By Brig Seidl
The Ellensburg Gran Fondo is the most recent addition to Vicious Cycle’s quiver of gravel classics with just its 2nd addition taking place this past Sunday. Each arrow in this quiver has its own distinctive personality which contributes to the dynamic of how the race unfolds. I mean ride, how the ride unfolds. It’s not a race remember we’re all out there just lollygagging around after all. GF Ellensburg’s particular feature is the long undulating road section off the start before anything serious happens. The first big obstacle, the climb out of Cle Elum, is over an hour into it whereas in GFs Ephrata, Leavenworth, and Winthrop you get clobbered like a baby seal with something onerous that blows the group apart within minutes after the start. So we got to roll along as an intact peloton on the picturesque Highway 10 alongside the Yakima River for a long time.
It wasn’t exactly relaxing however because there was a pretty stiff headwind and we were tightly packed together with the group speed fluctuating markedly. Plus I noticed some Audi muscle massing near the front that would bear watching. Didn’t want a repeat of last year when some Audi guy (Ian Tubbs) exploded off the front and rode away by himself straight into the wind and all dropping the entire peloton. And wouldn’t you know it but the exact the same thing happened again this year! Some absolute beast, later identified as Audi man Steven Wilssens, dropped the entire peloton on a flat road into a strong headwind and simply rode away solo. Chapeau Mr Wilssens. It was a brave effort but came to naught as he was swamped on the hill and would eventually finish out of the top 10.
As soon as the asphalt road pitched upwards in South Cle Elum the inevitable separations occurred and by the time we hit the real gravel climbing about 2 miles later I found myself quickly sliding backwards from my previous position in the lead (excepting the aforementioned Steven Wilssens) group. It seemed to take my legs longer to transition from “windy flat mode” to “steep climbing mode” than those of my compatriots so about 18 or so of them disappeared up the hill ahead of me. While undoubtedly egregious this first big hill had a pretty good surface and it wasn’t unbearably hot like last year either. Further up it got rougher and there were a few of uncomfortably steep sections where I passed a couple of guys pushing. One, on a beautiful green Crux looked like he’d already managed to crash as his kit was all scuffed up and his elbow was bleeding. For those of you who felt chagrined for having to walk this section take heart in that some of the top 10 guys walked it as well. Eventual winner Stephen Mull probably flew up it in his big ring.
I started pulling back some positions as the pitch lessened near the top and was solidly back inside the top 15 when the descent began. I quickly demoted a couple of reticent descenders and was ready to set sail but then the road pitched upwards again, it had been a false summit. I started to feel good and collected a couple more positions, the last one, shortly before we began descending for real being Travis Brown. But the rascal went way off script by putting a hook in me and refusing to fall away as my game plan dictated. Just when I felt like I might be starting to stretch the elastic and put a small gap on him PSSSSSssssstt! Flat tire, dang it!
Now I’m rightfully known for many laudable things but quickly fixing flat tires is not one of them. No, not by a long shot. I started things off by taking the extended pee that I’d been contemplating for the previous hour and mentally taking stock of the situation. I had 2 spare tubes, 2 C02 cartridges, an applicator head, 2 tire levers, and a small hand pump. I also had tire plugs but I’d forgotten about these so they didn’t really count. There was a sizeable cut in the tire and the sealant was failing so I resolved to just throw a tube in. But then when I went to air it up the fargin C02 cartridge spewed all its contents as soon as I screwed the applicator on it because the blasted knob thingy was in the open position. It was just by divine Providence that it didn’t uncork its freezing contents directly into my face. Of course it didn’t unleash them into the tube either so I was down to just one cartridge and at this point only about 20% covered in tire sealant. I decided to use the pump. But what the hell!? The thingamajig on the pump that attaches to the valve didn’t have the remotest look of compatibility to it. It didn’t screw on, it didn’t push on, it didn’t pull out and flip around to become Presta compatible, it didn’t attach to the damn valve in any way, shape, or form. It looked like Andy from my LBS had sold me some sort of weird European metric pump or something. I let fly a screed of expletives at him, his shop, and his ancestors. (The next day Andy would show me how to convert the pump the Presta. It was in perfect working order)
But I still had a flat tire. So summoning all possible restraint I proceeded to not hurl my pump into the woods, littering is bad kids no matter how agitated you may be, but instead deliberately set it down and picked up the last C02 cartridge. Because I wouldn’t learn about how the knob works until talking to Andy a day later I had the bright idea of attaching the applicator to the valve first and then screwing the cartridge onto it – in case it decided to spray all its contents without hesitation again. Which of course is exactly what it did but this time most of it went into the tube. Hooray I’m a genius! But all that sudden pressure forces sealant out from every possible crack, crevice, and valve head thereby upping my total body coverage to about 30%. It then took me an agonizingly long time to get the bloody wheel back on because, well because I’m inept lets just leave it at that. All the while the entire pack had been whizzing down the hill past me but, to their credit, almost everyone asked if I needed anything. Top blokes all.
