The results are out for the Gran Fondo Hincapie. There was no surprise there for me. My time came in at just over 5 hours and 53 minutes. That is nearly 20 minutes more time that last year’s attempt. I know exactly why it happened.
It all started with the Skyuka climb.
My strategy going into the ride was that since I knew I was not in good shape, I would try to pace myself up the climbs and spend less time stopped at the rest zones. So, I rode on past the first SAG in Tryon. That allowed me to stay with several people who were riding a pace line to the start of the climb.
When we reached it as a group, I moved over to the white line, motioned the others around me, and went into my easiest gear. Right there I put my pride on the shoulder of the road and determined I wasn’t going to push this. I knew the 4 mile and then some climb averaging 9% was only the first step up to an even greater challenge to come.
There isn’t much to say other than I kept plodding along with riders coming around me one after the other. It wasn’t as though I could have kept up with them anyway. Even at this early point in the ride, I was starting to wane.
I was about two-thirds of the way up when Tejay van Garderen and a rider in a Hincapie Devo Team kit came flying past me. As they sped past, Tejay looked back and said something that based on the look on his face was meant to be encouraging. I didn’t catch it, but I did get out the words “Hey, throw me a rope!” as they moved closer to the turn ahead. Then they were out of sight.
I stopped at the top to take a picture. Last year my battery was dead in my phone by that point and I didn’t get one. That view is worth the climb. Yes, it is true, a photograph just can’t capture it.
I also stopped at the SAG just before the descent. I didn’t stay long, but as I was leaving I stopped once again to take another picture. There was no need to be in a hurry at this point. Besides, any delay allowed me to put off the pain of Howard Gap.
Before I could get to that climb, I would have to descend the other side of Skyuka. Here is where I really began to notice the difference between the Giant TCR and the Felt AR. The AR was my bike for the day due to the need for a last moment repair for the TCR. Going through the corners with the aero frame Felt with the longer wheel base was not normal for me.
I had to take it easy and even so, I over-cooked one corner and had to take a detour into a driveway. However, that was better than at least two riders I came upon. One had obviously laid the bike down. There were marks on the road and rider was standing in that stiff post-road rash stance.
I was happy to reach the rolling section that followed. Now my mind was turning to Howard Gap. I was already feeling tinges of muscle cramps. It had taken me 40 minutes to climb Skyuka. Howard Gap was less than half the distance, but with an 11% AVERAGE grade it was going to be tough.
Right away on the bottom of the climb I began to feel my legs cramp. It was as though they had gotten so use to spinning along that throwing them into the fray of climb like this had them protesting and threatening a strike. It wasn’t just my normal calve muscle cramp. It felt like every muscle from my hip down was seizing.
Experience told me to just relax and keep spinning. If I didn’t feed the cramps by tensing and just kept my legs moving, I would find relief. Sure enough the cramps backed off, but like wild animals just outside the ring of light from a camp fire they let me know they could return at any moment.
I didn’t look up. I just tried to find a rhythm. I wasn’t going fast, but I was moving. It was then my phone started “dinging” because my daughter and wife were carrying on a text conversation in a group of which I was a part. As I moved slowly around another rider who was even slower he said, “So, do you ring that bell every time you pass one of us?” I knew better than to make a comment. I figured he might be passing me back before the top.
Yes, I stopped. It was on the final straight section. I still had over half the ride to go. I simply could not cook my goose here. So, I dismounted and began to walk. My focus was on my left hamstring which was teasing me with a cramp. I took my mind off by watch the riders go around me in slow motion. Some were riding higher gears (a good idea!) and they were spinning along, but seeming not go anywhere fast.
I tried mounting one more time with about 50 meters to go, but had to get off and stretch out my leg. Then it was off again. Even though it took me 20 minutes to get up the less than 1.5 mile section, I was in good spirits because I had done it! Yes, Green River Cove was going to be tough, but I knew I could do it.
Time meant nothing to me at this point. All I wanted to do was find groups of riders that I could tag along with. The wind had picked up a little on this beautiful day and riding through it alone would only compound any issues I might be having.
And so it was that I made it to the SAG just before the gorgeous route through Green Rive Cove and to the base of the climb with 17 switchbacks. I spent some time talking with other riders there before climbing back on and getting underway. I was starting off alone.
It was along this stretch of the course that something really started to get to me. I think it had to do with the setup of my Felt. I have to stretch out more over the bike and it was causing me to tilt my head just a little more than normal. Since I broke my neck several years ago this has become the one remaining issue from the accident. I cannot hold my head in a position like that very long without the muscles in my neck and shoulder starting to fatigue.
By the time I reached the climb up Green River Cove I was almost audibly saying to myself, “If I could just stop and lay down my head.” Maybe you don’t realize just how heavy your head is. Hold a bowling ball and extend out your arm. Now, hold it there. Before long your arm will begin to tremble and your muscles will complain for you to drop the ball and give them some relief. That gives you an idea how I was feeling.
Even so, I only stopped once on the climb. Granted, it was my slowest ever time, but once again I rejoiced that I made it to the top. Now it was just time to head home!
It isn’t that the ride was easy. The entire way back to Hotel Domestique, I was fighting the urge to just lay my head down on the stem. The only portion where I felt somewhat normal was the descent down the water shed.
I was completely alone as I made the turn up the final climb to the finish. I felt like I had been out there forever and so the 5:50+ time I saw on the clock was not a shock — I was actually surprised I made it in under 6 hours. As I neared the line Chad Andrews called out in that announcer voice, “And here we have Jonathan Pait!” Frankly, I didn’t want any attention pointed my way and was slightly annoyed by his enthusiastic callout.
However, that annoyance quickly gave way to relief as I turned right after the finish to head back to my car. It was a challenge. Wasn’t that what I wanted?
Well, I got it!