Sunday marked the day that it was time to stop pestering my friends for cancer-fighting money, and actually go put my legs to the test on the 100-mile course of the Echelon Gran Fondo. Gran Fondo is Italian for ‘big ride’ which this certainly was, with more than 8300 feet of elevation gain and a 20 mile timed hill climb at mile 45. The Gran Fondo falls into a weird space somewhere between a race and a ride. In order to finish before the course closed, I would need to ride the fastest century of my life. But with a summer of training and Cycle Oregon behind me, I felt up to it.
The Last 4am Wake Up Call
Start time was at 8:30am in Hood River, an hour’s drive from home. I was up and out of the house by 5:37am, only seven minutes later than my goal time. Those of you who know me, know what a miracle this is. As I turned the corner off of my street, I had to pause for a guy walking across the street. As I turned, I noticed that he and another guy were loading bikes onto a truck. I almost rolled down the window and asked if they were headed to Hood River. I mean, where else would you be going at 5am in September with your bike? I wanted to keep this ‘on time’ thing going though so I just continued on and hit the highway.
It’s dark for a long time in the mornings now, and yesterday’s clear skies were a just a happy memory beneath the clouds that darkened the pre-dawn sky. So I was surprised and elated when, about halfway to my destination, I got to witness an amazing fiery pink glow between the clouds in the distance. Sunrise is something I don’t get to enjoy very often and I savored every moment.
After being misdirected and then redirected, I found my way to the start and was dressed and ready to go by 7:30am. Another miracle. The ride update had said that announcements and call-ups would start at that time, but there was not much going on that I could see so I enjoyed some free juice and snacks from the tent. I saw Chris Horner, the celebrity guest rider from the Radio Shack team (and 10 place finisher of the Tour de France this year) so I went over and got my picture with him. Chris seemed as nice as everyone always says he is.
In the sea of gathering riders I spot another Black woman. She’s short and stout–the opposite of most of the racer types milling around the start–and she’s riding a very expensive Cervelo. I love it but I before I get all excited about finding one of ‘my people’ I remind myself that the chance of her being from Portland is about .00003%. Her name is Deanna and she’s from Seattle. I introduce myself and wish her good luck on the 60 mile route.
People started to gather seriously at the start around 8:10. After a last minute decision to wear my leg warmers after all, I made my way into the crowd, saying hi to teammates Judy, Linda and Lynn on the way. Judy wistfully asked if I had brought my big bike and wanted to carry her around the course. Ha. She can ride circles around me any day and should probably have been pulling *me* on the course.
The announcer did call ups to recognize top fund raisers, denoted by jersey colors, and also invited any cancer survivors, denoted by a yellow bib number, to the front. Though I had good intentions of starting my fund raising earlier and shooting higher, I have to admit that the blue jersey for $500 fundraisers fits nicely with my bike and general color scheme. Rider #1, wearing a yellow number, made her way past me. She looked to be about in her early 40’s and slightly on the heavy side. The 100 miles was going to be a big challenge and I wished her good luck.
When the announcer introduced Chris Horner, he was nowhere to be found. “He’s probably enjoying the coffee and will catch up with you guys.” Goodness knows we could use the head start…
Lastly Hunter Zeising, one of the main organizers, said a few words. He asked that the group ‘roll out easy’ for the first 12-15 miles to Rowena Crest and said that videographers would be filming the peleton coming down off the Crest. “I really want to keep the cancer survivors on the front for the first few miles, so if you see someone who needs a hand up the hill, give them a push.”
We were supposed to also have a military fly over, but no planes were in evidence. A local Hood River girl did a great job singing the national anthem, and then we were officially underway.
Away At Last
I knew immediately that I should have done more stretching and warm up before the ride. I was thinking, ‘oh, slow roll out, I can warm up in the first few miles.’ No such luck. We almost immediately started doing some fairly steep climbing, and my hamstrings were NOT HAPPY with developments. Since I had been called up near the front, scores of hardcore racer dudes zipped pass me as we climbed. It seemed that some peoples version of ‘roll out slow’ translates to hammer as hard as possible to get off the front.
