Culpeper Gran Fondo

We signed up on a whim. Dan suggested it months ago as a possibility, but I think we were both seeing where the summer took us before committing. He signed us up for it on the way back from our 10-day road trip. Let me preface this post with the fact that we were on the road for 10 days, I biked once on my trainer for 45 minutes at a campground, 45 minutes on a recumbent bike at a hotel, and then we biked 17 HILLY and torturous miles around the Vicksburg military park. Prior to this, I’ve mostly been on my bike trainer. It’s in the basement, it’s easy, and I can watch iZombie. Dan also just mentioned how our bodies are still probably recovering from the juice fast we did Monday through Wednesday of this week, which I think is an important factor to consider. I would also like to say that we had done one century prior to the Gran Fondo, and that century was mostly flat with occasional rolling hills. I loved it, I felt accomplished, I loved biking. It was awesome.

Fast forward to today. I was hesitant because the elevation gain listed on the website was 5,800 feet. I have no idea what that looks like over 100 miles. Another thing that made me wonder was that one of the hills was listed as having a 7% grade over the course of a mile. A 7% grade is what you see on the highways when they make runaway truck ramps for truckers whose brakes fail going down the hill. I tried to suppress both thoughts, but they were in the back of my brain nagging at me the whole time.

The Culpeper Gran Fondo is advertised as an endurance festival with distances of 32 miles, 62 miles, or 100 miles. We signed up for the 100 miler, which started at 7am. All three rides (not races) started at Mountain Run Lake Park, which had a lake and was surrounded by mountains. This should have been the first clue, but Dan was optimistic. Getting there so early, the whole park was draped in fog. Not a light fog that was spotted around here and there, but a thick fog. We were inside the clouds.

We got checked in, went to the bathroom, got our bikes ready, and walked up to the start right when they were counting down the final 25 seconds. We clipped in, and we were off.

We turned right out of the park and immediately started with the rolling hills. Normally you can use momentum from the downhill to get some speed going up the next hill in a somewhat high gear before you even feel the effort in your legs. I like those. However, when 162 other cyclists are trying to navigate the same rolling hills, some pulling off from flat tires or other bike malfunctions within the first mile, no one builds momentum, and everyone is boxed in and moving slow. Cyclists are riding 2-3 wide in the road, making it impossible to pass anyway, because they’re trying to pass the people in front of them, who are also trying to pass. It’s a mess. This is all happening while we are driving through clouds. I keep flicking my head down sharply to get the excess water from my helmet, and I can feel the water droplets collecting on my face. It was chilly, but we quickly warmed up with all the slow hill climbs.

We finally broke away from the big pack and were able to ride in a line. Passing people like normal and being passed like normal. On your left. Gravel. Car Up. Car Back. The scenery was beautiful. We were riding around the base of Old Rag and could see the sun burning the fog off the mountains. There were farms, horses, cows, and dew-covered fields that eventually changed into densely wooded forests way off in the distance.

The 7% grade hill was supposed to be at mile 25, and last until mile 26, so even as I enjoyed the sights, I was counting down to what would be the hardest hill that led us to the highest point in the ride.

There were some great downhills, and I personally reached a max speed of 35. It can be a bit scary, but it’s the best when it’s a straight or slightly curved downhill so that you can see far in front of you. This way you can just go as fast as you can because you’ll have plenty of time to adjust if needed. The rolling hills and slight uphill grades were fine now that it was just Dan and I and a few other random people riding at our same pace. My legs were getting tired, and I still had the 7% hill on my mind, but it wasn’t too bad. Then we hit mile 25.

The ascent to the top started so gradually I thought maybe I’d memorized the wrong mile marker, but once we just kept going up and up and up with very little relief of level ground in between, I knew this was the right place. I dropped into the lowest gear and still felt the burn in my legs. I was going maybe 5 miles per hour, and it was hard. It was hard because there was nothing I could do to make It better. My legs were not trained for this, and neither was my mind. I think this was before I wanted to drop down to the cassette because in the past it’s been so difficult to go down and then go back up from, so I was just plugging away in the lowest gear I could. I don’t think I was passed a whole lot at this point, but I also didn’t see anyone in front of me either. I’m not sure how long this went on for, but eventually we made it to an aid station that was .4 miles from the highest point (didn’t know this when we stopped, but I’m glad we did). We went to the bathroom, shared a banana, and ate one of our new almond butter nature valley bars. Then it was time to move on.

I almost wish I would’ve taken a picture of it, because the next part is probably why this hill was labeled as 7%. We started to climb immediately after the aid station, and it was definitely tough, but then we rounded a corner and the hill in front of us seemed to increase exponentially.

Image result for exponential graph

I tried to go down to my lowest gear again, and I considered dropping to the cassette, but I still didn’t know how easy or difficult that would be and if it would be worth it to break momentum to try. I looked up and saw a girl dismount and start to walk her bike up. I wish I could say I stuck it out and climbed the rest of the way on my bike, but I didn’t. Once I saw her do it, I dismounted and walked the remaining tenth of a mile up this insane hill. No regrets. I looked up again and saw Dan dismounting up ahead of me to walk his bike up too. He waited for me at the top, and we celebrated the fact that this was the highest point of the ride and that it would likely be downhill and/or flat with occasional rolling hills until the finish. We were wrong.

