Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Why Strava Climbing Challenges and Browns Ranch can make you SLOW

First, for those falling off their chairs at the fact Angry Ray has posted something on his blog, get over it.  I like to wait for just the right moment.

Second, what I’m about to discuss is entirely my opinion based on my own observations and self-study.  If you don’t agree with it, no problem…I won’t be offended or at least if I am, a few IPA's later and I'll get over it.

I tend to believe wholeheartedly a few things when it comes to getting faster on a mountain bike based on my experiences over the last 7 years of riding seriously(and making MANY mistakes), as well as reputable sources of quantitative research found on the internet.  They are:
1.      If you want to build speed, you HAVE to do high intensity cycling.  I certainly hope no SANE person argues this point…there is so much research about this and even more importantly, it is crucial as you get older (just ask people like Ned Overend).  Oh and BTW, I'm not talking about, "gee, I'm breathing a little more", but more like, "I f*cking taste blood in my mouth and feel like I can puke" type of intensity.
2.       Getting faster on a MTB means you have to master two dimensions: bike handling and fitness.   You can be a WATT machine, but there is truly an efficiency thing at play when you ride that could probably be calculated in watts/mile or some other efficiency metric.  Bottom line, carrying speed through turns, tech sections, and using the terrain to generate speed (like a pump track) is huge.  I like to call it "free speed".
I had to have at least one pic in this blog...may as well be my awesome Vassago VerHauen...

OK, so hopefully at this point, you’re on-board with what I’ve said and possibly wondering, “Why are Strava climbing challenges bad and why is he so down on Browns Ranch?”

In order to answer this, I first have to admit, I only ride a single speed mtb.  The only derailleur I own is on a road bike and I don’t ride it on the road anymore. Hit by a car, a few near misses and I realized my life is more valuable.  Too many idiot drivers.  Anyway, it’s last use was on a Wahoo Kickr(thx Dana Ernst!) while I recovered from hernia surgery and unless I end up unable to ride mtb’s, it’s gonna get sold.

So that being said, most people who ride SS probably understand that your power output is generally dictated by the terrain you ride.  Without gears, you are either spun out(at one end of the spectrum) or barely turning the pedals over at the other end of the spectrum.  However, that is precisely what is so IMPORTANT!  On a geared bike, you can generate nearly constant watts over varied terrain by simply changing gears and keeping your cadence constant…on a SS, you don’t have that luxury and are forced to generate watts at all ranges of cadence.  The fancy term in the power world is “quadrant analysis” where you can see this illustrated(google it).    We SS folks end up training our legs to NOT be narrow cadence power generators, but a multi-purpose engine capable of high RPM’s and low, “god this hurts” lug the engine kind of stuff. (Shaw Butte, Mt. Elden, etc)

Now, I love Browns Ranch…it’s like a Cornering 101 class… and doing work out there is important since it teaches you all the finer points of efficient cornering (or suffer the consequences).  However, a steady diet of that place will NOT work all “corners” of fitness (especially low RPM).  It will reward the Strava whores with plenty of costume jewelry and make you feel like you are a BAMF.  You will look at your HR trace and think, “damn, I was zone 4-5 for many of those segments! What a great workout!”.   Sure, it’s one part of the equation, but it’s like crack…people get HOOKED.    Now, if you don’t care about getting faster on a SS and just love miles and scenery, then no worrries, that place is AWESOME.

Now for those Strava climbing challenges... I think Strava challenges are great and for some people, goal setting can be a very powerful motivator.  But taking a very unilateral stance of saying “all that matters is how many feet you climb” is just stupid.  Here’s why…as I said above, we need to spend some portion of our training week in our upper zones of HR and do so at a range of cadences (especially for the SS people).  Just focusing on feet or meters climbed does not equal better training!  Consider this…I know of friends who focus on that 10k meter challenge every month but accumulate much of it in zone 2 and their other rides are hardly in zone 4.  Does it make them faster?  Well, it’s certainly good endurance miles, but I would argue it’s not building power for them.  They can check the box for meeting the goal but it's not the right goal if speed is what you strive for.  My point, don’t become a slave to the Strava challenges… focus on getting into the higher HR zones (or power zones if you have that technology) for a slice of your training week.  And of course, be sure you make that power at both high and low cadence.  

If you gotten this far, thanks for reading.  Stay angry.



  1. Great post Ray! Man I also love riding my SS out a Browns... I agree a steady diet of Browns Ranch or climbing challenges are just not going to add enough oomph to fitness especially for us older guys. Intensity is ultimately where it’s at if you want to get faster... I do think that mixing in some Browns days after a high intensity day (e.g Shaw Butte) is a good approach. It also depends on where each person is at in their fitness and goals... A steady stream of Browns might be a good approach for the off season or if you want/need to build or rebuild a good endurance base... it might not make you “faster”, but it might provide a strong(er) platform to build on with intensity... Stay angry!

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