The planes showed up about a mile into the ride, and flew over us as we gained elevation and cruised into the Mosier Tunnels.
I caught up to a woman with a yellow number riding one of the drool-worthy wooden Renovo bikes (yes, really they’re made of wood). I asked how long she’d had it and if she loved it. “It’s beyond love,” she said. “It really got me through the last year and a half.” When I mentioned seeing a couple of Renovo’s on Cycle Oregon, she replied, “Yup, one of them was mine. I talked to you in Waitsburg, I’m Jessie’s friend Laurie.”
Serendipity! Laurie has had a more fortunate outcome of her breast cancer and was on the 100 mile ride as well. I wished her luck and rode on.
The climb to Rowena Crest was stunning. The Columbia river stretched off into the distance and the clouds were just thick enough to provide interesting patterns to the sky and keep the temperature perfect for climbing. I kept my rest stop lingering to a minimum at the top of the crest but did stop to get a picture.
Jess and I had ridden the Mosier Tunnels/Rowena Crest to The Dalles part of the route a few years ago on the Gorge Ride. On that occasion, 30-40 mile per hour wind gusts kept us pretty timid on the descent. The wind was kinder this time and, with no one around me (most sensible folks turned back at Rowena crest for the 30 mile route), I bombed down the hill with only the slightest touches on my brakes. At one point, a motorcycle came by headed uphill with a cameraman with a very big video camera on the back so I tried to look cool. Maybe I’ll make the YouTube video.
Down on Hwy 30 I started thinking how nice it would’ve been to have a team to ride with, as there is not much to think about on those long straight stretches besides the wind. The wind was actually not terrible considering that Hood River is the windsurfing capital of the world. But 100 miles is a long way, and I still had pipe dreams of making it to Dufur in time for some of the hype and pageantry of the hill climb time trail mass start. Those dreams died as the reality of my average speed (14-15mph) stared up at me from my bike computer.
A guy wearing #477 passed me by at a good but not blistering clip and without a second thought, I grabbed his wheel, which brought my speed up to the 19-20 range. We cruised along until the split for the 100 and 60 mile routes, when I lost him at the turn.
I was alone again for a while, but saw three women up ahead as I headed through an industrial looking section of The Dalles. I caught them eventually and asked if I could join them for a while. As we chatted and rode, I realized two things. 1) They were riding slower than I could on my own and 2) They either didn’t have any idea how, or didn’t care to ride in any kind of pace line. When a couple of Trader Joes riders and friends cruised by on the bike path, I jumped ship and latched on. But another rest stop halted that train just moments later.
Rest stops were generally stocked with Costco trail mixes, bagels & cream cheese, almonds, Ruffles potato chips, water, electrolyte drink and fruit. For 100 mile ride of this level, I thought the food was a little lacking, save for the Hammer guys who were giving out flasks of Hammer gel at this particular stop, 26 miles in. Luckily, Jess and I have a policy of never depending completely on ‘supported’ rides and I had stuffed my pockets full with my own flask of Hammer products plus various standard bike food consisting of gels or blocks. I took an extra flask of Tropical flavored Hammer gel just in case.
We headed further east toward Dufur via Eight Mile road and 15 Mile road. I had stood shivering on 8 Mile road two years ago while volunteering for the Cherry Blossom Classic road race that our team co-sponsors. It was a lot more fun to ride on it in nice weather. I felt small and sheltered, riding in the crevice between large hills with the occasional country house and barn and maybe three cars passed the entire time I was on the road. I was alone for most of this time but would occasionally see riders further up the road and was able to catch and pass most of them. I thought of them as my carrots, and one guy was even wearing an orange jersey.
My friendly wheel from earlier in the day, #477 passed me again. Given the speed with which he had left me behind earlier, he must have lingered quite a bit at the rest stop. I latched on again and this time we had an amiable chat. He and his girlfriend had driven up from Oakland, CA to do the ride, as a preparation for an even harder century coming up. His instructions were to wait for her at each rest stop.
We turned onto Hwy 197 which was smooth with a nice wide shoulder, but hillier. #477 went on his way. It was near 11:30 and I was still at least 10 miles from Dufur with the road pointing up. The racers would be massing for the start of the time trial. I let go of my earlier goal and focused on enjoying the amazing country I was lucky enough to be riding through and thinking about the cancer victims and survivors I was honoring with this ride.
