Athlete Profile: Steve Nelson

As a cyclist in Santa Barbara, California, of course, I've known Jill Gass for many years; I've been working with Coach Jill for almost ten years now that I think of it! Jill has been great at helping me to identify and achieve my cycling goals, gently urging me to do more than I thought possible. I will always remember what she said before my first Mulholland Challenge when I was feeling pretty trepidatious about that really hard ride: “If you can ride four hours you can ride eight.” And she was right!

I'm a sixty-one-year-old sound engineer who works on movie and tv sets mostly in Hollywood. When I'm working it's usually a 60 hour week which leaves little time for training. This is why Coach Jill has been so helpful in providing me with guidance and workouts both on and off the bike that works for my lifestyle and crazy schedule.

Lately, I've discovered that long format Gran Fondo-type rides are what I like best. I'm not racing these days, but you can bet that these events, while not exactly races, are full of people besides the pros and categorized racers who, first thing after, are checking the results to see how they did. The harder they are the more I like them – to a point.

The monuments I've done this year so far include the Mulholland Challenge, L'Etape California (ATOC Mount Baldy), and the Belgian Waffle Ride. These are all monster rides, and well worth the effort.

The Mulholland Challenge is a spring ride by Planet Ultra, the first in a three ride KOM series. The ride is now 104 miles (instead of 120+) through the amazing Santa Monica Mountains and includes 13000 feet of climbing. It is a beautiful beast!

This year's L'Etape was again the Queen Stage route of the Amgen Tour of California, returning to Mt. Baldy in the San Gabriels. While only a mere 74 miles it still involves 11000 feet of climbing, including 2 First Category climbs and one HC. This beautiful and rugged ride featured two climbs up to the Village of Mt. Baldy with lots of riding and descending through a very Pyrenean landscape and concluding with a final brutal ascent to the ski lifts at the end of the road. The last 4.8 miles were a hard climb to the summit with ridiculous switchbacks and some pitches topping out at 16% gradient. More than a few people walked or paused, delirious at the side of the road. Like other TOC events, this was very well-run with great food and local craft beers and even a strolling accordionist at the finish. For such a hard effort in a warm, dry climate with some altitude I was surprised that there were no electrolyte/sodium replacements available at the rest stops – only products by Power Bar. (When was the last time anybody choked down a Power Bar?) If you look at the photos taken at the finish you will see the crusty jerseys on display that everyone was wearing their sodium and in need of replenishment!

Luckily, I was prepared. For the last year – since the last L'Etape – Jill and I have been working on hydration and salt replacement issues, particularly cramping. Almost anyone who does these more extreme endurance efforts knows how cramping can slow you down and really affect your experience.  She found a guy here in SoCal who specializes in these issues, Russell Jacobs Together we measured my rate of sodium depletion and sweat loss and came up with some strategies that have made a big difference for me.

While this was certainly a hard enough day it was not quite the monster that was last year's L'Etape. Starting at Amgen HQ in Thousand Oaks, it featured a climb up to Mulholland Hwy, a fast ride through the flats of Oxnard and Ventura, then up and around Lake Casitas and Casitas Pass, the foothills of Santa Barbara, and finishing with an assault up Gibraltar Road, Santa Barbara's iconic climb.(Six plus miles and 2600+ feet of vertical gain) As a local, I have climbed Gib many many times but never starting at mile 90 after an already long day of chasing the likes of Jens Voigt. It seemed to take forever and I was seriously wondering how I was still vertical at that low speed. When I finally reached the summit it might have taken me five minutes to get my leg over the top tube and dismount. Ouch! (Hence the cramping remedy quest.) Two weeks or so later it was really something to ride back up there with every other cyclist in the area and watch the pros race it. What a party that was!

Most recently, when my work schedule changed and I suddenly had time off and could think of no good excuse not to, I paid the late reg fee and headed south to Carlsbad with FOJ and 'cross racer Larry Vanzant to attempt my first Belgian Waffle Ride – Larry's second. In its sixth iteration this year, shortened by a dozen or so miles to a mere 132/218 km, this is no casual fun ride. Styled after a Belgian Spring Classic, featuring distance, lots of climbing and replacing pavé with 41 miles of dirt/sand/rocks/water crossings, it takes things to a whole new level. Though there would be a fast group of pros and assorted maniacs off the front seriously racing, my main goal was to finish in a reasonable time without requiring medical intervention. Believe me, based on some recent experiences that are not setting the bar too low, especially when there is dirt involved!

The mileage didn't worry me too much, but the aforementioned varied terrain was of concern. I used to be decent on a mountain bike, but that was years ago. I recently acquired a beautiful Stinner gravel bike (hand-built in Santa Barbara), but I have found that when riding our very rugged landscape my ambition often exceeds my skill set. Although many people do this ride on road bikes with 25mm tires I thought I would take advantage of the beefier build, disc brakes, e-shifting, and wider tires afforded by the g-bike. I decided that I would leave the off-road comfort zone of my 38mm Schwalbe G-One tires (despite their size they roll on pavement really well), because who could think of pushing that much rubber for so many miles?  I went for the hard-to-find new G-One Speed, tubeless of course, which at a svelte 30mm was still a bit fatter than the “official” BWF tire, the Hutchinson Sector 28. I was very glad I did!

