-By Brig Seidl
I don’t know why I used to think of Ellensburg as the “easy” Vicious Cycle Gran Fondo. Maybe because the extensive asphalt segments or because it lacks a knockout punch straight out of the gate like the others I just never seemed to take Ellensburg seriously for some reason. You know, just show up, kick some Egencia ass and then move on to the next real race. Somewhere along the way that script has gotten so completely upended to the point that I now consider Ellensburg’s Mt Armageddon as the single hardest climb in the entire VC quiver. It is not as long or rough or hot as Swakane and it comes early when you are still fresh unlike Goldendale or Winthrop but Mt Armageddon is almost impossibly steep. And I don’t have the ability to quickly transition from rouleur legs to grimpeur legs like some spidery climbers – Mike Rolcick comes to mind – who can leap out of the saddle and spin for minutes on end. When confronted with a steep incline after an extended period on the flats my diesel engine takes time to adjust which usually results in me sliding backwards before finding a rhythm and clawing some positions back. It’s not fatal – I’ve read that Tom Dumoulin has similar characteristics – and you know how often the cycling press mentions me in the same sentence as Tom Dumoulin.
But before you can even be spit out the back on the climb you have to first arrive at the base of the behemoth and that involves a 25 mile jaunt into the famous Ellensburg headwind, conservatively estimated at 25 mph this year. It wasn’t my plan to lead during this section (Spoiler alert: I didn’t have a plan at all.) but what with the ebbs and flows of the group I found myself at the front as often as anybody and probably burned needless matches in the process. But not to worry, burning calories is why I ride bikes in the first place so it was all good. I’m not one to hide from the wind or play tactics.
But I didn’t want to get caught out when crossing Highway 97 if the peloton split as that could get ugly. (When driving home later that day the traffic backed up from that same intersection for 2 miles and I inched forwards for probably 45 minutes before getting across from Highway 10 to 97.) Just to be prudent I made sure I was near the front to be vigilant of any mischief that Audi might get up to. But just like last year decorum prevailed and we all crossed in one big group.
Decorum disappeared shortly thereafter when 3 scofflaws decided to go through a red light to cross the main drag in Cle Elum. Angry shouts from the law-abiding peloton so severely chastised them that they immediately sat up and stopped obediently at the next intersection. And may have even promised to come back after the race to pick up litter in Cle Elum such was the degree of their contriteness.
As far as I could tell about 98% of the entire peloton was still together in Cle Elum but there is no hiding when the road ramps upwards which is what it does in South Cle Elum. Things strung out as the slope of the asphalt stiffened and hordes of people started sweeping by me in a way that would dishearten a lesser man. Frank Colich, whose size betrays a surprisingly superb climbing prowess among them. Then a whole bevy of Egencia and Keller Rohrback kits eased on past. And finally a tiny woman who looked to be about 80 pounds motored on by just before the asphalt ends but she, along with several others, had to unclip and dismount to negotiate the first steep rocky section of dirt.
If that little mishap – all those bungling mountain goats bumping into each other and falling over on the first couple of rocks – restored any confidence in my ability to mix it up with them it was short-lived as they all managed to untangle themselves and cruise right back by before long. I don’t know what’s worse: feeling whipped at the end of a race and barfing up positions or feeling fine at the beginning of a race and barfing up positions. And I should know because both happened to me on this day. It’s time to admit to my fan club that I just can’t climb that well. But I soldiered on and in time pulled back some positions while concurrently yielding some more up. I would guess things stabilized for me at about 30th. I have never had to walk on this climb. It’s been close but I’ve always managed to gut it out. Later I did have to walk on the perfectly flat run-in to the finish on the John Wayne Trail because my legs were cramping so badly. Also on the smooth, easy hill up to Elk Heights for the same reason but despite suffering torments I managed to make it to the aid station atop the first killer hill without so much as unclipping.
I didn’t stop but I did notice that 80 pound Jasmine Soh was waiting there and I speculate that she’d been there for a good while. And while the aid station isn’t the summit it does signal the end of the murderously steep sections allowing you to catch your breath. In fact the road goes on for a long ways after the aid station “summit” before the genuine descent begins. The descent is fast on a sharp rocky surface that obliges you to keep on your toes because traction is minimal. It wouldn’t take much to find the limits here and exceeding them would definitely be of consequence. And so it was that I encountered Joel West walking his bike down this high-speed descent inside the second gate – right where Jake implored us not to crash because it was inaccessible. “You OK?” I queried, noticing his jersey covered in abrasions and dirt.
“Broken collarbone!” he replied without a trace of bitterness or melancholy. I let him know that I’d report him at the next aid station but he assured me that someone named Chris was already on it. Armed with this knowledge I took the descent above the aid station rather cautiously being cognizant of the likelihood that a 4-wheel drive vehicle was chugging up to collect Joel because I don’t think Jake calls out the Vicious Cycle club helicopter unless it’s a VC member or a Ridge guy down.
Even though I’d now moved up a couple spots from attrition I felt I belonged still further up the pecking order so went on the hunt intent on picking up some places on the descent after the gate. First a whiff of dust in the air signals the proximity of some poor weakening prey and then a first fleeting glimpse of my next meal. Finally I get close enough for positive identification. It’s that rascal Colich! Time to repay his insolence for embarrassing me on the climb. I blow by with a shout and a hoot secure in the knowledge that he won’t be seeing me again until the line at the Taco Truck post-race.
