May-Two-Four, as it's affectionately known in Ontario and referred to everywhere else as Victoria Day, marks the unofficial start of summer. Long weekend, score! So what does one do when one has all of that extra time and a somewhat promising forecast? Go ride bikes, of course.
I remember making a post on Facebook at some point during the last year asking the Vancouver cycling community what the coolest gravel rides were, and Gran Fondo Leavenworth popped up on the radar. I ran it past the guys and with the news that the event usually sold out, we were all soon registered.
I won't lie, we were all a little bit nervous about this one. Between illness, extended work hours, and just a general lack of long miles with intense elevation gain, we all had moments of self-doubt about being able to finish the ride in the allotted time to receive a recorded finish, especially when the organizers were quite explicit about recommending that riders pull the plug if they didn't make the 51-mile aid station by 1PM (from an 8AM start). We're all too stubborn to admit when we're in over our heads, so off we went.
The drive down to Leavenworth was uneventful. Scott had picked up a new hitch rack, which made cramming three people, baggage, and bikes (and obligatory supplies/junk food from Trader Joe's) into his Honda Element even easier than usual. I had heard stories and seen photos about this little theme town from friends who had gone down for Tour de Bloom, but upon seeing it for myself, I still don't get the appeal. The weirdest thing was seeing a sign for Mongolian Grill written in Gothic font in the town centre. Anyway, after checking in, unpacking, and stocking the fridge, ET and I headed out for a short leg opener while Alex, Calvin, Scott, and Julie hung out in the hotel and cracked a few open.
Holy shit, wind. I guess I should expect it in this region of the Cascades, but it still came as a rude shock. I just hoped that it would die down a bit for the tarmac sections of the ride. Spoiler alert: I was wrong. Speaking of weather, the overall forecast was also up in the air, even the night before the event. We were worried about the chance of showers and having to deal with slick, muddy, screaming off-road descents. Despite checking three independent sources, the consensus about POP was non-existent. I had brought knee, leg, and arm warmers along with a vest and emergency shell, but did not bring full-on rain gear was by no means looking forward to spending 8 hours out there if it came pissing down.
We awoke on Sunday to overcast skies and a cool breeze. Radar showed a light system moving in, but (thankfully) the rain never materialized. I still left with knee and arm warmers and my vest, with the pocket shell stuffed in my jersey just in case. We arrived at staging with enough time to drop off our feed bags for the 51-mile stop, empty our bladders one last time, and then rolled out at 8AM. Things started off with 20KM of neutral roll out. So sketchy; there were guys constantly across the yellow line in order to gain a spot or two. Why? It's not like we're going anywhere. No photos from this since I had no desire to take my hands off the bars while people were constantly accordion'ing over the little rollers.
As soon as the lead moto pulled off and we hit the first stretch of dirt, hell broke loose at the front of the group as the racers gotta race. We hung back and tried to stick together as a group, but with each of us having our own climbing rhythm and pace, the implied solution was simply to regroup at the top of the first climb. And boy, what a climb it was: the surface was nicely packed dirt and gravel, though there were some slow spots where the rain earlier in the week hadn't quite dried up yet and left stretches of wet sand that could easily bog you down. The descent was almost perfect by off-road standards, again nicely packed and not very rocky, making it easy to both let the throttle open as well as scrubbing off speed as we approached the turns. A lot of it was double-track surrounded on both sides by forest, but every now and then, when the road hooked around a corner, the trees opened up and the cliff dropped away to reveal the valley below. While the views were great, the trees opening up also meant the wind was coming through again. I was grateful to have warmers and my vest with me, but was still shivering coming down.
Having stayed behind to do my thing as photographer, my friends were long gone down the road. While I was bombing down the first descent, another rider on an MTB had some words of encouragement to share: "Duuuuuuuude, you're totally killing it on that bike!" I felt good! Cyclocross has helped immensely with my comfort getting loose on sketchy surfaces, but we all know that comments like that are a jinx. As I neared the bottom and was scrubbing some speed, I felt my rear end start skipping over the gravel and looked back to confirm that I had indeed flatted my rear. No problem. It was nice and sunny and I was glad for the respite from getting bounced around. With a new tube in, I rolled down the last of the descent and met the rest of the group at the first water station.
It was time for a welcome return to tarmac, although that also meant a return to climbing. Nothing savage and much more gradual than the first climb and with a similar packed dirt surface with a top cover of fine, loose gravel. The road up was also much more open than the previous road. If I had to describe it, I'd consider it more "winding" than "twisty" and since it wasn't closed in by trees, afforded great panoramas of the terrain and slope ravaged by a recent forest fire.
