Health & Fitness

How one cyclist climbed a million feet on his bike in a year

Cyclist Torey Philipp climbs up Beatty Drive on Wednesday January 25, 2017 in El Dorado Hills, Calif. Torey Philipp, a talented amateur road bike racer who climbed a total of 1 million feet elevation gain, as recorded on the site Strava.
Cyclist Torey Philipp climbs up Beatty Drive on Wednesday January 25, 2017 in El Dorado Hills, Calif. Torey Philipp, a talented amateur road bike racer who climbed a total of 1 million feet elevation gain, as recorded on the site Strava. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Torey Philipp has been riding and racing his road bike since he was 14. Now, he trains on the roads throughout Northern California, often leaving from his El Dorado Hills home and heading out into the foothills of the Sierra to go up and down all kinds of hills and mountains on quiet rural roads.

In cycling, it’s called climbing, and it’s not only the hardest part of the sport but the key to getting faster and stronger. This past year, Philipp did something extraordinary as part of his often grueling training schedule. With an extra push at the end of 2016, he racked up 1 million feet of elevation gain while riding his bike 14,248 miles.

Those numbers, along with maps of all of his routes, are all saved on Strava, the app and website used by many endurance athletes to keep track of their workouts and see how they stack up to others.

“Looking back at it now, I just think of all the hills that I’ve climbed. A majority of the time, climbing is a painful thing,” Philipp said. “I enjoy it, but even if you’re good at it, it doesn’t take the pain away. You still have to go hard, you still get the burn in your legs and you’re gasping for oxygen.”

Philipp, 23, is a highly accomplished cyclist who races for Herbalife presented by Marc Life & Nature’s Bakery, an amateur team that competes in professional races around the U.S. In other words, cycling is a major part of Philipp’s life, but less-accomplished cyclists and athletes in general can learn lots of lessons from him about staying focused, training intelligently, eating properly and pushing yourself to new heights, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Devoted cyclists would argue that climbing is among the most important parts of being a good rider. Pedaling against gravity reveals precisely who you are as an athlete. Philipp, who is a thin but powerful 5 feet 11 inches and 148 pounds, knows he has to keep his weight down to go uphill fast.

In cycling, it’s called power-to-weight ratio. The heavier you are, the more power you have to exert into the pedals to move the bike up a hill. The more power you use, the sooner you’ll tucker out. Climbers try to be as skinny as possible without losing power. It’s a ratio that’s never far from Philipp’s consciousness.

He and his bike need to be as light as possible – but there are limits.

“I found (148 pounds) to be the ideal weight, but if I get lighter than that, I get sick more. If I’m heavier, I definitely feel it on the climbs.”

As the miles and climbing statistics continued to mount last year, were there ever times when Philipp struggled like the rest of us with motivation? How does he get it done when he doesn’t really feel like it?

“The feeling I have is, I’ve put in all this work, I don’t want to just toss it away. I worry that I will lose fitness, so I try to ride as much as I can and fit it in when I can,” he said.

Philipp works three days a week as the assistant brewer at highly regarded Mraz Brewing in El Dorado Hills. He started home brewing because he felt he needed a hobby, and he soon realized he enjoyed it and wanted to get better.

He would take his beers to owner Mike Mraz to get feedback, and soon Mraz had offered him a job. These days, people at the brewery marvel at how Philipp can work a full day brewing beer, then get on his bike and ride 50 or 60 miles.

In his childhood, Philipp was not athletic, but he happened upon the Tour de France on TV in 2005 and decided to give it a try. In no time, he was hooked, though he concedes he was a terrible climber at the outset.

“I wasn’t the most active person. Before cycling, I was just your average kid playing video games. I ate a lot of food and was more of a couch potato,” he said.

Philipp says it helps to have a plan. He has been coached for several years by Bruce Hendler, owner of AthletiCamps in Folsom. Hendler’s workouts keep Philipp on track and show him the path toward getting better.

Sometimes, he may hear that voice in his head telling him to ease off or that it hurts too much to ride hard, but Philipp says he tries to fight through it. He also checks in on Strava, which breaks up rides into segments and rewards the fastest time on each segment with a KOM or QOM (for king or queen of the mountains). So even when he’s riding solo, the competitive spirit comes alive at key moments.

“You have to look at the bigger picture,” he said. “You can always find that extra bit of energy. Strava actually really helps with that. Knowing the climbing times (of other cyclists) and trying to beat your best time or your personal best.”

With about two weeks left in 2016, Hendler was analyzing Philipp’s training data and realized he was within reach of the 1 million-foot milestone. Excited by the chance to hit that number, coach and cyclist revamped their plans and, with a few extra-difficult rides, Philipp got there.

Add it all up and the young racer had gotten fitter, faster, stronger – and he was a long, long way from that average kid playing video games.

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

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