Two of my carrots from 8 mile caught up to me on the hwy. One of them, a woman named Allie asked as she drew even with me, “Did you have a white jacket? I experienced simultaneous panic and overwhelming relief as I realized that my brand new Sugoi shell from Cycle Oregon must have fallen out of my pocket earlier, and that she was even as I responded, pulling it out to hand it back to me. I thanked her profusely and followed it up by pulling her back up to her friend who had gone on ahead of us. Then I pulled them both the rest of the way to Dufur.
The rest stop was quiet with about 20 people resting in the grass. The snack table held much the same items as the last stop and they had run out of water. I heard a volunteer send someone for more water. In the meantime, they set up a hose. I filled both my bottles and had some peanut butter on a slice of bread, then got very attached to the salty goodness of the Ruffles.
My plan was not to linger to long at any of the rest stops, since that is what always eats up the most time on our normal recreation rides. But 45 miles is a long ‘warm up’ for a 20 mile hill climb and there was a lot of climbing to get to the climb. So I hung out, ate chips, stretched and made two trips to the blue rooms while promising myself I will not do any more activities that require using a porta-potty until at least summer of 2011.
Finally, I had no more excuses and time was marching on. Pulling myself away from the Ruffles was hard. My Trader Joes buddies from earlier had left a while ago. Rider #1 showed up and was looking good.
There was no one close by to ask, so I didn’t get a picture of myself under the time trial start banner. My leave taking was quiet and without fanfare. I noted the time, 12:50pm. In a few blocks I was through the town of Dufur and back into the country side. Fortunately the road didn’t actually turn up for a couple of miles so I was able to get back into a rhythm. I made a right turn onto Dufur Valley Rd.
Soon enough, the climbing began in earnest.
I had a couple of rules for myself for this challenge.
- No stopping. This was a time trial and besides that, I’m stubborn. I would ride in the style of my first Larch Mountain ascent and go until it was done or I fell into a ditch by the side of the road. I had three generations of stubbornness to draw from so I was pretty sure I’d make it.
- No watching the mileage. That’s just depressing. I adopted a tactic that worked well on Cycle Oregon: Set my cycle computer to the time and estimate my arrival based on my average speed.
My rather ambitious goal was to average 10mph over the climb and finish in close to two hours. My early speeds weren’t terribly encouraging but I kept at it. The first few miles were the worst, as my legs resisted accepting the new reality of the next couple of hours.
In order to focus on something besides the pain I thought about my mom, my uncle Jonathan, and Jessie. My mom would have thought I was crazy, but also been really proud and bragging to anyone who would listen. Uncle Jonathan was a massive man with biceps the size of my quads. Whenever I saw him, he would squeeze muscles and ask if I was still lifting weights. Jessie would have appreciated the beauty of the day. I wasn’t too far from the Pacific Crest Trail which she and her husband Andy quit their jobs to hike from end to end. She knew a lot about challenges and big adventures.
I imagined them all pushing me up the hill and it really helped.
I feasted on a steady diet of shot blocks, gels, water and carrots. Only the carrots were metaphorical. Early on I was passed by a racer-type in a Livestrong jersey who blew by at about twice my speed, never to be seen again. I began to think that I wouldn’t see anyone else during the entire climb, but after a while, little dots in the distance resolved into other cyclists that I would eventually catch and pass.
I passed two guys sitting by the side of the road. “Are you guys OK?” I asked as I slowly pedaled by.
“Yes, we’re just waiting for divine inspiration,” one of them joked. Or maybe he wasn’t kidding. Me and my ghosts moved on.
During my two+ hours on the climb I saw exactly two support cars associated with the ride. It was a far cry from the luxurious cradling of Cycle Oregon. I at least had the comfort of knowing their were still riders behind me in case I did end up in that ditch.
The carrots started coming faster. First one or two, then four at a time. At one point I caught myself thinking I might run out of road before I caught someone. That’s when I knew I had officially crossed the sanity barrier. (Some of you may think it was much sooner–like signing up for this torture in the first place :). I passed people walking their bikes and resisted the urge to tell them why they shouldn’t walk their bikes up the hill.
