Coaching a Rocky Mountain high

Phil Morton at Loveland Pass, looking good. Photo courtesy of Phil Morton.

Phil Morton at Loveland Pass, looking good. Photo courtesy of Phil Morton.


By Michael Collier

This is a feel-good story. Well, not all feel-good.

It’s about a guy named Phil Morton, who is an experienced cyclist and member of my bike club in Berkeley, California. This Spring, he decided to reach out for support from his friends as he prepared for the ride of his life in the Colorado Rockies.

One of the first things he did in his quest to ride a grueling, six-day bike trek was to find me. I am a cycling coach, and my specialty is helping endurance cyclists like Phil train, physically and mentally, for difficult rides. Phil was my first student and a very good one.

Last year, Phil participated in Ride the Rockies, an event sponsored by the Denver Post newspaper. It was a lot more struggle than fun. His legs ached, his stomach was upset regularly and, well, he wasn’t really a happy camper.

A new view

My goal as his coach was that he would turn things around — that he would be physically comfortable enough on the bike and find pleasure in viewing the breathtaking vistas of snow-capped peaks and reach a meditative-like state as he turned the cranks, one revolution at a time, and ascended mountain passes with elevations approaching 12,000 feet.

On my first on-the-road coaching session with Phil, we rode up Mount Diablo together. The first thing I observed was that he panted a lot. I demonstrated how to breath deeply and he tried it. He made it to the top (3,850 feet elevation), still practicing a “one one-thousand,  two one-thousand” breathing rhythm. With his mindful breathing, much of his physical struggle disappeared and he had enough oxygen to feel more energetic.

Phil is a coach’s dream; a motivated student who listens well and learns quickly.

Training regimen

I wrote up his weekly goals for distance and difficulty, leaving it up to him to ride routes of his choice. I encouraged him to keep up his yoga class and add more core strength exercise. In the four weeks before he departed for Colorado, Phil rode two hilly centuries (100 miles each) and logged more than 40,000 feet of climbing on his Strava page.

On our last ride together before his mountain adventure, Phil and I rode to the 2,500-foot summit of Mount Tamalpais. He was riding at his optimal pace with confidence and grace. He was fit and several pounds thinner than before he began training.

Nasty weather

Phil arrived in Colorado the first week in June, ready to roll. On his first day, he pedaled through thunderstorms, hail and snow. With snowflakes accumulating on the highway and temperatures dropping into the mid-20s, the Colorado state patrol closed the course and pulled Phil and others into waiting rigs.

The next morning, Phil awoke in his tent to temperatures in the teens. The weather improved a bit after that. Phil seemed unflappable.

On the fourth day of the ride, Phil wrote this on his Facebook page:

In the groove

“RtR Day 4: … It was just a great day of riding. It started off quite gently, and the rhythm of pedaling was like a meditation”

On the final day, Phil posted this: “This is it – Loveland Pass @ 11992′. Anticipation or dread?” Then this, in the final miles: “It was quite simple — just turn the pedals at your pace, drink enough water and eat sugar.”

This tale shows how one person can achieve a major life goal with undying devotion. It is also how a coach who is similarly devoted to a holistic approach to training cyclists can help get the student to the top.

Michael Collier is a USA Cycling certified coach. For more information about his approach to coaching, click on Coaching on the home page of




Cyclists’ oasis ready to serve

The weathered sign that leads wearied travelers to their oasis. Photo by Michael Collier.

The weathered sign that leads wearied travelers to their oasis. Photo by Michael Collier.

By Michael Collier

The scene is right out of a movie set: An alluring oasis, in the middle of a parched nowhere, that beckons road-weary bicyclists to come inside, refresh and put a smile back on their faces.

This is The Junction Bar and Grill. It is perched on the border of Alameda and Santa Clara Counties east of Mount Hamilton. It must be said that this looks and feels like one of the remotest places on Earth even if it’s just an hour’s drive from civilization in the San Francisco Bay Area. Caution to the faint-of-heart.

In this year’s drought conditions, it’s even harsher. The creeks flowing down from the series of nearby ridges are all dry — one tributary between Livermore and the junction has a few pools of standing water from recent rains. A biker must begin the slog up Mines Road from Livermore, or from Mount Hamilton, with a set of filled water bottles to avoid a crisis because there’s not a clean drop on the way. Even the deer seem even skinnier than usual.

For years, the joint has been a kind of last-chance saloon for many a cyclist (myself included) and motorcyclist. Imagine the collective gasp when the diner’s former owner closed its doors not too long ago. Fortunately, the angst was short-lived.

Pulled pork, boar’s head

The establishment’s new owner has updated the menu to include pulled pork sandwiches, which customers can polish of while looking at a boar’s head mounted to the wall. Mashelle Bullington also has made the place more welcoming and helpful to bikers who ride non-motorized two-wheelers. She has created a shelf filled with energy bars and other snacks for the ride back, and she has added tire-patch kids and over-the-counter pain relievers. It’s all part of a plan to serve Northern California’s vast and growing cycling community.

Besides pulled pork and burger on the menu, the cafe has beefed up its snack offerings to keep road cyclists fueled up for the rest of their journeys. Photo by Michael Collier.

Besides pulled pork and burger on the menu, the cafe has beefed up its snack offerings to keep road cyclists fueled up for the rest of their journeys. Photo by Michael Collier.

