My choice for doing GFNY was heavy on novelty, light on challenge. No idea what to expect, would it seem like a race, a group ride, a tour, an ‘athon? There was the challenge component to it. Of course, doing well is something, and winning would be nice, but it wasn’t a reason for participating.
Looking at the numbers, it seems that novelty and tourism were high on the list of reasons to come. According to the promoter, there were 5,000 registered riders. Of that, 20% were from outside the United States, and 50% of the foreigners, or 10% of the total, were from Italy. Of the remaining 4,000 riders, about 2,000 were locals and the remaining 2,000 were from outside the NY-Metro area.
Indeed, getting to the start demonstrated the importance of tourism and novelty. To get to the start line, participants rode onto the highway access ramps to the George Washington Bridge, part of Interstate 95. Many riders stopped to capture cyclists riding on the ramps. The payoff was standing still on the bridge; looking south you see Manhattan’s skyline beginning to shimmer, looking north you see the beginning of the Hudson Valley through a gauzy fog.
When the Fondo started at 6:59am, it was suddenly a race. Speeding off the bridge was great, but hitting the first park road along the Hudson, eight miles of hills, curves, and potholes, perched between a cliff wall and a stone wall, with a pack of people who didn’t know where they were going reminded me to back off. If I had some external confidence, like licensing requirements, I think I would have been more comfortable riding along. I saw someone execute a cyclocross dismount while his rear rim was riding on a completely flat tire. Hearing people go into the red on the first five-minute hill told me to back off, climb comfortably and create my own group rather than fighting for wheels on a pockmarked road when overall time didn’t count. I let what seemed to be a big group go over the hill and hoped to form another.
Got a small group, of sufficiently friendly folk, and continued at a good, but conversational pace. Met some folks but still able to roll nicely and enjoy the views. Passed through the towns of Hudson towns Piermont and Nyack with police letting cyclists pass through the intersections without stopping. Completed the first hour at around 21mph. The group grew from behind to be huge. Eventually, we came to the first timed climb, 35 miles in, right after a rest stop, where many pulled off. The Passo Del Daino as it was dubbed by the organizers, Buckberg Mountain to the locals. It was steep enough that drafting wasn’t an issue. I figured it was roughly a five-minute hill and I gave my best five-minute effort, yo-yoing with another rider much of the way up. I took him in the final 30 seconds.
The effort led me away from the group I had been in. Then the route quickly turned onto a narrow, somewhat technical descent I knew well. Loving the curves, I bridged up to another group, something I wanted for the Montagna dell’Orso (Bear Mountain) climb; it’s shallow enough for most of the length that drafting can help. But my new companions, too, thought drilling it over a non-timed climb was the smart play. I let them go and did Bear on my own. Strikingly, the timed climb began right after another rest stop. At least this one I’d be able to visit on the way back.
For Bear, the drill was ride the four miles at my limit and then ease all the way back down, and noodle to the next appointment. I passed a few of my former companions on the way up, and only a minute or so over my goal time for the hill. It’s a climb where the end takes forever to get to, but you’re at the top before you know it. Easing down the first few miles of Bear was a bummer; the dead-end road can be good for at least the mid-40s mph and was paved relatively recently, but the fear of hitting an ascending cyclist was too great. After leaving the access road and railing the open road descent past the second rest stop, another group came from behind to join me on the next ascent. This gang was none too friendly. Arguments ensued over small things like gear selection; some definitely saw this as a 110-mile race. Why they needed to argue about what kind of cadence was appropriate was beyond me. These guys were too angry to be around. Fun, this group wasn’t, so when they attacked the next untimed climb, I let them go.
Cimb three, the Colle Andrea Pinarello, was shallow enough and long enough that drafting mattered. I started it alone, and couldn’t find a rhythm. Three guys passed me on the way up. It felt like a climb too far.
There was a promise of well-stocked rest areas throughout the ride. I finally stopped at one two miles before the final timed climb. It was devoid of riders and well-stocked. A cup of Coke, a gel, some Gator and I was off again. Didn’t want to be weighed down for the climb.
