Friday, December 7, 2012

A Season to Forget... Or One to Cherish?

Stainless steel plate + 10 screws in my left clavicle. Plus two broken ribs (one displaced). Fun times!

There's no simpler way to say this other than to admit this racing season has been tough. Injuries have plagued me throughout the year and I'm writing this now at the end of the year with a fully bionic collarbone (after my natural one shattered into 5 pieces) and two broken ribs suffered thanks to a mountain biking crash two weeks ago.

Whats frustrating is that many of the injuries have just been accidental. Indeed, I severely bruised my ribs in March after my dog, chasing tail, pulled me hard into the car door which effectively kept me out of the pool for over a month and put the kibosh on any early year competitiveness in triathlon. Then there was the unfortunate fall off a mountain bike over the summer where I bruised my hand badly enough (couldn't put any weight on bike handlebars) that my big goal half ironman in September (Savageman) didn't happen. And then finally, there was the big accident two weeks ago where I enthusiastically jumped a ramp at Fountainhead not knowing how f-ing steep it was and landed on my side with several broken bones. So my long awaited debut into cyclocross, due the next day, never happened.

There's also been some stupid decision-making on my part that has led to injury. The most telling is my decision to salvage my season after the Savageman debacle by focusing on the Marine Corps Marathon and trying to run a Boston qualifying time. I knew I had it in me to run fast, but I simply did not train long distance until a month before MCM and then tried to cram a 3 month advanced training program into 4 weeks. So of course my legs revolted and the day of the marathon I couldn't even walk without pain and ended up not even starting.

So all this happened in the same season.. Sucks doesn't it? Well it depends... it depends how you frame things and how you calibrate success and failure. Yeah, I messed up some of my racing goals and made some unwise training (rather over-training) decisions, but look where I was last year... Last year, I was about 40 pounds heavier, had been sitting on my butt for the past 3 years, had just had knee surgery, and was coming out of a bad long-term relationship.

Then everything started to change for the better. I resolved to get fit and go out and enjoy athletic adventures. yeah, I rocked Mountains of Misery 200K; and yeah, I rocked the Garrett County Diabolical Double; and yeah, I finished a mountain half marathon (call it a hike) one day and then raced my mountain bike 100K the next; and did a whole bunch of fantastic training with a whole bunch of fantastic people; and I met someone special who loves doing the same kind of stuff... how cool is that?!

So I think not that this season has been one to forget, rather one to cherish. Racing has ups and downs. I'm sure next year will be way better than this one in terms of staying healthy. But I will always cherish this year as a key turning point in bringing me back to enjoying a healthy and active lifestyle.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Cooking with Poo... No I'm Not Kidding!

I can now cook Thai! 
Thailand -- the land of infinite massage parlors, intriguing street food, wild weekend markets, and boundless nightlife. It also happens to be a prime conference location and that's what brought me there for about a week in August.

Unfortunately, I didn't have time to venture outside of Bangkok but there's plenty to do in Bangkok, and plenty bang for your errr.. dollar ;)

The trip over was uneventful and I managed to get just enough sleep on the 20+ hour journey to arrive at the hotel at midnight ready to collapse. Mission get-over-jetlag-quickly accomplished! Incidentally, I read nearly all of Chrissie Wellington's autobiography on the plane and it turns out she trained in Thailand during her early years as a pro. So I was hopeful I could find some nice running spots around Bangkok as I had some long build up runs due on this trip.

To say Bangkok is lively at nights is an understatement! I could sense the hubbub from the taxi. However, I was so tired that I arrived at the hotel around midnight and went straight to bed. But was awake the next morning at 5AM for an eight mile run. I tried exploring the city but was constantly thwarted by street carts, motorbikes on the sidewalks, and gawking locals wondering what the heck I was doing running at 5AM!