I crossed into the Mt Hood National forest, and the road got blissfully smoother. I swear chip seal takes a mile per hour off my speed. The road eased up and even dipped once or twice but other than that, it was pretty unrelenting. Another team mate reported grades as high as 12% from her Garmin computer. I’m really glad I didn’t know that at the time.
When I felt like resting, I did it by dropping into my granny gear and cruising along at 4mph. These were also good times to grab another gel pack and eat it. On one occasion, one of my carrots passed me back. I caught her again when I was done eating and as I went by, she asked, “Do you know that your right knee collapses in?”
“Oh OK. I could see that it gets worse when you’re tired.”
I wasn’t mad about this. My right knee does collapse and I’m sure riding along at 4mph trying to open a gel without falling over, it was particularly bad. And I understand the urge to help other riders with obvious bad habits. I saw riders with bikes that were painfully too small for them, riders with bow-legged pedal strokes and worse. I generally resist saying anything, since most people don’t appreciate unsolicited advice.
I did make an effort to straighten out my stroke though. Me and my wobbly knee passed Betty back and made it stick.
I was pretty sure I was getting close to the top. I saw a sign that said Dufur was 17 miles behind me and the climb was only 20 miles. It was eerily quiet though, which I thought was strange, since the organizers had promised
…a TDF like hill top finish with some great food…Borat and a whole cast of characters will be there to greet you along with some live music at the summit. Stop, have some gelato before you continue downward on a nostalgic mountain highway for over 35 mile descent through alpine roads to the town of Hood River.
I didn’t hear any festive sounds or see any characters on the road. What I did hear was the slow rumble of a large truck approaching from behind. When it pulled up beside me, I saw a rider in the passengers seat, with his window down. “Free ride to the top?” he asked.
We were less than two miles from the top. I was annoyed. “That’s cruel,” I said. “No way.” The van rumbled on and once past me, I saw about a dozen riders hanging out in the back with their bikes. I wish I had taken a photo, but I was too focused on turning over the pedals. I watched as they pulled up to the next rider. At least one more took the offer, but most didn’t. As I passed them, I congratulated them on resisting temptation.
Less than five minutes later. I spotted an OBRA tent at the side of the road and two tiny orange cones graced either side of the traffic lane. I passed through them without fanfare. I had expected to feel some sense of triumph and I suppose I did, but mostly the whole thing seemed anticlimactic. A few feet down the hill, the SAG truck was parked in the lane, letting riders out at the rest stop.
The food turned out to be much the same as the previous rest stop, but they did have Cup’o’Noodles soups and Chad, the race organizer for the Cherry Blossom Classic, was heating up water for hungry riders. I was irrationally happy to meet up with another bag of Ruffles and spent some quality time with it, but didn’t really eat much else. There were Oreos but I wasn’t in the mood for sweet.
I saw #1 again, who had taken a ride up in the van and was determined to ride the rest of the course.
Down Down (Up) Down
The clouds had gone from shady and pretty to grim and ominous at that elevation and I never did get a view of Mt Hood. I had left my arm and leg warmers at the gear drop in Dufur and just kept my wind shell. Looking at the clouds and the mist that was starting to swirl around, I knew I had a cold descent ahead of me.
I pulled my jacket on and set out. The road was back to chip seal and the rain came down harder as I descended. Wind gusts added to my stress. A car pulled up behind me and waited respectfully to pass, but the road was windy and narrow and there were no safe places so I finally pulled over. I was relieved to see bikes in a rack on top when they went by.
I concluded that this descent was the opposite of fun and I would be glad when it was over. Had the van come up to me at that point, I would have gladly taken a ride to the bottom. Fortunately in 15 minutes or so, I lost enough elevation that the temperature warmed up considerably. I also turned on to Hwy 35 so the road smoothed out again. I started to really fly and enjoy myself. I passed Cooper’s Spur resort and thought to myself, I can’t believe I’m riding my bike on the road we take to go skiing in the winter.
