Doing it all the hard way...

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Ephrata Fondo 2015 Grown men should know better....

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I know a Fondo isn’t a race, but it isn’t exactly a weenie roast either….

There are three kind of fun:
Type 1 fun is fun at the time.
Type 2 fun isn’t fun at the time, but is later remembered as fun and you’re glad you did it.
Type 3 fun isn’t ever classified as fun.

As my lone reader knows, I am all in for Gravel in 2015 and the Ephrata Fondo was the season opener.  This is the ride that had me riding long in December and kept me honest in January and February. 

When registration opened I jumped so fast I almost forgot my own name.  I took advantage of the freakishly dry February to get in a couple of Gravelish rides. (Note how I always capitalize Gravel? Isn’t that awesome?)  While I am not in great shape I am in decent shape and I looked forward to the Ephrata ride.

There were six of the boys in brown heading to the event. With Hottie on IR I had to make some special provisions to enable participation without risking my domestic bliss.  All of us watched the weather forecasts with a level of obsession that can be politely described as enthusiastic.  Checking it every couple hours in the week leading up to the event seemed rational.

Two weeks out the forecast called for dry but cloudy. A week out it looked like rain was likely.  Five days out it was looking dry and warm! As the day approached the chance of rain dipped and rose and dropped again.  It finally climbed from 20 percent chance of rain to 29 on Friday afternoon. On Saturday morning it skyrocketed to 69 percent chance of rain and it only climbed from there.  Over the next 24 hours the chance of rain topped out at 100 percent and the amount of rain per hour (.14”) also increased.  We were screwed.

Bad decisions do lead to great stories (and alimony).

We departed Seattle in a steady rain which was reflected in our unusually somber mood.  The task before us was daunting.  An eighty mile ride with thirty miles of gravel and five thousand feet of climbing is hard on a sunny day. Wind and rain raise the stakes and introduce new risks. Over Snoqualmie pass the intensity of the rain increased and our folly seemed questionable.   We found Ephrata, collected our numbers and found our hotel in the unrelenting rain.

I decided I would be starting with my Pactimo rain jacket and my most waterproof of booties.  That would keep me dry. With my deception firmly in place, I drifted off to sleep.

I was awake before the alarm and wandered out in the now bombing rain to see if the coffee at the Starbucks in Moses Lake tastes like it does at every other Starbucks.  It did and I wandered back to our room with my cup of Joe.

We gathered in McWoodie’s and WhipLaesch’s hotel room and despite wisdom, facts and logic we opted to ride anyway. There were clearly varying levels of enthusiasm for the decision to ride. I sincerely appreciate the solidarity.  We may be fools but we are loyal fools that can be counted on to support even poor decisions. .

Soon we were fed, dressed and driving to the start. We were all fabricating our own justification for the inevitable suffering that awaited us.  Richman was all in. I wondered if he knew what he was getting into. He is a smart guy so I expected a bit more trepidation.  Time would tell. Others drew upon their religious upbringing to offset recent happiness with a penance that can only come from true suffering.

We put on shoes, helmets and gloves with the enthusiasm of prisoners getting ready for the firing squad.  At the appointed time, two hundred men and women who all should have been smart enough to know better rolled out of downtown Ephrata behind a police escort.

There were riders dressed in waterproof jackets and pants with rain covers on their helmets.  There were riders wearing tights, some had knee warmers, others knickers and some just wore shorts. There were riders with frame packs and others with hydration packs on their backs.  There was the predictable mix of hopeful young riders and grizzled old veterans.  Some knew what they were getting into and some were just hoping for the best.

The first mile felt like a turbine spooling up ever so slowly.  Just when I had begun to think how fun it was riding mellow on the pavement we were on Gravel and as fast as you could utter your chosen obscenity the climb had started.  One mile in and we are on our first climb which goes straight up more than a thousand feet in four miles. It is raining and it will continue to rain.

Welcome to Gran Fondo Ephrata.

As the bunch strings out two hundred men and women silently think to themselves, “This is what I signed up for?  This is HARD.” Gravel climbs are challenging, solitary affairs. I try to settle into a rhythm but my muscles are not yet warmed up and I’m feeling a bit cold from standing around in the rain before the start. 