Once again I was bringing up the rear of the group, but soon came across Scott, who was hard at work fixing his first flat. The organizers had warned us about the second downhill, placing it firmly in the "MTB descent" category with lots of rocks and ruts and heavily washed out from recent rains. The past two seasons of cyclocross have helped immensely with my confidence getting loose on sketchy surfaces, so I didn't find it too bad changing lines to avoid all the hazards, but woe unto those who let their attention drift. I soon came across Scott, who was busy patching his own rear pinch flat. I stood around being not helpful and watched other riders streaming by, only to walk back over to my bike to discover my rear had developed a slow leak. After tracking down the hissssssssssss of escaping air, I discovered that I had suffered a sidewall cut. It was bootable, so I stuck in a Gu wrapper, threw in my last spare tube, and proceeded semi-gingerly down. Not five minutes later, we came across ET and Alex who had blasted up the climb ahead of us almost literally around the corner.
This would be where our paths diverged. ET, who's been dealing with persistent ankle/Achilles issues had hammered the second climb knowing that he wasn't going to bother attempting the third climb (a reverse ascent of the first climb) if he wanted to be able to walk the following week. I, on the other hand, had a tire that was no longer 100% reliable, no more spare tubes, was rapidly approaching the 1PM suggested cutoff time, an endless supply of other excuses, and a strong thirst for beer. With five guys sharing a single bathroom back at the hotel, I also wanted to be a team player. By throwing in the towel now and SAG'ing back to the staging area, two of us would be able to shower and get changed and not have to worry about rushing or holding up the group. I was totally going to take this one for the team. We told the others to go ahead without us and ET and I started our slow(er) trip down, stopping for plenty of photo ops.
Once we were back on asphalt, we figured it would be an easy(ish) 12KM(ish) to the 51-mile aid station and a ride of shame back in a truck. Nope. Wrong. Instead, we were greeted with a wicked headwind with even more wicked gusts. ET graciously decided to pull the entire way, probably because he wanted Fly6 footage of me making suffer-face, dripping snot, or trying to adjust my cap under my helmet. I think he was successful in capturing all three. Note: riding one handed with wind gusts these strong is not a great idea. I don't advise it. It leads to things like almost being blown across the lane into a passing truck.
The organizers had made a last-minute change to the course the night before to detour around washed out roads, which meant that the mile markers they had so thoughtfully provided with the event bible and which I had so meticulously applied to my stem were now off by a few miles. As we struggled to push into the wind and the odometer kept ticking upwards, no aid station was in sight as we rolled through the town of Entiat. Worried that we'd missed it, I pulled into a gas station where I saw one of the SAG moto drivers chilling out with an ice cream cone. At this point, I noticed that my rear tire had started going soft again, but since the aid station was just under 2KM away, I thought I'd be able to make it. Just as I was about to pull back out into traffic, I looked back and it had gone completely flat again. The SAG driver was nice to offer a spare tube, but I took it as a sign to call it quits for sure.
We briefly crossed paths at the midway aid station. While the three others were shedding layers and getting ready to push for the last summit, I was busy stuffing my face with the Egg McMuffin and Coke (and jerkey. and sour gummies. and Swedish fish) I had thoughtfully stuffed into my drop bag. At 2PM, the aid station started tearing down and we hitched a ride back into town where we completed our ride of shame back to the hotel for beers of shame.
Some thoughts on equipment choices:
- Cyclocross bike was probably the best call. Sure, there were a few brave/foolish souls who opted for road bikes with 28s, but I doubt they had much fun. Those who chose MTBs were probably laughing on the descents, but cursing as soon as the road levelled out or turned upward. 33 slicks or semi-slicks with low-ish pressure (ideally tubeless) would have been ideal.
- I should have opted for a slightly beefier tire to be safe. While my Compass Stampede Pass Extralites have been used to great success at events such as Oregon Outback and there were plenty in the pack also using the same tire or the 35mm Bon Jon Pass, I would have traded a bit of suppleness and road feel for a sturdier sidewall. I'm sure my incident was a fluke, but it would have been great not to have to pull out because of an equipment failure.
- Low gear: my 1x setup with 40x36 was alright, though I was forced to get out of the saddle at in a few spots. 38x36 would have been better. Watching ET spin up pitches with gradients well into the double digits makes me wish I had a dedicated adventure bike with a 2x setup running 46/36 and 11-36.
- My 'cross bike position needs to be refined. Spending the past few weeks on my Naked has been eye opening in terms of how my body should be positioned. My CX setup is perfect for riding on the hoods or the tops since that's where I spend the majority of my time in a race, but descending during this event in the drops felt super cramped in the cockpit and my neck was being forced to reach in an (even more) unnatural position. Gotta sort this out before August.
- Whatever your personal feeling are on the whole disc/canti debate, I was glad to have a hydro disc setup. It was nice having the confidence to let the bike run downhill and know that I had plenty of modulation and stopping power at my fingertips. Literally. There were certainly people who finished the ride on road calipers or cantis, but it was nice not having my forearms pump out or my hands turned into gnarled claws.
And now, miscellaneous photos from the trip!