After a 3 month hiatus the Vicious Cycle Gran Fondo series resumed on Sept 26th for the respect-demanding Winthrop finale in the beautiful North Cascades. I was wondering if some of the legitimate series contenders had lost focus in those 12 weeks and perhaps had even gotten a little soft and blowsy in anticipation of the impending Holiday Season so a pretender might be able to sneak himself into the mix. And because my training regimen is 95% comprised of a daily 35 mile commute my conditioning doesn’t really have any peaks or tapers over the course of the entire year. Maybe, just maybe some of us minnows could ambush the big guns on an off day.
The Vicious Cycle crew picked an absolute bluebird day to set loose the 130 entrants on our way from the Red Barn at 8:00 a.m. The only slight miscalculation being that it was the exact same day as the off-road duathlon put on by the good folk at the North Cascades Mountain Hostel. Hopefully someone will blink in this date stare-down contest and next year they will be uncoupled so those who wish can do them both. Jake! Paul! Don’t make us choose!
I’d done this event the previous 2 years since its inception so pretty much knew what to expect but then noticed on the website mention of a “slight change owing to the wildfires”. I looked at the course map and noted that the slight change was in fact an entirely new second half after Conconully. Knowing Jake a small worry bead of perspiration appeared on my forehead. I wiped it off and assured myself that all would yet be well, Jake is a good man at heart and wouldn’t hurt us intentionally. But then, at riders meeting, he stressed that the “second climb goes on and on and on.” Uh oh. This was not a cat 3 newbie Chicken Little type saying these alarmist things but Jake Maedke. After the rider’s meeting a nameless dread began to creep into my consciousness in regard to what awaited us after Conconully.
You can’t ingest sufficient calories during these endurance events so I thought it would be a good idea to make sure I didn’t skip dinner on Friday night so I duly stopped in Wenatchee en route and scarfed a Red Robin burger and 2 baskets of fries. But then a curious thought seized me: What if there is no food in Winthrop? I couldn’t recall if they had restaurants or grocery stores in that one horse town so thought it best to pick up a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken to eat for breakfast just in case. Have you ever tried to drive for 2 hours in a small cab with 3 thighs of original recipe KFC sitting right beside you? Not possible. They didn’t make it to Orondo. Then, arriving at the NC Mountain Hostel shortly after dark, I find Paul had put together a big spaghetti and garlic bread carbo-loading dinner for everyone so naturally I consumed a 3rd full dinner in 3 hours. OK, I’ve got plenty of calories onboard now. Bring it Maedke, I can handle it!
As always there is a bit of nervous energy in the early miles following the neutral roll out and a sense of foreboding of what lies ahead. These are undeniably tough events and as you ride in the huge group up the early asphalted inclines you can’t help but wonder which of the anonymous Lycra clad warriors alongside you will still be around when the mountains really start to bite. And will you be around? Well that was quickly answered because some yahoo went off the front very early obliging the peloton to more or less respond at a pace that seemed kind of aggressive to me at this prenatal stage. When I finally got near enough to the front to see who it was pulling us along so briskly before I’d fully digested all that KFC rumbling around my gut I saw that is was my own friggin team mate, Evan Plews, just a few months removed from a badly broken leg! He was riding an identical Norco Threshold to what I was on except mine had gears and firmly tightened chain ring bolts. I bridged up to him just to put the fear of God in Brian Ecker to see two Ridge Cyclesport kits amassing 70 yards off the front in a potential winning move. Of course within seconds I was swallowed up and would never see the lead breakaway group again.
The inevitable separations began as the pitch steepened and the surface transitioned from smooth asphalt to chalky silt and gravel. I simply rode the pace I was capable of and watched a big chunk of riders just inexorably draw away. It didn’t feel entirely necessary but I stopped at the first aid station anyway as much out of respect to the volunteers manning it as to top up a water bottle. The blighter behind me was not so respectful and took the opportunity to motor on past. I picked him off again on the rough road that followed and got by just a few more riders before reaching the hellishly steep summit pitch about a half hour later. I always forget how steep that is. Don’t be fooled by the picture on the website, it is much steeper than that!
The descent from the summit of the first major climb doesn’t happen all at once. You go down some sort of rough washboard surface and then some rolling stuff and then you climb again, not major but definitely climbing. This pattern goes on for about 3 more minor peaks before the true descent begins. It was in this high area among peaks that I came upon a sad sight indeed. My team leader, the aforementioned Evan Plews, was walking along on his bum leg pushing his bike. Turns out all of his chain ring bolts had loosened up and fallen out so he was just marking time strolling along while awaiting the sag wagon. The sag wagon being the back of Jake’s motorcycle while carrying his bike on his shoulder. I wish somebody had gotten a picture of that!