Morning Breakfast -- Healthy Option
Morning Breakfast -- Unhealthy Option
Eventually I found my way to a park with a pond and a one-mile running track around it and ended up doing a few loops around. 
Hot and Humid. Worse than DC if you can believe it

Of course every run has to end with the local recovery drink
 The rest of the day was spent entirely at the conference but we did manage to take a boat taxi out in the evening for dinner.
One of the many temples in the city
 Another day of conferencing was followed by some weekend planning with a good friend, Tania, who happened to be attending the conference. First stop was the Grand Palace where we were greeted with the following sign:
Luckily I was wearing jeans
I almost asked this guy if I could buy his pants. I think he may have lost a bet or something...
 But it made sense since the Green Budha was housed in the Grand Palace, along with the royal family. The architecture was quite stunning:

This is the Green Budha's temple

Guardian of the temple... Not sure what the statue is all about though ;)

There were hundreds of these lining the temple walls


Had to take a picture of the pink elephants

It took us a good minute to figure out that this guy was not real! 
From here it was off to the Chatuchak weekend market, a bustling collection of thousands of street shops selling everything from underwear to plasma TVs!

Definitely worth a visit. Its only open on Sundays though. Tania and I spent hours just wandering

Yes, even dominatrix shoes were on sale! 
 Last two things on my list of to-dos were (a) get a thai massage, and (b) take a cooking class. Of course, Tania's suggestion of cooking with poo took care of (b) easily, if for no other reason than the name! For (a) we managed to find a legitimate massage parlor rather than one of the many shady brothel covers that dot the city. The massage was undoubtedly fantastic. I had run 12 miles that morning so definitely needed some dead cells removed from my legs. Definitely worth it and incredibly inexpensive!

The next day was an early start for a food market visit and then cooking with Poo -- Poo is a lovely slum dwelling lady who offers authentic Thai cooking classes and uses part of the proceeds to develop her slum. So not only was the name catchy, the cause was entirely authentic.

The market visit wasn't exactly for someone with a weak stomach. We saw all kinds of sea creatures and animals in various stages of slaughter. It wasn't pretty. At one stage, we witnessed a young man battering an eel with a wooden stick till it became limp and then he chopped it in half. I had serious thoughts of becoming a vegetarian that morning!

Dicing some frogs
Plenty of fresh fish
Pig head anyone? 
The fruit market was a welcome relief!
Some very fresh spices
After the food market, we ventured into Poo's slum and spent the rest of the morning cooking with her. We learnt how to make Pappaya Salad, a local Thai soup with shrimp, and Pad Thai. The yummiest of course was sticky rice with mango. I think I had about three helpings of that till they were out of mango.. it was divine!

Overall, it was a great trip and definitely worth going back to explore the rest of the country. Rumor has it that Thailand has some ok beaches and national parks.... Should go explore sometime soon!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Double Down Goodness

This past weekend, Becky and I decided that a road trip was in order and what better place to drive than to a mountain bike race in New Hampshire. Now lets get something straight right away -- I am not a mountain biker; although I have recently purchased a nice mountain bike, I've been on it about four times and the first time out I ended up crashing my SRAM X0 derailleur into the wheel spokes smashing it to smithereens! This was followed by a single speed fail, a broken chain, and a walk of shame out of the woods...

Tasty broken chain..yum!

Becky, on the other hand, is an elite level mountain bike racer and can descend the gnarliest of trails faster than most people and she's darn fast uphill too! Clearly I have a lot of catching up to do but that didn't stop me from signing up for a 100K mountain bike race with her in New Hampshire. Luckily, the organizers decided to add to the suffering by offering an extremely hilly trail half marathon the day before and called the combined events the Double Down Crown. Naturally, I had to register for the Crown.

This being the first year of the Highbush Trail Half Marathon plus the fact that majority of the race was run on a mountain hiking trail, it was imperative that racers carry their own hydration. So I debated between carrying my camelback, a waist belt bottle holder, or a hand bottle. Eventually I settled on the hand bottle and went out and bought the Amphipod Hydraform from REI (its the bright yellow/green bottle in my hand in the main picture above).

Turns out this bottle is awesome! I read several reviews online and everyone who has used it raves about it. It feels a bit awkward for about 2 minutes and then you get used to it. The coolest feature is that you don't actually have to grip the bottle as the shape is contoured to the shape of your hand and a very comfortable strap keeps your hand snug against the bottle. It also has a small compartment for gels, although I kept mine in a small waist belt.  Best part is it doesn't feel heavy. Kinda like that big Garmin unit most of us wear -- first time you look at it you say this thing is gonna feel like a brick on my arm, but then you get used to it pretty quickly.

