by Tony Green
Last year, I rode the Levi Leipheimer Gran Fondo for the first time. It’s a spectacular 103 mile ride in Sonoma with over 7000 riders and 9000 feet of climbing. It’s not the hardest ride I’ve ever done (that peculiar honor goes to the Deathride in South Lake Tahoe) but it’s a great one. 2012 was my first season road riding again after a long layoff and I didn’t exactly distinguish myself, really suffering greatly in the mountains.
Mountains you say? Oh Yes. They look like this:
VIEW THE COURSE
Here’s how I did in 2012: http://www.strava.com/activities/23688925
By the way, that year my heart rate monitor was malfunctioning – so my HR wasn’t really 245. It just felt like it.
I decided to try it again in 2013. Hopefully with a better result.
First question when traveling to a ride like is usually “Do I ship my bike or rent one out there?” In 2012, I went out for only 3 days, so I rented an S-Works Tarmac, specially provided for the event by Specialized. Nicest bike I’ve ever ridden. Nicer, frankly, than I deserve. This year, my wife Lisa and I had a friend’s wedding on Orcas Island near Seattle the weekend before the Gran Fondo, so we decided to make a vacation of it. We’d fly to Seattle, take the ferry to Orcas island, go to the wedding, drive back to Seattle and then down the coast to Northern California, stay in Sonoma for 4 days for the ride, then head down to San Francisco before flying home. I wanted to make sure I could ride as often as I wanted, whenever I wanted, so renting from multiple places seemed impractical. So I decided to ship my bike. I rented a bike case from Element Multi-Sport and got everything boxed up pretty well: Bike, tools, floor pump, tubes, pretty much everything I’d need. Clothing was another packing challenge. The weather in Seattle was 50 degrees and raining. The forecast for California was 78 degrees and Sunny. My solution? I took every piece of bike clothing I had.
Importantly, I had assured Lisa that this trip was a vacation first and a bike race second. Otherwise, it might have been a slightly harder sell. I also provided a “no cranky” guarantee, so if I couldn’t ride enough, or was feeling tired, or sick of lugging the bike box around – I couldn’t get cranky. Because we’re on vacation. Right?
Orcas Island – Thursday thru Sunday
We made it to Orcas Island on Thursday night, so got the bike back together and rode Friday. I quickly learned that there isn’t a flat patch of road anywhere on Orcas Island (Note: I’m sure that’s not really true, but I sure as hell didn’t find it…) The riding there is great – very undulating with a particularly great 5.5 mile 2000’ climb up to Mt. Constitution. The weather was pretty rough. Raining, foggy and cold. It was bad enough climbing in that, but the subsequent descents (especially from Mt. Constitution) were pretty tricky – technical twisties with leaves and pine needles on the road, standing water and rainwater runoff plus fog being blown in from the ocean reducing visibility.
I was on the brakes the whole descent. I saw only two other riders, heading down as I was climbing up. The first passed me with a glance and said “Hey man” the same way you might if you saw someone at a funeral you recognized and wanted to commiserate with. The second guy looked up, smiled, and said “Ah good – another idiot.” All in all, made for a pretty miserable, soaking, freezing ride.
I did it again the next day.
Seattle – Monday
Legs sore from climbing and the rest of me hungover from the wedding, we got back to Seattle and I went out for a recovery ride on some of the city’s bike trails. Someone had clued me in on the Burke-Gilman trail as being a particularly good one. It is. In fact, the whole city is great for riding. Bike lanes everywhere, lots of riders and drivers are respectful. It was, of course, raining but at least it was flat. I was really enjoying myself until I noticed that not only had the center bolt on the left side of my crankset worked its way out about ½”, but also that my front right brake pad was completely worn down. I think that riding the brakes hard on the descents on Orcas Island had finally worn them down. I stopped by a local bike shop, where the mechanic offered up a clear-headed, insightful diagnosis: “Yeah…that‘s not good.” I bought new pads and decided I’d install them and fix the crank bolt once we got to Sonoma. It was a good reminder that on a trip like this, you need to be ready to handle maintenance and mechanicals. There’s no reason they should stop you from riding.
