By Brig Seidl:
After an extended hiatus in which the quiver of bikes in my garage were becoming more of a nuisance than a boon requiring the laborious re-arrangement of tools & toys every time I needed to use the table saw Vicious Cycle finally re-surfaced again with the season ending GF Winthrop. And while none of Jake’s races could be labeled as “easy” – I would definitely caution against that – the GF Winthrop is a prime candidate for the title of “hardest”. Ninety miles is just never going to be a stroll in the park. Factor in 11,000 feet of climbing/descending and the difficulty goes up exponentially. And then, for the most part, ban the guy who invented asphalt surfaces and you have a pretty epic ride on your hands.
But that is exactly why a certain breed of rider keeps coming back year after year. Finish this race, or any of the Vicious Cycle Gran Fondos, and the cognoscenti of the cycling world will rightfully declare you a stud of the first order. And maybe that foxy yoga instructor will finally notice you.
It was my intention to be fully prepared for this event, we had 3 months after all, but what with all the time I lost moving stuff in my garage the eve of the event rolled around and I hadn’t event secured a place to stay in Winthrop yet, let alone air up my tires. Fortunately Paul at the North Cascades Mountain Hostel was kind enough to evict a Fischer Plumbing guy, who wasn’t going to be a factor anyway, to free up a bunk for me and I stopped in Wenatchee en route Friday evening to have Evan air up my tires. Ready!
Too late I began to think about nutrition and carbo loading so I arrived in Winthrop kind of late with no plan for Saturday’s caloric needs. But by the grace of God I still had some leftover Kentucky Fried Chicken in my truck from the day before that would serve as breakfast on Saturday. Another problem solved. And in doing so I may have inadvertently discovered the secret to KFC’s “extra crispy” recipe.
Saturday morning was 36 degrees when I got up and started getting myself together. There wasn’t really much to do. After eating the truck seasoned KFC for breakfast I checked my tires and they were still good from the extra sealant that Evan had added the previous evening in Wenatchee. So I just stuck 6 Shot Blocks on the top tube, filled 2 bottles with water, put on a short sleeve kit with arm warmers and rolled the few hundred meters from the hostel down to the barn to collect my number.
It was still pretty darn chilly when we rolled out at 8:00 so I opted to stick a Gore rain jacket in my jersey pocket just in case. The memory of that inaugural GF Winthrop is hard to erase. Going through the main intersection of town there was a woman taking photos of the peloton so I dutifully waved and was astonished to hear her call out, “Go Brig!”. Couldn’t think for the life of me what local woman would know me by name. Particularly because when visiting with the local lovelies in race locales I typically employ a generic fake name like “Joe Martin” or “Frank B.” until a certain level of confidence has been attained. (Turned out to be photographer Nadja Rua whom I’d met at the Cream Puff).
The early pace was as brisk as the air was so some attention was required. A couple miles in we encountered – I kid you not – a dead skunk in the middle of the road. Because the peloton was tightly packed with limited sight lines I’m sure some poor sod somewhere in the group must have hit it and smelled to high heaven for the rest of the day. It wasn’t long before someone played the hero and went off the front. Ha! Nothing to worry about at this point. Uh, wait a minute, that’s Evan Plews. OK he’s gone for good, there’s still 2 other perfectly good podium positions up for grabs. I sort of yo-yo’ed on and off the chase group that consisted of ten or a dozen people. Witnessed Doug Krumpelman very expertly remove his arm warmers and stick them in his jersey pocket while riding no handed only to then pull off to the shoulder and stop for some reason. As the asphalt gave way to big pot-holed tar seal and eventually to pure gravel the group splintered and I got spit out the back.