On the last timed climb, Colle Formaggio, on the only roads of the day I didn’t already know—a neighborhood of McMansions built during the housing boom, an odd sight in the New York region, and weird to ride through a treeless landscape after being in the woods all day–I caught a rider at the summit and we started chatting. First person I chatted up in 68 miles. 42 miles to go and nothing left to do other than roll in.
His story was rather different. My partner of the moment had been recruited to help someone do well at the event. He and, I believe, two other guys were supposed to pace their leader through the fondo, but the leader was too antsy and had them drilling the pace so hard that one rider dropped the others and didn’t realize it. The others stayed back, but without their third rider, the other two blew up, and their leader forged ahead. As we were chatting about eats, that temporary teammate who had ridden ahead caught us from behind: he had waited at a rest stop and the group passed him without him awares. He was feeling good and had an itch to chase down the leader to help him through the rest of the ride.
My partner told him that the leader was at least five minutes ahead. The guy ramped up the pace and I decided to go with, and within five or six miles, we saw his leader. He asked that I ride to the front, keep the pace high and stay away from the back, “because it’s going to be ugly.” I recognized the leader. He was a foul-tempered guy I had been with on the road from Bear Mountain and let him go rather than dealing with his anger.
I respected my new partner’s wishes, dutifully rolled to the front of the new group, just as his leader accelerated. He eventually fell back, and I kept the pace high. After a minute or two, the berating began, “Oh, the Judas!” and it went on for some time. Thankfully, it was right before the last rest area. I peeled off as they went ahead.
At the stop, I saw a riding acquaintance, asked him to wait for me to fill up my bottles. He declined; something was moving him to get going rather than waiting a minute. But as I was filling my bottles, another riding acquaintance asked the same of me. I complied. We finished up together.
We rolled south on roads we had raced north earlier in the day. At the end of these quiet roads, we were led onto a busy street, the only road that leads to the finish, and we sped up as we battled cars for position over the final miles, an anti-climatic way to end the Fondo.
At the finish in Weehawken, there was a chicane to slow everyone down, and the circuitous finish also made it possible for riders to get a finish-line pic with the New York City skyline in the background. Folks were also waiting at the finish to bestow medals upon the finishers, and give them a traditional Italian finish line kiss. The last one turned out not to be part of the official package; an old acquaintance, an Italian journalist who was covering the event for an Italian paper, was there.
The finish area was a repurposed parking lot. Windy and somewhat desolate, with a big tent and a stage set up for a party, but as an early finisher, few were there. I only wanted to eat and go, but with the promise of prizes, and the time needed to find and scarf a meal, it made sense to stick around to see how the scene built up as the afternoon went on.
It was a ride. It was a day. It would not have been the same as riding alone, or with a gaggle of friends. I don’t know if I should have done it, but I was glad to have. This year? The entry fee makes me feel as if I should try other such events, on roads I know less well. I can still ride these roads with friends and Strava the climbs.
In retrospect, I had done myself wrong. The “competition” aspect of it led me to not follow my bliss of just hammering the Fondo until I could hammer no more. Crazy as I didn’t win anything and many of the fastest finishers where from out of the country. Dumb.
This GFNY gained some accidental notoriety in the month following the event. Two riders from the day were busted for doping. Two positives out of ten tests. One was a New York City rider who seemed to be an up and comer, and the other was an Italian in town for the Fondo. That the organizers decided to have drug testing will forever keep GFNY in my good graces. Some scoffed at the thought that people would dope for a gran fondo, but it demonstrates that the event is real racing. In contrast, the real racing at Battenkill was not subject to any drug testing.
As regulated group rides go, it was a decent time. If I had treated it the way I imagined a Gran Fondo should be run, I would have had a great time.
“The time has come,” the Roadie said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and clips—and single-tracks—
Of baby heads—and springs—
And why the trail sucks every watt—
And whether your freehub sings.”
—With all due apologies to the wonderful Lewis Carroll.
