By Brig Seidl
The uber-prestigious Vicious Cycling Gran Fondo series hit its midway point of the season with the popular Leavenworth round on May 21st which was, coincidentally, the first genuinely hot day in what seems like an eternity. In fact I tried Googling “last blue sky day above 75 degrees + Washington” to find out when exactly we’d last seen the sun and felt its warming rays but got a “Search Failed! Out of Memory Error”.
Perhaps on account of the glorious weather a near sellout field of 200ish riders showed up at Peshastin Elementary School Sunday morning to try their luck at this perennial late spring classic. Jake has been obliged to tweak this course over the last few years on account of floods and blizzards and this year he opted to eliminate the entire middle section up Mud Creek Rd, which had been my favorite part – on years when I didn’t miss the turn. But it led to my least favorite part; the long, long ride down Highway 97 from Navarre Coulee to Swakane Canyon usually into a force 8 gale. So less gravel and less climbing this year but the elimination of an interminably long ride down a busy highway resulted in a better overall experience was the general consensus.
Having done at least a dozen of these VC Gran Fondos I have my morning routine down pretty pat by now. It mainly involves stopping at a gas station en route for some potato chips and Hersey bars because I always seem to overlook the consideration about ingesting some calories before riding 80 miles. And they don’t exactly serve organic Couscous or high quality Açai protein shakes at Shell stations at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings. Thankfully Vicious Cycle includes a Clif Bar and Shot Bloks in the race packet.
I elected to start with just a short sleeve summer kit without even packing a jacket or arm warmers despite Jake’s mention of snow atop the first climb. Generally you disregard his warnings at consider peril but it was just so glorious that the need for a jacket seemed inconceivable. With the new start area in Peshastin there are now 4 miles of undulating road to get to where we used to start in Leavenworth and then another couple up the Chumstick highway before reaching Eagle Creek Rd where the first big climb starts and the group armistice ends. Nevertheless things stayed together for a long time and the peloton didn’t really start to splinter until we reached the end of the pavement. Then some bastard, Evan Plews, started forcing the issue off the front and suddenly separations and sub-groups were the order of the day.
I lost track of where I was exactly but it seemed like a pretty big chunk of riders, 20 or more, had given me the slip up that first climb. I went back ‘n forth with Dave Visser and Doug Krumplemen a couple times but only because they kept stopping to address mechanical issues. And sure enough upon cresting there were some sizeable pockets of snow including one that did indeed necessitate a hike a bike and a couple others that were borderline dismount material. Good stuff! Once the descent started in earnest I expected to reclaim a few spots but it wasn’t happening very quickly, if at all. And then some Mighty Cycling guy startled the crap out of me by blowing by at twice my speed. Made me realize I was napping and being overly cautious so I upped the ante and immediately lost my last original FTR branded water bottle. Doggone it!
Things were going moderately well and I was picking up spots until we reached the high speed, gentler sloping sections near the bottom when my remaining water bottle fell through the bottom of its cage and got wedged sideways across the seat tube / down tube junction like some sort of fat foot pegs from hell. I couldn’t afford to lose this bottle too but it was dicey as all get out to reach down and yank it free at 30+ mph on sketchy gravel and every time I tried the #$&*@# thing wouldn’t come out from the lower part of the cage. While this was happening the last guy I had passed promptly passed me back before I finally managed to free and retain the bottle.
Aid station #1 is at the bottom of this hill just where the pavement starts and as I went past Dave Visser was just pulling out and joined me. We picked up another guy (old David Hendry type bike and green jersey) on the fast section down to Entiat River Rd and then proceeded to keep the speed high all the way down to Entiat proper by sharing the work. Felt like we were going hard and we could see that we were catching a group of about 9 guys in front of us so was surprised when 2 other guys caught us from behind! All 3 groups came together for the last couple miles to the main aid station in Entiat where we picked up a few more riders that were already there and we all left at more or less the same time so that it all came together in a big group of about 16 a few miles down Highway 97.
