-By Brig Seidl
Ahh good ole Gran Fondo Leavenworth. Once the sharpest rapier in Vicious Cycle’s scabbard it has been dulled somewhat in recent years by the exclusion of the Mud Creek and Navarre Coulee sections but it is still pointy enough to draw blood and extract sweat. Or drown you like a bilge rat as appeared to be the case this year when I was confronted with an absolute dark, dank, downpour upon cresting Blewett Pass at 6:15 a.m. en route to the Peshastin Elementary School start line. There followed the usual prolonged vacillation on what to wear and/or carry with me. And, again as usual, I changed my mind at the very last moment based on Paul Young’s assurance that no rain was forecast, despite what the sky looked like, and opted to not take a jacket and removed my arm warmers and stuck them in my jersey pocket. It ultimately turned out to be the right call but I was certainly in the minority with bare arms on the start line.
Naturally I hadn’t done a scrap of maintenance to my bike since GF Goldendale but the tires still seemed sufficiently inflated and a quick spin around the pits confirmed that it was shifting fine so that was the extent of my pre-race mechanical checklist rundown. Somewhere David Hendry is crying out in anguish as he re-greases the bearings in his headset for the 3rd time since March. (Headsets have bearings, right?)
I was a little concerned about my corporeal body however as it had let me down quite badly at the previous weekend’s Stottlemeyer race where I had signed up for the 60 miler but my legs, lungs, and energy generator had only agreed to 12 miles that day. I’ve pretty much always had an issue with cramping in endurance events so I resolved to come up with some sort of solution for that ailment. And like most Americans I seek the answers to all life’s predicaments at Costco and so it was that I came into possession of a bag of ‘Heavenly Hunks’ which are a sort of organic chocolate chip cookie meets coconut in a gluten-free bite-size piece of yumminess. As the marketing says they are “Ridiculously Amazing!” and I hoped ridiculously good at keeping my cramps at bay. They have the added benefit of not being individually wrapped so, if you don’t mind a slight taste of sweat, you can just pour ‘em into your jersey pocket and then fish them out as needed. This was my nutrition plan. That and 2 bottles of pure water but it was pretty much a given that I’d lose those on some heinous downhill so I purposely selected a couple of crappy bottles from my vast collection.
Seemed like a pretty good turnout by my seat-of-the-pants estimate while perusing the pits. Probably not a sellout, which I believe Jake caps at 200, but a good, strong showing. Likely the advent of the new Medio distance option has helped the numbers. And there are definitely more female competitors than the rough ‘n tumble early days when it was always just some solitary uber-chick like Erika Krumpelman or Lynda Finegold. Hard to say if that is on account of some shrewd marketing by Vicious Cycle or just the fact that Rocky doesn’t come out anymore and scare them away.
The neutral rollout is pretty long at this event, about 4 miles on North Road followed by another couple on Chumstick Highway but it is on gently rolling hills through beautiful scenery of pear, apple, and cherry orchards and vineyards. And for an astute rider like moi it is a chance to take careful note of the same road we would be returning on in the very last miles of the race. I secretly picked out a short uphill section where I planned to pass Ian Tubbs just before the finish and chuckled to myself as I did so for being so brainy and proactive.
But it was a short chuckle because some blasted Audi guy – is that @#%$% Tubbs already? – was driving the neutral rollout uncomfortably close to my threshold. There was some talk in the peloton about the pace with some believing it was Jake “pulling” us on his big BMW but I was firmly of the opinion that we were instead “pushing” him. Whatever the reason I could sense energy in the pack and felt like it was going to explode immediately upon getting to the base of Eagle Creek Rd when Jake motored off but surprisingly it didn’t. Ry Ward went off the front for a while but the big front chunk held largely together until well onto the gravel part of the climb when eventually some poor sucker – me – started drifting off the back and losing contact. And sadly, despite my perfect nutrition plan and elevated race craft that would be the last time I would see the front of the race.
The road surface for this climb was in good condition and I’ve done it enough times now that I knew what to expect (spoiler alert: it gets steep at the top) but I just couldn’t climb with the front 20 or so guys so just rode my own pace which took me past a couple stragglers but mainly others from behind eased past me in ones and twos. Usually I regain a chunk of positions on the downhill but I took it slower and gentler this time to try to preserve my water bottles and avoid flatting. Nothing too dramatic happened and when I popped out onto Mad River Rd I was alone but was swiftly overhauled on the asphalt by a train of 3 riders whom I’d passed on the gravel. I latched on and we barreled on down to Entiat River Rd picking up other riders as we went so that by the time we got to the aid station in Entiat our little group had swelled to about 10.