As we I dropped into the outskirts of Hood River, the road went back to chip seal, the worst I had ridden yet. A guy I had been leap-frogging with on the descent and had been on my wheel offered to ‘push the wind’ for a while when I slowed down.
His choice of words were a red flag that I was probably not dealing with a very experienced drafter. I accepted his offer somewhat dubiously. Sure enough, not a minute passed before he stopped pedaling and stood up to coast and stretch his back with zero verbal warning and me three feet off his wheel. Not steady didn’t begin to cover it. But we were making great time over the awful chip seal so I stayed with him for a while.
We pulled up to a rider in a green jersey, who was going considerably slower. My wind-pusher slowed down and dropped in behind him and started braking erratically and looking back to see if it was safe to pass. “All clear,” I said, but he didn’t move for over a mile. Then, with a truck bearing down on us, he decided *that* would be a good time to pass.
After that I decided slow was better than dead. I made the excuse of pulling over to shed some layers, which I really did need to do. I was quite happy to crawl along at 9mph on my own. Soon I caught up to a couple I had also seen a lot on the Hwy 35 descent. I had followed them for a few minutes, but her wheel was even worse than wind-pusher so I let them go. Now they were hugging the white line that marked the edge of the car lane, even though we had at least six feet of shoulder. They continued on this path even one semi truck and then another came roaring by only two feet from them. Later when we finally turned off the highway, I heard her remark to her friend, “Man I thought that semi was going to take you out!”
The stupidity of people never ceases to amaze me.
I left them behind and the roads became quiet and car-free with only the massive orchards I was riding through for company. I was fine with that. Trees bowed over with pears of different types and colors, so close to the road I could just about reach out and pluck one as I passed. I was really temped.
All’s Well That Ends
It was close to 5pm and I was pretty sure I could make the finish before 5:30. The course closed at 6:00. For being 95 miles into the hardest ride I’d ever done, I felt pretty good, but I was definitely ready to be finished. The big windy curves we had traveled up that morning made a lovely finishing descent into downtown Hood River. A few blocks up hill and a turn and the finish was in sight. A few folks were sitting at the last turn and cheered me in. There was no one around me but the big clock ticking off the time inspired me to sprint for the banner as the announcer called out my finish, and even pronounced my name right. That was nice.
Teammate Judy was at the finish, helping to break down a tent. “Nice job Kronda!” she congratulated as I came in. I thanked her and headed straight to the car to change. As I was taking the camera out of my bike bag, I realized I really should get a finishing photo. It was painful to put my helmet and gloves back on but I went back and Judy did the honors. The announcer even called me out again.
Then I got out of my things and headed to the dinner tent, starving.
The party was long over. Tents were being broken down all over the parking lot. There were still quite a few riders in the dining area, enjoying the FREE BEER that seems to excite 99.9% of cyclists. There was also a local winery represented.
To say I was disappointed with my findings at the food table would be understating things. It was clear that there had at once time been a lot of good food offered, but what was left was pretty much the dregs of that offering. I got the last taco shell from the taco bar, but the chicken was long gone so I made do with beans, iceberg lettuce and cheese that I shouldn’t have been eating (lactose intolerance). There were also a few cold wraps left–hummus or chicken ceasar. I snagged a chicken wrap and found a table with as few other people as possible. I was tired, hungry and pissed off. The number one rule of a supported ride is YOU DON’T RUN OUT OF FOOD OR WATER and the Eschelon organizers, after all the hype about how ‘spoiled’ we would be on the ride, hadn’t managed to to follow either of those simple requirements.
As I listened to the riders at my table chat about the day, I got the sense that people experienced very different rides depending on where they were in the peloton. One guy spoke of riding Chris Horner’s wheel for five miles and enjoying and easy 27mph cruise at the end of a long team pace line. A woman told how she barely made it through the climb after running out of water halfway up, even though she filled both her bottles at the Dufur rest stop (there was no water available between Dufur and the top of the twenty mile climb). Another guy didn’t even get water in Dufur because the hose wasn’t hooked up when he was there.
#1 showed up about forty-five minutes after I arrived. She was exhausted and there was even less food left. I felt terrible for her but I heard her tell her husband, “I don’t want any of this crap food, get me to a restaurant.” Who knows if she would have felt that way had their been a decent amount of food to choose from.
