Feb 5-15th was the 2009 Strong Like Bull (SLB) camp in Southern Spain about 35 minutes from the town of Malaga. The camp is run by John Hirsch (my coach), Sean Langford and Mandy Braverman. After a big run focus in December then 2 weeks off after the Disney Marathon I realized I had about 2-3 trainer rides total since November of 2008 so I was worried the day to day mountain riding was going to be too much for me and I did not know what to expect from the camp. In a panic I spent the week before leaving doing 30-50 minutes each night on the trainer with some hard interval sets in hopes that my fitness from running would carry over and I tried to get the legs used to, in short time, being back on the bike.
Feb 5th, travel day: My plan was to meet up with another SLB guy, Joe, in Newark. About 2 weeks earlier my 10 pm flight from Newark to Madrid got bumped up to 8:15, so my 6pm flight from Pittsburgh to Newark was cutting it too close so they moved me up to a 4:00 departure from Pittsburgh. I was just going to have a 3 hour layover in Newark. Well the Pittsburgh flight ended up leaving at about 6:30 and I had already made arrangements to have a 10pm flight from Newark to Madrid hold me a seat as there was no way I was going to make my connection.
Somehow we arrived in Newark at about 7:50. I was off and running through the terminal at breakneck speed. I arrived at my gate just in time to hear last call for boarding. I asked if there was any chance my luggage would make the connection and I was assured it would. I was the last to board the flight and from then on the rest of the trip was uneventful.
Feb 6th, Arrival: Joe and I arrived in Malaga in the afternoon on the 6th. We were picked up by John, Sean and Andy Idle who hosted the camp at Idlebreaks. I was glad to see that my bike and luggage did in fact make the connections and somehow arrived without any problems. After a short drive we were 'home' and started the work of unpacking and assembling the bikes and meeting the other riders.
Feb 7th: 38 miles, 3 hrs, 4,500 feet of climbing.
Started the day with a nice 10k run with Joe, Phil, John and Ken R. Then it was a short ride to Concepcion in the van and then we set off in some cold and dreary conditions. This was the first taste of outside riding I'd had since October and the legs felt pretty good and I didn't have any trouble keeping up with the group. After a couple hours of riding we came back to Concepcion and about 5 of us took the option to ride home instead of calling it a day. This added a good hard climb out of Concepcion with some pretty steep sections at the beginning. Overall it was a good first day and for not having been on a bike at all for months I felt pretty good.
Feb 8th: Zaffaraya. 57 miles, 4:07, 5,700 feet of climbing.
It was another cold and dreary day with temps in the upper 40's and some light wind/rain. We rode about 25 miles of rolling terrain until we reached the base of my first big 'real spanish climb' into the town of Zaffaraya. At the base of the climb we started to shed some of our extra clothes and layers for the 12k, 2,300 foot climb ahead. Several of the group of 13 headed off early while the rest of us took our time getting ready. I left about the same time as John H. and we spent the first couple of kilometers chasing down the 'leaders' and caught up to them about 1/3 of the way up the hill. One rider, Ken M. had about a 200 yard gap on the lead group and soon it was down to John, Sean, Ken Rideout and myself chasing him down. About 2/3 of the way up the winding road Ken R flatted and Sean
stayed with him. John took off and bridged up to Ken leaving me about 50 or so yards behind.
I worked like a madman for the
next 10 minutes and all but caught up to them only to lose my sunglasses around one of the switchbacks. By the time I turned around
and picked up my glasses I had lost contact with John and Ken and decided to soft pedal the rest of the way up. I saw Rideout was gaining on me but there was also a great view so I decided to forgo the 'race' to the top and enjoy the view and snap a pic of what we had just climbed.
After a regrouping and recovering with a lunch at the top of the climb we headed off on a desolate 5 mile stretch of road straight into a brutal headwind with another 1,000 ft climb that greeted us before a nice long descent to end the day.
Feb 9th: Long ride/Ruta. 77 miles, 5:15, 7,500 feet of climbing.
