The Breathless Agony

In Europe there are a number of famous gran fondos, such as the Maratona dles Dolomites and La Marmotte. They feature courses made famous by cycling gods and then flooded annually by the devout.

They are, in the purest sense, pilgrimages. Like the trip the devout make to the Santiago de Campostela or the Hajj, these rides give shape to the participants’ cycling lives, adding purpose to their riding and providing incentive to live deliberately, that is, with a training plan and a diet that sacrifices tonight’s indulgence for tomorrow’s performance.

They are holy days, these rides; they are anything but another ride. These days are remembered on calendars, occasions both solemn and joyous.

In the U.S. we function as if we got the holy days and the rules, but none of the books or prophets. It’s a strange life we lead.

There are perhaps two dozen recreational events that take in courses on which legends could be written. Take any of them and run pro races over them for 50 years, and you’d have a mythology rich enough on which to build not just clubs, but communities.

Doubt that? Ask anyone what the Philadephia neighborhood of Manayunk was like in 1980. It was working class—which is to say poor—and anything other than hip. Today, thanks in no small part to a race that made a steep hill the most pivotal part of its course, Manayunk is one of the hipper enclaves in Philly. At least, that’s how they pitch it.

Most regions have an event that takes on truly legendary status locally, if not nationally, even without the aid of great racing. In the Southeast there’s the Assault on Mt. Mitchell. In New England, there’s D2R2. In the Pacific Northwest, there’s Seattle to Portland among others. In the Southwest, El Tour de Tucson. In California exists a true embarrassment of riches—courses of such difficulty that the Amgen Tour of California could use them to run a 10-day race that would exceed in difficulty the Dauphiné Libéré or the Tour de Suisse.

Truly, I’ve participated in nine events that exceed 100 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing over the length of the course. I’m aware of another three or four that qualify, and that’s without going crazy with the double century stuff.

Of those, one of the little-known gems is the Breathless Agony. Annually, only 750 riders are permitted to participate in the ride. The spots sell out within a day or two of registration opening.

Having ridden it a few times, the ride feels like it contains four climbs, though on paper it doesn’t really look that way. The first climb comes roughly five miles into the ride, is two miles long and climbs a bit more than 500 feet. The second is over a road that was formerly paved and these days is mostly dirt and potholes. It starts about 16 miles into the ride and climbs roughly 850 feet in four miles. Rest following the climb comes in the form of one short dip followed by roughly eight miles of false flat.

The third climb of the day is substantial. Oak Glen has been used in the Redlands Classic. It’s five miles long and climbs 1700 feet, give or take. It also has some surprisingly steep pitches; plenty of stretches hit 10 percent while one short section tips skyward at a cruel 16 percent.

The organizers like to think of the climb from the ranger’s station at the edge of Redlands up to Angelus Oaks as separate from the rest of the climb from Angelus Oaks to Onyx Summit. I’m not that easily fooled. Breaking up a climb with a rest stop that precedes some big rollers is a pleasant respite, but in the end it feels like one big-ass climb. Making matters even more difficult is the fact that the second half of the climb to Onyx takes you from 5800 feet of elevation up to 8500.

By the time I reach the top, I feel like the elevation has shaved about 30 watts off my output. It’s an ugly, humiliating business.

Organizers take your time at Onyx Summit, 75 miles into the 112-mile ride. The ride back is almost entirely downhill. Total climbing is about 12,000 feet.

I, like most riders I know, am wrecked the day following this ride. This thing ought to be the crown jewel of a whole series of gran fondos. Fortunately, the organizers of Breathless Agony teamed up with Planet Ultra to create a series, the King of the Mountains competition which takes in two Planet Ultra events (the Mulholland Challenge and the Heartbreak Hundred) plus Breathless Agony over a seven-week span.

I’d love to see this run as a true gran fondo so that at least you don’t have to stop periodically and give your name to someone with a clipboard in order to check in. It’s a rotten system. Markleeville, Mulholland and many other rides just paste a colored sticker on your race number and send you on your way. It’s much, much quicker. A few controlled intersections could be a great addition as well.

That said, the ride can’t be faulted for not being more than it is. With limited sponsorship, the organizers have managed to put on a stunning course that accommodates a wide disparity in rider abilities.

On balance, it’s not as pretty as Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo or the Mulholland Challenge. Nor is it as hard as the Markleeville Death Ride (also known as the Tour of the California Alps). Nonetheless, I put it in the top-10 of California events. This is one of those rides that ought to be on your bucket list.

, , , , , ,


  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Breathless Agony : Red Kite Prayer --

  2. Souleur

    My bucket list of rides runneth over….thanks for the addition in it Padraig!

    I have several here and across the pond I would love to do, so I will…

    I agree with what you mention on stopping, once your in rhythm, you know, that beautiful rhythmic cadence that stokes all day which actually smoothly rolls over even elipse climbs when others are fighting their bike, to stop, and start, stop and start and finding that again…is agonizing indeed. You could just busta hump and recklessly ride in congnito in the group like a rogue rider, but that may not go well if your in the RKP kit.