Other than last week’s post about the new 29er from BMC, it’s been a long time since I was last paid to write about the sport of mountain biking. It’s not that I wasn’t into mountain bikes or riding off road. Prior to moving to California and joining the staff of Bicycle Guide I spent half my time riding off road. But because BG was a road publication and freelancing was verboten, I didn’t do any writing about mountain bikes while there. Later, I sold my beloved Merlin mountain bike as I did everything possible to generate capital for my magazine Asphalt. After a while, it’s been so long since you’ve written about something it’s hard to convince an editor you’re the right guy.
I realized something recently. That hostility that used to exist between mountain bikers and roadies (and vice versa) has either died down or just never made much sense to most of you. It’s been apparent from our Friday Group Rides that many of you still own and ride mountain bikes. Heck, for a few of you, you’re mountain bikes are your favorite bikes. It seems if we were to include a bit of mountain content here and there the chance of a full-scale readership exodus is unlikely (though I could find myself deleting this post Saturday if we get four hits between now and dinner Friday).
So I sold some bikes on Ebay and picked up a Specialized S-Works Stumpjumper FSR 29er which was being turned over as part of a demo fleet.
My first ride on the bike was Saturday’s off-road gran fondo at the Sea Otter Classic. My form isn’t what you (or anyone) would call stellar, so rather than race—or do the full-distance road gran fondo—I thought it would be advisable that I sign up for the two-hour guided tour, so-to-speak. I spend a lot of time talking about how a new bike can make the sport fresh again, how even a really perfect piece of gear can brighten an ordinary ride. Riding that Stumpy over the fire roads and singletrack of Laguna Seca and Fort Ord was pretty close to taking up a whole new sport—and not sucking at it. And that’s the thing: the combination of 29-inch wheels, full suspension and 130mm of travel front and rear (as opposed to the 80mm travel of my old Rock Show Judy) allowed me to sail through stuff that would have given me a good deal of trouble on my old bike. Like I said, a whole new sport.
It may be that this is the nation’s only off-road gran fondo. I can’t say that for certain, but I’ve done a fair amount of checking. And while it may seem that calling an off-road fun ride a gran fondo is silly, I suspect that the term “gran fondo” did a lot to bring in riders who wanted a chance to ride the fire roads and trails in the area without having to enter a race—or get in the way of one. There didn’t seem to be that many riders at the start, but the finish sheet indicates there were more than 300 riders who completed the event, a bit less than half the size of the road event.
The course was essentially the cross country course with an extra, four-mile loop added on. Late in the cross country when riders begin the long climb back toward Laguna Seca, the gran fondo turns off to take an even steeper climb then tosses in a brief descent before rejoining the race course. All in all, the course had four sustained climbs to give you 3000 feet of climbing in just 20 miles. The longest single flat on the entire course came as you exited the one sag stop on the ride. It was 200 meters, tops.
Now to give you some idea of just how steep some of this terrain is, I won’t bother telling you about which climbs I flamed out on and had to walk because I couldn’t maintain either my direction or traction (there weren’t many, but there were a few). I think this will tell you more: Near the start there is a gravel descent that hits 13 percent. It’s pretty smooth and bends slightly to the right. My Garmin tells me I did 42 mph there. Strava thinks I only did 40.4, but what the hell. That’s got to be 10 mph faster than I’ve ever gone on a mountain bike (off road) before.
Did I mention I wasn’t nervous?
Normally, when I write up my experience at a gran fondo I like to give the arc of the day in broad strokes. The road gran fondo there is flat for a long way, then has a few steep rollers, then a long false flat climb that eventually turns into a real climb to Cahoon Summit followed by a descent into Carmel Valley where none of the drivers are interested in making room for cyclists, then a steep climb up Laureles Grade before the descent back to Hwy 68 and the climb back into Laguna Seca. Honestly, my memory of the off road gran fondo is just a blur of up and down and twisty. Not that I mind. The views were ever changing and the other riders present were really nice, even when they were passing my broken self.