Slow riders who for some reason started near the front are fading and we are almost dodging them as we move up.  El Chefe and I quietly work our way up.  If I chose to follow my own advice I would relax and spin in zone one for the first twenty minutes or so. If I did this I would find myself at the back of a very sketchy pack of riders and would have a whole new set of problems.  I push a bit and it feels harder than it should and I check my heart rate which isn’t very high. This could be a long day in the saddle. I wonder if I have a flat or if my brake is rubbing.  I notice some deep ruts in the mud from the riders in front.  Oh, that is the deal, riding uphill in soft mud.  Awesomer.

I tell myself that I will be at the top before too long and try to find a level of effort that makes sense.  The rain has made the ground soft which makes the hills even harder. Every now and then I catch a few yards of firm dirt and I shoot forward even though I am going uphill.  This puts the day in perspective. It is going to be a long, hard day.  I try to pedal in circles as I remind myself I have hours of riding ahead of me.  El Chefe and I work past some riders who look like they are reconsidering their choice of Sunday morning activities.

This is a remote ride and there won’t be any convenience stores along the way to stop and get supplies or take shelter from the elements.

From my limited experience I know that in an hour or so we will be strung out and riding in ones and twos.  El Chefe and I are working together and I hope I don’t slow him down.  Richman was strapped in for the long day and was smart in deciding to ride within himself. We’d see him again until about dinner time. Wisdom isn’t always fast; that’s okay.

We reach the top of the first climb and the pace picks up.  The grade and surface will be changing all day long.  I can’t alter either of those but by managing my effort I can alter my speed. The challenge is to optimize that effort to result in the best time on the day. Do I throttle back my effort on the hills so I can go harder on the flats?  What is the right balance? You can’t go hard for five hours.  What I don’t even contemplate yet is the role hypothermia will play in that balance later in the ride. 

We lose nearly all of the elevation we just gained on a long paved downhill.  A couple riders we passed on the gravel climb pass us which just highlights the question of when to push and when to throttle back.

Soon we are on the second climb which is also about a thousand vertical feet. This climb starts off on pavement and doesn’t feel as steep.  The traction is better and we are going faster for the effort expended.  We are all are quiet now as it is all business on the climb.  The scenery is grey and tan with a cloudy, wet sky which looks beautiful.  I know that after we top out here we have rollers then a long run down to the Columbia River so I don’t mind pushing a bit.  The rain continues but it isn’t heavy yet.  I am still warm.

Quinn passes us on an uncharacteristicly metallic bike and a couple minutes later we pass him back.  Soon we pass Big Joe and Craig.  I figure these strong riders will catch us later but based on knowing their abilities we seem to be amongst our competitive peers.

After riding in the Alps a thousand feet (or 300 meters as I prefer to measure it) isn’t that long of a climb.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying it is so short I can stay in the big ring, but it is finite. You can measure a thousand foot climb in minutes rather than hours.

The pavement ends and soon we are jockeying for good lines.  The rain makes the gravel slower by making the individual bits slipperier so they displace easier and you sink deeper and go slower. It also turns the dirt into mud.  The road is cover with latte-colored ruts from the tires of the riders in front of us.  The road is a dark brownish grey soil with latte-colored standing water.  When that water gets kicked up in your face and mouth it tastes nothing like a latte.  Oddly keeping to the theme of milk, however, the taste does remind me of a dairy farm.

I find a good line and twenty seconds later it dies out and I move right to a different line. That one sucks too.  I come up on a rider and going around him the road is even softer and it takes a huge effort to pass.

I come to a group of six or eight riding two abreast and swing left to power past them.  As I do so I accelerate and instead of bogging down the surface actually holds me.  I keep my speed up and soon I have created a big gap with the group I just passed.  I realize that if I can go a bit faster I don’t sink as much and I keep the pace up just as the climb turns into rollers.

I am glad to have the second climb behind me. In keeping with the “good news, bad news” theme, up ahead the view disappears as the clouds and the ground have collided.