The secret to doing these rather brutal rides is to have a terrible memory. Otherwise it would be hard to justify starting. Even though I’ve done this event every year since its inception 4 years ago I don’t memorize the course or have any instrumentation whatsoever. Not even a sundial. So I only start to get fuzzy recollections of sections as I’m riding them. And as I’m riding I’m sort of visualizing hellacious sections from the past but can’t quite pinpoint where they are or if they are even in this event or GFs Leavenworth or Ellensburg. They are all in Winthrop of course but you mustn’t come to that realization all at once or your head will explode.
I omitted stopping at the first aid station as I hadn’t drunk any of my water yet and had only chomped a single Shot Block. I gave myself a mental chiding for once again not eating or drinking while riding. I’m not as adroit at these things as Doug Krumpelman is. So I determined to drink a full bottle right away to avoid going into an early deficit – but the terrain immediately following the aid station is steep, rough, and rocky as hell so I put off reaching for a water bottle. I did pull back a couple positions in the rocky upper reaches of this first big climb including slipping past a guy at the very summit. OK, he was walking his bike which made it easier but a pass is a pass.
One thing 3 previous years of experience has taught me is that shortly after the first summit is a very rough section of downhill which is the most proven stretch of water bottle ejecting forest road in the North Cascades. Be smart, take it easy, give up 5 seconds and make it through with your bottles. Great advice in theory but a hot-blooded impulsive guy like me doesn’t “take it easy” or “be smart”. So, yes, I lost my bottle even though I knew better. (I also happened to know that Jake is a swell guy and was likely going to retrieve those bottles when he came through on his motorcycle. And so it proved and I was happily reunited with greeny in Conconully. Thanks Jake!)
This section, from the top of the first big climb to the point in which it truly begins to go downhill for real, always seems to mess with me. I keep thinking we should be going downhill after that huge climb but we aren’t really going downhill. Sometimes we are and then we’re going back up again. I’ve climbed enough dammit, I want to go down! On one pseudo downhill I went past Frank Colich who appeared to be taking things on the cautious side after his big crash at Ellensburg. A few minutes later (while going back uphill!) I passed his team mate Matt Nuffort who had very graciously stopped, probably waiting for Frank, which made my task easier. And finally we did start to go down but the freaking road surface had been recently re-graded, apparently by Josef Stalin’s grandson. Christ! I’m generally a good descender but this surface was absolutely pummeling me and my poor bike was making shrieking noises like the grim reaper pulling corroded nails from a coffin with a rusty crowbar. It was a truly diabolical experience. Rough, the surface was rough is what I’m trying to say. I backed it down to the point that I expected to see the Fell Swoop guys come back by me but apparently they were doing the same thing. One guy wasn’t however. Some unknown warrior on a generic cyclocross bike blew by me in this section and checked out before I could even get his number. I sure hope that was Kiel Reijnen.
Right near the bottom of this section another guy went past me but he was on a full suspension mountain bike so that was to be expected. But right after that it flattened out some and then we got onto the pavement and were joined by Aaron Ambuske for the big high speed descent into Conconully. This section always kind of unnerves me as it is really high speed with dubious pavement and the ever present possibility of oncoming traffic so you must find a balance between extreme care and extreme speed. Aaron was a great ride mate here but the mountain bike guy never took a single pull. Maybe he couldn’t, I don’t know. When we got to the flat street of downtown Conconnully Shane Savage appeared out of nowhere and absolutely blew by all 3 of us like Fabian Cancellara.
