Back in February the idea of racing (or riding) eighty or ninety miles on gravel sounded so cool that the first Gravel Fondo sold out the same day registration opened. Two hundred willing souls paid their hard earned cash to test themselves. There was a waiting list……
The test turned out to be a lot harder than many of the riders expected. A quarter of them didn’t finish the first Fondo of the season. When you think about the demographic of riders dedicated enough to be in shape to ride eighty miles of gravel in mid March and then realize that a quarter of those tough guys didn’t make it you get an idea of how hard it was that day.
Wiser for their suffering; other riders who did finish chose to one and done it and concluded their season the same day it started. Never F—ing again ! Thus it came to pass that when registration closed a couple days before the Goldendale Fondo there were just short of a hundred and forty willing to go another round. It is funny how the wrath of God can make an impression on people.
After the heartbreak of the last minute weather reversal at Ephrata- nobody spoke of the optimistic weather forecast in the week leading up to the Goldendale Fondo. We kept our mouths shut and our rain gear quietly stuffed at the bottom of our respective bags. We dreamed of a dry ride, but kept those thoughts to ourselves. The forecasted chance of rain peaked at twenty nine percent and had dropped to nine percent the day before the ride.
Contrary to the general trend our team increased its participation with a total of eight fools making the trek to the end of the earth. Our years of Cyclocross racing experiences made for a long resume of competing in miserable conditions. We were ready for anything.
On the drive over the sprinkles of rain turned to hail and even snow as we crossed Snoqualmie Pass. The dread in the car was palpable. Not another sufferfest! Once over the pass the rain decreased and was replaced by wind. The wind buffeted the war wagon and I was stunned to see the gas usage when we arrived in Goldendale. The war wagon has racked up 175,000 miles and this trip was the worst mileage ever.
Once again we stayed in a hotel remarkable only for its unremarkableness. I have traveled the world and stayed in all kinds of hotels. I can say that of all of the hotels I have stayed in the Ponderosa is one of them. The hotel must have been popular in the 1960’s. The shower had the same plumbing fixtures as the house I grew up in which was built in 1963. Welcome to the time machine.
Can't you just smell the nicotine ?
The morning dawned under threatening skies filled with large, dark foreboding clouds. El Chefe’ and I found that the best coffee in town (before 7:00 AM anyway) was served at a place with golden arches. At seven we gathered for breakfast and looked outside and to our collective horror it started raining. NOAA said 8% chance of rain and it was raining. As we in the aviation industry, say “Whisky, Tango, Foxtrot!”
Say it ain't so....
Back in our hotel rooms we put on our costumes and looked out the window in disbelief. The rain did not stop. My mind wasn’t ready for six hours of soggy. We arrived at the start and kept on our jackets and jean over our costumes as we prepared our bikes. The general look of resignation on the faces of riders was truly sad.
Right about the time I had to make the “fender/no fender” decision I realized it wasn’t raining anymore. We gathered for some pre-ride instructions which I am embarrassed to admit I generally ignored aside from the part about the post-ride meal which I found amusing, “There are a whole bunch of old ladies preparing a whole lot of food for you, so please come to the Grange Hall after the ride.”
With that we began the neutral roll out of town. When the lead car pulled over and the pace ramped up we stayed in a pretty large bunch. I felt comfortable and kept my position. The pack inexplicably surged and braked just like a typical road race. The pace slowed as the grade picked up and still we were at the back of the lead pack. I checked my Garmin and we were nearly to the top of the first hill and still we were in the first group. At this point the first group must have had sixty riders.
Finally as the grade kicked up again we got some separation and the Wizard of Coz stayed with the lead group as did Big John (whose bobbing orange helmet was like a beacon of 20/20 style ahead). McWoddie and Einmotron were also in the lead group as expected.
El Chefe, the Silver Bullet and Evo stayed tight and we topped out on the first hill then launched onto the first Gravel sectour. Like one of Pavlov’s dogs I got all hot and put on the power and started passing more tentative riders. The Silver Bullet was close behind and when we once again found ourselves on pave’ we soft pedaled for a minute until el Chefe caught up with ten of his new friends. . There was a little ticking coming from the Silver Bullet’s bottom bracket that reminded me of a tick El Jefe’ had in his pedal during the Peloton of Discovery adventure.
We were heading south with a stiff headwind coming from the south west. We formed a paceline and took 30 second pulls and were catching and passing other riders. This was a sizable group and if we could work together on the paved sections, especially with the wind, we could really make up some time. I fully expected we would catch up to the Wiz before too long.