We take a left turn and the rollers start trending downhill.  This is the long descent that we were warned about at the start. The road was just graded so it is smoother for a car, but the errant rocks can cut your tires or throw you to the ground and cut you like a grater.  It is downhill so the good news- bad news collaboration is perpetuated.

I gapped El Chefe on the latter part of the second climb but he is strong (like bull) and soon he is next to me.  We avoid a few stray bottles that have been rattled out of their cages by the rough gravel.  Let the games begin !

We get a short respite of smooth dirt. “Eat now, we may not be able to later,” I offered and we complied.  The loose stuff ahead means no taking a hand off the bars to eat or drink.

My limited experience with Gravel Fondos taught me that there are many riders who are NOT comfortable riding on Gravel. There are others who are comfortable and should NOT be.  I collected broken ribs and a damaged bike from a pacelining accident in a race a few years ago so I wasn’t keen to draft behind anyone on loose surfaces.   At the Winthrop Fondo I passed several riders who were going downhill clutching their brakes with a look of absolute panic on their faces. Thus my greatest single objective was to avoid crashes.

Soon El Chefe and I are powering along. Our tires, bike handling skills, fitness and luck are all in play. We absolutely blow past some riders who are intimidated by the loose gravel.  On a winding portion of the descent where the rocks were sharp and plentiful we pass perhaps twenty five riders stopped in groups of one to four fixing flats and other mechanicals.  The rain has also picked up. We are heading west so we don’t notice the tailwind. For many the Fondo is about to turn ugly.  Someone on the side of the road with a mechanical says hello as I pass.  I am afraid to take my eyes off the road and I still have no idea who it was.

I keep a healthy distance between myself and El Chefe.  I’m not about to get close enough to draft so why be close enough to crash on top of another rider if they go down?  The course now requires a Zen-like level of focus. We are flying downhill on loose wet gravel. All the while trying to avoid the rocks that are either large or sharp or both. The good lines are non-existent so you just try and let it flow. Is there any way to make this activity sound like something a grandfather should be engaged in?

Descending on gravel you sometimes get a sensation of floating.  You steer by moving your bike side to side as opposed to turning the handlebars.  You turn by rotating your shoulders and just kind of “willing” you bike left or right.  You are kind of in control and kind of not.

A rider in a bright yellow rain jacket (with a dark grey mud stripe on the back) jumps on El Chefe’s wheel and I give them even more room.  We pick up another rider who falls in behind me.  This last rider keeps making corrections that make me think that it is just a matter of time before he goes down in a pile.  I hope he doesn’t because I don’t want to stop.  I don’t mind him next to me or behind me, but I don’t ever get directly behind him. If he crashes I won’t end up on top of him.

We come to the tunnel that goes under the railroad tracks.  I had looked at this on Google Earth and it looked pretty wild. They spanned the whole canyon with dirt to route the railroad tracks and the small tunnel was the only way out unless you climbed up a hundred feet to the tracks.  It was essentially a dirt dam.

I mistakenly thought the tunnel would be smooth pavement inside.  There were ruts and rocks and rainwater running down.  Man, Jake thought of everything.

All good things come to an end and soon we are back on pavement and before long we are riding along highway 28 and the rain is coming down hard now.  Everything on me is soaked. I’m cold but not (yet) hypothermic.  I am looking forward to the climb past the food stop so I can warm up. We take a turn that adds in a two mile section of what sure felt like a Cyclocross course.  Sand and singletrack in the middle of an eighty mile ride.  These guys didn’t miss a chance to challenge us.

 We then have four miles along Highway 28 that feels like riding in the shower.  Actually it was like a shower with no hot water.  The good news is the shower washes the mud off my sleeves and face.  Cars going by us honk and laugh at our lunacy.  I can’t argue with their perception.

We turn off the highway at Palisades Road and stop at the aid station.  El Chefe and I are both cold and want to make our stop as fast as possible to avoid freezing.  Five minutes later I am trying to pull my wet glove onto my shivering, pruned hand and get the hell back on the road in the hope of warming up.