  3. mark

    We have an epic like that. Starts with a fast descent with wide, sweeping turns, just wide enough that you never touch your brakes. This is followed by a few miles on the back roads of a sleepy and still-sleeping bedroom community before entering a canyon that starts easy enough, but eventually tilts upward to climb 3000 feet in ten miles with massive quartzite walls on either side that eventually give way to conifer and aspen in the shadows of a 11,000 foot peak.

    There’s a checkpoint at the top at which point everyone regroups and maybe downs half a PBJ before descending tight hairpins, including one affectionately known as Hamilton Falls because Tyler Hamilton crashed there when racing the Tour of Utah. The descent provides a sorting out, with the lead group contesting a sprint point at the bottom of the canyon.

    Then it’s back the way we came, through the town, and back up the hill we started on. All told, about 40 miles and 4500 feet of climbing. Which may not be gran fondo material, except that the event starts and ends in my neighborhood, and we do it every Friday morning all summer long and go to work after it’s over.

    1. Author

      Mark: That sounds like major fun. My preference is definitely for climbs that are just short enough you can do them on a routine basis. A loop you can do weekly is tremendous.

  4. James

    My idea of the perfect ride is one that goes down hill for a while then flattens out before going downhill again to the finish back at the start. I have yet to find that ride but I’m still looking!

    Seriously, though I have yet to do a Grand Fondo I have done quite a few centuries and that sort of ride to pretty much say the thrill is gone. I really got tired of all the pseudo racer types with their rudeness and unsafe riding. I, generally, just like to do long rides by myself enjoying the sensations of a long hard ride without the human drama and hubris that comes with an organized ride. I must be a genuine curmudgeon now! Oh well…

  5. MattS

    Up here in Ottawa, right on the border of Ontario and Quebec, we spend most of our time riding on the Quebec side where the hills are. On Sunday we’re throwing this our first un-race event of the season, The Ride of the Damned. We’re using the 5-person team ‘gentleman’s race’ format, but I prefer to think of the event as a Raudax (yes, I invented the term), a combination of Audax and Randonnee formats, because the ride is more about the challenge than racing. Sure, the more hardened riders need not be audacious (Audax is latin for the audacious) to blaze the 150k route with 70k of dirt backroads, climbs as steep as 18%, and about 2000m total climbing. But for the less hardened folks, this will be either the hardest ride they’ve done this year, will do this year, or have ever done. They are audacious, and this event can provide a leaping off point for them to extend their audacity to other challenges, from exploring their own backyard to taking on challenging century rides and perhaps even a brevet. We provide cue sheets and start en masse. Then we get down for a BBQ with family and kids and let the fishing tales flow.

    Once we get this whole organizing thing down pat, we’ll try to draw riders from other areas to join us. For now, we’re happy more than happy with 11 or 12 teams.

    I’d be all over a Gran Fondo worthy of the name around these parts, but the only one I’ve ever heard of is too tame to warrant the 5 hour trip. I hope the format continues to pick up steam in North America, but I also hope it does not suffer the same ills experienced in Europe, where ex-pros/lame pros came to treat them as races and even resorted to cheating to get publicity for their teams. Placings are no longer publicized as a result of their opportunism.

  6. Angelus Oaks Local

    I understand y’all wanting to challenge yourselves riding your bikes on highway 38. However, have some dang respect. I know it probably was not you personally, but there were really some disrespectful riders out there, and the organizers were doing you all a disservice by not notifying the proper agencies and obtaining the permits. Whomever was out there passing each other or riding two+ wide in traffic lanes in front of cars (and namely a big red fire engine) you are pretty much idiots. Stay off our road.

    1. Author

      Angelus Oaks: I’m sorry to hear there were some disrespectful riders. It’s unfortunate, but it happens in every crowd; cyclists see it with drivers quite often. You should know, however, a few details. First, the event was permitted and the proper agencies were fully notified. Also, once at traffic speeds, cyclists are allowed to take the lane. I was among the riders passed by the big red fire engine and can tell you that it’s driver was breaking the law by exceeding the speed limit—I know this as I was doing the speed limit.

      Bear in mind the the road belongs to the residents of the state of California, of which, most riders present can be counted.

  7. Pat S.

    The cyclists demand respect from those of us in cars and I support that, but it needs to be reciprocal. Riding in groups without any care for the motoring public and putting everyone’s safety at risk needs to be stopped. That the cyclists were rude and many urinated everywhere is disgusting. Their recklessness is a safety issue and shouldn’t be tolerated. The race organizers, while not totally to blame, bear some responsibility if they expect to inconvenience the community. Guess it all boils down to greed on the race organizers. They don’t seem to care as long as THEY make money.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *