Riding the Gran Fondo Hincapie for Mike

People have stopped to ask me how my ride in the Gran Fondo Hincapie went this past Saturday, October 26. It will help me to sort my thoughts by putting them here. That is if I can get my dehydrated brain to work well enough!

This year I decided to avoid the large start by signing up for a VIP pass. This pass gave me parking place near the start, a breakfast “with the pros” before the event, a massage following the ride and — most importantly for me — a start near the front. It was good not having the pressure of worrying about how to park and making sure I had the fuel to start.

I pulled up a little earlier than I needed to, but I wanted to make sure I was ready. The volunteers were all out working hard in the freezing temperature. I say freezing in the literal sense. The temperature was below freezing here in the foothills. The work they did earlier, at that moment and later is one of the things that made the event enjoyable. As best I could tell, there was only one hiccup in the whole day and that was the sound system went in and out during the start. Of course, that could have been the cold!

After breakfast where I saw Christian Vande Velder and Tommy Danielson (along with George Hincapie, of course), I started deciding what to wear. I knew it would be cold early, but I also realized that by the time we started climbing I would be getting warm. You don’t want to under dress, but you don’t want to over dress either.

I decided to go with knee warmers, my bib shorts, arm warmers along with a base layer under my short sleeve jersey with a long sleeve jersey over that, and topped off by a vest. Under my helmet I had a head cover that went over the tops of my ears. My hands were covered with knit gloves underneath my Specialized long-fingered gloves.

All geared up, it was nice to pull up to the front of the field — well at least lining up with the first hundred or so. Behind me stretched a longer field of at least 1000 riders. I remembered the year before where I had chased hard to catch the front group and was nearly taken out a couple of times. That was my first order of business. Avoid that kind of action!

Then we rolled off. I was really quite comfortable at this time. Though my computer read under 32 degrees, I did not feel that cold. The stillness of the morning played a role in that. By riding in the group I was able to avoid much of a draft getting through my layers.

The only issue that began to cause me trouble was that my head was getting cold. Shortly into the ride I found I could not breathe through my nose. I was doing all my breathing through my mouth. The times when I would take a swallow of water, I would find myself panting trying to make up for that second or so without oxygen. It came back to haunt me later.

I saw George once. He came back slowly through the field as he was making a phone call to the support vehicle to let them know a rider was having trouble. I sat on his wheel for a moment at that point before coming around to follow along with the group. It wasn’t long before he came around me and left me behind.

That was just before we entered Tryon, NC. It was also at this time I began to dangle off the back of the lead group. I needed to take a nature break and get some food. At this point I realized it was going to be a long day.

And so, less than 20 miles into the 80 mile ride, I was on my own. Only a couple of other riders stopped and they seemed to be in even less of a hurry than I was. After mounting up and getting on the road, I set my sights on Skyuka.

Skyuka Mountain Road is a 4 mile climb up around 1,800 feet along a 9% grade. Really, for me it was just something I had to get up in order to meet the real challenge — Howard Gap. To get up this first climb, I just set myself in a rhythm. Just as I started up, I was caught by a group of riders. We yo-yo’ed back and forth as they would surge ahead and then I would reel them back in. Finally, in the last kilometer, we all crossed the KOM line together.

It is funny because at that point, I was berating myself for how poorly I was riding. Mentally, I had already made succumbed to the realization that I was not going to finish the ride in under 5 hours like I wished. That thought was tainting my perception of how I was riding.

As it turns out, I climbed the mountain in almost the same time as I did the previous year — when I was in better shape. Actually, I finished 30 seconds faster than in 2012. I averaged 7 mph up the climb. Of course, Winston David, the fastest climber, averaged 10.5!

I stopped at the top to take a picture. I don’t know if it was the cold or what, but my phone crashed. It was the only picture I got to take from the ride. That is one of the reasons you don’t see and pictures here. Then I stopped at a SAG stop to eat some more before descending the other side of Skyuka.

People talk about the climbing on the Gran Fondo Hincapie, but don’t underestimate the descents on the route. There are some pretty hairy turns to negotiate on a steep descent that builds up a good amount of speed. However, once again, this is a place where the volunteers played a crucial role by warning us of the more dangerous lines.

From that point, the ride was simply a matter of aiming for Howard Gap. I can’t tell you much of what happened on the ride between the two climbs. My body was tensing from the cold. Oddly enough, it wasn’t as cold as when we started, but the wind had started to pick up and I was riding alone. The chill was definitely finding its way into my layers. My dread of Howard Gap continued to grow. I just wanted to get there and get it over with.

