Sunday, October 26, 2014

Climbs to Crush Your Soul: Hincapie Gran Fondo 2014

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Blue Ridge Mountains
Cold start this morning, but otherwise the perfect day to ride - sunny and dry. The ride down from Cleveland to Greenville, South Carolina was breathtakingly beautiful, and now we had a chance to ride the same luscious terrain.

Tiffany and I lined up with the other 2000 riders starting the Hincapie Gran Fondo, at George Hincapie's own 'Hotel Domestique'. Lots of pro cyclists rumored to be here today.

Ride start: Gorgeous, rolling hills. We started to warm up quickly, but stupid issues arose immediately. I was unable to clip in to either pedal (dirt from walking across the parking lot clogged my cleat mechanism). Lost time monkeying with that. Thankful for the rolling sag support, hot guys on bikes who would come to your aid and help where needed. The guy who helped me tried cleaning my cleat while we were both still riding, I was feeling rather pro!

Then Tiffany flatted, first time in 100 years. We had only gone about 10 miles. I turned back to help her, but the Mavic guy was already there to offer assistance, adjust a loose rear break (YIKES), pump up her tires, and get her on the road again.

We lost time. We were hustling to make the first cut-off, after which we would be re-routed to the shorter course. We reached the first rest stop in what we thought was minutes to spare. We very quickly dropped some clothes, picked up teammate David N, re-fueled. Back on the road, skin of our teeth!

Up ahead, course marshals turning everyone left, although blinking sign clearly said 'LONG ROUTE -->'. I caught up with Tiffany, told her that we had just been re-routed. She went ballistic. There were others in the same predicament, but we were adamant that we should ride the long course (we weren't slow, we just had some mechanical issues).  No one stopped us.

View from the top of Skyuka Mountain 
The first climb of the Gran Fondo route is the KOM (King/Queen of the Mountain) timed Mt. Skyuka. Description in the ride program: 4 miles, 1800 ft elevation gain, average grade 8.7%. I was in my easiest gear the entire time, my Campy shifting clacking like a roller coaster up that enormous grade. Switchback after switchback with no let up at all. Signs along the road told us how many more km to the summit, and the current elevation gain. These signs were not helpful.

At the steepest turns, volunteers cheered on riders. Tiffany told me later that when she heard cheering somewhere up ahead/above, she knew to brace herself for the sudden change in grade, from steep to son-of-a-bitch steep.  But, really, the entire climb was a bitch.
Selfie on Skyuka
Tiffany at the summit
My kind of day/climb!

Me and David ready to bomb the descent

At the summit, the reward was an amazing birds-eye view of the North Carolina mountains, just starting to turn fall colors. Jaw-dropping, and worth the effort. My kind of day! After a few quick photos, we were ready for the descent.

One helluva descent

We caught up with teammates Tom and Steve, and we all started the crazy drop into the valley. The descent came with many warnings. High speed, tight turns, sheer drop-offs, burning brakes. It was relentless, the trickiest descent I've ever done. Grateful for the perfect weather today. The descents didn't exactly allow us the opportunity to make up any time, and we knew that we were going to be cutting it close as we got to the next cut-off point.  Loved this descent, in spite of my white knuckles.

The second featured climb was Howard Gap. Program description: 1.4 miles, 824 feet of elevation gain, average grade 11.4%. My description: soul crushing. Hate to admit it, but I had to walk. I gave it everything I had, keeping a steady, work-ethic bee-line through all the riders up ahead of me doing the 'paperboy' slalom just to stay upright and moving. When I got to the point where I, too, started to swerve all over the road, I opted instead to clip out and walk. Walking was faster, nobody passed me. Felt like I was pushing a mighty weight uphill for almost half a mile. I clipped in when the road flattened enough to get back up in the saddle (maybe only 8%?) but there was yet another steep switchback and a little more climbing left to do on this bitch.

At the top, I waited for my teammates. The volunteer there told me that he had once climbed Luz Ardiden, a hallowed Tour de France climb in the Pyrenees that is rated as HC, or hors categorie, in TdF standards. HC means that the climb is so tough, it can't be rated.  He told me that this climb up Howard Gap was much more difficult then Luz Ardiden, and that we should be proud that we made it this far. Oh, and by the way, some bad news: we missed the second cut-off point, and would be re-routed to the shorter course.

Ugly: 6500 feet of climbing in under 60 miles

At this point in the ride, I was totally cooked. My legs felt like jello. My attitude was beginning to take a nose-dive. The news that Howard Gap would be my last climb today - and that we were done climbing now - couldn't have made me happier!  Tiffany was disappointed, for about 3 minutes. The remaining miles went from some easy rollers - which felt like hell, at this point, to a final 5 mile descent back to the finish line.

Had we been inside the first cut-off time, we probably would have been able to finish the entire 80-mile Gran Fondo route, but I'm not sure how happy we would be to do it. Super Beast Tom C. finished it, telling us about the last climb that was purported to be the easiest of the 3 featured climbs, but still offered up a 7.5% grade over 2.4 miles and 17 switchbacks!
Tom C after finishing all 80 miles of Gran Fondo!

As we slogged through the final miles, I kept thinking that I'll probably not come out here again for this ride. Of course, on the 9 1/2 hour drive home, that tune changed a little, and Tiffany and I may have been plotting a strategy for next year.

A couple of final thoughts about the Hincapie Gran Fondo:

  • Aside from the Mighty Tom, who slipped beneath the 2nd cutoff time and finished the entire Gran route (80 miles), I and the rest of my teammates finished with 6550 feet of climbing in just under 60 miles. Although we didn't finish as intended, I would say that this was a pretty good day in the saddle.
  • It would have been nice to meet some of the pro cyclists, but we never saw them. By the time we got back to Hotel Domestique, we were hot, tired, in need of a shower, looking for food (which had run out hours before we got back), and in danger of camping out at the free beer tent all night. But we had to ride back to our cars, which were 4 miles away. And so the thoughts of having to pull some strings to get us an audience with The Man Himself just didn't seem at all appealing at the time.
  • Anyone who thinks that Lance Armstrong shouldn't be allowed to attend the Gran Fondo needs to just shut up and get a life. Those of us who paid good money to enter this event would have been plenty happy to bump elbows with Lance. 
  • Even though we weren't able to complete the entire Gran route, we will still be, as one volunteer noted as we were slogging up one of these hills, the top 1% of the population of the US in fitness. Hell yeah we are. 
David N, me, Tiffany, and Steve D at the after-party

Tired and happy after our ride! Mostly tired. 


  1. Sorry you missed the cutoff..the paperwork said mile 41, but the worker was at 43 making people turn. I, too missed it by about 15mins, but chose to do the full. You will have to come back and do the Green River Cove(final climb)..17 switchbacks..beautiful and famous. Local nickname is "L'Alpe de Saluda" I finished with Tom C. and it was all worth it.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Anon! I already have plans to return next year, and I'm absolutely determined to ride up that last mountain! Glad you got to ride with Tom. Who needs pro cyclists when you can ride with Tom?

  3. Ah, the smell of mountains and the burning Zipp wheels/brakes in the morning sounds appealing!

    No food, for that kind of entry fee is ridiculous!!

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  5. I agree, Dave: Poor planning on their part shouldn't constitute starvation on my part. At least the beer was still flowing freely!