping back to the group is not how crew-mates roll.
Unless you count the 8k I rode in Ottawa to fetch decals before departing for South Carolina, day one was my first time out on my new Brodie Romax cyclocross bike. I downsized for the two framesets I got from Brodie, aiming for a more cyclocross-specific fit than I’ve used before. Aside from the aluminum frame, a departure from the bikes I’ve ridden in recent years, a few other components were new to me, chosen to excel over all manner of mixed terrain. 55mm Woven Precision carbon clinchers with 32mm extralight Compass Stampede Pass tires (with latex tubes), SRAM Force 22 hydraulic disc brakes and mechanical shifters, Kogel ceramic bottom bracket and derailleur pulleys, Absolute Black oval chainrings, and a Specialized CG-R suspension seatpost; a lot of new stuff! While I wanted to shake down my set-up in preparation for the spring classics in April, just a few elements were totally new to me. Thankfully, they all ended up performing as well as I hoped.
I’ll get into details in another post, but for now, will point to the one standout performance: Absolute Black’s oval rings. On day one I was flailing a bit in the big ring over the rollers, and I needed time to tune into the rhythm the rings required of me. Day two was smoother from the start, and I started to get into the groove. By day three I’d figured out how to move my hips to get the most out of the rings while climbing out of the saddle, and I was digging it. Ultimately, I found I climbed better with the oval rings than I do with round rings, just as I’d hoped. I will cover the ‘why’ in greater depth in a separate post.
While my Kogel components performed flawlessly, as expected, rendering them invisible, our Woven wheels and Compass tires stood out. 5 of 6 of us were on Wovens, all 45mms except my 55s. Two of us were on discs, the rest rim brakes. I was literally amazed by how well the guys braked on the hairy descents we rode, despite being on rim brakes. Nobody overheated a rim. Of them, Mike was the one who wanted to push his braking harder on the gnarliest descent we did, but wasn’t sure whether carbon could take it. Frankly, there’s no way to know for certain what the limit is when riding new descents that demand more from wheels than anything we’ve experienced, even if the wheels hold up to 250 degrees celsius in the lab. I suspect Mike’s wheels would have been ok if he’d pushed harder, but he backed off instead. Coming out of the riding, I saw confirmation that disc brakes are ideal for those riding such varied terrain regularly, while they are totally overkill on terrain like our roads around Ottawa. But they afford reliable, consistent braking no matter the conditions with carbon wheels, which takes the guess work out of it. I really liked not having to think about.
More on wheels, Scott rode the extralight Compass Bon Jon slicks in tubeless mode, while I was on the 32mm Stampede Pass (254g) treads with latex tubes. Neither set-up made us once think: “I wish I had smaller tires.” Since we were not racing, we didn’t need to climb at our physical limits, and the slight weight penalty of larger tires was easily outweighed by the greatly enhanced stability, comfort, and safety of our high volume tires. I ran 45/50psi in mine, which provided a lot of suspension to reduce stress on my body over the 7 days of riding. Next time I’m down in the area I will likely ride the 35mm Bon Jons (302g), and perhaps even experiment with the 650b/42mm Babyshoe Pass (362g), which would give me a little lower ride height without a significant weight or aerodynamic hit. If you’re interested, you can drill into these difference here. Basically, I believe road bikes should run 32mm tires as a default for general riding, and larger where rough roads and/or technical descents are involved. It’s just more fun this way, and safer.
Lesson 9: Training camp is a great time to experiment with equipment changes, particularly when you test one change at a time. If you want to try changing your bike fit, move one element at a time, slightly. Be systematic.
Lesson 10: Where terrain involves a lot of descending with technical corners and significant braking, bias toward the largest tires you can fit to your bike of choice. Unless you’re a pro, training camp is most likely about piling on kilometres at endurance pace and tempo, not going for KOMs on climbs. Don’t sweat carrying a little extra weight up when it means you will be safer and have more fun on the way down, and you will take on less fatigue from the vibrations generated by simply rolling over imperfect roads all day, all week.
Lesson 11: If you’ll face a lot of climbing, gear low, spin to win. The name of the game is to pile on the hours without damaging your legs each day…perhaps until the last day. Riding long hours is going to deliver significant gains in terms of muscle economy, and you don’t want to be dragging yourself out of bed and onto your bike each morning. Gear low enough to keep your cadence up for the majority of the climbing you’ll do. If you’ll face a few steep ramps that require standing and powering, that’s fine. But the ticket is to spin rather than grind up all the typical grades you’ll face, working on smooth, consistent power transmission. For me, the perfect set-up was a 34t up front and an 11-32 in the back. If you are going to go slower than me, you might be better off with a 34/34 or a 34/36. There are options out there that go even lower up front, like a 32 or 30, which could also be great. Don’t copy what the pros and fast amateurs use, spec your bike based on your ability level. Spinning each day will pay off big-time after the first two or three days, I promise.
It only took one ride to know that I’d want to return in 2018. I’m already looking forward to it, especially because I expect we’ll be able to rope in more club-mates next year.
Over a week of riding, only three cars passed us too close. That’s better than one would experience in Ottawa-Gatineau. The South Carolinas are indeed cycling-friendly. And the locals? Well, we encountered more friendly people than we would have around home. It was fantastic, even if many of them brought up the political climate in the US and their feelings of dread about it.
I arrived home on Sunday to the best welcome home banner ever, and got onto the trainer Monday night. Feeling pretty good, I figured I was well on my way to recovering from the trip. On Wednesday reality settled in as I started to fight off a mild cold, and fatigue became palpable. I’ve been tired all week, which suggests there was a lag. I imagine that if I’d kept riding the same way for another week, the fatigue would be deeper and take longer to come out of. I’ve take the week easy, and won’t get back to hard training for a few more days. It’s been an interesting learning process.
We captured some good video footage, which I’ll cut into a short piece when I can find a few extra hours. Before then, I’ll post up more photos to our Flickr page.
If you have general questions about tackling your first training camp, or specific ones about bike set-up and/or the Carolinas, don’t hesitate to ask. We’re happy to help others get the most out of their cycling!
I truly appreciate all the support my sponsors have given me and our club, and I am happy to be continuing to work with them and a few new brands in 2017: Giro, Woven Precision Handbuilts, Compass tires, Absolute Black, Kogel, Brodie, Silca, Mad Alchemy, Xact Nutrition, Vega, Re:Form
I encourage you to check out their fantastic Instagrammin’:
Next up: The Steaming Nostril!