It was once again time to line up with thousands of others ready to ride in Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo. I did many things differently this year, and my body was in a different state this year as well. Last year, I came up to Santa Rosa the night before, got my packet, checked into a hotel with a friend and rolled to the start in the morning. I remember making a mental note of how much free parking there was when we lined up, and this was part of the reason I decided to drive up the day of the event this year. In hindsight, this was an excellent idea – no line to get my packet, parking close to start and I got to sleep in my own bed, not to mention avoid an expense of a crummy Motel 6 (in reference to this establishment, “crummy” is a term of endearment).
Additionally, last year the Gran Fondo was two weeks after I had finished Everest Challenge, this year I got about five and a half days of recovery time, and two days before the event, my legs were still feeling achy on the bike.
As I was driving up, I still hadn’t decided whether I was going to ride the Gran Fondo, meaning I’d try to move as quickly as possible, or if I was going to eat my way through the ride, meaning … well, I don’t think I have to explain that. Frankly, as I staged, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do to my legs that day, but that all sort of fell into place once the ride began.
I got to the start much earlier than last year and staged about 7-10 rows back from the yellow tape that was keeping us mortals from the VIPs, about 50 of whom had the privileged of cutting in line and lining up in front of us (apparently regardless of the speed with which they intended to move). Shortly after 8 am, we got the signal that it was starting time, and 7.5 thousand people began to squeeze through a gate, and thousands of little timing chips began chirping as we made our way through.
Immediately, people started to dart to the front from all sides, everyone wanted a position in the front and I just tried to move forward while avoiding crashing and riders who I saw were not used to group riding. After the first few crazy miles, it got sort of settled, but now we were moving on narrower roads in a compact pack, so attention was of the utmost importance. The group was accelerating and slowing down as is common in a big field moving through narrow roads, and each time I tried to leave a few feet of space between myself and the rider ahead to avoid having to brake hard, some bozo would fill in the space – if I was lucky, he would turn his head to look if anything was there. Soon enough it happened, people in front of me went down, some ended up on the road, some in the ditch and I was just lucky enough to have it happen ahead of me enough that I was able to brake and go around safely.
Once the routes (gran, medio and piccolo) began to split, the huge pack broke up and I ended up on the back of a fast group that I think was either the second or third group behind the lead pack with Levi and Co. We were rolling at a pretty good clip, definitely between 26-30mph and I didn’t really have any issues hanging on, nor did my legs feel any significant pressure. They actually felt pretty good, a pleasant surprise. It was somewhere in that fast, flat corridor that I decided I’d “race” the fondo, which to me meant I’d give it the best shot my legs would allow on minimal stopping time, which is now becoming my MO.
By the time the climbing started, the group was whittled down to even fewer riders, as we began to tackle the undulating, but steep, climb up to King Ridge. Having just finished Everest Challenge, my perception of this series of climbs was as follows: I don’t care how steep it is, or how long it is – all I know is it won’t last for two hours and so I don’t really care.
With that thought, I clipped up King Ridge and before I knew it, I was at mile 46 and rest stop number two. I looked down and saw that I still had a bottle and a quarter of liquids and the lunch stop was only 10 miles down the road. I squeezed some Hammer Gel into my mouth, stuffed it down with half a Cliff bar and continued right past the rest stop.
In hindsight, this was a great call because most people stopped, so I had an absolutely clear descent in front of me with no one to get in the way. This was good because the descent was fast, twisty, somewhat damp and a bit foggy.
After dropping about 600 feet, it was time to start climbing over the second part of King Ridge and toward the lunch stop. The next 10 miles went fairly quickly, as the temperatures were low, the skies overcast and I was motivated to move fast if for no other reason than to keep warm. When I reached the lunch stop, fog had become extremely thick. I spent a total of 3 minutes at the rest stop - grabed a bottle of water, filled another with Gatorade and took a bio-break. All the eating would be on the road.
From the lunch stop, it was mostly all downhill toward the coast, but it wasn’t that simple. The fog had become so thick, that I could barely see 10 feet in front of me and coming down very steep grades with twisty turns in foggy conditions is not very pleasant, especially when the damp break pads were barely slowing me down and the Sonoma potholes which I could not see were robbing my wheels of traction.
As I made my way down toward the metal bridge, which I heard claimed many as casualties in the damp weather, a rider was being treated at its start with some bandages to the arm, but appeared to be in otherwise decent condition. This further reminded me that it was important to be cautious. With my race season over, the last thing I needed was a crash in a gran fondo to screw up my ski season, not to mention cyclocross.
As I made my way through the fog, I feared that the coast may be even worse, but I was pleasantly surprised by completely clear weather with even some resemblance of a tailwind, although, I could not really tell if it was more tail or cross. For the first half of the leg along the coast, I was alone and there was a rider in a black kit about 200 yards ahead of me. I was slowly gaining on him, but in no hurry to make the catch. I didn’t want to make a very hard effort to bridge to a rider I didn’t know for no apparent reason. The other reason for my decision to proceed at a steady effort was that I heard a helicopter behind me, which meant Levi and Co. were on my tail (I later learned that some of my friends were in that group, pulling him along), and while I wasn’t going to sit up and wait for him, I certainly wouldn’t have minded if he caught me.
Levi never caught me. A group of seven or eight riders, however, did and I didn’t hesitate one bit to jump on their train. The group self organized quickly as we took 30 second to minute pulls at the front before flicking the next guy along. This went on for a few miles until we reached the next stop and only four of us continued.
And there we were, there was that left turn up Coleman Valley, a steep 1.6-mile climb that came at mile 76 of the ride. I knew this was a hard climb, but I also knew that it’s the last climb and I’ve done it before. I pushed just enough to have the legs to finish with no stopping if I chose to go that route. On the other hand, I was also running out of food and water and there was another 25+ miles to go to the finish, so I did consider stopping at some point down the road (there were two rest stops left).
As I got to the top of Coleman Valley, there was a water stop (one of two) with a bunch of riders filling bottles. I still had some liquids left and the next stop was only six downhill miles away, so I decided not to waste time and just roll downhill. I was planning to stop at the last rest stop, about 15 miles from the finish, but Michael G. and Chris Z. caught me on the flats, a mile or less from the stop and invited me to stop with them. That’s when I knew I wasn’t going to be stopping.
Those guys were taking rest stops and hammering at a good clip. I knew if I stopped with them, they would probably drop me somewhere along the way and finish ahead of me. If I pressed on, I was pretty sure they wouldn’t catch me, not without some sort of hill in the way, and by that point, we were all out of hills. That was a somewhat risky decision because I knew there was a possibility I could bonk, as for the last hour or so, all I was doing is sucking down Gatorade, and that’s not always enough. As I pushed through the last 15 miles, I paid attention to what my body was telling me, so I could at least see the bonk coming if one was.
I was able to team up with a couple guys here and there to get to the bike path that lead to the finish, once on it, a train of about 10-12 riders came by and I jumped on. It didn’t appear as if any rotation was happening on the front, and I was happy to sit in. The bike path has a few turns along the way that have to be negotiated slowly, and it appeared as if people were attacking after the turn because the slingshot effect was significant. I was able to stay on for the first two, but got popped on the last one (we were moving at around 26-27mph). At that point, it was less than a mile toward the finish, so I didn’t really care. I knew Michael and Chris weren’t going to catch me, so I rolled into the finish with a total time of 5:53 and a moving time of 5:49 – a new record for least rest per distance covered! I was also happy to be done under 6 hours and with my season on the road.
Time to rest and think of things to come, and of course blog about them.