Doing it all the hard way...

Monday, June 23, 2014

Winthrop Gravel Gran fondo 2014 Epic Ride Report Blood Sweat and Gravel

If you look close you can see the sufferers
Results can be found here 

The adjectives to describe this ride are many and seemingly contradictory.  Hard, Enjoyable, Sufferfest, Beautiful, Epic, Sweet, Fun, Dangerous, Inspiring, Miserable, Wonderful, Challenging, Crazy and Fulfilling.

I thought the word “fondo” was an Italian word that had its origins somewhere in the neighborhood of “fun to do.”  It turns out that when dealing in the Latin if you have “gravel” as the preposition before “fondo” the meaning has something to do with becoming nearer to God.  I was out to find out if this meant suffering or being inspired.  It turned out to be both.

Riding to Conconully has been on my bucket list for a few years and the Fondo was an opportunity to check that off and enjoy the excellent gravel riding in the Okanogan. Riding to the start and riding back afterwards had an additional allure.  When my teammate said he had signed up that was all the motivation I needed and I was all in. 

My body was almost recovered from the thrashing I endured riding with the Assassins the previous weekend. My training had been coming around and I thought I might be ready.

I got up Sunday morning and after breakfast and taking Tux on a walk I pinned on my number, got dressed and rode into town.  The blue skies were promising and hope was in abundance.
Ready to roll
The race director, Jake, gave us a few basic instructions and just like that, we were underway.
It's a stampede of Lycra
The first few miles were not unlike a road race.  A large pack formed and initially I was in the back of it. 
Looking around I saw riders whom I judgmentally thought might be going a little fast for this early in a multi-hour epic.  My quads and gluts were sore from last week’s training and the climb I had ridden with Hottie the day before.  I thought it wise to let the pack go and settled into a comfortable all-day pace.
Sure enough when the road started to climb I found myself working through the remnants of that pack. I switched my Garmin to Heart rate mode and dialed in at 160ish and kept it there. The route climbs around 5,000 feet on the fist climb with the majority of the climb on grades dancing around ten percent.  Passing was slow and many were fighting their gears and their bikes.  Suffering kicked off early and stayed late.
Suffering in style
There were all kinds of bikes on the ride.  Most were on cross bikes but some were on pure road machines with wider tires and some on dual suspension monsters.  Some combinations proved efficient on the climbs and others excelled on the descents.   To my great surprise I would guess over 75% of the cross bikes were disc brake bikes.
Okay to look down. Not okay to roll off the edge..
There was an unmanned water stop twenty two miles in where I filled a bottle and a half.  I poured in some scratch labs and nuun tablets and was on my way with top of the first climb closer but not close.
Up the valley we climb.
The area we were climbing had been burned in a forest fire less than ten years ago and still had the moonscape feeling in places.
What men and matches can do is tragic
After more steady climbing I was watching my Garmin and I could tell that based on the elevation I was near the top of the first climb.  The final section was the steepest and everyone was in their lowest gear and wishing they had more.  I watched the grade kick up to fourteen percent and then top out at seventeen before cresting the ridge.
One by one
The downhill on the other side was steep and appeared to be composed of fist sized crushed rock with a road-sized swath carved out. I had a thought that occurred to me often during the day. “They call this a ROAD?”   Simultaneously I contemplated the audacity of being expected to ride on this cheese grater of a descent and the inspiration of knowing that I could.
Climb high enough and you get the views
On the descent I encountered a friend who had stopped to help a teammate that had broken a derailleur.  After a few minutes realized I could offer nothing but moral support I wished them well and went on my way. 

Having ridden these same roads since March my descending skills are at least above average. Soon I was on the climb to the highest point on the course which was 50k in.
Before reaching to top I hit the first manned aid station and grabbed some Shot Blox and refilled my bottles.  Riders were coming in and heading out every minute or two.  I stretched for a quick minute, then swung my leg over and was back at it. 
I was glad to leave the fire damaged area and enjoy some green
After a sustained climb I was on top and the view told me I was way, way in.   The descent was loose and the washboard was punishing.  The descent was interrupted by a short steep, loose climb that brought up all of the emotions. “We’re supposed to ride THIS?”  Traction was at a premium and the rocks were loose.  Stability is worse at slow speeds and I was bouncing off rocks and wresting to keep it going.  Heart Attack hill comes to mind. 
Makes you want to do the ride huh?
After topping out the view opened up and I could glimpse the road below.  
This was awesome !
After a quick photo or two I was back at it and then zipping along loose gravel that eventually gave way to crappy pavement.

