Friday, January 27, 2017

Dark and Light Places on the Winthrop Gran Fondo

I held on at times literally for my life while descending some of the ~12,000 feet of vertical we gained on the Winthrop Gran Fondo last weekend. If I had died, my last words would have likely been a rattled "Fuhuhuhuhuhuck yohohohohohuhuhuhuuu" on a section of descending washboards that sent me over a cliff. My bike shook me loose of itself, and my teeth clattered like castanets, their stomping finale to end in my demise. But no, I slammed the brakes, cursed the ground, and skidded safely to a stop (repeat 20 times).


I was told rather casually by a friend that I should register for this several months ago. The hook was we would split an Airbnb, do this ride, and make a fun Winthrop weekend out of it. These things turned out to be correct! We grabbed a nice cabin, and five of us started off the ride together the next morning at 8am. I unintentionally broke away from the group as soon as the climbing started. Here's ride the profile..

The going was steep and rocky. This particular gravel was basically sand on fist-sized rocks, some protruding others embedded. I seesawed with a few people, stopped to pee, and generally enjoyed this ascent, but then.. As I neared checkpoint one, a rider going back down the wrong direction drew near. I asked if he was OK, and as he said "yes" I realized his forehead, nose, mouth and chin were covered with blood. If you have never been struck by the Fear of Gravel, you should see this dude with a face bloodied by the roads ahead descending past you the other way. The alarm bells were blaring. RETREAT!! DANGER AHEAD! We had ridden 10 flat miles, 9 miles of gravel climbs, and were at 5400' elevation. Some kind of omen!

The grades steadily increased as the roads became less predictable on NF-39 as we climbed up near the summits of Tiffany and Rock Mountains at 6900' (having started at 1700'). If you've ever ridden steadily at 4mph for much long at all, it feels like the most futile activity of all time. Here you are, straining to stay on the bicycle at all, when the small shame of walking would use less energy and travel at about the same rate. I must have ridden at 3-4mph for at least one demoralizing hour to top out near Tiffany Mountain. This was my first taste of the darkness. Could I finish this at my current pace? Could I rely on descending to catch me up? I was not halfway through the distance but was over halfway through the general time constraints. Quitting was all too easy to entertain as the clock crept north of 1pm and I still had 15 miles to go before halfway.

Staring up a couple of guys I would soon catch
I'm always curious what song will get stuck in my head on a ride like this, because it is often silly. This time it was All4One and 1995's "I Can Love You Like That". Whhhyyyyyyyy? The darkness was thick, you guys.

The flats and downhills near these summits were welcomed breaks for the quads, but there was absolutely no relaxing on any of the descents. Your grip on the bars has to be vice-like or the washboards (should you hit them) will wrench them free. The washboards are one thing, but this area is covered in snow during half the year, so there are massive ruts and washed out areas carved by running melt that will ruin you should you have the slightest lapse in focus. I had a couple of these, and they were completely paralyzing. I pushed up my glasses once, or maybe I was sticking my Camelbak bite valve in my mouth when an unseen rock flipped my front wheel to the side and only by the luckiest, most desperate reflex did I flash my hand out to grab the other brake lever. I was probably a few milliseconds from being down with a broken clavicle (or worse) on a remote mountain road.
Gathering my wits at the top of a descent
To descend well on gravel, you must adopt the inverse of your climbing mentality. Whereas it is helpful on the climbs to keep your focus on the immediate 10-20 feet in front of you, when descending you must adjust your point of view to constantly scan the next 50-100 feet. It's obvious to say: 5-6mph is a quarter the speed of 20-25mph, so you extend your scanning distance appropriately. This can be a tricky mental transition, though, and indeed it was for me on the first few miles down; I focused on patches of loose rock within the 10-20 range and inadvertently sent myself to even worse patches by not scanning far enough to choose a better line. There's the trick: you can't watch the stuff you're actually riding over. Instead, you have to trust that you've scanned it, chosen a good line, and believe in your bicycle to carry you through the line you've chosen. Loose rock is much easier to roll over at high speeds. If you get caught staring at 10-20 foot sections, you will constantly lay on the brakes, become bogged down in the loose stuff, and be unprepared for complications in the road ahead. My guess is the man with the bloody face did not make this transition well.

There were a few miles of paved descending down to Conconully, WA. This was our main food checkpoint and the only place where a suggested cutoff time had been floated. I rolled in about seven minutes before the suggested 1:30 cutoff, performed a foie gras like stuffing of myself, and proceeded to tackle the remaining 45 miles. I was near to calling it a day, but I overheard a couple of guys say that we had already climbed 8400' of the (just under) 12000'. That bit of knowledge gave me the confidence that I could roll into the finish at or slightly after the unofficial course closure time of 5pm.

The second climb was more gradual but still had its painful sections. I was lucky to find a group to ride along side for most of the way up until I pulled away; I was also able to descend alone without needing to consider others in my line. The descent from miles 65-71 was the absolute best part of the ride with beautiful, sweeping views down Mt. Baldy to our last checkpoint. This was the light place as it was quite literally all downhill from mile 65 to Winthrop, and I roared down those miles with full confidence in my groove.

You can see it, but hard to tell how shitty the road would be 10mi from here.
The lower tier of the descent after the checkpoint is where things got unmanageable; there I found myself most angry, tired, and all shook up. I couldn't pick lines anymore. The faculties that sharpened into focus hours ago now could not scan the ground as convincingly. They wained and with it so did my control. It holds true in hiking, too, that most injuries occur on the way down--when you've let your guard down and aren't trying as hard now that gravity is there to lend a hand. I was a clear example of this warning and felt as happy as I did terrified about what awaited in the not insignificant 20 miles that remained. I gradually found an appropriate to grip the bars such that hitting washboards didn't set me all a-rattle, since there were multiple areas where the entire road was a huge set of boards (see the introduction to this post). I got the song "Hold On Loosely" wedged in my head and belted it like a personal anthem on these particularly rough chunks. It was nice to get a break from All4One!

The 10 miles or so back to Winthrop were a smooth salve for the gravel bomb of the previous 15, and I cranked them out thanks to equal parts GU and elation. There was a smattering of cheering at the finish for number 80 of 200, but I wasn't there for them.. No, it was pizza on my mind. I snatched a couple of slices and lay down near the shelter while proceeding to feed myself vertically. The second finisher from my group arrived about 40 minutes later, which was just enough time to eat, change, recover hydration, and phone for a ride from the others who had called it at the halfway point and procured a ride back to Winthrop.

A couple of beers back at the cabin, and I felt like an overcooked noodle after another day on gravel.

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