Getting to Conconully is hard. The first climb is big, steep, and torturous. The ensuing descents are rough and formidable. Danger and DNFs lurk at every protruding rock and cavernous hole. But the sobering truth is the race doesn’t even really get started until you leave the aid station at Conconully and begin the fearsome climb up Mt Baldy. That is where great chunks of time will be made up or lost because if you are already pre-cooked from the preceding 50 miles and 6000’ of climbing the ensuing 17 mile climb will seem positively interminable. I left the aid station just behind Aaron Ambuske and was still feeling remarkably good, all things considered. As soon as the asphalt pitched upwards Aaron slid slightly back and I found myself alone for a couple miles until Shane Savage again motored by with his other worldly speed. There was no sticking with him so I just settled in and prepared for the body blows to come. But about 20 minutes later while we were still on the asphalt I perceived the presence of another gadfly approaching my rear wheel. And is that the clunky sound of vintage down tube shifters I hear? Has that relentless fiend from a different era, David Hendry, caught me on his 50 year old Raleigh? I dared not look back at this specter whoever it was. When you are mentally and physically vulnerable in the early stages of the last big climb it does not help your state of mind to see a bike that looks like it has been plucked from a case at the Smithsonian cruise past you with some grinning hellcat aboard. So I continued. Tried to pretend I hadn’t actually heard anything after all. I didn’t surge, I just re-focused my efforts and allocated more thought to the top of the hill and less thought to the top of yoga instructors.
Like last year I wouldn’t see anyone else again until the very top of this truly onerous climb. And for the record I never did actually “see” David Hendry, I just felt his clammy presence breathing down my neck. But a couple hours later, right where the last ¼ mile or so pitches up to near verticality, I spied 2 souls rounding the final corner. They were too far ahead to seriously think about catching despite being in sight for a couple minutes. A quarter mile on that section was several minutes. But they did animate me a little and I rode up this section with renewed purpose instead of walking it in a dejected manner like last year. Conceive of my surprise then, upon summiting, I spied them again down the hill a ways. I couldn’t have made up that much time so I imagine they must have paused briefly at the top, to put on jackets maybe? Whatever the reason we were descending on gravel now and they were vaguely in my sights. It took a few miles to reel them in because they weren’t exactly lollygagging but I had the advantage that they didn’t know I was coming. I swooped by on the outside of a fast loose corner and kept the pedal to the metal for the remaining 9 or so miles of this wicked gravel downhill. It was far too rough and washboarded to consider looking back to see how big my gap was growing but I knew I had to stretch it as much as possible because the race ends with about an 8 mile run-in to Winthrop on smooth asphalt over undulating terrain. Between the banzai gravel descent and the nice asphalt (which also loses elevation) is that section of gnarly pot holed semi-pavement that we had climbed 6.5 hours earlier. That section begins at a bridge and when I reached that I looked back and discovered to my chagrin that the 2 guys I’d passed 20+ minutes ago at the top of the mountain were right on my rear wheel!
So this is where things got exciting. These guys, who turned out to be Mighty Cycling team mates Ryan Golbeck and Shane Savage were clearly not to be trifled with. They were no idle scraps of nonsense from some Fischer Plumbing pledge drive, they meant business. And they opened affairs by immediately dispatching me with Shane setting, well, an absolutely savage pace. Most of you reading this will be familiar with this section and know that it is kind of gnarly. Once upon a time it was paved but the pavement has since deteriorated badly leaving big holes with abrupt edges which sometimes stretch across the entire road causing rocks and sand from these craters to get spread across the remaining asphalt resulting in treacherous conditions. It is steep, riddled with blind corners, and, as always, opposing vehicle traffic can be encountered at any time. But none of this seemed to bother Shane to the slightest degree whatsoever as he dropped down that mountain like an anvil from a tree with Ryan right on his wheel. Me, I’ve got this dream that Cindy Crawford is going to mistakenly knock on my door someday and we are going to instantly fall in love across the threshold and run off together. And that requires me being alive so I had to let Shane & Ryan go. Call it cowardice but I like to be able to see ahead when I’m bombing down such descents and didn’t feel comfortable sitting on Ryan’s wheel at that speed over that surface. Of course the difficulty and danger also precluded them from casually looking back to see that they’d broken the elastic. But once my sight lines opened up I was able to ratchet things up and get back up to them and slingshot right on by. And so it went for the remainder of the descent. A glorious scrap of epic proportions with all 3 of us leading and trailing at different times. Eventually we got down to where the grade lessens and the pavement improves (and the headwind starts) but still no quarter was given as we raged on in a rotating pace line with each of us taking about 2 minute pulls. This was actually really thrilling stuff and it’s a pity the Vicious Cycle helicopter wasn’t filming us for the folk back home.