We take off and I am cold. I am really cold.  I know I’m not heading out for just a half hour. My race with hypothermia is on so any thoughts of metering my effort are on hold until I am warm.  I’ve still got two and a half hours if I am lucky.  I internalize when things get tough. I shut up, put my head down and ramp up my effort in an attempt to get warm.  El Chefe is on my wheel and as I look up the canyon the rain is driven into my face by the headwind that wil torment us for the next hour plus.   Before long we had picked up two more riders and we began to paceline into the wind.

For the whole ride I had my Garmin indicating heart rate, cadence and distance.  Any more on my screen and I can’t read it without glasses.  Talk about age discrimination….  I watched my HR and cadence as I pushed up the canyon.  When my turn came I pushed then held and held some more before dropping back and giving someone else a turn.  I knew that with the stiff headwind we needed each other and we worked for the benefit of each other and more importantly, ourselves.

My heart rate confirmed we were working hard and I took a hint of solace in that.  I would later find out that all of our effort was to maintain a fifteen mile an hour crawl up the canyon. If I had known that at the time I would have just pulled over and started crying.  Ignorance is bliss.

The long gradual climb up the valley into the headwind and driving rain seemed endless.  I drank a bit of Skratch Labs and squeezed some Hammer gel down my pie hole.  The deluge had washed the mud off the front of my bike and clothing. 

Up ahead I spotted a truck on the side of the road with the hood raised.  As we approached the truck a slender man dressed in a black ball cap, a stained Carhartt jacket and blue jeans came out from behind the cab.  He had a long knife in one hand and pointed it at my face and then lunged toward me.  I happened to be on the front of the paceline so I was able to steer left and out of his reach but he caught El Chefe and sliced his right arm with a sword-like slashing motion.  I turned to see blood flowing down El Chefe’s arm as he covered the gash with his left hand while fighting to keep his bike moving away from the mad man. I could see the dark red blood dripping off El Chefe’s hand. The other two riders scattered and we were riding for our lives.  I heard the truck engine start and the truck started to chase us.  This actually didn’t happen but I put it here just so you know it really could have been much worse.

After over an hour of riding into the headwind the blessed gravel finally came and El Chefe and I bid the others farewell and stopped to confirm our hydration was adequate.  Two minutes later we were riding side by side on the gravel as the canyon narrowed.  I knew the climbing was about to start and I feared cramps would soon be my fate. If I cramped I wouldn’t be able to ride hard enough to stay warmish.  I steered my thoughts in a different direction. 

The road kicks up sharply in three distinct sections and the climb is aptly known as Three Devil’s Grade.  The first devil had us struggling to keep traction.  It was steep enough that I wanted to get out of the saddle but it was too loose to ride out of the saddle.

The choice then becomes riding seated or standing and keeping your weight waaay back over your back tire so you don’t lose traction.  We both succeeded in wrestling our bikes up the first devil and were greeted with a scenic valley right out of an old western movie.  The wet dirt and gravel were slowing us down.  I kept looking to see if I had a flat the pedaling was so hard. 

Many of us rode 28mm wide Hutchinson Sectours set up tubeless. It was a good set up.  We didn’t flat and while we would have preferred fatter tires on the gravel and narrower tires on the pavement the tire proved a good compromise. Richman was on Clement USH’s which were also a good choice for the conditions.  El Chefe and I saw a truck up ahead and there was someone in the back trying to fit one more bike in the back for a rider who was giving up the ghost.  As we passed the truck we looked inside to see if we recognized anyone. We did not.

Following a brief respite the second devil collected his due.  I was surprised we were able to ride the steep section without incident. Finally we topped out and were out of the canyon and the third devil was left to search elsewhere for victims. He would find many this day.

We were now riding on gravel amid rolling hills. The horizon didn’t contain any epic mountains so I wonder how much more climbing we had.  I prepared a sheet that had the elevation and kilometer points but it had melted in the rain so I was forced to rely on my memory.  My memory sucks. I believed we had more kilometers before we topped out, but I didn’t see any obvious climbs. 

We followed the road and before long we were greeted with pavement.  While I love it when the pavement ends I am usually equally happy when it starts again.  I hadn’t cramped and was feeling strong.  I had been eating and drinking as if my life depended on it.  Perhaps it did.