I had passed some poor Raleigh guy on one of the rough downhills while he was off to the side fixing a flat. All day long I took the downhills very gingerly indeed because I was running tubed clinchers and didn’t want to flat. Plus hitting those washboards at anything resembling speed made my bike shriek and ping like it was about to break in half. Light carbon frames and no suspension aren’t conducive to banzai downhill confidence so I kept the speed way down. Additionally I had crashed my mountain bike out at Skookum Flats a few weeks previous and had fallen with my outstretched hand onto a rock bruising my palm and it was hurting like hell on these pounding, vibrating descents. None of these problems seemed to affect Raleigh guy because he came flying back past me on an uphill section and checked out with dismaying rapidity. He was well and truly gone in a matter of minutes.
Eventually the real downhill began and I just took it slowly and methodically trying to pick the least impactful line to avoid a flat. But all that shaking and pounding loosened up the ole bladder and I badly wanted to stop and pee but I also didn’t want to stop because I knew at the bottom of the hill was the aid station at Conconully where I would be stopping anyway. Eventually it became too much and I had to stop and do my bit to tamp down the forest fire danger in the area. Right at the very bottom of the gravel section of the hill where you cross a cattle guard 2 other riders caught up with me and we ended up riding down into Conconully together. I have to say this section was pretty scary with super high speeds on a narrow sketchy asphalt road that suddenly had big holes or chunks missing or just big depressions in the surface and all the while you had to be cognizant of possible oncoming vehicle traffic. This was the hairiest section of the entire course for me.
I pitted for quite a long time in Conconully including an official trip to the bathroom so when I got going again my new riding partners were gone up the road and a fresh couple of Keller Rorhbach guys accompanied me oh so briefly before they too eased ahead to leave me alone with my thoughts. Within about 15 minutes all 4 of them were out of sight. We had begun the dreaded “second climb” and initially it was quite pleasant – a smooth asphalt ribbon slicing upwards through a pretty forest. But you knew this couldn’t last and soon enough we crossed another cattle guard and it turned to dirt. I don’t ride with any instrumentation or even a watch so had no way of judging how far it was to the summit but I kept Jake’s words “it goes on and on and on” in my head to try to quash the expectation that every corner was the last one before the summit. But the summit never came. That freaking climb did in fact go on and on and on. And then on a whole lot more. And eventually when I was certain by the topography of the huge rock outcroppings that the next corner truly was the final one, it wasn’t. I couldn’t understand why nobody was passing me. I hadn’t seen a single soul since the 4 guys had distanced me well over an hour previous and I had ridden all but the first mile of the hill alone. But I was barely moving, where was everybody? The fact that I hadn’t been swamped by over half the field told me that I wasn’t the only one suffering. At some point, possibly the next day, I really did reach the final steep ¼ mile pitch that lead to the summit. I elected to walk it as nobody else appeared to be in the race anymore and was dawdling up looking at the view when, about 100 feet from the actual top, I happened to look back and was thunderstruck to see 2 hellish apparitions on bicycles closing in on me! Whoa, rest period over! I leapt back aboard the mighty Norco and hit the gas.
It is largely downhill for something like 20 miles from the peak of that second interminable climb and I let it hang out a little more than I had previously just to keep the hellcats stalking me at bay. Honestly if I’d had more faith in not flatting I could have gone quite a bit faster still but I really, really didn’t want to stop and fix a flat at this point (I never do actually). The new course repeated the first 20 miles so we passed by the first aid station again and I hooted respectfully to the volunteers but didn’t stop this time. The descent, which soon became asphalt, was very reminiscent of the final downhill run in to the finish of the Leavenworth Gran Fondo. This one finished with some flat and uphill sections plus a very healthy headwind just to make sure my tenuous position was in doubt until the very end. I ended up holding on and discovered that one of my pursuers was none other than Pat Weiler who did the very same thing to me in the last 8 miles of the Ellensburg GF. That banshee has got it out for me.
There were just 76 finishers out of 130 or so starters which makes for a rather robust DNF rate of exactly, um… err… something Kristi Wilson could tell you!
Besides nutrition one of the tricky aspects of these events is knowing what to wear. I vacillated a lot in this area before finally opting for just my normal short sleeved kit into which I stashed arm warmers for insurance. I also put a Gore rain shell and heavier gloves in the drop bag for the Conconully aid station – which I then totally forgot about so I was thankful it didn’t rain. It was chilly at the summits, especially the second one, but not quite bad enough to warrant putting on the arm warmers. And it never really got too hot so it would have been fine to have started with arm warmers and kept them on the whole time like somebody I talked to did. I drank only straight water during the event and ate only at the Conconully aid station – not counting the half a dozen Shot Blocks I stuck to my top tube.
Another stellar Vicious Cycle event, thank you Jake, Karen, Brooklynn and crew, you guys rock.