Strava Link: http://www.strava.com/activities/86339539
Sonoma – Thursday
Finally – California! Now, I know there are parts of this state that ARE overrated. But Sonoma’s probably not one of them. It was warm and Sunny. The people are nice – possibly permanently high? Plus, I’d fixed the crank bolt, installed new brake pads, degreased, cleaned and re-lubed the bike. I’d even laundered my kit and put on some fresh bar tape. I was feeling good. We met up with my friend/rider Kevin and his wife Ruth at Francis Ford Coppola’s winery and resort in Healdsburg. Kevin, who lives and rides in Marin, had mapped out a route for us, so we got a nice 45 miles in before heading back to shower, drink free wine at a private party we crashed and have dinner at the winery. Nice.
Strava Link: http://www.strava.com/activities/86879812
Ride Day – Saturday
We lined up at 730am for an 8:00am start. However, with 7500 riders, what that means is that I rolled across the start line about 830am. Standing around beforehand, you start to question your clothing choices. The forecast was that the temperature would be mid-80s and sunny by 11am. But at 730am it was 50 degrees and I had my regular Spider monkey kit with a base layer and arm warmers. It didn’t feel like enough at the time. In 3 hours’ time, it’d be plenty.
Mentally, I had chunked the ride up as follows:
1. Start to Cazadero
2. Kings Ridge climb – first part
3. Kings Ridge climb – second part
4. Descent to Portugese Beach
5. Coleman Road Climb
6. Occidental Road descent to finish
Start to Cazadero
The first 30 miles from the start to the town of Cazadero are pretty straightforward. My goal in this first section was to make my way up the group to get out of all the congestion and also to make sure I didn’t miss the cut-off time at Cazadero. The first 20 miles, the roads are closed, so we had 2 full lanes and I was able to speed along pretty well. However, the sheer number of riders on some narrower parts meant that we were moving like cattle in some places. At one tight, narrow left hander, we even had to walk our bikes. Motorists were sitting at junctions, held there by the Highway Patrol letting the riders through. I noticed that not only did most riders make a point of thanking the volunteers and cops; they also thanked the drivers for their patience – a nice touch. There’s a nice warm-up climb at the 10 mile mark that’s about 4 miles long. It’s the appetizer before the entrée. This is where the traffic really starts to thin out. Plus, all the pack chatter stops. You know when you fly out to Vegas and the flight is loud with everyone yelling and boasting? That’s what the first 10 miles are like. You know the flight back from Vegas that’s deadly quiet with everyone thinking about how much money they lost? That’s what the first climb is like. It just suddenly gets quiet.
Once you’re at top of that first climb you can tear up the next 10 miles down into Cazadero. It feels good – a nice reminder that, yes, you can actually ride a bike well and fast. And that’s good. Because the real work of the day is coming up next.
Kings Ridge – Part 1
If that warm-up climb is the appetizer, the 11 mile climb up King’s Ridge is the entrée. You have to remind yourself that’s what you’re really there for. Everyone gets quiet again. Once in a while, you’ll hear someone mutter “And we paid money for this, right?” And someone in the group will try to laugh or maybe just grunt in response. The sound you hear most often is people trying to shift into a lower gear, but realizing they don’t have one; they’re already in their lowest gear. I was guilty of this too. I knew I was in my lowest gear, but every once in a while, I’d flick the shift level just to check. A long climb like this is a meditative exercise – you’re just counting pedal strokes, synchronizing your breathing with your pedal cadence, trying (trying!) to keep you upper body relaxed and trying to make the smallest adjustments that just might make it a little easier. I wish I could tell you more about this part of the climb, but I really don’t remember that much. I remember leaving the Cazadero rest stop and taking the cut-off road for the start of the climb where a cop shouted “Good Luck!” at me. Then, 90 minutes later, somehow, I was at the top. And still less than halfway done.
Kings Ridge – Part 2
I didn’t hang around any of the rest stops too long, even the one at the top of the first King’s Ridge climb, figuring that I was better off getting going than waiting around thinking about the road ahead. So that’s what I did. After the ‘entrée’ of the first part of Kings Ridge, the second part is like dessert. Only not as fun. It’s like being completely stuffed after the entrée, yet you say ‘Sure, I’ll have dessert!” – Even though you know you it’s bad for you. I don’t remember much about this one either, except that it seems to go on forever. You play these little games where you look at the miles on your GPS and think “This next turn, that must be the summit” but it never is. Or you look at the tree-line ahead of you and can see blue sky through the trees instead of more mountains and you think “Ok, so THAT must be the summit” – but it’s not. The road curls round on another switchback and there’s more 10% grade to climb.