It became apparent that none of us was going to get away and similarly no one was going to get dropped so that pointed towards a sprint finish when the time came. But the run-in down East Chewuch Rd goes on forever so we just continued our rotating pace line without any thought of positioning or stuff like that. But this was the point at which, in the pro peloton at least, discussions would begin to take place. For example pro-Ryan might come alongside me and say, “Pro-Brig, you throw this race, da? I transfer 50,000 Kroner to your Swiss account, da? Make sprint look real, da?” But no such loser talk took place amongst us. In fact no real conversation of any kind happened. So, despite having read about 800 times that you don’t want to be leading a group out of the final corner, I just happened to be taking the lead pull when we hit the final corner. And none of us were rinky dink cat ‘n mouse kind of players anyway so as soon as I made the final corner onto Corral St I leapt out of the saddle and began my sprint as did Shane and Ryan. And so it ended. No positions changed in our 350 meter sprint and we all wooshed across the line within about a second of each other. A glorious end to an epic 24 mile battle.
Such a long and rough race takes a toll on body ‘n bike so I was relieved to survive with only one minor mechanical issue. Back in June I had congratulated myself at GF Ellensburg for exhibiting amazing restraint by not hurling my pump into the woods when its dismal performance sorely vexed me. I really frown on littering and litterers. Enter irony 3 months later when 11,000 feet of bone jarring descending vibrated said pump apart into countless pieces and spewed them all on the forest road between Conconully and Winthrop so that when I arrived at the finish there was merely a hollow handle strapped to my bike. This put me in no position to chastise the civic irresponsibility exhibited by Frank Colich for adding the entire contents of his toolkit to the sum total of vibration induced litter on that section.
Body toll seemed negligible – at first. I hadn’t crashed and in fact the only time I had even unclipped was at the aid station in Conconully so skin was all intact. But as time passed a serious abrasion manifested itself, and if we weren’t all such a big groovy family I’d feel a little embarrassed to say this, but once again my rear end got shredded. I don’t know what the deal is, this never used to happen. Used to ride all day in running shorts or swim trunks without a problem and now that I’ve got a fancy set of padded bib shorts and embrocation my poor ass feels like it has been through a cheese grater. I’m open to suggestions from the field on this one by the way because I’m not digging this feeling. I get to wondering if maybe the Gauls aren’t just playing a big joke on us and “chamois” is really just the French word for “60 grit sandpaper”. Seriously can someone look that up? I’m in pain here.
Looking at the results I see that 3 Martians raced this event and in fact swept the podium. First (Evan Plews) was 12 minutes ahead of second (Ian Tubbs), who was another 12 minutes ahead of third (Normand Richard), who was yet another 12 minutes ahead of the first carbon based life form, Tim Wood, in 4th. Ha! Ha! Those aren’t even their real names, those are just their earth names! I believe their actual monikers are “01010011100”, “1100101011”, and “10100010111” respectively and it’s stamped on the back of their necks if you peel back their Kevlar “skin” and look.
Inasmuch as I have a training regimen it involves bike commuting the 17 miles to work every day rain, shine, or hail year round. I try to incorporate some crunches, planks and runs from time to time and I talk about trying to improve my diet someday. Mechanically speaking I ride a Norco Threshold (which I noticed was a very popular choice) and run tubeless tires at somewhere between 50 and 60 psi depending on how well they are holding air. I couldn’t even tell what width my tires are or what cassette or gear ratios my bike has, 01010011100 set it up so I let him worry about details like that. He’s got like a billion terabytes of RAM after all.
Big thanks to the Maedke family and the whole Vicious Cycle clan for another great season. I’m vaguely aware there is much work going on behind the scenes in order to host these awesome events and speaking on behalf of the entire peloton, we appreciate it.