With impressive views, a 50/50 paved to gravel split, an intimidating elevation profile, and over 80 miles, Gran Fondo Leavenworth certainly meets the criteria of a 'kinda serious' cycling event.
On May 21, 2017 I arrived in Peshashtin on time, well trained, and with the weather looking beautiful. The mountains were in full view in all directions. I wondered if they understood the challenge they would create for myself and about 200 others.
This ride was to be the first serious challenge for my recently acquired Waterford that I named 'Huckleberry'. Due to the forecast gravel road roughness I was running a set of 40c tubeless 'Rambler' tires at pressures of 33 front and 43 rear.
Earlier in the week I had learned that, due to snow, one major climb had to be omitted from the original course. This shortened version was to be 80 miles and 7000 feet of climbing.
We started at 8 a.m. with a four mile neutral rollout. These miles were through a rolling valley with various farms and orchards on each side of the road. The course gradient gradually steepened and by mile six I had chosen my own pace and watched the strong men go up the road.
Mile eight is when we reached the end of the pavement and the start of the real climbing. I stayed with my plan and followed no wheels instead choosing to climb at an efficient pace. The gravel road was smooth, the air was still cool, and I crested without feeling spent.
The gravel continued to be smooth but was interspersed with a few 100 meter sections of snow. Most were rideable with one being taken on the run cyclocross style.
When the gradient turned negative the gravel road was still relatively smooth which allowed for a spirited descent. I paired up with another rider who was clearly an experienced descender and we reached the pavement in good time.
The paved road to the aid station in Entiat was a 1% downward grade. I teamed up with a couple other riders. One of which I'll call 'Rob'. He was locomotive strong. Just a minute into my first turn at the front he lost patience and just motored by. For the rest of this section I worked to hold the wheel in front of me and took embarrassingly short turns at the front. We reached the aid station, roughly halfway through the ride, in short order.
After filling my bottles and pockets I left the aid station with three other riders. Knowing the next ten miles would be paved and level along the Columbia River I wanted to have some 'friends'. We easily fell into a rhythm of avoiding the numerous stones on the shoulder, taking turns at the front, and rehydrating.
As this group settled in I made a quiet observation to myself that 'Rob', described previously, was dangling a couple hundred yards off the front of our group. But I hoped we wouldn't catch him. I knew he was powerful and thought our group was working at a sustainable pace.
Our bubble was burst, however, when the rider in position number two had an instantaneous front tire flat. Both he and the rider in position three showed some excellent bike handling in keeping upright and avoiding a collision. I was fortunate enough to witness the whole show and have enough time and space to stay well clear of it.
After regrouping into a trio we started slowly reeling Rob in. When we caught him the group dynamic changed a bit. When Rob pulled the pace was 23 to 24 mph. The rest of us were only able to pull at 21 to 22mph. Before long we caught and incorporated a rider who had been solo for a while. He was happy to see us.
When our group of five reached Swakane Canyon road the flavor of the route changed completely. Behind us was the 20+ mph paceline efficiency. Ahead lied a rough dirt climb with plenty of embedded stones. The gradient changed constantly fluctuating between nearly flat to 10%. These changes were often in less than 100 yards. And it was hot. The temperature moderation from the cool waters of the rolling Columbia River was no more. I dripped perspiration just minutes into the climb.
I knew from studying the elevation profile that this climb would be long. It started at about 800 feet above see level and ended at about 4000 feet. The inefficiencies of climbing on gravel did not make it any easier.
For the most part I did not set a goal of staying with any other rider. I set an appropriate level of hurt, labeled it my 'discomfort zone', and then adjusted my effort to stay right in the middle. At one point the grade was steep and long enough that I shifted into low-low. Put another way, my cogset ran out of viable options and my feet pushed on the ground directly.
My position in the group of five ebbed and flowed. But, by throttling my effort early and choosing to walk the toughest section I think came out better than the others.
Halfway to the top I realized I had a problem. With four miles of climbing left until the next aid station I calculated that my water bottles would go dry more than 30 minutes before reaching the next aid station. The road was close enough to a creek that I could hear running water. I contemplated dipping my head into the creek if the road drew near enough. A couple minutes later I rolled up to a tiny stream that crossed the road. From the stream I filled one bottle twice and over my head I drained it twice. The water was startlingly cold. The bottle was filled a third time and I used this mountain water to cool my head and shoulders for the remainder of the climb.
Switching to external cooling might have been my best decision of the day. I reached the aid station and summit tired but without damage.
The final gravel descent was long and not as smooth as the first, my mind was fatigued, and I chose to descend conservatively. By the time I reached the end of the gravel I had passed a couple riders and allowed my battery to recharge a bit.
When I emerged onto the final eight miles of pavement my legs felt OK but I was riding alone. Just a mile or two later and a fast rider quickly closed the gap and I jumped onto his wheel. He was pulling hard. After a couple minutes he signaled for me to take a turn. I first apologized and then told him there was no way I could pull at his pace. I rode his wheel and with about four miles to go he slowed a bit and asked for help. Over those four miles I took just two turns at the front and neither of them lasted more than a couple minutes.
|'Huckleberry' did a great job handling the variety of road surfaces.|
He was the 21st rider to cross the line and I later thanked him for pulling me to 22nd.
I was pleased with my finish position and time of about 5 hours 30 minutes. For comparison, the first rider to finish took 40 minutes less.
In the past I've looked back at a race and wished I had made different choices. For this event I believe that I made no significant mistakes and rode pretty close to my top potential.
As the image shows I felt good enough about myself, my bike, and my tire choice to pose for a post race photo.
The next and final Vicious Cycles Gran Fondo for my season is Gran Fondo Winthrop in September. GFW is longer, higher, and has more volatile weather. But that event is a ways out. I've been training steadily since January and have been looking forward to a break in intensive training. That break starts today.
Which means I can go ride in the mountains with my friends!
See you all soon.
p.s. I've ventured into the 'social media' realm via Instagram. Photos that don't make it to this blog might show up at https://www.instagram.com/allroadie/