Finally I was under way again. But in a slow, deliberate, apathetic manner. I was bummed about a good day having gone awry and terrified about flatting again or that my repair would somehow fail. I took the remainder of the downhill at a very ginger pace and it took me a long time to regain confidence that my rear tire was in fact going to hold air. But as riders started coming back in ones and twos and the tire held up I started regaining some mojo so that by the time we departed from the 2nd aid station I was pretty much back on my game. I hadn’t stopped at the first water stop that Dale Wentworth was manning high up on the first big climb and even now beginning the second big gravel climb I felt physically fine. I seem to be physiologically better suited to longer events over sprints and consequently do better at these endurance races than the 2 hour FTR races even though I’m hurting like everyone else. I can’t go super fast but I can just keep going and going for a long time. As you can imagine this makes me a legend in the bedroom but only a mediocre cross country racer. Gran Fondos fall somewhere in between.
The second climb was much rougher than the first one with copious deep gravel and extended sections of washboard surface. This would have been very painful if it had been hot but thankfully it wasn’t. And the descent off the 2nd gravel col was absolutely primo, a definite highlight of the whole day. Hard packed dirt that had just enough ruts and rocks to keep you on your toes but corner after sweeping corner with sufficient sight lines to allow for high rolling speeds with little effort. I was hooting and hollering and loving life on this section, the angry curses of 2 hours previous a forgotten episode. And as good as it was I did breathe a sigh of relief when we reached asphalt near the bottom as this signified the end of the significant risk of flatting again.
The remaining 20 or so miles was mostly high speed road riding with a tailwind. Some hills but mostly big ring stuff. I still felt pretty darn good and was churning my biggest gear when some upstart on a proper road bike blew by me out of nowhere! Wasn’t expecting that. But he was cunning and had stalked me and blown by so fast there was no question of latching on. So I resumed my solitary exploit and even took a peek back to assure there was no other hellhound on my tail. Nope, all was well. Then at the bottom of the big downhill gully that goes straight into the last semi-steep climb up to the Red Sky fruit stand another blighter whooshed by me! Where the hell did he come from!? Enough was enough, it was time to start kicking ass and taking names. For the record his name was Marcos Franco and he would proceed to put distance between us all the way to the finish. Oddly enough he finished one place behind me at this event last year and I finished one place behind him this year. I did manage to assuage my ego a little by eventually passing a guy on a mountain bike on the high speed asphalt section from Cle Elum to Thorpe. Such is the pecking order on smooth surfaces; road bike trumps cross bike trumps mountain bike. But that was the only position I regained on the asphalt. Oh, and the bikini babes on the final stretch of the John Wayne Trail were a nice touch. Thanks for that Jake.
After getting my finisher’s patch from Kate and a cool refreshing Coke from Karen at the finish line all that remained was to ride the 3 miles back to the school where we had started 6 hours earlier. Like last year Jake had arranged for a Mexican food truck so everyone got a scrumptious post-race burrito that went down like ambrosia. Looking at some severely road rashed bodies and hearing tales of multiple flats and mayhem I reflected that maybe my day wasn’t so bad after all. The world looks pretty darn rosy when most of your skin is intact and you have a pork burrito in your hand. Sure in a perfect world one of my domestiques would have been present and immediately sacrificed their wheel when I flatted but in this world that happened at 11:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning when Frank, Roy, and Kurt were all probably still in bed and likely hung-over too. There’s always next year.