Another cool, damp day to start the ride. The theme of the day was attack, attack and attack as the pace was quick right off the bat. A couple of good climbs and some nice fast descents started the day. I was warned by Sean that this was one of the harder, longer days and that the real work began after about the first 30 miles. The lead group started up the first big hill, a 700 foot climb in about 2-3 miles at about mile 32. It was a quick pace and was just a taste of what was to come that day. After a nice descent we reached the climb at Ruta, a beautiful 1,000 foot climb with several switchbacks in about a 3-4 mile stretch of road. Rideout and I went off the front rather early and dropped most of the group, only to have John come barrelling by us about 2/3 of the way up to take the climb. We never caught him, but we know he put in a good effort to gap up to us and lead out the climb. After that it was hill after hill after hill, including a stretch of 'rollers' through some olive groves that had some wickedly steep sections. Sean had legs for this stretch and he led me through the rollers with John and Ken R. a short ways back. After the 'rollers' Sean, Rideout Voodoo Phil and I stayed on a good clip for the last few climbs including a really nice climb out of a quarry that we would come to go through a couple of more times this week. After this ride I was feeling good as I stayed with the front group for the whole ride all day.
Feb 10: Recovery ride. 30 miles, 2hrs, 1,450 feet of climbing.
Not much on this ride, it was a nice easy 2hr ride with some rolling hills and one decent climb. I felt really good and pushed things on the one decent climb about 2/3 of the way through the ride but for the most part this was a sightseeing ride and a chance to snap some good pictures, also the weather seemed to be breaking in our favor and some sunshine was out. There were some nice roads through some more olive groves and a real nice climb out of a valley to start the day. To finish out the day we took a trip into town where we did a nice 2,500m swim workout.
Feb 11:Porta del Sol time trial. 62 miles, 4:37, 6,600 feet of climbing.
This was the first real 'test' of the camp. A 7k, 2,300 foot time trial up the winding road to Porta del Sol. At Idlebreaks they keep all the time for this ride on a the wall and I was wondering how I'd do after riding so hard on every ride up til today. It was a 25 mile ride to the start of the 'race' with about 1,000 feet of climbing just to get there. This also included a nice steep 'bonus' climb at the 5 mile mark that only about half of us did. The rest of the ride to the climb start was more of a slow steady march. Once at the base of the climb we shed all unneeded clothes and Andy started us off as a group.
The pace was fast right off the bat, with John and Sean getting about 20 yards in front of Ken M, Ken Rideout and I. After about the first kilometer we came around a switchback and I noticed John H had gone off and left Sean. Rideout and I caught Sean and I was feeling good so about 1/2 way up I pulled away and could just see John about a minute up the road. I stayed in no-man's land the rest of the climb, staying just behind John and by then Ken M had caught Rideout and the two of them battled back and forth for 3rd behind me. Once I realized I wasn't going to catch John I just kind of stayed on my own and made sure I didn't blow up and let Ken and Ken catch me. Total time was 26:10, with John about a minute ahead and Ken M just beating out Rideout for 3rd about 40 seconds back. Here's Ken John and I for the 'podium' atop Porta del Sol.
After re-gropuing at the top of the climb we had a nice long descent followed by more climbing. I was still feeling good at this point and Rideout and I kept the pace up the last big climb and kept going on the remaining climbs before a nice descent back to 'base camp'. Another tough day and although the riding was getting harder and harder I was feeling better each day.
Feb 12: Recovery/Cafe con Leche Day. 30 miles, 2:03, 1,800 feet of climbing.
This was supposed to be our 'off day' to tour town and go to Granada, but I was feeling so good and strong that I, along with several others, did not want to quit riding. So we opted for an easy Cafe tour of about 30 miles. John, Sean, Joe, Ken R, Johnny English, Andy and I set out on a nice ride where we stopped at 2-3 different local coffee bars for a delicious Cafe con Leche at each one. We got to do the quarry climb again and I was feeling really good and spun up the climb in the big ring to get a good workout in as the pace was quite slow for the whole ride, but for a 'recovery' day it was just right.
Feb 13: Friday the 13th, Pico Veleta time trial. 18.6 miles, 1:50:50, 5,975 feet of climbing.
This was the big one. The ride of the camp, a 19 mile time trial from a small town just outside Granada to the Sierra Nevada Ski Resort on top of Pico Veleta. It was a 45 minute van ride to the base of the climb where we then spent a few minutes warming up before the start. I was nervous as the previous week's rides had all been at a quicker pace then I expected for an early season camp and I had made sure I was never out of the front group, but we had an easy day the day before and I was feeling good. We had been told the first 10k or so were through a quarry and were very hard, then there was a slight downhill and then it was steady climbing for the next 18k or so to the top. The original plan was to pace off of Sean as he is a solid rider and had a top 10 time on the board.