Turns out this was the lead group with the exception of Evan who was up the road alone (on a single speed!) after not stopping at the aid station. It was a slightly disorganized, chaotic group and the only person I could readily identify (besides my team mate Dave Visser) was Chris Wood as he was on a mountain bike. There were a few sections of rocks on the road from the overhanging cliffs and our green jersey’ed, down tube shifter friend had the misfortune to hit one and flat. A mile or so later we swallowed up Evan bringing the entire lead group together. While sitting second wheel on the only real climb of Highway 97 I cracked under the hard pace of the young buck forcing things up front and pulled out of the pace line. Dashed bad showing with team boss Evan sitting directly behind me. Probably no chance of getting the Ridge Cyclesport “Rider of the Month” award or a Christmas bonus now.
Not surprisingly the reduced group exploded into pieces as soon as we turned up Swakane Canyon Rd. I was out the back in a flash and there was a general re-shuffling of things. The harsh winter had apparently washed away what little soil previously existed on this road making it just a continuous slog of blunt edged rocks and loose gravel. And it was furnace hot on the lower sections before the tree cover too. Remember how at GF Goldendale it was so dashed pleasant that we darn near broke out into song while pedaling along? This wasn’t like that. Nobody was singing Kumbaya in the demonic Swakane Canyon that is for damn sure. It was crazy to think that just 2 hours previous you were carrying your bike over a snowdrift!
The higher we climbed the more shade cover there was and the air cooled but I had burned too many matches down at the base and was obliged to take some breaks, walk sections, and just generally admit defeat. Eventually people who weren’t part of the select group of 16 began passing me as I was unravelling. At the rider’s meeting Jake had mentioned that there would be an unmanned water stop or aid station up Swakane so I was surprised and relieved to reach that oasis and find Dale Wentworth there serving up cold water and salvation. “Unmanned” hee, hee. Just Jake ribbing you Dale for not winning that episode of “The Bachelor” you were on and bringing national fame to Vicious Cycle.
While luxuriating in Dale’s shady compound 2 other guys arrived prompting me out of my torpor and back in the saddle. Without doubt the section from Dale’s aid station to the actual point of descent is the most exasperating of the whole course. You keep thinking you are at the top but you never are and each sharp short climb is more onerous than the previous. And even when you do finally reach the top it’s not really the damn top and you just descend a bit before climbing some more. It’s tough to keep it mentally together through this section. The last person to pass me up here was Conrad Kornmann. But Conrad himself was wobbling and weaving and walking and looking a lot like a man who’d recently insulted Mike Tyson’s wife so I’d eventually get him back on the downhill. And that downhill, when it eventually came, was undeniably awesome. The heavy rains had rutted the road but those could be bunny-hopped easily enough if you didn’t care about your water bottles and the moisture in the soil made it grippy as heck so you could rail the corners. And some of them were just gnarly enough with mud and multiple ruts that some motocross skills were required. Easily the highlight of the day for me.
It came to a bad end once we reached the asphalt because that is where an annoying headwind started. It was steep descending on smooth asphalt but you couldn’t seem to get moving on account of the wind. Or at least I couldn’t. Dave Opko had no such problems and just blew by me and disappeared immediately. I was hoping there wasn’t a whole train of Dave Opkos behind me because I was dangerously low on gas and not in a position to resist much. Those last 4 miles from Leavenworth to Peshastin you could have knocked me over with a feather. Karen, Maddie, and Ruth were a sight for sore eyes when I finally, feebly, crossed the line. I’m still at loss to explain how the elimination of the whole Mud Creek section and 2nd climb, Navarre Coulee, and long stretch on 97 resulted in a ride as tough as it has ever been. On paper it seemed like it should have been significantly shorter and easier. But Roger Burton told me his GPS indicated almost 87 miles and my own seat-of-the-pants feel indicated approximately 210 miles.
Thanks again to Jake, Karen, and the whole Maedke family and crew and volunteers for another stellar event. Every additional Vicious Cycle Gran Fondo finisher’s patch is another small step towards cycling immortality. You guys rock.
A final thought and invitation for comments. All of us have an enormous amount of combined cycling experience and product evaluation through real world testing. In the course of your cycling career what is the single worst product or component you have had the misfortune to encounter and waste your scarce funds on and would advise your friends to avoid?
Carbon fiber water bottle cages. Absolute rubbish! Complete junk! The mere act of opening the packaging will cause them to break. If, by some act of God, you manage to get one installed it will break the first time you insert a water bottle. And in the few moments after they’re installed and before they break they won’t even hold your damn bottle secure! Doesn’t matter the brand, every single one I’ve tried has been certifiable trash.