In talking with other riders I heard a single complaint, one that was echoed by some of the riders of the road gran fondo. How can riders who did two different events on the same day have the same complaint you ask? Easy. They were forced to choose either the road or off-road gran fondo. They couldn’t do both, which would have been possible if, for instance, the road event was Saturday and the off-road event was held on Sunday. I heard from plenty of riders that they would have done both. Until someone complained, the thought hadn’t even occurred to me. I gotta admit, I’d have tried to carve out time enough to at least do the medio fondo (which is what they call the medium-length, 100km or so option in Italy). No Virginia, they aren’t all “gran” fondos.
So why bother paying an entry to a non-competitive off-road ride? Easy. It’s a chance to ride somewhere you don’t know at all and not have to worry about maps or even route slips. You can ride as hard or as easy as you want and you’ll have company for it. And then there are the touches like the fresh strawberries at the rest stop; there was other food there, but I had so many strawberries, I honestly don’t recall what else, besides some granola, was available. You know that won’t be sitting out on the trail waiting for you to show up.
I’m really hoping that next year they split the gran fondo to separate days so that I can do both, provided my fitness returns.
Just days before heading to the Monterey Peninsula for my annual pilgrimage to the world’s most unpredictable weather, I had a conversation with a friend about gran fondos. He, like many, was under the impression that a gran fondo was just a fancy pants name for a century. Why calling a century a century was no longer good enough was the only question on his mind.
He had a point, really. I’d rather engage a conversation of why to use the term “sportif” instead of “gran fondo” but just what distinguishes a gran fondo or sportif from a century isn’t as clear to riders as it ought to be, and blame there rests on event organizers. I’ll come back to why later.
This was the first time I would ride an organized event as part of the Sea Otter since I last raced the event as a masters rider in 2001. That year, on the opening descent out of Laguna Seca, the same descent that opened this year’s gran fondo, we were single file and I had wound out my 53×12 going 50 mph—and it’s not a particularly steep downhill. The leisurely start to this gran fondo was a good bit more my speed. We had several hundred riders for the 93-mile gran fondo, not the several thousand the weekend before at the Colnago Gran Fondo and with no VIPs to turn up the heat early, we relaxed behind the Nissan Leaf lead vehicle.
The single most important thing I can say about the gran fondo is that it boasts one of the prettiest gran fondo courses I’ve ridden. It is a perfect statement of central California riding. The opening 40 miles were countertop flat and as we rode over the chip and seal farm roads I enjoyed flashbacks to the spring road races I’d do in the San Joaquin Valley. It was all the beauty with only 1/3 the suffering.
After the second rest stop (our first actual stop) the course began to undulate, taking in the area’s rolling hills. Driving the group were Andrew and Alex from Bicycling and VeloNews, respectively. They enjoyed the fitness of two guys who race weekend in and out. Clif Bar’s founder Gary Erickson had been riding with our group but made the briefest of appearances at the rest stop. I think he took on water and nothing else before rolling out. I could see tubes of Shot Bloks with the ends snipped off protruding from his jersey pockets.
By the time we caught back up to Gary, the group had been whittled down to fewer than a dozen riders. The hills here were brief, usually 50 meters or so, but often with pitches as steep as seven or eight percent. The winter and spring rains meant the fields and hillsides were all painted vivid pastoral green. Gary looked over his shoulder, saw us, soft pedaled for a few seconds until we caught him on the hill and then he stood up to accelerate into the group. I’ve heard that he was a strong rider, but I hadn’t expected that he would ride as judiciously as a racer. Moments later, we caught two other riders who had been with him and that’s when something broke loose. It may have been hell.
I was at the back, having just completed a pull before we hit the hill and after Gary joined us the resident Bicycling gear editor applied a bit of pressure. Guys started to blow and I found myself locked in traffic like Tom Boonen on the Haaghoek, watching Fabian Cancellara ride away. After working through the traffic I put my head down and drilled it for the next 5k or so. So long as Andrew or Alex weren’t on the front, I’d make up time on the sextet, but as soon as one of them went to the front, the gap would grow. Watching the group yo-yo from 100 meters to 50 meters and back again was, um, well, it wasn’t my favorite.
