On climbing, numbers, Strava

There were mixed emotions being back in my hometown after only brief visits over the last 10 years. So much had changed but then so much was the same. Local people who I’ve known all my life juxtaposed with newer arrivals who pegged me for an out-of-towner, which I am – I guess. I feel both at home and out of place. The roads I know well. I could draw them from memory for you now, every corner and every bend, every uphill and every downhill. There’s a local scene and some good riders, some of whom I know from year’s past; it’s a small community in a small country.

Strava is changing the way we ride and this new trend of ‘e-fitness’ requires new etiquette on the bike. What were the rules here, I wasn’t sure. Prudence would have suggested a judicious approach, but I went ahead and set a KOM on the most well-known and used short, scenic climb on the old coast rode. I make excuses: it’s southern hemisphere December summer hot and humid; I’m tired from jet lag and sleeping in a strange bed; it’s not my bike. Still…

The ride: 1.7 kilometres, 87-metre gain at 5.2%, 20 kph for a time of 5:05 at 264 watts. This record lasts nearly two months until a visitor (like me) rips it to shreds: 23.9 kph, 4:15, 389 watts. Fifty seconds faster! 389 watts! These numbers make no sense to me, they are beyond my scope of contemplation. In my world, these numbers don’t exist. I am humbled, but not surprised.

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Mount Seymour is the 4th toughest bike climb in Canada, according to climbbybike.com: 13.1 kilometres, 6.9% average (maximum 16%), and 904 metres of gain. My best time is 45:44. Four years ago. The Cycleops power page tells me this is 270 watts (at my current weight, maybe more back then). I’m obsessed with breaking 45:00. I need 5 more watts. Why 45:00? I don’t know. It’s a round number, a quartile of an hour. It wouldn’t even get me on the first page of the Strava KOM table. But I want to beat that time. Last year I rode 46:30 (265 watts) and 47:26 (260 watts). One day the 36×23 felt fine, the next day it didn’t. 34×23 is good. 36×23 is too hard and 36×25 not quite right. Maybe my new 36×24 will be the magic gear for the gradient. There must be a perfect combination of gearing, weight, cadence, power, heart rate, jersey colour. I need to find it. I need more tools, more devices, more data.

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The Cypress mountain climb holds no mystery. There are three timed distances that have been used in races over the years. I’ve lost track of all the numbers. Last year I was faster than ever before. I chose the number I wanted and I bested it. Cypress is beaten and broken. I dictate the terms now. Mount Seymour won’t be dictated to. It decides my time. In my best climbing shape I still can’t beat my old record. The mountain decides.

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We becoming obsessed with our own numbers – times, watts, heart rates, miles. Is this the age of narcissism? As Stephen Marche wrote in a column on the subject in Esquire: “In 2011, Americans spent an estimated $10 billion on plastic surgery… and about $5 billion on NASA space operations. By this logic, having perfect tits is worth twice as much as exploring the universe.” At the same time, recreational drug use is plummeting, Marche says: “Vapid self-indulgence has been replaced by scrupulous self-management.” Care to join me for another set of intervals?

Strava is (mostly) free. Power meters, GPS, smart phones, HR monitors are not. Is there a cost to our obsession; is it just all about ‘me’? Maybe there could be a levy on every device sold that goes towards funding junior cycling, giving back something to others. Do we need to stop gazing at our flickering screens and look up more to see the scenery and to ponder the bigger picture?

Maybe. It’s a feckless pursuit of mediocrity. I can ‘follow’ pro riders on Strava, dare to compare myself to them side-by-side, even though my numbers are pitiful in comparison. Am I part of their world, on line, posting my PR times? Or is this a delusion? Do we need to become an ‘unracers’, as Grant Petersen suggests we should? Too many questions. The only thing I know is that I need 5 more watts.

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I revel in my mediocrity. I embrace it. I ride with my buddies for the sake of riding and to drink good coffee and to see the sights and to feel the road beneath my tyres as it unfolds to reveal new vistas. This is my purpose.

But I also like to crunch the numbers. I like to feel faster, lighter, and stronger, if these things are possible. I like to feel that with advancing age I don’t have to give these things away. The results I get from cycling are the satisfaction of having ridden my bike. In itself this is a good thing. But the numbers draw me in, without explanation. This will be the year that I put them aside, forget about KOMs and PRs and segments and climbs and watts and gradients. But I need to do one thing first. I need to go under 45:00 on Mount Seymour. There can be no more excuses. There must be a way…

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Dyin' on Mount Seymour in 2012 (thanks to Mario for the pic)

Dyin’ on Mount Seymour in 2012 (thanks to Mario for the pic)

In the deep and distant past, the standard calculator for high school mathematics, at least in your author’s experience, was the Casio fx-82. It calculated pi to 7 decimal places – 3.1415927. My calculator, another Casio that I still have today, the fx-961, calculated it to 9 – 3.141592654. This seemed to open up a whole new range of possibilities, if not infinite then at least beyond the norm.

5 thoughts on “On climbing, numbers, Strava

  1. I took the computer off my bike when I passed 35. I was never any good, but always enjoyed being out there pedalling. It was nice not to be confronted with hard facts about slowing down. Now I notice if I struggle up a hill I can usually get up in 39×23, but otherwise it is all about sensation and unnumbered achievement.

  2. Thanks, Colin. The link doesn’t work for me but I’ve seen it elsewhere (maybe on Stuart’s blog). It’s always humbling to see the times of Meier and Salas and other fast locals, but we do what we can!

  3. While you may battle with the 45 minute milestone My fight is for 50. I find Seymour has no rhythm to it. Cypress is much more ‘enjoyable’.

    It would he great to map out a route that begins and ends at Park Royal, covers Deep Cove to Horseshoe Bay, includes both mountains and covers 100km. Call it Shore 100 and record it as a Strava segment. I wonder if that has been done yet.

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