We hit another Gravel sectour and I powered through passing riders who chose different lines. That isn’t to say my lines were better, or that I was just stronger but I was pushing and I was passing. We would regroup on the paved section and form up and work together taking short pulls against a relentless wind.
We hit some rollers and rotated through just fine. On a short and pretty moderate climb the group splintered. A smaller group formed and began working well. We passed a couple riders dealing with mechanicals but nothing like the carnage of Ephrata.
We hit Gravel sectours one after another. These were fun and the best lines were sometimes washboard and I felt I was able to relax and float those better than most. Other times the best lines were on one side or the other.
Riders seemed a little too quick to jump on someone else’s wheel. When a rider passed on a different line the rider who had just been passed often swerved to catch the wheel on the different line and the passed rider was a bit out of control during the swerve. Often the rider who just passed had no idea someone had jumped on his wheel and thus he might swerve quickly to try a different line and the rider now on his wheel could have an “interesting” time trying to follow.
All in all it made for a situation that required a Zen-like focus on the Gravel. This is what I came for.
I found myself catching Joe Martin, fast rider and all around good guy on a short paved section. Joe must be recovering from heart surgery to be riding near me. We hit a longer Gravel climb and Joe and I gapped everyone without working too hard. I was feeling strong and began to entertain some high expectations. I should know better.
I had been eating bloks and sucking down gel and drinking as if my success depended on it because it did. Once the Fondo started my nutrition during the event was more important than my training for the event. I had learned through trial and error what worked and what could make the event a living hell.
We came across a sandy section that was reminiscent of Silver Lake Cyclocross. It featured deep soft sand that slowed you to a crawl. Despite my 28mm wide tires I rode it well. Let’s call that one luck. I later heard there were many who fared poorly on these sandy sections.
I soft pedaled until my teammates joined and again we worked together. Two of our group had bright orange helmets and I can tell you that you can spot those a quarter mile away. We were climbing toward the edge of the ridge and as we came over the Columbia River stretched out below us. The wind was in my face and my eyes began to water. The descent on gravel was the roughest part of the whole ride. Big, sharp loose rocks and ruts and potholes all combined in a cornucopia of tire damaging danger. My watery eyes made it hard to see and I tried to take the best line I could as I plunged down a steeper-than-expected road.
I felt a hard hit on my back tire and grimaced and then when I felt a second one I guessed (correctly) that the second one was because my rear tire had no air in it. Damn. My first zero pressure flat on a tubeless.
I pulled off and spun the wheel. Sealant was squirting out both from a hole and from a spot between the bead and the rim. The Silver Bullet came sliding to a stop (literally) followed by El Chefe (also sliding). We futzed with the wheel for five minutes trying to get it to reseal.
In hindsight I believe the flat was caused by a hole which the sealant actually sealed but between when I flatted and when I stopped a small rock, something between a grain of sand and a pebble, wedged between the bead and the rim breaking the seal and making it hard to reseal. Being an old man who requires reading glasses for anything closer than four feet I couldn’t see the rock and had no choice but to install a tube. I felt bad for slowing my companions.
After finishing the ride I would say that on the entire course there was a single one hundred yard section where the perfect bike would have been a full suspension 29er. It was this part of the course where I flatted. Next year I shall go much, much slower down this rocky descent.
The right tool for that job...
With tube installed I remounted and with increased caution on my part, we resumed our journey. About twenty or thirty riders had passed us while we repaired the tire. So much for our top forty finishing position. A few minutes later the Silver Bullet met with the same fate and again we tried and tried and then inserted a tube. Just as we were finishing up the Wizard of Coz came by and stopped to join us.
The Wizard of Coz had been in front of us but had taken a wrong turn. With his dreams of glory crushed by tragic misfortune he joined our trio of cursed riders and we were now four strong. By this time anther forty riders had passed and our Fondo had become a Gentlemen’s ride. The term Gentlemen’s ride comes from events put on by Rapha. The format is that each team starts together and stays together for the duration of the ride. The first team of five riders to cross the line wins. Our team already blurs the line between a bike racing team and a gentlemen’s club so adopting the ride format here was not a stretch.
The open range was green and the hills were beautiful. The clouds were plentiful but were no longer menacing. Over the ridge to our left the Columbia was making its way to the Pacific. It was a great day to be on a bike.
The four of us resumed riding and we blew past a handful of riders. Nobody even tried to catch our paceline. Then up ahead it looked like a herd of cattle had grouped along a fence where the road must dead end and turn. I scanned left and right to see which way the road would turn. All this time we are getting closer and I realize the cattle are on the road, ditch to ditch with cowboys on horses behind them. The road doesn’t turn.
The cyclists at Paris-Roubaix only had to deal with a train crossing. We were staring at a hundred tons of beef marching toward us. A cowboy told us to get off the road and climb up the ditch and let them pass. We obeyed as we exchanged glances with each other as if to wonder what would happen next. At this point I wouldn’t have flinched at juggling clowns on unicycles blocking the road. Even the sirens of St. Helens seemed passé at this point.
Our joy at resuming our ride was short lived as the road was now a minefield of fresh cow pies. Our path now looked like a smelly game of Frogger. The futility of weaving around the green globs made me all the more anxious to get going fast again.
As we began escaping the shit we started to ramp up the pace. The Wizard was uncharacteristically popping off the back. I dropped back and he was suffering from cramps and a general bonk. He ate and tucked in. We formed up and took turns pulling. By now the tick that was coming from the Silver Bullet’s BB had escalated to a sound that you would expect if you had loose ball bearings in a hollow pedal arm. Cla-clunk, cla-clunk, cla-clunk; any hope of sneaking up on anyone was gone for him.
We battled rollers, the Wiz’s bonk and merciless headwinds until the road finally poured down toward the Columbia. As we were descending the classic “Mountain on one side, cliff on the other” two deer bound across the road just ahead of us. We all slowed and individually contemplated the possible no-win situation that would result from a close encounter of the third kind.
Our descent ended in the modest hamlet of Lyle and the main food stop. We refilled our bottle with liquid, stuffed our pockets with food and stretched. It was warmer now and El Chefe left his vest and knee warmers in his drop bag to be retrieved at the finish. As tempting as the cookies and sandwiches were I exercised my seldom used judgment and just filled my pockets with the food I knew worked with my body on these all day epics.
Slaw for another day
We departed and headed up the Klickatat River valley. For fifteen miles the road followed the river as it weaved back and forth. The two percent grade was almost imperceptible after the headwinds earlier in the day. By now the Silver Bullet’s bottom bracket sounded like he had a spark plug hitting his spokes and the sound reverberated through his carbon frame and caused another rider to ask what that sound was. The grinding had to be costing him some serious wattage.
At mile 72 the road turned right and kicked up beginning an eleven hundred foot climb on steep loose gravel. I stopped to adjust my left shifter position. I had replaced my cables the week before and had to loosen the shifters to get the old housing out and somewhere in that process my left shifter had dropped a half inch which had been bothering me more than you can fathom the whole day.
I removed my cap and knee warmers and unzipped my jersey. When I got going again the climb was tough, loose and wonderful. I felt strong and my adductor muscles were feeling fresh and ready for more. I caught the Wiz and another rider before coming upon El Chefe who had stopped to shed layers as well.
We regrouped and the promised tailwind found us. With the wind at our back we didn’t need to paceline and we could ride alongside each other and confess our sins. The Wiz was appreciative of the escort and Evo and the Silver Bullet were glad the group had waited out our tire changes.
We were soon on pavement but the roads were deserted. The rollers were big and if not for the tailwind could have been discouraging. El Chefe leaned over his bars and yelled at his front tire. It was getting squishy and he (and we) didn’t want to stop so close to the end.
His sealant kicked in and it resealed while riding. This made it complete; three flats and one bonk. We are a team in every sense of the word. By now the sound coming from the Silver Bullet’s bike was like a lawn mower going over a pile of marbles. I will keep you updated when we find out what was causing the sound.
The final miles were as easy as they can be with six thousand feet of climbing and ninety miles in your legs. We rolled across the line four across and then made our way back to the car. As we approached Big John and Mo (Mrs. Silver Bullet) greeted us with the news that McWoodie had crossed the line first.
We changed and took Jake’s advice and made our way to the Grange Hall where we inhaled plates of spaghetti and salad without a thought. The wonderful ladies of Goldendale were a welcome sight indeed. Maybe they were smiling because they don’t get a lot of men wearing kilts in Goldendale.
It was a long way home and nobody was looking forward to the drive. The long drive and the ride shared at least one thing in common. Good company can make almost anything fun.