Here’s another fun thing. Along all the climbs they post these signs: “Difficult Climb Ahead.” I’m sure these are meant to be helpful and informative but they are actually incredibly demoralizing: “Oh, so the difficult one is not the one I’m on now, but the one ahead. Got it thanks!” Or, “Sure, you say ‘Difficult Climb Ahead’ but what I hear is ‘I’m fat.’” Yeah.
Descent to Portuguese Beach
At this point, many of you are probably getting sleepy. Others may be asking: “Tony, all this talk about climbing hills, aren’t there any descents?” Yes. Yes there are. And the descent from the top of Kings Ridge down to Portuguese beach is a beauty. Smooth switch backs at 10% over 5 miles or so down to the Pacific. It’s a blast. The best rollercoaster ride you’ll ever take. That said, I tend to be pretty careful in descents these days. I don’t let the bike run as much as I used to and I tend to cover and ride the brakes a lot more. Maybe it’s just getting older and having a growing sense of my own mortality. But – I give plenty of distance between myself and the descender in front of me. I’m very careful about passing on providing plenty of room. I tend to descend in my drops, not just because it’s faster but because I have a better mechanical advantage braking from that position if I have to (useful SpiderMonkey safety clinic tip!). I also feel I can better countersteer to hold a corner line better.
Oh, and by the way, screaming past me, super close, at 50mph, yelling “On your left!” as if that makes everything ok and cutting in my line?
So not Pro.
Coleman Valley Road.
This is the last climb of the day and even the race packet refers to it as ‘The infamous Coleman Valley Road.’ Reason being, you’re cruising down Highway 1, rolling nice and fast, turn left onto Coleman Valley Road and boom! The road goes up, straight up, right away. Continuing the meal analogy – we’ve had the appetizer, entrée, dessert – Colman Valley Road is the bottle of Grappa someone decides to order. It tastes terrible now and you’ll feel terrible the next day. It’s completely unnecessary and it’s only purpose is to punish you. You turn off Highway One, shift from your highest to lowest gear instantly and start the grind upwards. Diana Nyad, the long distance swimmer who just swam from Cuba to Key West said that she would sing The Beatles’ ‘Paperback Writer’ to herself to keep her breathing and stroke synchronized. I found that the Swell Season’s ‘Falling Slowly’ worked well for me. I quickly renamed it ‘Climbing Slowly.’ I don’t even like the song.
The last 18 miles are fast and flat and I hooked up with some other riders to work together to the finish.
I’d been texting Lisa with my estimated finish times (“4pm sharp”, “Uh, maybe 4:45”, “More like 5-ish”) and was delighted to see her when I crossed the finish line. It’s really nice to have someone cheering for you.
Overall I was about 30 minutes faster than last year. I was a bit disappointed. I thought a good season riding with SpiderMonkey, 3000 miles training and preparation would give me a better time. Comparing this ride with last year’s, I was a little faster overall and definitely stopped fewer times. I certainly felt better than last year. My flat speed was improved, but climbing speed was about the same. On these long climbs, my HR was sitting at 150 and my Lactate Threshold is currently slightly below that.
Strava Link: http://www.strava.com/activities/87171468
My takeaway is this: Climbing is a completely different animal from what we normally do in the Midwest. It’s almost a different sport. Normal flat training will have minimal impact in a ride like this where the focus is on sustained, tough climbs.
My goals are to increase Power, raise LT and drop weight. Same as everyone else, I guess. I’m planning on doing it again next year. Lisa and I have planned to have our vacation in Sonoma the week after the ride, so we can eat and drink at will. My friend Kevin, who rode it with me in 2012, is doing it in 2014 too. Thing is, he wants to really go for it. Kill it.
Looks like I’ll need to get out on those Sunday and Wednesday night SpiderMonkey rides in 2014.