Just as I was ready to wave the white flag a group of five riders caught me coming off one of the rollers but once the group came to within 30 or 40 meters, guys started trying to jump across on their own. Really? No one made it. I sat up. Then I made the right turn onto Carmel Valley Road and crossed the speed trap.
That seemed as good a time as any to start recovering. I was 10 miles, give or take, from the course’s high point, Cahoon Summit, but with the exception of the final three miles of the climb, the headwind was more difficult than the grade. The road was secluded, the rolling countryside dotted with trees and few structures. And in a stroke of cosmic justice, just as I started to feel good, the road turned up for the final three miles of climbing to Cahoon Summit; it was here that the road felt like a true climb. Less than 500 meters from the top riders were treated to a sweeping view of the Carmel Valley.
The descent off the mountain was pretty relaxing with one short and steep exception. I spent most of the next 20 miles chatting with the ride director of the Gran Fondo Colnago Philadelphia, Brian Ignatin, who comments here under the ID Touriste-Routier, the name given to the privateers who were allowed to enter the Tour de France during its early days. He’s an insightful guy I don’t spend nearly enough time with and he, like me, struggles with some neck issues as a result of years of racing, so we had lots to talk about.
In general, the course was so devoid of stop lights and stop signs due to its rural nature that two of the only occasions I put a foot down were for rest stops. So when we rolled into the village of Carmel Valley and cars began to buzz our single-file paceline, the earlier hours of peace shattered like a dropped lightbulb. We were so eager to get out of the crush of traffic that we skipped the final rest stop. Not my first choice.
As the group broke up on the 6k climb up Laureles Grade the wide shoulder gave us plenty of insulation from the traffic. But it was here that I finally regretted bringing only a 23, even with the aid of a compact. The course contained yet another surprise though. The descent of Laureles Grade drops riders off right at the main entrance to Laguna Seca, making for an as-advertised 93-mile route. We were, instead, routed in via York Road but to get to South Boundary road we were forced to dismount and walk around a chain-link fence on a narrow patch of dirt because someone didn’t open a gate for us. Had there been 3000 riders, that would have turned into a goat parade as the strip of dirt was strictly a single-file affair.
Once onto the road into Laguna Seca we joined with riders finishing the medio fondo route and an incessant stream of cars and trucks entering and exiting the venue. Why we were on that road defies explanation and the drivers were no more accommodating there than in Carmel Valley and my need to pass the slower medio fondo riders put me further into the road than I relished. At one point, the crush of vehicles waiting to park forced me onto the gravel shoulder. Couldn’t organizers close one road for an hour or two to let us live through the experience? The final turns were confusing—in part due to cones meant to direct traffic, not us—and lacked enough volunteers to make our return to the finish line as clear as possible, or even advisable.
Though I only stopped twice, my experience with the food was terrific. I enjoyed some bite-sized panini of smoked salmon and cheese, plus some real gourmet cookies. While the chocolate tangerine was really good, my favorite was the molasses ginger. There was plenty of water, some soda—Shasta?—and Heed. The soda would have benefitted from ice, though. As happens with so many organized events, the energy drinks, whether Cytomax, Gatorade or Heed, were mixed rather weakly. You couldn’t count on the Heed for adequate calorie replacement.
Signage throughout the route was terrific; a route sheet was unnecessary, as it should be. I can only recall two intersections that really would have benefitted from police control. That’s really impressive route design in my book. Next year, I hope the organizers will spring for some police assistance. Additionally, it seems that the residents of Carmel Valley might have benefitted from greater notification of our presence. Had thousands of riders been passing through the village, rather than the dozen or so I was with, I think things might have been significantly more hostile. A police presence would definitely be necessary.