Most of the ride I was by myself and glad for it.  The thought of being behind someone on these loose sections sends a chill down my sore spine.  A crash at the front of a group would result in a train wreck scene.  Solo was just fine with me.

The pavement was bittersweet.  It was faster and quite the downhill but it was riddled with crappy patches and potholes that could end your day and your bike’s life. I found myself bobbing and weaving and bunny hopping.  Finally after some rollers I arrived in legendary Conconully and then found the park and the second manned aid stop.  My drop bag was there and I found it and after emptying my pockets of wrappers and empty gel packets I refilled them with a couple homemade bars and some gels, scratch packets, nuun, and blox.

I sat down and poured some bits of gravel out of my shoes and stretched. I took off my helmet and pretended I was human for a couple minutes.  I had some of the food that was set out for me but because I was having great success eating my bars/gels/blox that I was reluctant to eat the more traditional food stop food.  I even skipped the chocolate chip cookies.  I’ll say it again because I know you don’t believe me. I skipped the chocolate chip cookies.
Leaving the blissful lakeside shade the departure from Conconully was on light colored asphalt under sunny skies. The reflector-oven feeling was intimidating. I unzipped my jersey. It was only about sixteen miles to the next food stop but it was all uphill.
Maybe not quite Shangra La, but nice
Soon the asphalt ended and there was some shade and the road looked like a makeshift driveway that would end at a broken down trailer in a hundred feet. It continued on for twelve miles to Highway 20.  We were riding it for nine of those miles and it was steep and rocky.
It was hot gravel, but it was a hot, dusty gravel
I caught two riders who were finding humor in their suffering. “This climb is steep, but at least it’s long,” quipped one of the pair.  That was the quote of the day.

After wrestling my bike across the cattle guard that marked the top at 5,250’ I knew the only climbing that remained was on Lester road which I had ridden many times.  I flew down the next couple miles to the familiar junction of FS42 and FS4225 and the last aid station. 

There I repeated the ritual of emptying my pockets of wrappers and refilling water bottles. Another rider was about to depart and asked if I was heading out.  I said yes and took off.  My narcissistic thought was, “try to hang on.”

I had some cramps on the last climb and my fear of cramps had compelled me to take all of the climbs slower than I otherwise might have.  Now the combination of familiar roads, having “saved” myself to some extent for fear of cramps combined with a long fast downhill and thinking that the cramping problem wouldn’t keep me from finishing -  I just drilled it.  

I flew down FS4225 and when I hit Beaver Creek at the bottom I chugged nearly a whole a bottle before beginning the Lester Road climb.  The lower elevation was hot and the climb exposed and I unzipped as soon as the climb started.
 The reflector oven that is known as Lester Road !
I could see a rider ahead of me struggling and when I passed he commented on the heat. I politely agreed but I couldn’t help but contrast my white unzipped jersey and his black zipped jersey.
The views all day were exceptional
I got out of the saddle and powered up to the final col of the day. I checked my Garmin which indicated 3,300 meters of climbing so far. After a couple long draws on my remaining liquids I began the final descent to the Methow and the waiting pizza.

Bear Creek road was smooth and I was turning over my highest gear.  I had used all of my cassette and chainrings this day.  The rise to the finish (to call it a climb is to trivialize the aforementioned climbs) was a chance to downshift and then I could see the tent that housed the finishing crew.  
Welcome to DONE !!
I received a cool patch and headed for pizza.

At the park by The Barn there was pizza and pop.  I grabbed two slices and began heading home to catch the end of the USA soccer game. I ate as I rode overwhelmed with a feeling of satisfaction.

I had beaten my goal time and was feeling pretty good.   I could have gone harder but I know that wouldn’t have meant more fun, if anything it would have meant less fun. Being able to look around and enjoy the scenery was rewarding as well as knowing how to ride up crazy steep gravel and how to ride fast and with some control on the descents.

I can’t figure out how to explain these rides to my co-workers. They hear the numbers (eighty miles, eleven thousand feet of climbing) and the seemingly contradictory descriptions such as beautiful, fun and suffering and their blank expression tell me they don’t get it.  I can understand that.  I can tell you who does get it.  There were over a hundred of us in Winthrop this past Sunday who got it.

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