Doing it all the hard way...

Monday, September 26, 2016

Gran Fondo Winthrop Report 2016 – “I was hoping a bear would eat me”

Aaron powering his way to 10th on the day!

I heard the best bike event quote ever: “Near the top I felt so bad I was hoping a bear would eat me so I wouldn’t have to finish the climb.” 

The Winthrop Fondo always leaves a mark.

I was able to host a handful of my teammates at our cabin for the Winthrop Fondo.  When I first did this event in 2014 it was held in June and just Brad and I represented the black and orange.  Last year more of our brethren joined in our mountainous folly and the event featured a new course and a new month, September.  This edition kept the new course and fall date and even more of our brothers wanted to share in the suffering.

This event provided motivation to keep training after the Dolomites. With age eventually comes wisdom and there were a number of group rides on gravel over the summer with the unspoken objective of getting everyone ready for this event. For some it was the conditioning, for others it was the bike handling skills.
 Putting on our matching costumes and practicing.
Last year four of our group had ridden together Gentlemen-style and had an outstanding ride.  In my world of warped values a ride can be outstanding and include hours of pain.  McWoodie and Brad were off the front and had outstanding rides that didn’t include as much suffering duration as ours but they claimed to have also had fun.

We gathered at the cabin for pasta the night before and after a protracted discussion on the weather and clothing we high-fived and went to sleep early in anticipation of the big day. 
 Did Evo say "Go forth and ride" or "Go fourth and ride"

There is a reason FUEL coffee is one of our two team sponsors and there was a pot of their “Get Going” blend brewing before sunrise.  In addition to coffee, eggs, oats and bananas would stoke our engines early.  Looking at the temperature and the sky we finalized our clothing choices.

 Brad had a car at the start so some of our group wore extra clothing to stay warm for the ride to the start.
Having secured our race numbers the night before while being mindful that “this is not a race” even though you still have to pin on a number and they record your time. I guess I’m not sure what a race is and isn’t. Our group rolled to the start and marveled at the amazing early morning light. 
 This is what McWoodie looks like from the front.  Only three guys got that view.
We arrived just as the “riders meeting” was starting. The pre-event warning for Leavenworth and Winthrop is amusing as Jake diligently tries to scare off the unprepared.

The neutral start was nice and the peek-a-boo sunshine warmed us as we made our way north on East Chewuch road.  Long shadows reached across the road on this cool morning. Our group of four was solidified early.  We were able to hook up with a couple nice guys through Mr. T, Mike and Joe, who rode with us off and on the first third of the event. 
As the climbing started we quickly passed some riders who had been caught up in the early excitement.  The filtered sunlight was amazing and the colors were brilliant.

The crisp air and the knowledge that we had paid our collective training dues fueled an optimism that this would be a great day.  The pavement just kept going and El Jefe’ asked when we would get onto the gravel.  The theme of things just going on and on would be repeated throughout the day.
When the pavement ended the fun really started.  The washboard was as bad as I’ve ever seen it and since we would be returning on this part of the course I made a mental note of the location and where the least sucky lines were.

We passed a woman who was grinding her way uphill. “Is my back tire going flat?” she asked.  The soft surface was slowing her.  It is a cruel truth that the displacement of the surface as you roll over it sucks the energy from your legs.  While we can talk about frame stiffness and rolling resistance all day but the effort to go the same speed uphill on gravel compared to pavement is huge.

I later passed someone and offered some encouragement as I passed, “Good work.”  They replied, “You probably ride this shit every weekend?” “As a matter of fact, I ride here quite a bit,” was my reply.  It was silent as I pulled away.  If I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t do it.

The effort and the sunshine warmed us and we pulled off vests as we climbed and climbed and climbed.  We reminded each other to eat and drink ahead of the food stop. 
 Some kid in cargo shorts had stolen one of our team jerseys
We aren't sure who he is but I got a picture of him pinching the ass of another rider

At the first food stop we refilled bottles and stretched.  I shared with Joe that the climb as soon as you leave the food stop was ridiculous but that it would settle down.  I recalled the horror I felt embarking on this section in 2014.  I was thinking, “They can’t be serious?”