A few years back, there were at least three boar’s heads on the walls, and a cyclist entering the cafe may have encountered a crowd of hunters and ranchers who looked askance at someone like me, dressed in spandex and riding on tires 23 centimeters wide. It felt like they wanted me to beat it back to Berkeley.

But times have changed, for the better, at least for cyclists. More riders are taking longer rides (the Mount Hamilton loop is about 106 miles.)

In April, an expected 200 cyclists, including me, will set out in the early morning darkness on a Saturday to ride more than 200 miles. The Devil Mountain Double Century is the second-toughest of the California’s two-dozen double centuries, with more than 18,000 feet of elevation gain and some of the most grueling climbing anywhere. Riders will go to the top of Mount Diablo, Morgan Territory Road, Altamont Pass, Patterson Pass, Mines Road, Mount Hamilton, way-steep Sierra Road in San Jose and back to the San Ramon Valley.

Welcome respite

Any hint of an oasis in the context of such teeth-clenching climbs will be welcome to those of us battling against gravity, muscle pain and leg cramps. And the Junction Bar and Grill will no doubt be in our minds miles before we arrive there for lunch, at about the halfway point in the ride.

The stress on a cyclist’s body in such a difficult endurance test is huge. A doctor friend of mine said such an effort can take a couple of days off one’s life (although the ship-shape cardiovascular health of those who have trained properly likely will extend their lives far longer than that).

I know from my experience that the anticipation of an oasis — whether it be a welcoming water stop or tree-shaded hollow — is enough to lift my spirits for the next challenging hill. Anyone who has tackled a long ride knows the ultimate happy moment: When nearing the finish line and still pedaling.

It is for such moments that I thank people like Junction Bar and Grill owner Bullington, for understanding the importance of an oasis to the collective psychology of 200 cyclists. Make plenty of pulled pork sandwiches and you will put a smile on every one of them as they revive themselves while glancing at the mounted boar’s head.

This boar's head greets bikers of all types as they sidle up to the counter for sustenance. Photo by Michael Collier.

This boar’s head greets bikers of all types as they sidle up to the counter for sustenance. Photo by Michael Collier.

Devil Mountain Double Century:

Junction Bar and Grill:  47300 Mines Road, Livermore. 408.897.3148

Monday 11am – 8pm
Tuesday 11am – 8pm
Wednesday Closed
Thursday 11am – 8pm
Friday 11am – 11pm
Saturday 10am – 11pm
Sunday 10am – 8pm

Get to the core in the new year

My second double century in 2007 spanned the picturesque Eastern Sierra, from Bishop (Inyo County) to Mono Lake with its tufas, and back to Bishop along the Nevada border.

This is the old me, doing a climb out of Owens Valley in the 2007 Eastern Sierra Double. Notice how my lower back and shoulders are rounded forward — a no-no. The proper posture is with the lower back arched to push the abdomen forward, with shoulders back and neck pushed toward the sky.

By Michael Collier

A favorite New Year’s resolution for most of my cycling-loving pals is to ride more and longer and on steeper terrain.

It’s what we all want, right? But many bike riders think that all they really need to do is hop on their 16-pound, carbon-frame machine and ride like crazy. That will assure that their resolution comes true.

I know, because I was one of those kind of riders for years. I started in January with a log sheet premised on riding more miles every week until I was strong and fit enough to ride 100 miles — or even 200 miles — in a day.

Pump the legs, get them stronger! Lay down a lot of base miles. And after doing all that, I still caved on hilly, long rides. My legs cramped, my neck, shoulders and lower back hurt and I felt fatigue throughout my body.

Build core strength

The problem is that it’s not about the legs alone. It’s about the core of the human anatomy, from the hips to the head.

My advice: Find a core-strenth class right now and put it at the top of your training list. Get on Google or talk to your friends, particularly your women friends, who seem to be more hip to the virtues of core strength than many men I know. There are several such classes in every community. And the price — usually just a few dollars for an hour or more — is cheap given the benefits you will reap.

Cycling is a perfect whole-body exercise, which means that each muscle group is important — especially for endurance cyclists.

Muscles work in pairs, front and back. That means the hamstrings and quads are perfectly matched with the hams acting like pistons to lift the thighs in a powerful motion, while the quads finish the pedal revolution. Same goes for your abs and your lower back muscles. If they’re weak, so are you.

If the legs are all you rely on for power and endurance for hours on end, you will be a wreck at some point. I often see the telltale signs: A rider climbing to the top of a righteous peak with legs straining, butt coming off the saddle frequently and an anguished look on the face.

Born again

I was sold on the importance of core-building when my wife, who is an expert in anatomy, invited me to her workout class.

The instructor, Ernie Adams (, focuses a lot of his routines on the core muscles and very little on the legs. I was doubtful that this could help my cycling, but after a month I was sold.  I rode the hardest double century of my life with extra energy to burn at the finish line. That’s because the legs had a worthy supporting cast of solid core muscles.

I rode up hills with my butt in the saddle, passing other riders on the hardest climbs. Since then I have worked my core-strength class into my weekly routine. My body is happy because I have learned about how it works  — and how to avoid working it in ways that exact a price.

When you see a cyclist hammering a climb with a smile, while you struggle, think about it. That six pack, lower back, flexible shoulders, strong biceps and triceps are your best friend. Give them the love.