I ate quickly and headed back to Portland, scheming the whole way about what I could pick up on the way home for my second dinner. I finally settled on pasta to go from Pastini. By the time I ordered, the one bench for people waiting for a table was full with a party of four. I was sorely tempted to tell them I’d ridden my bike 100 miles to fight cancer and ask if any of them would like to give up their seat? But I didn’t. I sat on the floor instead and stretched a little.
Food came and there was just one gas station stop between me and getting home to my take out, my girlfriend and a warm shower. So when the gas station attendant randomly asked if I knew how to get to Skyline Blvd, I felt a bit like the Universe was plotting against me. But I got out and went over to a young white guy driving an enormous pick up truck who wanted to take his girlfriend for a drive in the hills. He seemed nice enough. I gave him directions, and only when I was walking (legs were not happy about this) back to the car, did it occur to me that I could have had him walk over to me. I think I inherit this automatic impulse to help everyone from my mom.
I made it home at 8:30, sixteen and a half hours after waking that morning, after four hours of sleep. The next day I realized in my tired state, I had forgotten to pick up my arm and leg warmers from gear drop. As soon as I crossed the finish line, I just about ran into the guy holding up a huge sign that said TIMING CHIP RETURN. They were pretty adamant about getting each one of those $100 chips back. It would have been great if they showed equal concern for tired riders by having someone remind people to pick up their gear.
Am I glad I did this ride? Absolutely. I knew the challenge I was getting into and I met all my goals, both for fund raising and completing the ride. My official finish time for the century is 8:35:46. My time for the hill climb was 2:11:51 (206/333 timed). The cause was a great one, the scenery was amazing and I enjoyed most of the route.
Would I do it again? Not likely, at least not until EGF has a few years to get their act together. As reports come in from other (faster) riders, I realize that if you are a racer, you probably had a good time on this ride. For the rest of us, EGF completely failed to deliver the experience they advertised:
We are going to provide every rider the experience of riding in a European Gran Fondo or pro race including the food, the on course support, and the after party. You will experience the same if it takes you 4 hours to finish or if it takes you all day.
Whether you are riding to win in your category or just trying to hit a new PR, there is an exciting challenge for everyone, not to mention a great experience on some of the most scenic rides in the country. Racers – yes, Spandex – yes, Tri Geeks – yes, Weekend Warriors – yes.
We have added in timing and the pageantry of the Tour de France including partial road closure, police motorcades. We also add in a competitive element by providing every rider an electronic chip to track your time. Ride it or race it, Echelon will be a blast.
Regardless if you fundraise for our cancer constituents, this event is also about you. Stick around for a great party when the ride ends.
Reports from folks who finished in 5-6 hours highlight the discrepencies even more:
Within a mile of the summit…I saw an angel, sasquash, the devil who was fishing for riders with a twinkie, two hunters (who weren’t with the race, btw) and Elvis…
We finished up the ride (and were welcomed back with all the Hammer products you could ever want – Heed, Recoverite, etc as soon as you got off your bike). There was a big food tent and a band playing. I ate my pizza, chicken caesar wrap and a beer sitting next to Elvis, Sasquatch and the Devil watching the band and chatted with fellow bikers and Sorellas until it was time to head home.
The meal at the end was one of the best I’ve ever had on an organized ride: chicken wraps, beet salad, mini burgers, tacos with black beans, rice, chicken, fresh guac.and salsa, mixed green salad, lasagna, fruit, snacks and mini cakes for dessert! Oh, and wine, beer and sodas!
I wish I and all the people who finished after me could have enjoyed that ride too. The survey sent out to riders the next day only allows a total of 850 characters for comments/suggestions. Hardly enough to address all the massive deficiencies in their ride support. Perhaps the folks at EGF should talk to Good Sport Promotion or Cycle Oregon about what good ride support looks like for ALL riders and how to make it happen.
I applaud them for their goal of helping worthy charities, but they have a lot to learn about supporting all the participants. Next year, maybe I’ll set my sights on the Seattle Livestrong Challenge. I hear they’ve got some good hills up there.