So why isn’t a gran fondo a century? The mass start and course control are the defining characteristics. The Sea Otter Gran Fondo got the mass start right and as I mentioned the course didn’t require much stopping, but controlled intersections give riders a very different experience. They’re meant to make cycling a big celebration, and in that regard I think the Sea Otter Classic already had that part right.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the ride was the post-event meal. Free food? Just point me to it. I was so hungry I went straight to the tent holding the feast and sat on a picnic table in my chamois.
All in all, it was a terrific event and with a few minor changes—course control, more marketing, ice, a smaller number plate and no ridiculous dismounts—could make this event a real jewel among California gran fondos.
The gran fondo concept is in its infancy here in the United States. Most cyclists I speak with aren’t really sure what the difference is between a century and a gran fondo. Some are downright sarcastic about any ride called a gran fondo, believing the organizer is just attaching a trendy name to what would be a century to regular folk.
It’s a misperception I spend a lot of time trying to correct.
The challenge in this is that most gran fondo organizers are essentially flying blind. Let’s face it: Most American cyclists have never ridden a proper gran fondo (or cyclosportif as many of the French and Belgian events are called). Our ability to emulate something we’ve never seen is fraught with diabolical challenges.
Most gran fondos I’ve run across are organizing their inaugural edition and as a result, there is some variance in the experience riders are presented. For some events, there seems to be the idea that if you put on a big show at the start and finish, you’ve covered most of your bases.
So I was curious to see just how the first SLO Gran Fondo would turn out. The start of the event was held in downtown San Luis Obispo, essentially at the old Spanish Mission. Staging was a little loose, with riders approaching the start line from three different directions, perhaps in part because only 600 riders were registered.
With significant support coming from High Road Sports, the ride did have the VIPs in attendance. It was obvious that the riders enjoyed having the likes of Tejay Vangarderen, Danny Pate, Amber Neben and even High Road Sports’ CEO, Bob Stapleton on the ride.
However, to the organizers’ credit, rolling out of town was silk-smooth. The San Luis Obispo police department controlled each of the intersections for riders as the mass of riders began to sort itself out. All this was conducted in fairly misty conditions with the promise of a very cloudy day ahead and a 30 percent chance of rain before the end of the ride.
Robert is better known for his monster Zinfandels
It was on the farm roads between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay that the first selections began to be made. I was riding with a friend and we had to work our way through a fair amount of traffic before reaching the lead group of 100 or so riders.
That didn’t last long though as a split in the group placed us in group two and the leaders heading up the road. It wasn’t a bad outcome, though. Our group was working well together and comprised of riders with plenty of skill. Unfortunately, even that didn’t last as I flatted just before we reached Morro Bay. A quick tube change still didn’t prevent group three, then group four, group five and group six from passing us.
We spent the next eight miles working our way from one group to another, and meeting a few RKP readers along the way. The only significant climb began about mile 22 and lasted 10 miles, though with two short downhills to break it up. Despite the lack of sustained climbs, the frequently rolling terrain made for a course with 3675 feet of climbing, according to Map My Ride. Other estimates placed that number rather higher.
Compared to some of the other events I’ve done, the SLO Gran Fondo had a number of intersections, so making sure as many intersections were controlled as possible required a great deal of manpower. Cambria, toward the northern end of the course was the one location where traffic was not controlled for us in any way. Fortunately the lights were brief and slower riders didn’t immediately head for the front of the group.
Following the descent into Cambria at mile 45, the ride was essentially finished with climbing; there were but five hills the rest of the ride and only one of those merited a Cat. 5 designation according to Map My Ride. However, that isn’t to say the ride became uninteresting. Coastal California is always pretty and, inexplicably, the sun burned away the clouds and the rain was banished to some less fortunate locale.
For those who, like me, prefer to stick to wrapper foods like Clif Bars and Gus when on long rides, the SLO Gran Fondo was a bit of an adjustment. The food was all standard century fare: orange slices, cookies and such. The lunch stop was equipped with Subway party platter sandwiches. I can’t tell you the last time I ate a turkey sandwich mid-way through a ride.
