Every now and then a good idea gets washed out. The New Romantic movement of New Wave music in the ’80s started off great and then went post-apocalyptic Road Warrior-style. Everyone started wearing mullets and forgot how to write actual songs. Somehow, wearing a tux shirt, unbuttoned, started passing for artistry. Gran fondos have suffered in the same way. There have been more than a few lackluster centuries that got repackaged as gran fondos, as if a new name was the same thing as a product overhaul.
The funny thing is that a real fondo is easy to distinguish from the imposter. First is the mass start. With most centuries and other organized rides I’ve ever done, no matter how early you arrive—8:00, 7:00, 6:30—there are people already on the road, have been for the last hour. In the middle of the lane, riding 9 mph. The other notable difference is that a real fondo, a proper fondo, will control each and every intersection for the whole of its length. The upshot is that you only put a foot down and stop if you choose to. We’re not talking a closed course, just the freedom from having to stop at each intersection, so when I’ve had event organizers complain how expensive and difficult it is to secure controlled intersections, my answer is, “Well maybe you’re putting the fondo in the wrong place.” Of course, the alternative is that they haven’t secured enough sponsorship to do the job right.
Semantics aside, I usually jump at any chance I have to go visit a new place and do a cool ride. I’ve been hearing what a great place Eugene, Oregon, is for more than 15 years. It’s been high on my list of must-visits and I finally went recently.
And then I didn’t want to leave.
As fondos go, the Oregon Gran Fondo isn’t huge. Right about 500 people, which is enough to give you someone to ride with no matter where you are on the course. It’s also ex-pro-free, so it avoids any nasty questions about who’s fleecing who. It features a proper start and the course isn’t some repackaged century. The course is 117 miles and features 6700 feet of climbing through the forest west of the town of Cottage Grove. And Cottage Grove was the site of the infamous parade scene in Animal House (though I suppose nearly every scene in that film is infamous). I rather expected to see John Belushi Tarzan his way across the road. For a real laugh they should consider decorating the town the way it was for the parade scene. But had they done that, I might have been too doubled over in tears to make the start.
As it was, the start of the Oregon Gran Fondo was a bit different from some of the other true fondos I’ve done. Without a bunch of pros and VIPs at the front who are happy to ride through the crowd and say hi to fans, everyone at the front was there connect hammer to anvil. I lined up nearly at the back with Rolf Prima‘s lead engineer, Joel Wilson, a guy as nice as he is fast. Apparently, ours was an epic mistake. While we gently threaded the peloton, a lead group had dispensed with the rest of us as if we were a lizard tail grabbed by a child. Snap. This wasn’t just some fast ride, for guys like frame builder Rob English, this was for all the kilojoules. And who can blame them? When was the last time you really got to race 117 miles?
Joel and I had a pretty sweet arrangement. He’d pull for three or four minutes and than I’d pull for a minute before he’d come back around me. Okay, maybe I should rephrase that. I had a pretty sweet deal. Honest, though, I’d have pulled longer if he’d let me. And I really don’t think our speed dropped by more than 8 or 9 mph.
Other broad strokes describing the ride include that there were three Category 3 climbs plus three more Category 4 climbs. The opening Cat. 3 up Lorane Road was my chance to see a huge group of people dropped by the leaders passing through the notch while Joel and I struggled to comprehend just how such a compact group at the start had dandelioned into this. The second Cat. 3, at Upper Smith River Road was the climb everyone had warned me about. Roughly five miles and ascending just more than 1000 feet, this is where Dwan Shepard, the president of the locally based Co-Motion Cycles (I was riding one of their Nor-Westers, but I’ll get to that) caught me. My reaction was less surprise than shock. Let me explain.
I was shocked not because Dwan can’t ride. Dude is Sean Yates-strong. He had been my ride to the start and as we began to remove items from his truck he discovered he was helmetless. Back in the truck to head home. He missed the start by ten minutes or so he estimates. The issue here is less that he chased me down, but that he chased down Joel—reputed as a fine time trialist among the locals. Suddenly this guy makes a comment about my pretty bike. Hey, I know that voice.
With Dwan’s help Joel and I picked up riders like corduroy picks up cat hair. For a while, the group was more than a dozen strong. Somewhere after Upper Smith River Road the surface changed to chip seal and the organizer—dark:30 sports—used pink spray paint to mark the potholes numerous as pimples on a teenager. This was the terrain that typified the ride, chip seal encroached by Middle Earth forest. The word unique gets modified in ways that rob it of all impact; here’s one where it’s absolute; this was a land that was unique in my riding experience. Much later in the ride I decided I wanted to have a chance to view a single tree, to really examine it, and what I noticed was that most were covered in moss.