The loose rocks and steep grade lived up to the “Too steep to sit, too loose to stand” billing. Soon we climbed past Rogers Lake and the top was in sight.  Don’t think we’ll be there in five minutes I cautioned the two first timers in our group.  The road makes a big loop as it ascends to the pass. Coz said he heard the pass referred to as “Skull and bones pass.”  It sounds fitting.  He warned our group about the final kicker at the end.

Looking up the road I saw a cyclist who was coming down.  He approaches fast and my mind searches for something funny to say.  Then I notice he has blood on his nose and down the front of his face as if he has a bloody goatee. I’m speechless, he has obviously crashed and is heading back down.  Look away Evo, look away.

The fire road here was sandy and finding a good line was difficult.  Instead of a well-worn path that revealed the best traction the sand revealed the weaving of previous riders searching for grip.  “Maybe here? No, maybe here? That sucked. Let’s try this one again…”

At this point we had been going uphill for two hours and the trifecta of fatigue, altitude and extreme grade meant the man with the hammer was waiting near the top.  The grade kicks up to almost 20% for the final push and it’s loose so you have to maintain some speed or you spin out. You have to stand but you are forced to keep your weight back to keep traction.  This places a strain on your quivering quads that often tips the scales into the Kingdom of Cramps.

Within twenty meters of the top I saw a rider dismount and walk the last bit, dropping his head in a combination of resignation and exhaustion. Look away Evo, look away.  At the top the wind cuts us to our core and we quickly layer up for the descent.

The road down is rough and we take it easy. In 2014 this part of the course was like a pile of jagged rocks littered with riders fixing flats. Two years had allowed the rocks to sink into the soil but it was still ugly.  Last year it was rough and this year it was rough and washboard.

My curse on long rides has been adductor cramps and my theory is that the trigger for me is descending out of the saddle.  I suspect the strain of hovering over the saddle is something I really don’t train for and after lots of climbing holding that one position leads to cramps.  Kind of like a long traverse on a snowboard where you are on one edge exclusively for a long time then you get leg cramps.

Thus as I went downhill I really tried to sit as much as I could.  If I didn’t see washboard I sat. When I had to jump a rut or go over rough stuff I got up, otherwise I was in the saddle.  El Jefe’ and I were keeping in visual contact of each other which provided me a couple chances to slow down. 
A truck was passing us on the fire road so we pulled to the side to let it go by.  Just ahead I saw Joe and Mike also stopped.  After the truck passed Joe and Mike resumed the battle. El Jefe’ and I shed layers before setting off.  We wouldn’t see Joe and Mile again until we arrived at the Barn.  Good job guys.

 Bold and gold
This area is called Tiffany Lakes and it is remote and beautiful.  The fall colors were strong.  That may seem like a strange description, but it is accurate. Bold golds and browns against grey snags, silver granite and a bright blue sky with white clouds.

The road here was smooth and we enjoyed ourselves.  This is why we came.
 Joe and Mike getting smaller and smaller
We climbed and descended two more times in journeyman fashion.  After reaching the last of the three peaks that highlight the first half of the ride we were ready to drop down to Conconully.
 Hurt me!
There is a cruel joke when you come around a rough and loose left hand downhill turn and the road kicks up in your face.  The grade is fifteen to twenty percent and although you climb less than a hundred meters it feels like a dirty trick because you thought you were done climbing for the morning.

My mind had managed to forget about this feature and thus I hadn’t warned El Jefe’.  We fought our way to the top and regrouped with Mr. T and Coz. 