Back to the weekend... Friday morning, we packed up my CUV (compact utility vehicle) -- aka Prius -- with a weekend's worth of goodness and started up north. We drove leisurely and stopped to have a fun dinner with Becky's friend just outside NYC. 
Fitting bikes on the Prius required some creative engineering!
 We got to our campground around midnight and thankfully race start was 9AM the next morning. It poured heavily overnight but we awoke to clear skies. I actually wouldn't have minded the rain apart from the fact that its not particularly fun running in mud!

The race had about 70-80 people in it, with some super fast guys and gals mixed in with just regular athletes out having fun in the woods. I haven't been running distance at all lately so didn't know what to expect. Right at the gun, one fast dude shot out and was never seen again -- I think he finished about 10-15 minutes ahead of everyone else. I merged into the front pack and the trail soon turned to single track and we had a decent pace going through some relatively flat sections. Some of the guys were chatting about how we should add an hour to our expected road half marathon times here. All this talk did not bode well for what was to come!

As if on cue, we quickly took a turn onto a different path and the trail pitched sharply upwards toward Crotchet Mountain. And just like that we were on a proper hiking trail. Many people were walking here but I managed to maintain a steady jog all the way to the ridge. I believe I was in the top 5-6 at this point. Running the ridge was amazing.. Beautiful views and a lovely trail. Soon however, we hit some pretty nasty and rocky trail with some extremely steep pitches. Going up was not so bad but coming down was really hard for me. Given my past issues with my knee, I did not feel at all confident running downhills that steep and jumping from boulder to boulder. It was also pretty wet and slippery. Nevertheless, several people blew by me going at a fairly good clip and there was simply no way I could stick with them.

This went on for about 6-7 miles till we dropped onto a steady trail back to the race finish. Here, I picked up a couple people who had passed me including the women's winner. We actually ran together for a while and formed a nice group together. The trail was fairly well marked but we did get off track at one point, which may have cost us 3-4 minutes. About 2 miles out I caught my right ankle on a rock at just the wrong angle and ended up limping for about 5 minutes but soon gutted it out and started running again. Overall, I finished in 2:24:55, which for a trail marathon like this is pretty decent. According to my garmin, we had about 3,000 feet of elevation gain but it was the elevation loss of 3,000 feet where I suffered more, esp the quads that were constantly putting the brakes on! I also realized running a trail marathon in minimalist shoes is a bad idea.. My calf sleeves helped but my shoes got completely ripped apart with rock edges, roots, and branches. I think I need a new pair before my next race.
Finish line... I was ready for this to be over!
Becky was there at the finish with her cowbell ringing me home and I got top 5 in my AG. Reasonably happy with this result, though one guy in the DD crown category beat me by about 8 minutes and I could have totally had him in a road race. Soon, however, these 8 minutes would be moot as he beat me by more than an hour in the mtn bike race the next day... more on that in a bit...

Feeling pretty trashed, Becky and I spent the rest of the day hanging out at camp and then went for a short mtn bike ride on the trail we were going to race the next day. It was pretty technical -- rocky, narrow, and steep. I should have extrapolated more from Becky's response where when I asked, "Oh so the rest of the race can't be any worse," her response was "yeah, make yourself believe that!"

Becky had really good legs and was rocking the trail having unfair amounts of fun; I think I heard her singing too. I was pretty sure she'd kick ass the next day, and sure enough she did just that.

The next day we awoke super early as race start was 6:45AM, yikes! Becky started earlier with the elites and I told her not to expect me to catch her as I was still tired from the day before plus I fully expected to walk some of the more technical parts of the race.

Oh how should I describe the race? It was brutal, very technical, extremely challenging, and kick ass amazing! I fell off my bike half a dozen times, got right back up and tried again... walked many many times as I could not get myself to jump 2 feet high boulders, plus several hike a bike sections where even Tinker Juarez was hiking his bike!

The best part was riding through a rain puddle that was almost up to my thighs -- somehow I managed to keep pedaling. Incidentally, this washed off all the grime from my drivetrain and the shifting improved quite a bit :) 

Mountain biking is just so different from road cycling. Of course, riding is a function of terrain, but from my limited experience, its more about short, steep, and punchy climbs followed by equally steep descents. On this race, we were on some newly cut trail so it was particularly challenging for a newbie like me. At one point my front tire slid all the way on a root and I tumbled down on the slope below with my bike on top of me. On another occasion, I managed to save my ribs from direct impact on a rock only to land on my hand and end up with a pretty badly bruised right hand (which thankfully is not broken!).