It was on the rolling roads back to the finish where I most enjoyed myself. My friend Robert was riding his first century ever and it was terrific fun to be a part of his experience. We infiltrated a group dominated by Art’s SLO Cyclery team riders and their smooth rotation gave Robert the opportunity to dig deep with some long pulls and still get the chance to recover. There’s a great sense of satisfaction to being part of a paceline made up of riders you really don’t know rotating easily and maintaining a pace you simply couldn’t manage on your own.
The finish line was in the walking plaza of the mission, so any sort of sprint was out of the question; the run-in was downhill and you had to brake before the turn, so that aspect was a touch anticlimactic.
The post-ride lasagna and Caesar salad (and homemade cookies) were all terrific. A number of local businesses set up 10×10 tents for an afternoon expo that gave riders some reason to stick around.
As first-year events go, this one was quite well done. Why more riders didn’t attend is hard to guess, though the promise of HTC-Columbia team members (um, which ones?) might not be quite the draw of, say, Levi Leipheimer or Paolo Bettini; point being, Tejay Vangarderen is certainly a rising star of US cycling, but no one knew he’d be there for sure.
The more important opportunities for improvement would be in staging (make that a little clearer and better organized), food (bring on wrapper foods, at the very least Clif Bars or something along those lines), controlled intersections (make sure all of them are controlled and make sure that all of the police controlling the intersections really understand just what that means) and the finish line (give folks something they can really sprint to).
San Luis Obispo is such a cool a city there’s no reason this event shouldn’t become the focal point of a destination weekend. With excellent riding, dining and wining (not to mentions spas and the like), it’s an ideal opportunity at an ideal location for a getaway.
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.
Since my post on Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo, there have been a number of comments about how the timed century isn’t a new concept, how centuries used to be timed routinely, how one organizer is doing them even now.
New or not, the gran fondo—or cyclosportif or whatever you want to call it—gets something right that the vast majority of organized events just don’t register. As long as we deride this new wave of rides (and yes, they are coming but more on that later) for claiming to offer something old as something new, we miss the real value they offer the cycling community.
The value of a gran fondo can’t be summed up with any one detail. The timed aspect is important, yes. Timing the event gives riders a clear sense of how they stacked up against one another. Knowing the event is timed puts all entrants on notice that the event is worthy of their A game, even if there is no prize at the finish.
A corollary to that is the mass start, though. Allowing riders to start what can essentially be a five- to eight-hour time trial whenever they are ready is a little weak. The starter’s pistol recalls sporting events for more than a hundred years in dozens of sports. It brings Hitchcockian drama with it as each competitor anticipates the crack and its fuel-injected adrenal burst. Seeing other entrants wait anxiously for the start helps build a sense of camaraderie lacking in the average century; after all, the people who roll into the finish of the century with you might have started a half hour after you did, or two hours before you did. Who knows?
The course is equally important as these other factors, though. If you want more than a couple hundred people to show up for an event, you need to serve up something more than a flat, four-corner, industrial-park crit. Hell, stick a hill in it; that still won’t make it special.
As much as I love racing, when I stopped racing I did so for two reasons: First was that my work demanded too much time each week to get in the miles I needed to be as fast as I had been. Second was the fact that I was simply fed up with doing crits. I raced crits simply to be fast enough for the road races, of which I generally only did maybe six each year, strictly for lack of opportunity. At some point all those flat, four-corner crits began to run together and I began to realize that I was missing some of my group rides and the friends I’d see on them. Never mind the fact that some of the guys I loved riding with raced different categories, so even if we were both at the race, we weren’t on the course at the same time.
The course for a gran fondo is meant to be memorable, if not downright epic, by comparison. I continue to ride centuries, and have done a number of remarkable ones in the last three years and I can say each one of them would have been more fun, gone more quickly and given more people a greater sense of accomplishment if they had featured timing with a mass start. Following the self-selection of the first climb everyone can find a group with which to ride.
