The pain cave. Breathing through a straw. The deep dark red.
Altitude is one of the difficulty presented by the two UCI races this month, starting the Larry H Miller Tour of Utah with the lowest elevation at 4,200 feet (1,200 m) and the highest at 8,300 feet (2 529 m) on the final day. And then, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, the high-altitude stage race in Colorado which includes two 12,000-foot (3,658-m) climbs.
“Once you get yourself into that deep dark red, it’s hard to come quickly out of it.” BISSELL’s Jay Robert Thomson said about the impact that altitude can have. “At a stage race of this caliber, once you go into that deep dark red, you might be in trouble and find yourself off the back because you’ve gone too hard and you can’t recover in time.”
“It hurts.” Lucas Euser of the Spidertech p/b C10 squad simply said. “It’s a different world, it’s something that you have to get acclimated to because if you go up there and you’re not used to it, you can cause some serious damage and it’s hard to get out of the pain cave you put yourself in at 12,000 feet.”
UnitedHealthcare’s Max Jenkins felt the impact while racing at the Tour of Qinghai Lake in early July. “There was a pass that went to 12,700 ft (3,870 m), and I was blacking out around the edges. You got to do what you got to do. There wasn’t enough oxygen to go both to my legs and my brain.” he laughed. “It was a compromise, I didn’t feel that good.”
Each took a different approach to prepare for the races, which they shared prior to the prologue.
Euser moved to Denver, CO, which is at 5183 ft (1580 m) above sea level in July but had been visiting there often for the past three years.
“I set my preparations in site of Colorado.” Euser said. “Two and a half weeks ago, I went up to about 9,000 feet, in Summit County in Colorado, checking out some courses and checking out how it feels at 12,000 feet. So that was my preparation and it definitely works for something a little bit lower like this.”
“If you’re not acclimated, you feel that right away and you feel that lack the breath just walking up the steps and you feel that burning when you go anywhere above threshold and it stings at the top.”
But Euser doesn’t mind the altitude in the least. “I enjoy altitude, I respond well to it.” he said with a smile.
He does feel that the impact of altitude at Utah is relative. “Everyone is in the same boat, everyone is dealing with the same factor. I think it’s going to be an aggressive race. I think we’re going to see definitely some activity down low in Salt Lake City when we do the circuit race. The highest point in this race is only 8,300 and that’s on the finish to the last climb, At that point, you’re all in, you’re going to do everything you possibly can to get the result you’re looking for.”
“I think we’re going to see massive explosions in Colorado, I think it’s going to be a huge factor in that race. Tour of Utah will definitely be a good prep.” he concluded.
Jenkins comes from Sacramento, CA which at 156 ft can be considered sea level. “I live in Citrus Heights, a little bit higher than Sacramento.” he laughed.
His preparation for the two US races a week stay in Tahoe, CA followed by the 10-day Tour of Qinghai Lake in China.
“We spent three or four days above 10,000 feet, there were a couple of passes that went over 12,500 so you definitely feel it. It just harder to recover from anaerobic efforts and you just have to keep that in mind.” Jenkins said about the race in China.
“So I was three weeks up at altitude. Then came home for a week, stayed a sea level, did nothing. Then I rented an altitude tent, I’ve been sleeping in that for two weeks now and that’s something new for me. Usually I just go to Tahoe, but when I got back from Qinghai, it was hard to push on the pedals because I wasn’t used to it, you really can’t do it at such high altitude so I felt I needed training at relatively low elevations and actually get some power back in my legs.” Jenkins explained.
He feels that he is as ready as he can ever be for an altitude race. “For me, I’m naturally really slow-twitched so if I lived at altitude, I’d have a hard time with the accelerations even if I lived here. Because when you’re at sea level, it’s a lot easier to train your anaerobic capacity system. I think for me it’s actually better to live at sea level and come up to altitude for races.”
The good news is that Utah is at lower-elevation than China. “Here, it’s a lot lower. The highest points is 8,300, that’s at the very top of the last two climbs the last day. At that point, the attacks have already gone, you’re just riding at your pace.”
Thomson made his way to Park City, Utah a week before the start of the race.
“I don’t think it’s as bad as most guys that it affects.” Said Thomson, who was born and raised in Johannesburg which is 5,249 ft (1,600 m) above sea level.
“After living there all my life, my adapting to altitude is a lot quicker but I’ve spent this whole year at sea level so I came up with a bit of advance just in case. I could feel the higher heart rate elevation when I got up here to Park City last week.”
For Thomson, the main altitude impact are elevated heart rate and difficulty in breathing.
“You can feel the breathing and heart rate pretty much from the start. I feel it when I’m sleeping because my heart rate just feels like it’s bouncing. Altitude for me, that’s the biggest thing is the sleeping because I get elevated heart rate and I’m not used to it. The first couple of days here, got to bed at 12 o’clock and then 3:30 in the morning you’re wide awake because you can’t sleep because your heart rate is too high and your body thinks it’s go time.” he explained.
“I’ve been here for a week so I feel like I’m adjusted nicely.”
And when it comes time to racing, Thomson put the effect of altitude out of is mind. “You don’t really want to think about it because it can be something that might make you less aggressive in the race. I won’t think about it too much, I’ll race my bike and hope I can get good coverage from this, you never know something special.”
The Tour of Utah continues with stage 1, the 113-mile (182-km) loop around Ogden which includes the climb up Ogden Pass Road at 6,200 ft (1,890 m)