Thursday, May 10, 2012

Columbia Triathlon Bike Course Preview

There are a lot of scary things in life.

Fiery multi-car accidents.

Global economic consequences of a Euro currency collapse.

Hilly bike courses.

I’m not sure which scares me the most, but I believe it is a hilly bike course in a triathlon of ANY distance. While I’ve upped my bike speed on flats quite a bit – 18.4 mph for a flat 56 mile bike course last month is a massive improvement compared to 16.7 mph for a flat 28 mile bike course last October – hills are still tough for me. I’ve gotten better at those, too, and I’ve even managed to pass people going uphill and can of course use gravity to get myself to the bottom of a hill in no time, but they definitely aren’t my strength.

Which is awesome, because apparently the Columbia Triathlon, which I’m signed up to race in 10 days, has a reputation as a super-hilly course.

So much for playing to my strengths in signing up for races. I just picked it because it seemed like a good time for an Olympic-distance race, and it was a weekend that I was free.

As tempting as it was to just back out of the $100+ entry fee and pretend that I’d never signed up, that would kind of be dumb. IM Louisville has hills, after all. May as well figure them out. However, I wanted to figure them out before race day at Columbia, so last Saturday, I headed out to the course to see what all the fuss was about.

Oh…that’s what all the fuss is about.

As scary as that might look, I found that the course wasn’t THAT challenging. The roads are generally in great condition, there aren’t too many sharp turns, and you go into almost all the hills from a downhill, which means you can use momentum to get a good deal of the way up.

Besides, those downhills can mean rest that you never get on a flat course, where you just have to go and go and go the entire time. Evidence: my heart rate data from the Charleston bike course, where I was pretty much stuck between 140 and 152, with the exception of a higher heart rate at the beginning (normal for most people when they transition from swim to bike quickly) and a few spikes when I hit headwind.

Now, let’s check out my pre-ride from Columbia.

Both rides had similar average heart rates (142 for Charleston, 145 for Columbia), but the variability for the Columbia course was substantial because of the hills. Sure, I was pushing high 150s and low 160s at times, but then I got to rest down in the low 130s, or even the 120s, on extended downhills. So while I may build up some lactic acid on the uphills, I can clear it and rest a bit on the downhills with a little bit of very easy pedaling.

I won’t be as fast as I would be on a flat course, but I can still set myself up for a descent run coming off the bike, which is important in a triathlon of any distance.

A couple of notes about the course itself, aside from my own experiences above, for those of you who are racing there this month and haven’t had a chance to pre-ride.
  • The roads are in fairly good condition. Minimal road seams, little need to dodge potholes, and no obvious patches of gravel.
  • On those nice roads, there isn’t always a sizable shoulder available for riding. A few sections have a shoulder that couldn’t have been more than a few inches wide, and I can see these sections being problematic for passing when the course gets crowded.
  • No need to make many tight turns. You really only have to make six turns on the entire course, and most of them include generous road space.
  • But oh, the blind curves. There are several of these, and some of them are even downhill on sections with almost no shoulder and a narrow road. Be very diligent about watching for your fellow triathletes and staying to the right of the yellow line. The opportunity to shave a minute or two off your time by screaming downhill isn’t worth ending your season with a broken collarbone.
  • The hills really aren’t that bad. I only noticed a couple of points where you approached an uphill from a flat, or ended an uphill on a flat. In other words, you can go into all of them with some downhill momentum, and your legs will get a break after getting to the top. If you are comfortable in your aerobars on the downhills, you can really build up speed to help you tackle the uphills that follow them.
  • Even so, the constant rolling hills make it difficult to get in your nutrition and hydration. Trying to down something while climbing can be hard, given your extra effort, and on a downhill, you might not feel steady enough to reach for it. Anytime you find a relatively flat section, use that as an opportunity to check on your hydration and nutrition intake and play catchup or proactively get a bit ahead if you have to.

And that’s the Columbia bike course. Not so scary. I can handle it. So can you.

Now there’s the matter of the ridiculously hill run course…oh boy.


  1. That's the same course as the iron girl tri right? There are a few tough hills in that course! I like how hills break up the monotony too, but the downhills still frighten me.

  2. Insightful post. Good luck..I'm not doing it but I know a bunch of peeps who are. Should be a challenging/rewarding time.

  3. And now you know exactly what to expect. You're ready to kill it! Well, as much as one can kill a hilly course. Good luck and have fun!

  4. Hills are good for you. They grow you chest hair.

  5. Good luck! I would actually like to know how I do, one of these days, on a non-hilly course. One of these days...