We still had a staggering about of altitude to lose and we pointed our machines downhill.  Sections that you could rail last year were washboard festivals.  I spotted a water bottle that had been ejected from Coz’s bike and scooped it up.  In the next five minutes I added a second water bottle and a stray tire lever to my pockets. 
When there are round smooth rocks that are partially exposed they call them “babyheads.”  This part of the course had been graded and it had kicked up jagged rocks that were like clothes irons placed randomly on the road. I am hereby coining the phrase “Clothes Irons” and hope it sticks.

Fire roads in the Cascades are often rutted and have washboard sections but this year was something special. 
When we reached the pavement for the final run to Conconully we were relieved and let it fly.  We heard a gunshot and passed a fellow taking target practice with a handgun.  There is just something about the second amendment.  We were going pretty fast but I think the targets looked like Hillary Clinton.

As we approached Conconully I became keenly aware that it wasn’t warm.  They sky was cloudy and I hadn’t shed any layers despite our drop in elevation.  I had a wind jacket waiting in my drop bag and my memories of getting cold on the climb to Baldy Pass last year were heavy on my mind.  I resolved to carry every article of clothing I had out of Conconully. 
Coz "chillin" in Conconully
At the food stop there was a young fit-looking woman who was wide eyed.  She asked about the rest of the route.  I told her the climb was long but steady.  She said she was pretty trashed and offered the quote of the day that opened this post. 
At the food stop I was fairly efficient. I emptied my pockets of trash and refilled them for the duration of our journey.  I stocked my top tube bag and swapped the battery in my GoPro.  I ate some crackers and the salt tasted good. The reapplication of chamois cream was done discretely and soon we were in formation and heading west.

I had an interloper on my wheel but when the road began to climb, he quickly and quietly vanished. We settled in for the climb that “just goes on forever.”   With virtually no traffic we had the road to ourselves and our group of four moved more like an amoeba and less like a paceline.

The sun came through and it warmed up and we stopped a couple times to shed layers. With my vest, sleeves and full gloves in my pockets I rode uphill and enjoyed the warmth of the sun.
The grade was not steep but it was unrelenting.  We were five hours in and there was an unspoken nervousness about this climb.  We all wanted it done.  El Jefe’ went off the front and we let him go.  Coz had some stomach gurgling and wasn’t eating so he knew a bonk was lurking.  I recalled cramping on this a year ago and tried to moderate the debate in my head between wanting to speed up and get to the top or slow down and be conservative.  Mr. T seemed his usual jovial and unflappable self but this day is hard on everyone.
 Up, up, up, up
The surface was pretty good but now and then we had to hunt for better lines.  At one point, Mr. T was on the edge of the road and asked Coz and I if we thought he was okay or if he was risking a flat. “You’re fine as long as you’re tubeless,” I replied in jest.  He said he was running tubes but they were slime tubes so the he was “mostly tubeless.”  I furthered the logic and said that if that was the case he should be “mostly fine.”
 That thin line is the road we rode to get here.......
This route has one right then one left turn and then you ascend on the south side of a ridge for what seems like forever. We were heading for Baldy Pass which is predictably next to Mount Baldy.   
You can see Baldy from way down the valley and it looms ominously between you and the finish.

At this point you are watching your distance and elevation and wondering if perhaps one of them is wrong.  The top is supposed to be 106k in and be 1,940m high.  I remembered El Chefe and I leapfrogging each other here last year as we both battled cramps and hypothermia. I was glad I wasn’t fighting those battles this year but I was tired and anxious to finish climbing.

As I rounded a right hand corner I recognized the final kicker which my memory had mercifully hidden from my consciousness for a year.  The question in my head about distance and elevation was suddenly reconciled. Yes I had less than a kilometer to go but indeed I did have another hundred and fifty meters of climbing. 

“Don’t do the math,” I told myself.  Too late.

I found my 36 cog and said a silent prayer of gratitude to Horst. The difference between a 32 and a 36 in back on this course was the difference between ridiculous and diculous. I was nearing the top and checked the elevation.  My tip sheet was accurate and within twenty meters of the top I thought to myself I didn’t cramp.

