By Brig Seidl
Gran Fondo Ellensburg is sort of the new kid on the block in Vicious Cycle’s quiver of gravel grinders with this being the 3rd rendition of what is already established as a tough classic. One of its identifying features is the long ride on asphalt off the start before the real beat down begins. But this ride on Highway 10 from Ellensburg to Cle Elum is no picnic in itself. Besides the fact that it contains significant inclines there will be 2 other invariables at play: a robust headwind and some Audi guy trying to solo off the front and get away. Incredibly he has been successful in this endeavor the previous 2 years but the headwind was stronger this year thus thwarting his repeated attempts. But props to you brave sir for trying to animate things early.
I wasn’t trying to animate things. I had done the NW Epic Series 60 mile mountain bike race at Echo Ridge the previous day and wasn’t feeling especially chipper. The wind and the hills and the fluctuating tempo were all conspiring to keep me from settling into a natural rhythm. It was necessary to keep one’s hands constantly on the brake levers and be very attentive to the ebbs and flows of the peloton.
Eventually my legs came around somewhat and I started to feel better so shortly before we reached the busy Highway 97 crossing on the outskirts of Cle Elum I eased up towards the front to be vigilant of any small selection getting across before the main pack. Gotta keep an eye on those crafty Audi guys! But decorum prevailed and we all stopped and crossed as one big blob. I started taking longer pulls at the front and sort of became the de facto leader through the stops and starts of downtown Cle Elum. But already a time bomb was building in my bladder and I was furtively scouting potential detour sites, aware that I was going to have to exit the peloton soon, real soon. But then just as we were entering South Cle Elum and some good brushy roadside opportunities started to appear the fates threw me a bone; a train passed directly in front of us halting the entire peloton for the 4 or so minutes I need to take care of business these days on rides. Man, and to think my personal plumbing used to turn on and off like a German faucet.
Once we got underway again I felt much better and was generally near the front for the next few miles until the pavement ended at the base of Mt Armageddon. At this juncture Evan Plews immediately went to the front and started pulling away while turning a huge single speed gear out of the saddle. Mimmo Futia went by me and then pulled over for a pee break (not sure why he didn’t take advantage of the train delay 15 minutes earlier for this like about 3 dozen of us) and then went by me again shortly thereafter on his way to taking the KOM. This climb seemed more onerous than in previous years for some reason. I recalled 1 to 3 really steep rough pitches but this year there were like 7 or 8 of them! It would be folly to think that Jake somehow sneaks up there in winter with a bulldozer to add several more vertical pitches but I don’t really have another explanation for it. In fact I started to lose my normally unflappable demeanor after about the 11th tough steep section and was just about to dismount and walk when I heard Jake approaching on his motorcycle from behind. I didn’t want him to see that he’d gotten my goat and forced me to walk less than 30 miles into his fun little GF so I dug deep and soldiered on but it was a near thing.
And as is typical in these Vicious Cycle Gran Fondos there would be multiple false summits before the real deal was reached. But I was wise to these from previous years and didn’t take the bait of sighing in relief too soon. At the high elevation aid station I was a little behind David Hendry but he managed to pull in and fill a bottle or two and then pull out before I was able to catch up even though I could see him the whole time! I seemed to be riding through deep sand or something.
I took the descent sort of gingerly because the rocks are sharp in this section causing me a very time-consuming flat last year. And I particularly wanted to avoid that this year because I had, err, no pump with me. I had very boneheadedly left it on my mountain bike from the previous day’s race. A small detail I noticed when unloading my ‘cross bike in the pits that morning. Sure, if I raced for a big budget outfit like Audi or Taco Time I’d probably have a designated team issue pump for each bike but I ride for Ridge Cyclesport where we eschew materialism for esprit de corps. Still a pump would have been nice. And just like the previous day in Echo there was a big ominous looking dark cloud hovering above us and it was decidedly cold with even small pockets of snow still on the side of the road. Those are some of the worst conditions for changing flats in my opinion.
But all was well and I got down no problem. In fact I didn’t suffer any mechanical issues all day long besides the obligatory ejection of my water bottle an hour later shortly after passing Thomas Baron and David Hendry on the descent into the main aid station. I stopped there to fuel up and empty the ole bladder once again. That was the most urgent thing so I attended to that first but immediately got to thinking how inefficient it was. A thoroughly analytical guy like David Hendry would never waste precious minutes by just peeing. He would be eating or lubing his chain at the same time. But I had already started when this occurred to me and could not, in good conscience, ask for Jake or Maddie to pass me a handful of potato chips.
At least 4 riders went past while I was lollygagging here including both Thomas and David and another few arrived whilst I was occupied with meticulously sticking 6 fresh Shot Blocks to my top tube and just generally behaving as if the clock had been paused. But it was a good pit stop and I felt strong as I pulled away and pretty quickly re-passed 2 guys on the rough, washboarded climb that followed. From this point on I would be alone and never encounter another rider all the way to the finish. Oddly it’s been like that every year for me at this event, I’ve always ridden the long road back from Cle Elum to Ellensburg alone. And I was sure I was catching someone on the final dirt / gravel road descent because the dust in the air kept getting thicker and thicker. I assumed it was either David or Thomas but when I eventually caught up I discovered to my dismay that it was just some random guy on a motorcycle, boo! I dropped him and then had a big white Suburban fly up the road past me at about 55 mph spraying gravel and kicking up more dust. Then 2 more motorcycles, a car, and finally 2 cyclists….but not GF competitors; just a dad and his son out for a ride, and the kid damn near ran me off the road by edging further and further left oblivious to the fact that there was someone fast coming up on him from behind.
It’s always a bit of a relief to reach the pavement because that generally means the likelihood of a flat is significantly diminished. And it is a pretty ride on a nice surface but, like the ride out, it contains some semi-significant inclines. Usually there is a good tailwind but on this occasion it was notably absent. Probably figured it had worked hard enough in the morning blowing against us that it could afford to take the afternoon off. I felt good, not great, for the ride to the finish and resisted the urge to peek behind me until reaching the first concrete bridge on the John Wayne Trail about 2 miles from the finish. I thought I saw a speck in the distance but couldn’t be certain and unless it was Fabian Cancellara he wasn’t going to catch me anyway. I had been straining my eyes forward however and mistaking every mailbox and roadside shrub for a tiring Thomas Baron or an exhausted David Hendry but to no avail. Alas, on this day they were the hammer and I was the nail.