One of the reasons I wasn’t excited about doing the Gran Fondo Hincapie was I dreaded getting up early and going out in the cold. Well, I still had to get up early, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the morning temperature was great. Maybe this ride might actually turn out okay.
The Beautiful Redhead drove me to the location off of Old Highway 25. I dropped off my bag and made my way to the start line. Along the way, it was good to run into some folks I normally see a cycling events.
George Hincapie and the other VIP riders were called up to the front. George welcomed the crowd and we got ever nearer to the start. I was actually starting to look forward to it. If I could just survive until Skyuka, then the crowd would begin to thin and we could get down to business.
Here we go! The announcement to start was sounded and.. and.. as is always in these types of events with hundreds of riders, you have to wait for your time to come. We moved closer and closer and then I was able to comfortably guide my bike.
Immediately we were strung out. Because of the winding roads it was hard to judge where the lead group might be. I only knew that I was hundreds of riders behind it. Finally, a Veloshine rider came around me and I hoped on his wheel. He basically pulled me up toward groups ahead of us and then through them.
About 18 miles in we caught up to the lead group. Then things got hairy. There was a constant yo-yo effect going on. We entered more and more curves. The leaves on the surface added an element of danger.
I tried to be very careful and not brake abruptly. This put me in the ditch one time. Going into a left turn, the group compressed and the riders in front of me began to bounce off one another. Then a rider went down directly in front of me. I attempted to slow as gradually as possible and moved to the edge of the road. Then to avoid the rider who slid into my path, I had to get unclipped and ease into the grass.
That little adrenaline rush over, I started off back to catch the lead group. Occasionally I looked down and saw 350 to 420 watts popping up on my Garmin. I knew this was going to hurt me later. However, I didn’t want to start climbing Skyuka with a huge crowd in front of me.
Soon, I was back in a group. I eased up to save something for the climb. It was in this stretch, Cadel Evans passed me. Then I saw Tejay van Garderen on the side of the road waiting for someone. That was the only time I saw any pros on the ride.
Finally, we reached our first rest area and I loaded up on some food. This stop opened up the road a bit as we moved toward Skyuka. Having never ridden the climb, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Even the approach to the climb was unknown to me.
I knew we reached it when when I saw the “KOM starts here” sign. Because I didn’t know what to expect and because I had worked a little hard in the beginning, I decided to be conservative in my pace. The thought of going for the KOM was insane, so why kill myself?
It was what I expected. A long slog. How do I describe it? All I could do was put the gearing in the 39-28 and spin.
Because I was holding a steady pace I had a number of riders come around me. There is always a temptation to jump on a wheel. I resisted the urge and it paid back later as I returned the favor for most of them by passing them back before the top.
I went past the rest stop after the climb. I regretted that later. However, I had Howard Gap on my mind.
All the miles between Skyuka and Howard Gap are a blur. This ride was moving from one painful climb to another. Everything in between was just filler.
There was a good amount of descending. I wanted to be careful with all the leaves swirling around, but there were some people simply flying by me! Again, I was fine to let them go.
Then I reached Howard Gap. Before I ever started up the climb, I knew I was in trouble. My legs were not recovered from the Skyuka climb. Either that, or all the descending had cooled my legs down and they were stiff.
Whatever the case, I started the climb with the same conservative focus. However, it hurt more and more as I moved up the climb. I looked ahead of me and saw numerous riders zig zagging their ways toward the top.
I just tried to keep my legs turning in circles and riding straight ahead. Unfortunately, my pace got slower and slower. “Don’t get off. Don’t get off.” I kept telling myself. I can’t remember a time when doing a ride like this that I have gotten off the bike. Not even my two Assaults on Mount Mitchell.
However, with 1 kilometer to go, I came to a halt. I had to dismount or fall over. I began to walk pushing my bike up the climb. And let me tell you, it wasn’t much easier! One rider after another passed me. I was embarrassed to look at them.
Finally, I felt that my legs might be able to handle getting back on the bicycle. I mounted up again, but things didn’t feel much better. The difference was that the grade was less steep. I was able to move the bicycle forward and finally completed the climb.
As I made my way toward the next climb on Green River Cove Road, all the fire was gone from the ride. I knew I was not the rider of two years ago. However, rather than getting down on myself, I started looking around me. Wow, it was beautiful!
I saw riders going past me with their heads down churning away. I let them go. I rode easily along enjoying the view. The only bad thing is that my water bottles were bone dry and I was in need of hydration.
Thankfully, I soon reached the rest stop at the church at Green River Cove. I was glad! I needed fluids to keep from cramping.
I continued my Saturday spin along the Green River. I forgot all about time. I just enjoyed the views surrounding me. At the same time, in the back of my mind I dreaded the climb ahead.
Once again, a number of riders passed me and I let them go. However, I could still see them as we would hit a straight section of the road. Then we reached the start of the climb.
Green River Cove Road is one I am familiar with. That knowledge was helpful. I knew it wasn’t overly long. I also knew that if you take the turns on the switchbacks on the outside (avoiding the steep grades in the inside of the turn) you can avoid a lot of work.
Starting this climb, I had no ambitions. I just hoped I wouldn’t have a repeat of Howard Gap. All there was to do was start climbing.
Then something good happened. It was as though my legs had gotten strong. It wasn’t that I was flying up the climb, but I was able to get in a rhythm and keep moving. I passed one then another of the riders ahead of me. By the time we reached the end, I had passed all the riders who had gone around me since the rest stop except two.
Hey, maybe I could pick it up here! Nope. It didn’t work. Climbing was working, but as soon as I got out on flatter tarmac I could not pick up the power. Once again many of the riders I had passed on the climb came around me once again. It was frustrating, but I just had to keep going… the good news is that the third major climb was done!
I started counting down the miles at that point. We went into the town of Saluda and then started toward the Watershed. There was a bit more climbing at this point and once again I passed the same riders until we crested the final bump and I big-ringed it down the Saluda Grade.
My computer ticked past 77 miles and I knew I had to be getting close. I also knew that I had one last climb to go to the finish. Sure, it wasn’t that big of a climb on a normal day, but this could be painful.
Yep, as I got within 1K of the finish my legs started to cramp something furious! As each leg stretched and compressed, cramps were hitting my calves, hamstrings and my right hip. I could even see the turn to the finish, but I wondered if I would end up falling off the bike in pain!
Cramps can be as much mental as physical. I knew if I could just calm myself and concentrate on relaxing the offending muscles that I could spin my way clear. The more tense you get about cramps, the worse they get.
By the time I reached the final stretch I was sore but not seizing up. Seeing the finish made it all melt away. I crossed the line with my computer showing 5 hours and 8 minutes in the saddle. My ride time was 5 hours and 26 minutes. The clock above the finish line showed 5:30+. That gives you an idea how long it took for us to get going.
Well, this blog post has gotten way too long! Maybe that is just my way of making you suffer as much reading this as I did riding. I have been asked, “Well, are you glad you did it?” I’ll be honest, there were times on the ride where I just thought I was stupid. However, looking back, I am glad I did.