Final Fondo of 2017: Winthrop

The last Vicious Cycles Gran Fondo of 2017 was a tough one. The elevation profile included ascending and descending and little else. The ride was basically four climbs followed by four descents; a 5000 feet climb, two 1000 feet climbs, and a final 4000 foot climb. Those 11,000 feet of climbing were compressed into about 55 miles of gravel roads and 35 miles of pavement.

Elevation profile of Winthrop Gran Fondo 2017
Elevation profile shows lots of up and down and not much in between.

A late family schedule change resulted in my choice to leave our tiny travel trailer at home and spend Friday night in my pickup truck. Camp Nissan was not perfect but my rest was adequate and I was coffee'd up by 7 a.m. Most riders arrived after 7 and 'The Barn' parking lot, which served as our staging area, was hopping with activity as we readied ourselves.

Tire selection and pressure are always important at these events. The Maxxis Ramblers in 40mm width worked well in a previous Gran Fondo and I chose to run 39 and 42 p.s.i. this time around.

Without much extra time I wasn't able to warm up before the 8 a.m. start and hoped for a long and slow neutral roll out. I probably wasn't alone in hoping for a chance to warm up. Race promoter and neutral driver Jake let us loose just a mile or two up the road and the peleton did not respond. The speed increased only slightly over the first six miles with a large number choosing to ride up front.

At about eight miles the course started to steepen. I chose an easy pace and quickly watched the front of the peleton go up the road. Over the next two miles I watched riders go by and estimated to be in about 50th position. At about twelve miles my legs were warm, my pace was steady, and I found myself chatting it up with others.

By mile fifteen I had started to see a pattern that would continue for the entire day. My climbing pace was just a tiny bit faster than those around me. Slowly, one by one, I started to regain some of the positions lost in the first five miles of climbing.

Over the next seventeen miles I climbed and descended and repeated. The views were wonderful even on an overcast day. Each mile up was a slow speed dance to avoid the loose soil and sharp rocks. The descents were balance acts between speed and chain shaking bumps.

At 32 miles I crested the third climb and started the first long descent. This descent started on gravel and transitioned to pavement, included having to pass through an 'on road' cattle drive, and ended at an event food stop in the two stop sign town of Conconully.

For me, the ride, until Conconully, had gone well. My legs were still feeling fresh, I had avoided a puncture, and my water and food intake was on schedule.

At the food stop the workers offered to fill my water bottles to which I happily obliged them. I learned that there were only about a dozen riders ahead up the road. This surprised me and also explained the workers' sense of urgency. I grabbed food for the road and remounted for the final climb.

The final climb starts paved and ends gravel. The final climb is 18 miles. The final climb is roughly 4000 feet of vertical. I estimated two solid hours of work.

Only after climbing for an hour did I realize my mistake. The food I chose in Conconully was mostly real food which generally is preferred by my stomach. But I ate too much. Yes, I'd need those calories but my system couldn't handle them all at once and it told me so. I also realized that I didn't send adequate water after the Conconully stop. Previous experience had informed me that my discomfort was temporary but that it would last for much of the final climb. I saddled up for the suffer.

Previous experience didn't prepare me for the cramp that started to form in my right vastus medialis, a member of the quadriceps femoris muscle group.

I nursed that cramp for 45 minutes. My right thumb went numb from kneading the muscle. My right arm was sore after using it to assist my right leg's down stroke. I dared not pedal out of the saddle as this shortened my quad which invited more cramping. I slowed my pace and spun a high cadence. I watched a strong rider go by. I didn't so much nurse the cramp as I survived the cramp.

The first five miles of descent were on smooth gravel roads and I was able to collect myself. I descended moderately and was able to exercise a few quad stretches from the saddle.

The remaining gravel road descent miles were not so smooth. The stutter bumps were, at times, dangerous. I passed a couple riders during this section only to see them go back by when I stopped to remedy a dropped chain. This process was repeated a second time, with the same two riders, and when we reached the pavement just seconds separated the three of us.

When the road straightened a bit we immediately began to work together. Both riders were stronger than me and I thanked my lucky stars that I was invited to the party. Their pulls were faster and longer than mine. I gave everything I had as I knew I was getting the better end of the deal. My goal was to earn enough 'cred' that they would let me stay in to the finish.

The finish straight was flat, about two blocks long, and followed a tricky downhill left hand cross traffic turn. At about four tenths of a mile to go I warned the group that we were near this tricky corner and then faded to the back. It was my intention that, if they needed to sprint for the finish, I would be well out their way.

Leading up to the final turn our road was mostly quiet of cars. At the tricky left we did encounter an oncoming pickup truck. The lead rider slowed to let the truck pass and made a slow left hand turn onto the final straight. The second rider needed to slow only slightly. The truck was well past for me and, as I completed the left turn, we found ourselves on equal position.

Only my good luck and their generosity placed me on par with just a few hundred yards to go. I decided in that moment I would not initiate a sprint. In that same instant the stronger of the two riders did initiate the sprint and held that position to finish seventh. I trailed the group to earn ninth of about 95 finishers. Quite respectable.

Sprint finish for 7th position
Sprint finish for 7th position. No tactics at play. The stronger riders just earned it. Photo courtesy of Vicious Cycles.

Since the finish I've reflected on my day and have been mostly smiles. My pacing, not too fast on the first climb, worked well for me. My comfort with riding gravel roads was invaluable. Too much food at Conconully was a mistake. Knowing my body allowed me to adjust for the mistake and salvage my first Gran Fondo top ten.

I've also had time to reflect on my Gran Fondo season. I completed three of the five events in this series and enjoyed all three. This reflection also revealed a pattern; the more gravel and climbing the better I finished. I guess you can't take the dirt biker out of the cyclist.