Unless you have the incredible fortune to live in the promised land (France, Italy, Belgium, Spain or The Netherlands), there’s a good chance that cycling where you live doesn’t get the respect that you think it deserves. Forgetting for a moment the hostility one can experience on the roads, the larger issue is just how sexy bicycle racing appears to non-cyclists. The sexiness of cycling seems to grow in direct proportion to the size of the races in that area.
While I’ve encountered rude drivers in both France and Italy, easily the kindest, most considerate drivers I’ve encountered were in those two countries. Some of them made me enjoy having cars in close proximity. It was rather like swimming with whales.
It’s my personal opinion that every time an industrial park crit is held, not as a mid-week training race, but as a weekend, main-event, $25-entry, upgrade-points-verified-here race, the organizer has just done the sport of bike racing an incredible disservice. The problem isn’t that those races give non-cyclists the idea that cycling deserves to be confined to back roads; it doesn’t actually do that. Most average folks aren’t aware those bike races even happen, so what it does is help make bicycle racing invisible.
I chalk up those races to laziness. Yes, it’s hard to find sponsors and it’s hard to recruit volunteers and it’s hard to get a town to approve a course and the bigger the event, the more time it takes to organize, but once you analyze the impact an industrial park crit has, I’m not so sure that a tiny race is better than no race at all.
Those events provide one thing only: An opportunity for racers to get their fix. You don’t see many wives or girlfriends out there and certainly the town doesn’t come out to greet the winner. And they do nothing to inspire new generations of cyclists the way the Tour does for thousands of children each year or the way the Coors Classic did for many notable American PROs during its heyday.
When you send a mass of cyclists down a town’s main drag, you make the cyclists feel special and cycling cool to everyone who isn’t on a bike.
Of course, there’s always the proof of the über geek—the objective correlative. Sure, you may get some fields to fill in a criterium, especially if there is no other racing nearby that weekend, but a good turnout for a bike race in the United States is usually on the order of 700 racers. Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo filled. It sold out all 3500 spots. Santa Rosa loves it some cycling.
Bottom line: Timing isn’t the key. The course isn’t the key. A big star isn’t the key. Mass-start isn’t the key. Big sponsorship isn’t the key. But they are all important. Give riders something memorable and non-cyclists will remember it too. And that will do more to strengthen the cycling community and cycling’s place in the mainstream than all the advocacy organizations combined.
Rather than beat around the bush and try to build a case for why I think Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo was incredible, I’ll just tell you straight out: This was the prettiest organized ride I’ve done in the United States.
I’ve done organized rides all over the country. My barometer for beauty demands one basic feature—elevation change. Without it, you don’t get many thrilling vistas. As a result, most of my top 10 prettiest events are held in California.
Previously, my top three were the Tour of the Unknown Coast in Humboldt County, the Tour of the California Alps (also known as the Markleeville Death Ride) outside of Lake Tahoe, and the Mulholland Challenge in Malibu, in that order. They’ve been bumped down a notch now.
More than 20 years ago, the increasingly ambitious Coor’s Classic expanded to California. One of the roads it used was King Ridge Road in western Sonoma County. It’s a road that has been consistently cited as one of California’s gems, but talk of Sonoma County cycling usually fails to mention just how challenging the road is.
King Ridge Road may have been the crown jewel in a stunning ride, but it was only one road. The descent into Jenner was the most beautiful seaside descent I’ve done.
I had a succession of flats that day (something I’ll address in another post) and so any hope I had of turning a fast time got dashed. As a result, I gave myself permission to stop for photos from time to time, rather than just shooting from the saddle.
With 3500 riders on the road at once, there were riders in view at all times, and despite getting in to the last two rest stops on the later side, they were still well stocked. Nearly as impressive as the ride itself was the number of volunteers who turned out to help. Police manned each and every intersection, ensuring everyone turned the correct direction and allowing safe passage to the riders free of traffic.
The concept of a timed century has been slow to catch on in the United States, despite its incredible popularity in Europe. Its time has come. If Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo is any indication, racers are beginning to see the value in a timed century as opposed to yet another industrial park crit.
This is one ride I’ll definitely be back for.