I looked across at El Chefe and remarked, “It’s stopped raining.”  I pulled off my gloves and squeezed out a staggering amount of water and stuffed them in my jersey pocket.  The road kept rising and the hills in the distance still didn’t have any monsters looming. 

We took a left turn and were back on gravel.  Both of us felt strong and we were catching riders who were generally blown apart.  Eighty miles is a long way and the truth comes out sooner or later. For these riders later was now.

Our route seemed to be just about to top out around the next bend.  Then as we hit that corner there was another a bit higher.  We were warming up and took off our rain jackets. After the third or fourth, “Is this the top?” we figured out the deal.  The series of rolling uphills continued until we made the final downhill turn for Ephrata. The last climb had been disguised among gentle rolling hills. I was okay with that.

A rapid descent (top speed 70kph+) and soon we are approaching Ephrata.  I look behind and there is nobody who will catch us.  Some of the historically fast guys I thought would beat us to town are still behind us or in a SAG wagon.  Even though we get a few sprinkles it doesn’t really rain on us anymore.  The joy of not getting bombed on combined with the relief of being this close to done was euphoric.

We congratulate each other with the finish line in sight.  We oddly both feel indebted as I believe El Chefe pulled me and he thinks I pulled him.  After some “After you, no after YOU,” we cross the finish line.  We are handed a patch for finishing (it turns out they had plenty of those left over) and we ride to the car.  After five and a half hours of going, going, going it is strange to be off the clock.

After changing into dry clothes El Chefe holds out a bag containing his wet clothes.  “Hold this,” he says.  The bag weighs at least ten pounds.  Eighty percent of the weight is the water that soaked his clothes.  In addition to the rain slowing us down by making the ground slow and soft, riding with an additional ten pounds of water surely slowed us down on the climbs.

We sit in the cab of El Chefe’s truck with the heater going and wait for Richman to finish.  When he arrives he looks good.  He looks really good. He looks too good. Next time he had better look shattered.  Next time I expect him to finish sooner as well. 

Richman changes and we find some hot food. We head home basking in the glory of our epic adventure.  Of the two hundred that started more than fifty did not finish.  El Chefe and I finished in the top half of those that did finish which exceeded my personal goal.  I had expected the ride to take five and a half hours and it took me five minutes more.  Looking at the times compared to last year I figure the rain cost us between thirty and fifty minutes.  If I subtract that from our finishing time I am more than a little pleased with my results.

Three of our brown brothers rode together placing in the top twenty. All in all we fared better than most.  I felt really strong at the end which pleased me greatly.

On the car ride home I wiped the grit from my eyes for the third time.  I did this again before bed and first thing the next morning.  Just before getting back to Seattle I scratched my ear and found it had grit in it as well.

After I got home I dumped out my muddy clothes in the driveway.  I hosed the mud out of them and threw them in a bucket.  After I poured the bucket into the washing machine I hosed the grit off the bike. I lubed the chain and wiped down the bike and left the rest for the next day.

The next day when I cleaned my bike I found water everywhere and my rear wheel needed to be trued.  I found that my left cleat was loose and both cleats were clogged with sand.  I re-lubed my BB, pedals, derailleurs and brakes. I cleaned the rims and replaced what was left of my brake pads. . 

Those that ran discs removed their pads and sent pictures the next day to document the harsh conditions.  McWoodie had more wear from this one ride on a new set of pads than from all of 2014 on the original (and lower quality) pads.

In 2010 a group of us rode the Tour de Blast. Feral Dave was the first honest man among us when he proclaimed that was not fun at all.  He rightfully classified it as Type Three Fun, which is no fun at all.

Despite our varied experiences of five to eight hours of riding in hellish conditions every one of us was talking about “next time” even right after the event.  Typically there is a period of “Never F-ing again!” that evolves into “That wasn’t too bad” and eventually becomes, “It was tough, but fun.”  That is the definition of Type Two Fun.

For me I enjoyed the whole ride.  I will absolutely agree I enjoyed some parts more than others, but for me it falls into the category of Type One Fun. 

Scary huh??

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