Like the Porta del Sol, the pace was quick right off the bat.
John went hard right away and I said to myself what the heck, lets go now. I went too right out of town and stayed about a minute or less behind John through the quarry and we were putting a lot of time on Ken R and Sean who were in 3rd and 4th. The quarry was brutal, with several short sections well over 20% grade. Once through the quarry the road goes up, and up, and up some more and soon there was snow and few trees and soon we were above the tree line with 2-3 feet of snow on either side of the road.
I lost sight of anyone behind me for the last 1/2 of the climb and kept John ahead of me. A few times I'd close the gap to less than a minute and I could see him repeatedly turning around to check on me, but I wasn't gaining enough. I thought about putting out the extra effort to gap him but I knew if I did I would probably catch him just in time to blow up so I kept the effort steady and just tried to not let John get too far ahead. The last 2-3k seemed to take forever and it was steeper at the top than I thought. I finished in a respectable time of 1:50:50, good enough for 5th on the board and about 3 minutes behind John and about 7 minutes ahead of Ken Rideout who came in third.
We hung out at the ski resort waiting for the rest of the group to finish in the snow and after a weeks hard riding and a good 2 hour effort I actuall felt really good. The view from the parking lot was amazing and you could see forever and the road we climbed just a few minutes before seemed like it was hours away as the cold and excitement of being at the top seemed to take away any pain or fatigue in the legs.
After the van ride home a nice 35 minute run actually felt good and the legs didn't feel too bad.
Feb 14th: El Torcal. 59 miles, 4hrs, 6,400 feet of climbing.
This one hurt. After a hard week of aggressive riding we had one more 4 hr ride to do. About half the group decided to take a shorter route and we had one new guy, a friend of Johnny English, with us on this ride. Right away he pushed the pace on the flats and we had a fast first hour averaging almost 22 miles an hour before a 1,000 foot out-and-back bonus climb. I felt good on the bonus climb and pulled ahead of the new guy and Ken Rideout and felt good. After that it was a re-grouping then a turn around and we headed into Antiquera for a few cafe con leche's before heading off to El Torcal.
Before reaching El Torcal there is a 3 mile or so steady climb up a windy stretch of road. Ken M., who had battled a week full of mechanicals and had to pull out of the Pico Veleta race the day before went off right away and no one seemed too anxious to follow. After letting him get about 1/4 mile in front of us Ken Rideout and I, who had tried to duke it out on almost every climb with each other, went after him. I pulled away from Ridout and caught Ken M. at the base of El Torcal which I soon learned was a steep, hard climb up a very loose/gravelly road. I had put out quite a bit of effort to catch him and when I did I was just able to stay side by side with him for the first half of the climb. We were both straining and standing a lot on the steep sections but neither of us was gaining much ground. I collected myself for one last push and about 2 miles from the top was finally able to put a little distance on him. I had come in second on all the big climbs (Ruta, del Sol, Veleta) and really wanted this climb so I made sure and went hard all the way to the end.
I reached the top, which looks like the moon with all the weird rocks, and laid down at the support van to chill out while the rest of the group finished. Overall this was the hardest climb of the week, or at least took the most out of me. Once at the top however you are rewarded with an awesome view down to Concepcion miles below.
After lunch and a 12k descent we were back into Concepcion where we had started a week earlier. Once again we hit the same road and climb which was the 'bonus' climb at the end of the first day's riding. I was tired from El Torcal but figured I had just one more in me and Sean and I set a nice hard pace all the way up the climb and finished on our own several minutes in front of the rest of the group. He said I was setting the pace and pulling him up the climb, but had he pushed any more at all I would have really had to dig to keep up with him. After the climb we rode in soft pedaling and cooling down on the nice downhill stretch back home.
Summary: 340 miles, 7 days, 24 hours riding and 35,500 feet of climbing.
Although I was ready to go home, I felt like I had more riding in me. Each day I seemed to feel better and stronger and with each passing climb my bike confidence grew. I wanted to get a lot out of this camp and although it seemed to be more like a stage race at times then a nice base-building camp that is exactly what I felt I needed and was glad to push and be pushed on every ride by a bunch of fellow athletes.