Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Three Bears and the Big Bad Wolf

Today's ride was a wonderful sufferfest - our first real hill climbing event.

Those of you who ride regularly will know the Three Bears. For those of you who don't, it's a stretch of road in the East Bay which has, approximately(1) 3 hills of varying sizes. It's a good ride; and, for novice riders, it can be quite challenging.

There's simple math (2) you can apply to a ride to create a statistic which I like to call the SQ (Suffer Quotient). Rides can be described by distance (in miles) and Elevation Gain(number of feet climbed). Divide Elevation Gain by Distance and you end up with the SQ. There are a number of considerations about this statistic:
  1. First, it can be wonderfully misleading. In a 50 mile ride, if you do all your climbing in 10 miles, it's obviously a stiffer ride than if you do the climbing in 25 miles of it.
  2. When the miles occur is important - too early and you're not warmed up; too late and you've already sucked all the glycogen out of your muscles so you're burning fat to fuel the climb (EOS and LRA, two statistics I'll describe below)
  3. The recovery time between hills is pretty important - the reason you can ride, 8, 10, 12 hours or more is because you refuel and recover on the ride - eat, drink and be merry.
So, the implication from all of this is that SQ can be kind of meaningless. It's not though, because in the long run (hah) it kind of makes sense.
  • My first ever century -- Tucson, 2005 -- was about 3,500 feet/100 miles - SQ= 35 feet/mile. It was a challenge for me but is a pretty easy ride.
  • The Marin Century (100 miles), with ~ 6,500 feet of climbing (SQ=65) is generally regarded as one of the hardest out there.
  • Death Ride, which is insanely hard, has an SQ of 105 feet (and that doesn't even come close to describing Just How Much It Hurts)
So, the ride today - a mere 39 miles but with an SQ of 86 was, in a word, a suffer fest. See below:

It wasn't just the feet climbed, but also:
  • where the miles were - we had some wonderful Early Onslaught Suffering (EOS) - look how we get to climb up the side of a cliff (colloquially known as Reliez Valley Road) at mile 2. I like about 40 minutes (10-12 miles) of warm-up before I start climbing. Today we had all of 10 minutes. To put it in layman's terms, it felt like I was hammering nails into my quads as we rode up
  • Late Ride Agony - notice how at the end of the ride we had Pig Farm Hill. It's also known, with no small passion, as Pig's Arse Hill, thank you Iron Wu!. There's a reason for that.
So now you know about LRA: but what's the deal with Pig Farm Hill? Well, one other statistic that the SQ doesn't talk about directly is the gradient of the individual climbs in the ride. A non-recreational cyclist will start to notice a rise of about 3% (475 feet in one mile) . Most sustained climbing takes place on 6-8% hills. Above a 10-12% grade and you're starting to really suffer; and anything over 14% is just heart popping (and not in the good way).

So, with Pig Farm Hill as you approach the climb it starts out at around 6% or so; and goes on like that for about 1/4 mile to draw down any spare glycogen you might have. Then, it jumps up to about 9-10% for about 1/4 mile to suck out any of the oxygen you might foolishly have attached to your red blood cells. That prepares you for the last 1/4 mile which is essentially vertical, and, actually, backwards in places.

Disappointingly, we only had time to climb Pig Farm Hill once.

So with an SQ of 86 (somewhere between Marin Century & Death Ride), a good heaping of EOS and some LRA thrown in to boot, you'd think this is a ride that would be consigned to the darkest areas of my mind, hopefully to be expunged through therapy or alcohol.

Of course not. It was a great ride. Aptly named too - because, after all, who needs to know about the fifth hill? No such thing as too much suffering!

Big shout out to Linda Mandolini who SAGGed for us!

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Footnotes and whatnot
(1) Swear to god - Neither are the hills there bears (they're stretches of road, for god's sake) nor are there three.
(2) It's not really math now, is it. But it amuses me. And I'm foolish that way.


  1. Impressive feat on conquering 3 bears and pig arse in the same ride!

  2. A thank you to Ron Garrison who helpfully pointed out that a 3% grade is more than 3 feet climbed in one mile of riding.