This section from the second gate until the main aid station is interminably long yet utterly inauspicious. It isn’t defined by any huge climbs yet you will be grinding up many, many punchy climbs. Likewise even though you are generally losing elevation there are no lasting descents for any appreciable amount of time. It’s just a non-descript segment that drains your energy and sucks a bit of your soul. And it goes on forever. But I continued to make passes which buoyed my spirits until suddenly, on one of the climbs, that fiend Colich shot past me again after apparently resurrecting himself. He and another guy would dangle off the front and distance me on the climbs and I’d pull them right back on the descents but the climbs weren’t quite long enough for them to drop me for good and similarly the descents were just short enough that I couldn’t quite pass them. Finally, when I’d pretty much given up hope that we’d ever emerge from that damn forest, Frank very decently dropped his toolkit or something and stopped to retrieve it on the last section of downhill just before the main aid station allowing me to ease on by. All 3 of us came together at the aid station moments later.
A few minutes later after fueling up and re-filling bottles I was under way again a little before Frank but it could have been a lot before Frank and I don’t think it would have mattered as he motored right on by me on the first incline of the major climb that directly follows the aid station. He flattered me by putting on an extra show of speed as if he were afraid I might otherwise latch onto his wheel. Heh, heh, nice one Frank. The only thing I was latching onto was a feeling of malaise as my head sagged and I slowly trudged up that hill in the midday sun. The miles were beginning to exact a toll. But I didn’t encounter anyone else until the very summit where some unfortunate soul was attending to a flat tire. I breathed a double sigh of relief for now having conquered most of the significant climbing and for having avoided flatting. The ensuing downhill is arguably the best part of the course and I faintly entertained the thought of pulling back a few positions but I got stuck behind a huge jeep for an eternity which put the kibosh on any progress.
I always feel especially relieved upon rejoining the pavement at the bottom of this hill as the gravel middle section of GF Ellensburg is very punishing. This signals the end of the hard part. Unless you make things unnecessarily hard for yourself like Zak Jones did by missing the critical turn off onto Mohar Rd right after the last aid station and descending all the way back into South Cle Elum before realizing his error and having to backtrack. Ohh burn! And not only was it perfectly marked but Jake explicitly mentioned it at the riders meeting. But I get it, the abstractness of pre-race instructions is kind of lost when you have no frame of reference. “After 4.5 hours of hard, brain-scrambling riding be sure to turn right onto Mohar Rd as you’re going down that huge hill at 40 mph.” Heck I’ve done this race 4 times and I didn’t know where the hell Jake was referring to either with that Mohar Rd comment. But Zak surely knows now.
If you had made the correct turn you’d immediately encounter a really steep climb for a few hundred yards on this Mohar of a road and this is where I came upon Thomas Baron. He either sensed my presence or looked back because he started pouring on the coals and distancing me on the high-speed, tailwind assisted sections that followed. After a few miles he was as good as gone but then, voila! What’s this? Here is someone in an Egencia kit riding back towards me on the other side of the road. Is it? Yes, it is, Thomas Baron! What the hell are you doing dude? I figured he must have dropped his Garmin or something. But he later said something that I didn’t quite follow about his GPS telling him to turn onto the canal trail. Hmm.
Later, after Thomas had re-passed me, I spied another rider on the horizon around the Indian John Hill area. I figured he must be in a pretty dismal state if I was catching him because my legs were pinging and spasming and on the absolute verge of exploding into full-blown cramps. So I was mainly soft pedaling and taking advantage of the gloriously robust tailwind to prevent the onset of catastrophic cramping. As we started the climb up to Elk Heights I could see my modest pace was going to take me past him well before the top but then, what is this now? Another rider off to the side attending to a flat tire. And strike me dead if it isn’t Frank Colich again! But before I can reach him my inner thighs both seize up with vicious cramps and I’m forced to dismount and walk up to him. Dangnabbit! Embarrassing. He appears to have just fixed the flat and I expect him to be underway again immediately. But I can’t even remount my bike and am forced to walk partway up the hill before my cramps settle down sufficiently to permit pedaling.
Meanwhile the other rider had gained a bit of breathing room but the hill had a second part and I end up catching him right at the crest all the while expecting Frank to come storming past. The new guy, Kris Jensen, is also having cramping issues but nevertheless manages to regroup and ride away from me once more. He stretches it out to more than half a mile on the way in to Thorp before the gap starts coming down again. I attribute this more to his deteriorating state than to any hard push on my part because my legs are on the utter cusp of seizing up for good. I could see he was squishy weak as well so on the final stretch of asphalt I quickly reel him in and dart past as we turn onto the John Wayne Trail. While this may sound like an epic battle let me assure you it was far from the kind of duel you’d expect from someone with Dumoulin-like characteristics. In fact we were more like two old ladies slapping each other with their purses over the last Beanie Baby at Target. And Kris got it. In the instant that I made the pass my inner thighs seized up completely and I had to dismount again. Kris rode merrily past, voicing concern but laughing inside, and was literally out of sight down the straight, flat trail before I could coax my legs to bend again.
So another meek ending to a Gran Fondo for me. Not so for Ian Tubbs who truly doth bestride the narrow world of gravel grinders like a colossus. Audi blankets the field with a powerhouse squad that has won every VC GF so far this year. And despite being alongside him as late as the base of Mt Armageddon I was quickly reeling under a barrage of body blows from Ian, Mark, Bill, and a rabble more of burly confederates. As much as I’d like to win one of these things someday I felt more like the class fat kid who has been given a sound beating in the vacant lot behind the elementary school by the notorious Audi Gang before whimpering home in tears to fetch my big brothers Evan and Mimmo to give those thugs the what for.