This year was the largest yet with over 1200 registered for the Waffle or the approximately half-length Wafer ride. While not the hugest Gran Fondo ride, given the difficulty of the course, this is a big number. Starting and ending at the Lost Abbey brewery (fine Belgian style beers and ales), this was an impressive event. Many sponsors and their products on display, a decent swag-bag, a catered breakfast featuring, yes, Belgian Waffles, and an after-ride meal with more waffles for desert, copious beer and almost enough toilets. (This was particularly evident when everyone lined up for their final pre-ride visit to the loo; I almost missed the start!) There were sufficient and well-placed rest stops along the way, all staffed with very helpful and friendly volunteers, some of whom were quite creative. Deep into the ride, Swami's bike club had The Hookah Lounge, featuring bejeweled belly dancers and music and a lovely person pouring cold water down your back. Next stop was The Oasis, staffed by a bevy of bikini-clad coeds, very hetero-normative to be sure, relentlessly old-school, but since they also had cold Cokes it worked for me. (I yam what I yam.)

The ride rolled out in waves with the fast racers in the front of course. Larry and I went at the back of that first wave and that was the last we saw of those guys! It was a neutral start through Escondido, featuring quite a few miles of a police escort. Seven miles in was the first climb, of a decent length. We rose up into the hills and came onto our first dirt section. The visual here really told the story of what it must have been like when the first fast wave hit the suddenly very rough adobe-like road surface: the way was littered with ejected water bottles everywhere and riders fixing flat tires. Hilarious!

My sand skills were soon tested when we came to Hit The Beach. If I could have actually ridden this section with its really deep sand, and I doubt anyone could without balloon tires, there were so many people dismounted that it would have been impossible anyway. This was a hike-a-bike for sure. There were plenty of other sand sectors that were actually rideable and I was pleased with how well I did. Thanks to Larry's great advice: Always keep pedaling and have a loose upper body. The bike will go where it will but you can get through it; much power is required to keep you floating over or plowing through!

The countryside we rode through was beautiful and BWR really showed it off with a very, shall we say, creative route. We were on highways and main roads (I wondered how many millions of dollars worth of exotic cars we saw as we were passed by various car clubs out for their Sunday drive), neighborhoods, mountain roads, sudden turns off onto dirt trails or groomed hiking paths, or single-track, water crossings, some rocky bits, did I mention there was sand? We wandered around two lakes, through nature preserves and places I never knew existed down there in North San Diego County, much less ridden. I'm grateful to the organizers for bringing us to such places.

As I mentioned, dirt riding is not my forte so it did slow me down a bit, especially the downhill parts (see above regarding avoiding medical intervention.) However, unlike some other so-called gravel rides around here, there really weren't any parts where I thought “I'm gonna die here!” There were a few spots that were simply unrideable by normal humans, and a few where the prudent choice was to just walk it – especially 70 or 80 or 90 or 100 miles into a 132-mile ride. Sometimes, after a particularly hard grind up a long paved section getting onto some dirt actually felt like a nice change, kept it fresh. At least for a while.

And so, after those many miles of road, dirt and whatever, of long climbs and steep descents, temperatures possibly over 100 degrees on the backside (no ocean breezes here), working hard to keep hydrated, being passed by many and passing some, too, I re-entered the town of San Marcos and rolled through city streets, finally making my way back to the blessed sight of Lost Abbey, more than ready to be baptized in beer. I was out on the course for about ten and a half hours, including about an hour of rest stops, which was about an hour slower than what I'd hoped for and a far sight off the fastest time of 6'42. Of course, that was achieved by a professional on the up and coming Rally Cycling team that did so well in the ATOC.

For any rider who wants to take it to another level, who is not afraid of being challenged across distance, climbing and a variety of terrains, the BWF is one that you should put on your list of monuments to conquer. I'm hoping to do a little better next year now that I know what's coming, though they do try to change the exact route every year.

My next big effort? My club, Echelon Santa Barbara is putting on the first edition of the Echelonduro on July 9. There will be a 70+ mile and a 40 miler with eight and five timed climbs respectively (7182ft/4606 ft) It's a fundraiser for our Juniors and should be a lot of fun. Please come out and help us make this event a success! The always challenging Santa Barbara 100 is this Fall, and there are probably be some others I don't yet know about.

My next cycling purchase? I need some new wheels for my road bike, so I will have Jones Precision Wheels build me a set of Mavic Open Pros, the new version of the classic aluminum wheels, as soon as they become available this summer. I want to start training with a power meter (it's never too late!) but which one? I might be leaning toward PowerTap pedals because of their ease of installation and portability, but we'll see.

Jill Gass