We happily zoomed down the 7% grade (it was windy, so not too fast), and it leveled out nicely. It was flat and straight, and surrounded us with more beautiful scenery. We also passed by a lot of trout streams along the way. This lasted for several miles. Dan and I rode side by side and talked about how great it was and how we could both do this forever.

Even the uphill parts were enjoyable because they were either long and slight, or they were a little steeper, but the top was always in sight. We climbed a slightly bigger hill to make it to the next aid station at mile 35. We talked about how this next section was out and back (not my favorite) for both the 62 mile and 100 mile, and we set out on the way.

Right away, the course changed again. Bigger rolling hills, with longer flat sections in between the down and the up, rendering most momentum build-up useless. It was miles of this.

not loving it

This is when I finally dropped down to the cassette and learned that it’s not difficult at all. You cannot go fast in a low gear, but it does save your legs some. I still weigh the balance each time if its better to go up slowly and take longer, or if it’s better to go up faster and totally burn out my legs. Unfortunately, my legs were already burnt out from the other hills we’d already climbed. On top of that, these hills were too long to just race to the top and coast on level ground or slightly downhill, especially because there were just more hills. Hill after hill after hill. I admit, I was getting disheartened. Never mind that I didn’t train for this, and that my body was probably still recovering from a caloric deficit earlier in the week. It’s hard on a person to continually get passed by people of all ages, shapes, and sizes, and then to be left entirely alone in the middle of nowhere. It was beautiful, but as the road got windier and people pulled farther ahead of me, I would round the curves and see no one. It was lonely. I went through phases mentally where I would be perfectly okay feeling all alone. It was kind of empowering to be on this journey by myself. But then I would feel anxious and almost abandoned and think about what would happen if my chain popped off, or if I got a flat tire. I know how to change a tire, but I did it last time with a bike pump, not the CO2 cartridge. I didn’t know if I even had the stuff on my bike to do that, since Dan was carrying all the tools and spare tubes. This went on for a few more miles.

We climbed a moderately trafficked hill, crossed a few moderately trafficked roads, but then it was more of the same. More hills, and majority of them seemed to be up. I reached my breaking point. I had had enough, officially. I know this because I started questioning why I sign up for these things. Am I trying to prove something to myself? To Dan? To my family or friends? It certainly wasn’t as fun as the previous century. I started thinking of the other things I could be doing with this Saturday. It was not a good mental place.

Eventually, after climbing another hill, we made it to the next aid station. 3 hours 11 minutes, 47.94 miles.

not loving it 2

Dan had dismounted his bike and had it leaned up against a building in the shade. I un-clipped, but still sat on my bike for 30 seconds, trying to rebuild my mental resolve. Almost halfway. A girl came up to me who had my same exact bike, which is amazing because my bike is not light, nor do I think it’s really made for this sort of thing. It was expensive to me, but in the cycling world, it’s a cheap bike. And at like 20 pounds, it’s heavy. She asked to take a picture together because she was equally amazed to see her bike at an event like this, so I did. After the picture, I walked over to Dan, and as soon as he asked how I was doing, I lost all my resolve again. I told him how unprepared I felt for this ride, how hard it was, and how it wasn’t very much fun. He shared how it was a hard ride, and that while it’s an experience, it’s not what he would describe as fun.

I kept looking at the hill we would have to go down to continue to the turn-around point and felt the dread building inside of me knowing that we would have to climb back up it, and then redo the 13 miles of hills we had just done to ultimately finish. I decided that this was all I needed to do today. 48 miles of biking on hills, especially these hills, was still a good workout, and we did more miles than the shortest distance ride for the endurance festival.




Dan said tat his watch read 2,693 feet of elevation gain at this point, so mine must not have been working correctly. 

It wasn’t easy to walk away and not finish, because that’s not something I’ve ever done before, but I think it was the right decision for me. If I kept on that mental path for another 52 miles, who knows where I’d be once we crossed the finish line. Dan was very understanding and supportive of my decision to no finish the 100-mile ride, and he even walked over to the volunteers to ask for the number to call to get picked up and driven back to the start.

Like Dan said, it’s unfortunate that we didn’t finish, but it was still an experience, and we’ll just have to come back next year to do it for real.

Lessons Learned:

  • No matter how many carbs you eat the night before and morning of, it might not be enough to overcome a 3-day juice fast.
  • If you are thinking about doing a ride that is advertised as hilly and has a significant amount of elevation gain, the trainer will not adequately prepare you no matter how much time you spend on it.
  • Dan said that chamois butter should go everywhere.
  • Kinetic Multisports staff is very friendly, professional, and unbelievably kind.
  • Some drivers will always hate cyclists and take it personally that they are expected to share the road.
  • It might be a good idea to print and laminate a map, cue sheet, or custom-made list of landmarks and affix it to your aerobars.
  • It might also be a good idea to look at the course map in more detail prior to signing up for a ride, and especially before beginning the ride.
  • Baked Ziti is a great post-ride dinner, especially with Dan’s crispy baked broccoli