Monday, October 26, 2009

Leipheimer Gran Fondo

Levi Leipheimer's Gran Fondo was October 2, 2009. I signed up for the full Gran Fondo -- 103 hilly miles, including the well-known King Ridge and Coleman Valley climbs, along with nasty surprises of Hauser Bridge and Seaview Roads in between those two, provided additional significant challenges.

I arrived at Finley Aquatic Center, the start/finish of the ride, at a ridiculous hour of 5:45 because I feared a crush of 8,000 descending on check-in desks. There were no lines when I arrived, but then I had too much time to kill before the 8:00 departure. As I breakfasted in my car at 4:30, I was good and hungry by 7:00. A muffin and a cup of coffee and, after additional 50 minutes of standing around waiting for the ride to start with my friend Jeff and, we began inching toward the start line.

We crossed the line at 8:22 and turned out of the parking lot, whereupon Jeff rocketed ahead. Doubts quickly erased, I jumped on his wheel. So much for the warm-up, we were traveling at 25-27 mph. Police blocked all intersections, and we blew past everyone in the fast lane of the 4-lane road. Several people tried to draft us, but realized that this was no ordinary century paceline and wisely dropped off. This continued for good 10 minutes when we caught up with my weekend ride group, when we slowed down a wee bit and rode with them. Jeff drifted forward and I lost sight of him, assuming he continued to tear up the course. I rode and chatted with my Oakland/Berkeley gang.

Going through Graton and Occidental, things got faster and more exciting for a while. I discovered that Santa Rosa water with which I filled my bottles at Finley Center, has a brown hue and its taste also has a brown hue. This didn't make me want to drink so much. I made sure to gel up and, as I'd been sitting on wheels most of the ride so far, felt reasonably fresh and confident. The group pulled up for refuelling at the first rest stop, but I decided to continue. One of the faster guys with us continued on also and we traded pulls through Guernville to Austin Creek Road. On Austin Creek we caught up with a 40-rider group and melded into it. We'd been on the road for about 35 miles. Average speed was over 21 mph. Maybe not too smart.

In another three miles, we hit Cazadero and rest stop no. 2, which I also skipped. Just a few yards past the rest stop we came to a fork: Ft. Ross Road and King Ridge Rd. -- pick your poison. Levi picked King Ridge for us. King Ridge climbs gently first and dips here and there, then gets serious and kicks you in the quads with 8%+ grades with steeper pitches reaching low teens. Mercifully, it was still early in the morning and fairly cool. My big gear training, which taught me pedal circles the way nothing else ever had, proved very useful here. I started feeling twinges of cramps, but I concentrated on pedaling circles, using as many muscle groups as possible, trying to prevent overtaxing any one muscle, which would lead to real cramping. This worked pretty well. I made it up the hill at a slower pace than many, faster than a few.

Thus, I came to the Tin Barn rest stop around mile 37. I stopped to fill bottles and gel flask. There was no gel, endurolytes, or Gatorade (I like it diluted). Discovered that First Endurance drinks were remarkably chalky, so I filled a bottle with diluted FE orange drink, another with water and set off after grabbing a few pieces of fruit. Dropped down Hauser Bridge Rd. and started climbing again. Hauser Bridge climb seemed as steep as King Ridge, but mostly shaded and, therefore, was more pleasant. While I'd ridden King Ridge and had faint and unpleasant memories of the climb, this was my first time on Hauser. I'll carry vivid, unpleasant memories of Hauser with me from now on.

The climb went on for 4-5 miles. The occasionally dipped and twisted for a hundred yards here and there, leading me to believe naively that the climb was over, but it was never over. It just kept on going up again, steeply, crampily, until we finally reached the crest of Coastal Ridge on Seaview Rd.

This was familiar territory. Terrible Two also crests at Seaview at Ft. Ross Rd. and there were TT road marks on the pavement. We followed the TT route for a couple of miles, but where TT drops eastward toward Cazadero, we continued along the ridge toward the plunge that is Meyers Grade. Imagine the very top of Mt. Diablo climb, only extend it to over a mile and you'll have Meyers. I was very glad we descended rather than climbed Meyers.

Meyers spilled the riders onto Highway 1, and south I went in a raging tailwind. After cresting a few rollers, fearing more cramping, I freewheeled flat parts of 1 (it was that tail-windy) to Jenner rest stop. I stood and straddled my bike for a minute, fearing further cramping if I tried to bring a leg over the bike, when I saw Jeff. "Jeff!" I said. "Vlad!" he said. We shared ride tales -- he flatted about 10 miles into the ride, saw me ride past, and spent ~15 minutes repairing the flat. He spent the next 60 miles chasing me, skipping rest stops, and now was cramping too. We dismounted gingerly but painlessly, ate, drank, caffeinated and set off.

Jeff on the verge of cramping is much faster than Vlad on the verge of cramping. The rest stop did me good, however, and I was able to ride on Jeff's wheel, taking occasional, weak pulls. In just 5 quick miles we were at the foot of Coleman Valley.

I did Coleman Valley only two months earlier at Mt. Tam Double and was mentally prepared. Oddly, I felt better climbing it after 130 miles two months earlier than at 73 miles at Gran Fondo. The m.o. was to take it easy until the climb got really steep, then to plod purposefully through that steep quarter mile. At the foot of the climb, caffeine got to Jeff, and he rode ahead, trash talking in French and Italian-accented English to the riders he passed. It would have been funny had it come at a less painful part of the ride, but the targets of Jeff's barbs took it in good humor, though I would have been tempted to whack him with a pump or squirt him with chalky energy drink had he directed them at me.

We crested and rolled up and down through Coleman Valley to Occidental, climbed to Graton, and pacelined with Fighting Bobas to outskirts of Santa Rosa, where Jeff flatted again. We repaired his flat and set off again, coming to an unpaved 2.5-mile fire road strewn with gravel at mile 100.
WTF Levi? Scores of cyclists of wildly varying bike handling skills on a narrow dirt road along with pedestrian and bicycle traffic of non-Fondoistas. Dust and gravel flying... Not very safe... There was a paved street back to Finley somewhere, no? We emerged from the fire road a quarter mile from Finley Center and that was that.

A few words about ride organization. Start was pretty lame. We crossed the start line 22 minutes after the official start time and there were thousands of people behind us. Road signage was amazing. There were large blue and white signs on lamp posts and trees directing turns, advising of upcoming course changes, warning of upcoming steep climbs and descents, etc. Major and many minor intersections had police and CHP officers holding up traffic for cyclists throughout the day. Volunteers were excellent. Food was normal century fare. Energy food was meh.

I would ride those roads again, but would shorten to the loop to about 75 miles, starting and ending in Occidental. I probably would not ride this Gran Fondo again, especially since the cost of the ride has gone up to $130.


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