At that exact moment my right adductor muscle cramped and the man with the hammer had found me.  “Not today,” I said out loud and powered through the cramp to reach the top.  I coasted across the cattle guard, stopped and put on all of my clothing.
I was feeling black and white
Sleeves, vest, beanie, wind jacket and full gloves all went on.  My knee warmers and shoe covers had been in place since I put them on at the cabin before sunrise.

We formed up, reverently leaving a space in honor of DG, and flew downhill. The surface was smooth, fast and confidence inspiring. As we railed the road the gold leaves on the sides of the road flew past.  Looking down the valley we could see we would be dropping for a long time.

We had paid the dues to climb this high and had earned every inch of the descent.  We reached the last aid station and I filled one of my two empty bottles.  I knew that I wouldn’t be able to drink again until we reached the pavement and that by then there would only be time to drink one bottle.

We set off and I knew the wicked washboard loomed ahead but I was smelling the barn.  El Jefe’ went off the front and Coz and I paired up.  The washboard started off bad and then got worse.  It felt like I was riding in a clothes dryer.  I used all of my tricks to work through it but even so at times my beloved Boone was rocking like a jackhammer.
 Same guys different event
Up ahead I saw Coz bounce almost to a stop and I could sense the silent profanity that he would later confirm.  My hands and arms were beaten from the cumulative vibration over the long day.  Coz and I regrouped, launched again only to have the pounding repeated.  We were ready to be done.

When we finally reached the pavement El Jefe’ was standing there trying to regain feeling in his body.  We exchanged F-bombs. I reached down for the drink I had been looking forward to and found an empty bottle cage.  

My other bottle was empty and the closest water was at the finish.  We waited for Mr.T to roll up.  We prayed that he didn’t flat.  We were ready for pizza.  A minute or two later he rolled up and we invited Dr. Castelli to join and began the last leg of our Fondo.   Dr. Castelli joined but was soon dropped.

The roller coaster descent is a carnival of descending fun. Big ring up front and this is as close to flying as you can get.  We pointed out the potholes to those behind as we were zinging down the road.
 This is the kind of pounding we took.
Soon we are back on the East Chewuch road with yellow lines and everything. We form a pace line and drill it into town.  I’m feeling energetic and take a couple long pulls at the front just because I can.  I claim the uncontested sprint for the town line. One minute later we make the turn and we’re done. 

They hand us finishing patches and I put it into my top tube bag.  I’ve got seven or eight of these in a drawer and sooner or later I’ll figure out what to do with them.  It’s trivial but at this moment I’d fight anyone who tried to take it. 
 Pizzas were consumed at an alarming rate
McWoodie was there and only when I ask does he mention that he finished fourth.  We ride on to the Barn and have a slice of pizza.  Then Coz and I ride back to the cabin and reflect on a great day.  Nobody got hurt.  Everyone finished. That’s a good day.

Dinner was a group project that worked better than expected. We enjoyed soft tacos, rice and beans.  We listened to the stories of those who finished ahead of us and they took in our experiences as well.  We raised a toast to the missing Dave’s and welcomed our new friends Mike and Joe. Brad shared the details of his cramp-a-thon and Mr. T proposed a faith-based solution.
After dinner we hit an awkwardness similar to the end of a first date. We were unsure if we should socialize or collapse into bed.  After a few minutes of pretending to be energetic, reality overtook us and we bid farewell to the Mazama contingent and before they were back at Brad’s place the lights were out and we were in bed.

I tried to get comfortable and fall asleep but everything was sore.  My hands were sore, my forearms and shoulders felt a warmth that happens after a weight workout. My legs were tired and my low back ached.  My neck was stiff and my chest was tender from breathing hard for nine hours.  Finally I told myself that was as good as it would get.  I closed my eyes and dreamed of riding away from the man with the hammer.

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