Dwan confided in me as we approached the South Sister Creek climb that he thought it a good bit harder than the Upper River Road climb. “For reals?” “Yup.” So even though South Sister Creek is only 2.3 miles, it comes at the end of a nearly seven-mile false flat for a total ascent of 1000 feet over 10 miles, pretty gentle if not for that stinger in the tale.
Even though this was early June, the temperature insistently hovered in the mid-50s. That ultra-light windbreaker I had donned just before the start for the first few miles or until I warmed up, whichever came second, well, I was still wearing it and didn’t see any reason to remove it. While I can’t claim it rained, water droplets did hit my glasses a few times. The combination of cool conditions, our pace and the chip seal extinguished my wick on South Sister Creek. Once we hit the real climb I watched Dwan ride away and while I figured I’d see him at the top, he continued at that pace straight to the finish.
I was burning crazy amounts of calories. The first rest stop was well-positioned at mile 32, to the top of the Upper Smith River climb. Manned by staff from one of the ride’s two big sponsors, Rolf Prima Wheel Systems, it was just far enough into the ride that it seemed smart to stop and grab a bite. Or two. Stop two came at mile 52 and was manned by the folks from Co-Motion, who had brought their own espresso machine. If only I drank coffee. That might have had something to do with why the pace was so high over the chip seal. There were two more rest stops and each of them were positioned such that they were mother’s-arms-welcome.
Excepting the cars that we saw when we were on the outskirts of Cottage Grove near the finish, I saw fewer than a dozen vehicles on the ride. Never in my life have I done a ride in which I saw so few cars. Even if I add the cars I saw as we rolled back into town the total still comes in under two dozen.
I’ve shared previously that I’ve got some shoulder issues that sometimes inhibit my riding. Even on 25mm tires pumped up to 100 psi, the chip seal really took a toll on me. I began to get nerve pain, so I let some riders go with whom I’d rather have traded pulls. That gave me a chance to pull over and grab a few photos of the flora. I was caught by a small group and one of the riders said something that both thrilled and depressed me to equal degrees. I’d somehow changed the mileage in my head to 107 during the course of the ride, so when he said, “From mile 110 it’s all downhill back to town,” I tried to laugh and cry.
We crested that last hill on Lorane Road and I turned to a woman with me and asked her, “Are you ready?” We dropped into the descent and even though I felt like I had an ice pick in my shoulder, I put my head down and towed her the last seven miles to the line. This was the same woman who 60 miles before had been in our group and following one of my pulls she thanked me so profusely I thought she might bake me a cake. On that last climb she told me how she’d broken her collarbone at the beginning of May. Later, she’d show me the scar from where the doctors had repaired her busted bits. Turns out she was bad at math. They said four weeks off the bike, which she figured was the same as two weeks.
What I didn’t know until the finish was that her name is Virginia Xing and she’s a force of nature, and part of the crew from Bicycle Way of Life, a chain of four shops in Eugene. She’s the sort of rider who doesn’t coach anyone but suddenly everyone in her presence has moved from riding centuries to doing road races, from road races to crits, from Cat. 4, to Cat 3. Turns out, she’s a fan of RKP. That last detail made my day.
Dark:30 sports takes the dedication of the riders to heart. They give out a fair number of prizes. The first man and woman to the top of Upper Smith River get prizes. There are prizes to the winners of the fondo, as well as the fastest team (fourth rider across the line). This was the first fondo I’ve been to that gave out checks at the finish. Of course, some of us who weren’t in the money hung out at rest stop four and listened to the high school jazz combo play a few tunes. Truly, something for everyone.
I was barely across the line when someone handed me a brew from Oakshire Brewing, another of the event’s sponsors. The perfect way to end such a hard ride.
On the one hand, I feel like I’ve ticked off the perfect bucket-list ride for the Pacific Northwest. At every turn the dark:30 had covered details with the seamless precision of the Swiss rail system. Anyone who has never visited the area could head to Eugene and do this ride and they’d leave with the sense that they understood the draw, had some measure of this mythic land. That other hand? If I never do this ride again, I’ll feel like I’ve gotten some part of my life wrong.