But in general, the riding was so much fun. What was particularly cool was that I learned new things during the ride and applied them as I was riding. So I got progressively more confident tackling technical terrain.

But in the end, I finished in a fairly slow time, in fact more than two hours slower than Becky. And just so there is no doubt, Becky got 2nd in the elite women's race and had collected her podium award, cleaned up, and eaten some goodies by the time I crossed the line!
Becky had to wait a while for me at the finish line
And yeah, the Double Down Crown. I was pretty sure I'd be dead last in that category as pretty much all other people doing it were mountain bikers who occasionally ran. But turns out two of them dropped out and I sneaked into third. Got a sweet EMS biking jersey and a podium picture to boot. I'll take it!
Happy to be on the podium
This was so much fun! Can't wait to race my mountain bike again and try cyclocross this year. In general biking is my main passion and I'm not dedicated to any particular form of it. I ain't giving up road cycling any time soon but mountain biking is turning out to be a whole lot of fun too!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Stoopid’s Guide to Riding your Bike Long

Disclaimer: This stunt was performed by a professional idiot. Please do not try this at home – but if you do and succeed then give me full credit

Step 1: Sign up for a really long and difficult ride, preferably one that is debilitating even in thought. In my case, this was the Garrett County Gran Fondo Diabolical Double (200 km ride with 16,500 feet of climbing).

Step 2: Get sick for 10 days prior to ride and fall off the training wagon. Sit on your butt and feel sorry for yourself.

Step 3: Mentally check out from the ride until the very last moment when you decide you’re not coughing enough that missing the ride would be a shame. Even then, get head in the game only after ride has started.

Step 4: Get sick again less than half way into the ride with possible fever, raging headache, dizziness, and absolute loss of power on the bike. Beg and plead for motrin at a rest stop and offer to marry the lady who finds some for you.   

Step 5: Ensure you have plane ticket to a far flung, preferably shady country for the day after ride so in case your body decides to enact revenge, you’ll be sure to end up in a motel clinic where no one speaks your language.  

Step 6: Stubbornly ignore all above warning signs, whip out all the HTFU you got, keep on going and finish the ride. Enjoy mental high like nobody’s business and eat all kinds of junk food to make up the caloric deficit.

Step 7: Write a cheesy blog about your personal victory so your grand kids can one day read it and think you’re really cool!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Curse you Garmin Autopause! go

"oh you gotta be kidding me... f*** this!" that was me 126 miles into the 128 mile Mountains of Misery Double Metric Century with 13,000+ feet of vertical ascent on a bike two weekends ago. The last two miles of this ride are probably the hardest -- its a mountain top finish with steep grades and if you didn't notice, with 126 miles already in your legs! And yes, the sadist organizers made the ride 128 miles instead of 125 with the last 3 being the hardest ;)

Yes, I was moving so slow that my garmin autopause kicked in.. uggh! Usually a pretty neat feature that automatically pauses recording when stopped at a traffic light or fiddling with a shoe, I've got my autopause set to 6mph, which is probably slower than a turtle.. Not so in those last two wretched miles...

But lets start at the beginning... If you've read my blog or have spoken to me in the last 10 years, you probably understand that I love doing crazy things to myself. Not that I'm particularly fast or good at anything, but that hasn't stopped me from plunging into activities and trips that most people shy away from. Thankfully, I've recently found a group of people, in fact an entire team full of like minded individuals who love to suffer.

I guess the unique feeling of accomplishment and the mental high from finishing such activities is unmatched at least in my daily life and I suspect in the lives of others who do this kind of stuff voluntarily. Many of us are running away from some demons and the suffering on these types of rides (or runs, or swims) is so intense that one lives for hours enclosed in an internal universe with constant conversations with the brain trying to convince it to accept more pain -- there is simply no room for other thoughts! In the end while fitness certainly counts, I am convinced the athletes who do best in endurance sports are those who have the mental aspect well figured out.

Back to MoM... I caught a ride to Blacksburg with Damon and Max who were happily chatting about the 300 kilometer ride they'd done two weeks ago and the 400 kilometer ride they were planning a few weeks later. In fact, Max had the grand idea of racing a 300K in PA the day before MoM and then driving overnight and completing this ride, only to be talked out of it by none other than Damon.. Needless to say I had my ears wide open, jaw most of the way to the car floor! I could get used to this company :)

We met everyone else at dinner and I caught a ride to my campground with Brian and Beth. Brian, yet another athletic anomaly, had just ridden the 70+ mile wilderness ride and planned to do the double metric the next day, both on his tri bike!

The campground was probably the most interesting place I've slept in a while. I think the people who built a campground there probably were drunk out of their minds when the bought the land for this purpose... Wedged in between two highly active train tracks, there is a constant stream of blaring locomotives going by throughout the night ensuring nobody gets any sleep. Plus, this was Memorial Day weekend so our neighboring campsite was occupied by a group of 20-something jocks from Tennessee who basically stayed up till 2AM drinking and talking about their dicks. Too bad I didn't bring any earplugs.. but on the bright side, I now do know a lot of hilarious jokes about the male anatomy :)

The morning brought along great anticipation, a bit of trepidation, but mostly exhilaration for the day to come. My plan was NOT to race at all but rather treat this as a fun training ride. After all, the longest I had ever ridden a bike before was less than 100 miles, maybe close to 80 or so. Here, I was about to embark on 128 miles mostly pointed upwards. So I had no plan to hang out with the fasties on the team. Thankfully I had switched my power meter over to the road bike and was determined to ride at a predetermined output for all the climbs.

The plan worked out real well. While it was tough letting the peloton go after 20 miles of drafting, I slowly settled into a nice cruising pace with an eye on my power meter. The ride basically has four big climbs and the first is the longest. Here, many people passed me as they got out of the saddle and hammered up the hill while I was happily spinning at 95rpm going significantly slower. As it would turn out, I passed pretty much every single one of those people later on in the ride.

Yeah, there were some hills
 While many people talk up the descents which are exhilarating especially if you trust your bike handling skills, I enjoy climbing even more. Yes it hurts, yes you want to stop, yes your legs burn from effort, but I really honestly rather not be doing anything else when I am in that zone -- it is downright fun for me. And yes I am weird :)

Thankfully the organizers had well stocked rest stops at regular intervals throughout the ride and I made it a point to stop at these (minus the first one) to fill up on water and grab a PB&J or watermelon or two. I was religiously digesting 2 saltsticks per hour along with a healthy dose of gels and waffles. I think the nutrition worked out real well -- I did not feel hungry or bonky at any point.

The second climb was a bit of a let down. The nice gentleman at the rest stop at the base warned that this climb was "killer" and "harder than anything you've done", but it simply wasn't. It was steep but simply not long enough to cause too much trouble. The harder part was the descent which had a lot of gravel on it. The fun part was passing a heavily cursing Brian Bachor who was clearly not enjoying the gravelly descent one bit!

Right before the third climb is where I discovered the magic of an icepack on your head. I pulled in to see Fabrice with a plastic bag of ice on his head, so I tried it and boy did it feel good! I think I may have stopped for longer than I should have as restarting brought on some cramps in my right hamstring. Thankfully after some stretching on the bike they went away.

The third climb is hard and steep and reminded me a bit of the Ascension ride I did a few weeks earlier, though nothing compared to the Coxy Brown Road killer on Ascension (which I have lovingly renamed Cocksucker Brown Road). I guess the climb was hard because they had a rest stop at the base and another one at the top!

Ryan Vear and I hooked up for many miles to plow through many of the flat miles and it was really helpful to have company and draft a bit on the ride. He was also riding his tri bike -- sigh.. I guess I'm not as hardcore as I thought!

We pulled into the last rest stop and here I could sense the tension in the air. This was it.. the last stop before the 6 miles to the top. Yes there was another stop midway up the climb but for me stopping there was not an option. Call it pride, determination, stubbornness, but there was no force in the world that would convince me to stop pedaling till I got to the finish. Of course, I could just fall over but that was fine -- I would not accept anything less than that level of effort.

Turns out I came pretty close to falling over... The first 4 miles were ok, I was spinning and not going all out and pacing myself up the hill... I happily passed the midway stop and got a good dump of water on my back from an alert volunteer (thank you!) and did not stop. Next, I could hear a blaring vuvuzela and I was sure I was nearing the Team Z tent... But it took ages to get there! Every turn I thought I was there... but I wasn't.. Finally I got egged on by an extremely enthusiastic Adele and her horn and then Andy, Seb and other teammates pushed me on further around the killer switchback.

Andy gave me a much needed ice bath here on my back which really helped! Beth took this series of photographs.. I'm sure she's got a fancy camera that can capture frames in quick succession, but trust me I wasn't moving that fast!

The last mile was mental torture, made worse by my Garmin telling me I was a sissy... But I saw the orange cones in the distance and knew I was almost there... I even managed a lame sprint to the line.

In the end, I think I could have gone harder and faster earlier on and stopped less but I think my pacing worked really well for an enjoyable and confident ride. I'm ready to do it all over again at Diabolical Double in a few weeks!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Chasing Legends in the Pyrénées

Treading on hallowed ground
And so it finally happened... a seminar invitation from Europe with just the right dates to squeeze in a free weekend around my otherwise hectic schedule... 

Naturally the first thing I did after accepting the invitation was to look for places to ride, preferably with some climbing. There was one rather obvious problem though -- the university I was going to visit was in Holland! While great for bike commuting and several other extracurricular activities that involve spending excessive amounts of time in coffee shops, unfortunately the entire country is pancake flat -- so quite less than ideal if one is interested in climbing.

Luckily, I was able to route my flight through Toulouse, France which happens to sit right at the foothills of the mighty Pyrénées -- many a Tour de France has been won or lost in these great mountains...    

While for most people a weekend in France would constitute enjoying excellent cuisine, fine cheese and wine, and perhaps a crash course in culture (and there's nothing wrong with doing that) my idea of weekend fun was to ride my bike uphill as far and for as long as I could manage over the two days I had available... 

After about 15,000 feet of climbing in cold, often freezing rain, I think I managed to achieve my goal of beating my legs to a pulp!  

The flight into Toulouse was thankfully uneventful and the rental car got me into the town of Salechan, a small hamlet within striking distance of many major Tour de France Cols. Here, I had booked a room at a B&B that caters to cyclists. They also happen to rent out top end road bikes for the rare idiot who shows up without a bike for a two day blitz trip. 

In true French spirit, the B&B turned out to be a grand Chateau that was once used as a vacation home by a wealthy Parisian family, and very lovingly and tastefully restored by the current owners. 

Everything about this place was great -- the hosts, the room, the food... highly recommended!

My steed for the weekend was a Trek Madone 5.2 SL, which they happened to have in my size. Thanks to my Retul bike fit measurements, I was quickly able to setup the bike almost identically to the Cervelo R3 I ride at home. 

Pre setup

Post setup -- as aggressive as I could get the bike without swapping parts
I arrived Friday evening and the plan was to ride my heart out Saturday and Sunday. Mother nature had its own plans though. First, she decided the week prior that she'd dump a whole bunch of snow on the higher cols ensuring that they'd be closed. So Tourmalet was unfortunately out as an option.. so I focused on cols lower than 2,000 meters which hopefully would be rideable. Second, while Friday was bright and sunny all day, the weekend forecast promised heavy rain for both days... less than ideal conditions for bike riding. 

But I was determined. The plan for Saturday was to ride up to Superbagnères, a long (11.5 mile) climb at an average gradient of 6-7% but with some double digit pitches mixed in. This is a ski station so you climb up, turn around and descend back into the town of Luchon. For those who follow professional cycling, this is the stage where Greg Lemond took back some time from Bernard Hinault in the famous 1986 Tour de France. Depending on how the legs felt after, I'd planned on riding a couple more shorter cols to round out the first day.

The day started off reasonably mild with a slight drizzle so I wore just two layers and stuffed my light rain jacket in the back pocket -- a poor decision in retrospect! 
Starting out. The Chateau is on the right and some big mountains loom in the distance
 The first few miles of approach were only slightly uphill till I reached the town of Luchon. Here, the climb began pretty much straight out of town center. One aspect of climbing in this area that would become apparent over the next two days is that the grades are incredibly hard -- while the advertised average gradient for this climb was 6-7%, this clearly masked the reality of a bit of flat ground mixed in with extremely difficult pitches up to 20% in gradient! Not only is getting up 20% gradient hard, but there is no way one can get into a rhythm when the slope is changing so much!  