I dreaded Howard Gap because last year I didn’t make it up the climb. I had to get off and push my bike up a portion of it. No matter what happened today, I did not want that to happen. Still, the way I was feeling physically and mentally, I wasn’t very confident. To make matters worse, I was beginning to feel a tightness in my calf muscles. I knew I would be cramping before the day was done.

There it was. The start of the Howard Gap KOM. This climb was “only” 1.4 miles long. The problem is it averages 11.4%. This was going to hurt.

I set my wheel pointed straight up the road. Almost from the start, I saw riders begin to zig-zag their way up the incline. I just set my teeth and kept a straight line while trying to keep up my momentum.

It was at this point I drew strength from WHY I was doing this. I was riding in memory of my friend Mike in order to raise money for the I Do It Foundation. The foundation was helping Ellie, Jessica, Juanita, Andrew, Connie and the Slattery family. All these Inspirations have fought or were fighting battles with cancer and harsh situations in life. I took my mind off of the road. I put behind me the thoughts of stopping. I kept reminding myself that these folks couldn’t just “get off the bike” in their battles. They had to push through. I could push through.

I did. Slowly and steadily I made it toward the top while dodging the zig-zagging riders around me. Yes, I was tired, but once again I beat my time from the previous year by 4 minutes. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was on pace to beat last year.

With that climb behind me. I really started to fight cramping. At one point along a rolling section of road, I stood to power over a rise. Cramps attacked my left quad and groin muscles. It threw me back in the seat. If this kept up, the Green River Cover climb was going to be rough!

The rest of the ride from there to the final climb was a story of me nursing myself along. I was trying to regulate my temperature by zipping and unzipping layers. At the same time I was trying to eat and consume liquids. Unfortunately, I realized that I had gotten behind on both of those needed resources. This was going to be about survival.

I took a good amount of time at the final SAG before the Green River Cover climb. However, I couldn’t put off the inevitable, so I mounted up and started out again. This was misery. The scenery was wonderful. However, a headwind was pushing through the gorge. Riding along it was tough. I found my cadence getting slower and slower. I was bonking.

Thankfully, a group of riders came around me and I jumped on hoping that I could maintain the pace. What a relief to find that I could hang on to the bottom of the final big climb of the day. At this point, I did not care at all how fast I got up it. I just wanted to get over and head to the finish.

Once again, I let the group leave me and I settled into a pace I felt I could handle up the 2.4 mile climb with 17 switchbacks. I know there were 17 because the ride organizers put signs by each one. It was a help to be able to tick them off. The more I did, the better I started to feel.

Before I reached the top, I had passed two of the riders. At the top, I caught a third one pushing his bike to the KOM line. Now I knew it was just a matter of getting the bike to keep rolling to the finish. However, I also knew that the distance to the finish could be deceptively long. If I pushed to hard just to “get it over with”, I could end up cramping just before the finish like I did in 2012.

I tried to pace myself and catch up with any groups to help me cut through the wind. As we came into Saluda I felt a sense of relief because from this point I had ridden these roads enough to know what was around each turn. Coming down the watershed, I opened it up a bit even picking up yet another PR on the descent.

That was it. By the time I reached the reflection of the water from the watershed, I was toast. A group I had left behind me coming down from Saluda caught me. I tried to jump on their wheels, but it didn’t happen. It didn’t matter, the finish wasn’t that much farther.

I did remember from the previous year that the finish kind of surprises you. It sort of appears when you don’t expect it. That thought gave me a great sense of relief. It was an anticipation that was rewarded as I began to see the signs along the road pointing me toward the finish.

The finish loomed ahead and I followed a group of Wounded Warriors up to the line. I slowed to let them get the attention they deserved and crossed the finish in around 5 hours and 32 minutes.  I do believe that was 3 minutes faster than 2012. The final finish list shows me 180th out of 434 riders.

No. I did not make my goal of a sub-5 hour finish. Yes. I did accomplish my goal of staying on the bike all the way up Howard Gap. Also, though I felt I was much slower, I actually did improve over my 2012 ride. Most of all, I raised over $2500 to help fund the I Do It For Foundation.

I’ll be back in 2014. Like a moth to the flame, I am drawn back to the suffering. Of course, I always tell myself, “Next year will be different!” I’m sure it will be, but probably not in the way I think.