I didn’t really need anything at the aid station but stopped anyway because nobody likes the guy who attacks at a feed zone. I stuffed some potato chips in my mouth, topped up a water bottle and took off with a slightly different cast of characters then I arrived with. Again we scooped up riders on the way down Highway 97 the last one being Chris Woods riding alone into the wind on a mountain bike.
Then…..Swakane. You’ve heard the legends, you’ve seen the hollow-eyed thousand yard stares of the souls who have entered and returned from this demonic gouge in mother earth, and now here you are at the base of it. I expected our group of 7 to splinter immediately but it didn’t really. Chris started easing away slowly off the front taking another 2 guys partway with him and Warren Cornwall began almost imperceptibly to fall off the back whilst I did a little back ‘n forth with Steve Hanson before he dropped me for good. At some point Warren clawed back by me and then I re-took the position a mile later and slowly drew away. Nothing happens too suddenly on this climb. And even though on the bottom miles the road surface was characteristically egregious the lack of heat and general conditions made it far less diabolical than in other years. In fact I would almost go as far as to say it was eas…
SSHHH! Quiet you fool! Swakane can hear you! And will suddenly, in spite, sprout a billion more sharp rocks on its lower slopes and blithely increase the pitch of its upper ramparts until you dismount and cry “Uncle!” And when you are on the verge of collapse it will crank the thermostat up to 105 degrees and laugh maniacally as rider after rider topples over. Don’t provoke the beast! Quietly accept that we caught a big break this year and get over that pass while you can without disturbing the devil within.
I encountered Chris Woods attending to a flat tire – the price for making the climb look too easy and thereby upsetting the evil lord of Swakane who immediately pierced his rear sidewall with a sharp rock.
Opted not to stop at the “Dale Wentworth” aid station (Ed note: Dru McMackin aid station this year) at the top because I could see that dratted Cornwall on the switchbacks and he wasn’t fully rolling over yet. It used to be that when you put somebody away they went away! Why doesn’t Warren know and accept this? He has arisen from the charnel house to come back to haunt me on the upper reaches of Swakane.
But I felt remarkably good, better than I could ever recall feeling on the ridge above the Wentworth station and I started to entertain the thought of actually summiting without dismounting for the first time ever. Which I just barely managed to do, huzzah! But the summit after those short, super steep pitches is in fact a false summit and you have to descend a little and meander about a bit before reaching the sharp right hand turn that signals the beginning of the actual descent. And wouldn’t you know it but with the corner in sight, maybe 200 feet away, my inner thighs suddenly seized up with violent cramps! Sweet baby Jesus I’m toppling over! I had to unclip and then was able to semi-pedal with just one leg trying desperately to reach the turn where I could glide down while straightening my legs. I tried various stretches and positions on the descent while trying to keep my momentum up but it was annoying because this is the best section of the entire course and I was forced into damage control mode.
It is always a relief to reach the pavement because that generally means you are safe from flatting but God dang it that descent down Eagle Creek Rd has got to be the most unsatisfying downhill in all of Christendom. You can’t get going! There will be a stiff headwind blowing up the valley and despite the smooth pavement and steep slope you will barely be moving. Or rather I was barely moving. Warren Cornwall was moving all too well and blew by me with consummate ease. The same bloody thing happened last year too. I was still cramping and mindful of the fact that if they came back full force I’d be immobilized howling in pain on the side of the road like I was in Winthrop last year so there was no question of even trying to dispute my position with Warren. I nursed myself down to the Chumstick Highway and then the couple miles to North Rd where the last climb of any consequence at all awaited. Curiously this short uphill seemed to help ease my cramping thighs and for the remaining 4 miles I felt almost normal again so was able to enjoy the ride and scenic farms to the finish line.
So all in all another stellar experience on the bike courtesy of Vicious Cycle and the Maedke family in particular and only slightly marred by my recurrence of leg cramps. The jury is still out on the “Heavenly Hunks” as they definitely did not cure the problem but more experimentation needs to be done. Bike performed well with the exception of the bottom bracket knocking constantly like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe story. Good times. Another VC Gran Fondo patch goes into the collection. Thanks Jake, Karen, Brooklynn, Maddie, and team.