Throughout the climb, I had my garmin set up to show elevation and gradient and sure enough as soon as my cadence slowed to a crawl, I'd sneak a look and see high double digits popping on the screen. But its not like there was anything I could do about it. I was already in the lowest gear possible on the bike and had long given up smooth circles at 90+ rpm, so the solution was to just put my head down and grind up as best possible...

Half way up. By this time the rain had started in earnest but I was too warn from effort to be worried just yet
The mist and clouds were so low that about 3/4 of the way up, I was riding above them
Above the clouds that envelope the valley... Spanish peaks in the distance
 The last couple kilometers of the climb were especially brutal. Here the treeline was gone so I was out in the open, with freezing rain pelting me along with a strong gusting wind. It didn't help matters that the gradient here steepened even more with the last 2K averaging over 10%. Finally, though, I did make it to the top and eked out this last photographic evidence before my camera battery died from the cold. 
Now is when the fun started.. Huffing and puffing uphill, I had my jersey unzipped and didn't bother with the rain jacket. So all my clothes were wet. Now I put on the rain jacket on top and started the descent... I didn't get very far before my entire body started shivering from the cold.. my glove-less fingers were frozen so I lost most dexterity needed to apply brakes, not a good sign on wet roads. I had to stop a few times just to stuff my hands in my armpits to warm them or to do jumping jacks on the side of the road to warm the rest of me. 

Somehow, in my mildly hypothermic state I made it down in one piece... but the rain was still steady and the temperature had dropped further. So I decided to bail on the other cols and head to the B&B to thaw out... I can't remember the last time a hot shower has felt so good!
Decent day's work but I wanted more
 After licking my wounds over a delicious dinner, I planned an all out assault for the next day to make up for the part-fail that day. One of the climbs I really wanted to do was Port de Balès, not only for its renowned difficulty (the last 10Ks of the 19K climb pitch up at an average of 10%), but also for its history in the Tour de France. Indeed, this is the infamous burial ground for great sportsmanship, i.e. host of the pivotal stage in the 2010 Tour de France where Andy Schleck dropped his chain and Alberto Contador decided to continue attacking and not wait for his main rival (as an aside for all those Lance haters out there, Lance actually waited for Jan Ulrich under similar circumstances and so did Ulrich for Lance). 

But all websites and the people who rented me the bike warned that the road would be closed due to snow and rockfall. Yet, true to my contrarian nature this just made me want to do it even more! Of course, I'd just turn back if rocks started falling on my head but I didn't see any reason why I couldn't try and go as far as I could go.

The other main reason for doing this climb was that it would link up really nicely with the other climbs I had planned for a potentially epic day, namely Col de Peyresourde, the ski station of Peyragudes, and Col du Portillon, to form a really nice long 70+ mile loop with some serious climbing. 
To avoid repeating the previous clothing disaster, the plan was to bring all my layers and critically my waterproof gloves and booties. Extremities are last on the body's pecking order of where to send blood under cold conditions so I wanted to be as warm as possible with toasty fingers and toes.  
So off I went early in the morning. Luckily, the climb to Port de Balès starts right outside the B&B so there was literally no approach. Just head out the front door, ride up a few hundred meters North, then turn into one of the gazillion hamlets and start climbing! 

It was evident pretty quickly that this was not a bad decision; the views were just stunning..
yeah, mom.. I want my bedroom on the other side of the house!
Basically, you pass through these tiny villages on narrow roads with houses right up to the road, and then suddenly the houses give way to lush green forest and a beautiful stream running alongside... 

The camera doesn't do justice.. absolutely stunning views!
I was significantly happier today.. no rain so far + I brought all my layers
The neat thing about this climb is that they have put up signs every kilometer telling you the average gradient for the next K. The early parts are nothing terrible and I was able to maintain good rhythm going up these gentle grades. But that changed pretty quickly...
Doesn't look too hard now does it?
oh wait... gulp!
Despite the difficulty of the climb, the fact that I was climbing the same roads professionals race on gave me extra motivation. Indeed, paint markings like this all along the route made me stomp on the pedals a few times here and there... 
This one made me chuckle
Soon, the forest gave way to open jaw-dropping valley scenery, with a tiny road snaking its way upward
Climbing higher
and higher
through some seriously narrow roads with big drop offs!
Here I stopped to take in the scenery, eat some food, and make the following short video:

Sufficiently fueled up, I kept plugging away through rocks and snow
They did warn me about this...
but I was undeterred.. where there's a will there's a way :)
Very soon, I found myself in the general vicinity of Schleck's chain drop. Now I understood the state of panic he must have been in. The road is so narrow that it would have been impossible for his team car and mechanic to get to him quickly, all the while senor Contador was busy attacking and taking time in chunks.. 
Here's my horrible Schleck re-enactment.. Yes, I actually took my chain off for this photo!
 Soon though, I found myself on the summit!
100 meters to go.. This is no camera trickery... the road is actually that steep
Here, I put on every single layer I had including my gloves for the descent on the other side. Thankfully the rain had kept away but the waterproof jacket was still very valuable to keep wind at bay on a high speed descent. And ohh.. was the descent lovely. Super smooth roads, long straightaways where you could bomb down at speeds approaching 45mph (pros do it much faster!), through some quaint little villages, and passing incredibly lush green scenery. I have traveled a lot and frankly have never seen anything like this before. 
Right off the summit the road pitches down hard
but soon opens up to views such as this
and this
Every few kilometers, I would pass through a village like this
and before I knew it I was at the bottom, ready for the next challenge -- Col de Peyresourde!
While Superbagneres and Port de Bales were both Hors Category climbs (meaning they are too difficult to even categorize), Peyresourde was a Cat 1 climb, so I thought it would be easier. Oh how I was mistaken. While it gives up somewhat in distance it certainly doesn't let up at all in terms of steepness. The first few kilometers were the hardest with the road averaging above 10% right from the point this picture was taken.

Thankfully, it did level out a bit in the middle but then picked up again pretty sharply toward the end. With the rain and clouds at bay, the views were quite spectacular
I could get used to views like this!

you can see the road snaking up with several small villages visible in the valley below
This gives a good sense of the gradient. There is a switchback to the left with the road rising up in double digit grade
Suffering but couldn't be happier!
I had heard many good things about a snack shop at the summit of the Col with an exuberant owner who made killer crepes, and I was looking forward to having about 6 or 7 of  those for lunch! As luck would have it, the shop was closed so lunch would have to wait.. I still had to climb up to the ski station of Peyragudes, the site of a summit stage finish in the upcoming 2012 Tour de France. 
Peyragudes ski station was deserted.. bet it'll look quite different in mid July
From here, a bombing descent got me into Luchon pretty rapidly where I stopped at a cafe for lunch.. turns out this place had history with the Tour and had both a yellow and polka dot jersey framed in the main dining room. Also turns out this is Lance Armstrong's cafe of choice in Luchon; the owner even showed me some pictures as evidence!

After some yummy steak frites, it was time for the last climb of the day -- Col du Portillon. While this is a Cat 2 climb, I already had two big climbs in my legs so I was expecting some internal bodily revolt.. Fortunately that did not happen though I did have to stop once to catch my breath.. What was cool was that nearly every moto drive who passed me yelled "Allez Allez" which kept me going..
The Portillon summit falls right on the Franco-Spanish border. While I climbed in France, I descended in Spain. Kinda cool!
Once at the summit, I knew the climbing for the day was done and I was quite happy with what I had managed to do -- almost 10,000 feet in elevation gain. But the day wasn't done. I still had to descend and ride another 15-20 miles back to the B&B. What complicated matters a bit was that the roads on the Spanish side were incredibly broken up, perhaps an indication of the recession in the economy. So the descent was by no means relaxing..

At the bottom I hit the town of Bossos which was lovely but by this time I simply put on auto pilot and slogged my way back, at some point crossing back into France as well.
Not bad for a day's work!
After eating almost an entire cow for dinner, I finally hit the sack for a well deserved rest.This was quite a training weekend and I'd love to come back here later in the summer to climb some of the higher peaks and maybe even some of the comparable ones in the Alps.

Overall, after an unusually long lull in work travel where I wasn't on a plane heading overseas for about three months, this trip has started off a series of highly intriguing trips abroad. In the next couple months, I'll be heading to Brazil, South Africa, and then all the way to St. Petersburg in Russia. While these are work related trips, as most of my travel is, I've always found a day or two or more to explore, climb, run, or ride around the places I visit.  Lets see how much trouble I can get myself into next!