A Beginner’s Guide to Cycling Gran Fondos

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A Beginner’s Guide to Cycling Gran Fondos post image

Fair warning: what follows is 6,000+ words about road cycling, a hobby I picked up last year. These words poured out of my hands the morning after my first semi-competitive event. Those four hours I spent on the roads with a few hundred other riders were some of the most fun I’d ever had, and I didn’t want to forget them. Some friends encouraged me to share those thoughts here. If you have any questions about cycling in general, I’m glad to answer them for you either in the comments or in subsequent articles.

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If your dream was to ride your bicycle in the most ideal place in the world, you couldn’t do much better than to conjure up “Girona, Spain”. This small city is situated amongst a patchwork of farmlands and rolling roads, all surrounded by mountains of various steepness.

The few motorists that you do encounter while riding there are patient and friendly. The combination of the variety and length of the climbs, the smooth tarmac, year-round good weather, relative lack of traffic, and access to decent coffee is all any serious cyclist really desires.

And so, by historical accident and geographical good fortune, Girona has become one of the most popular places in the world to ride a bike, for professional teams and amateurs alike.

Strangely enough, it was the American rider Lance Armstrong who helped propel the sleepy capital of Catalunya to its current reputation a home of pro cycling. In the middle of his unprecedented and – as we now definitively know – drug-fueled runs on seven Tour de France victories in the early 2000’s, French authorities began to tighten their anti-doping regulations (Lance had long based himself out of Nice, France). In response, the boys from the US Postal cycling team packed up and moved to Spain, where no such tightening was going on.

This, in part, explains the decidedly Anglo flair that Girona has. In the historic part of the city, English is practically the primary language. You hear American and Australian accents everywhere.

When I saw, late last year, a large organized bike race for amateurs– the Girona Gran Fondo– was being planned for the summer of 2016, I knew I had to register. And, to be honest, I was surprised to find that the website and registration form was in English. And, months later, when two hundred of us gathered at the start line in the shadow of the Cathedral of Girona, the race organizers addressed us in two languages: English and Catalan.

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Fondo riders gathered at the base of the cathedral.

Gran Fondos or ‘Sportives’ are massive cycling group rides on public roads. They are extremely popular in Europe, and are becoming increasingly so in America.

They are semi-competitive, timed events. The riders at the front ride like hell to finish at the top of the leader board, but some are just there to have a good time. Most enter to test themselves and ride their best.

Fondos solve a problem that has long-plagued road racing organizers. Closing public roads is expensive and difficult. Because of this, most bike races in America nowadays are “criteriums,” which is a fancy way of saying “racing around parking lots.”

Fondo organizers realized that they could still host what, essentially, amounts to a classic road race (100km+ routes with climbs, in the style of the Tour de France) so long as they invited, and charged, hundreds of cycling enthusiasts.

In any Gran Fondo you can see the division — there are those with teams, strategies, pro outfits, and even professional racing experience. And then there are the rest of us.

Here’s the story of how the Girona Gran Fondo went for me in 2016, and how I managed to finish with some of the ‘best of the rest’.

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View of Girona with the mountains beyond.

I only caught the biking bug in 2015. My business partner, Ian, asked me to join him on a ride he regularly did in Austin, Texas. At the time, I hadn’t been working out much due to nagging injuries, but cycling didn’t seem to aggravate them. So I jumped on a friend’s mountain bike and gave it my all to try and keep up with Ian on his sleek racing machine, but there was no chance. I became fascinated by how fast and efficient road bikes could be. Almost immediately, I was hooked.

I bought my first serious bike later that year, and when I moved to Spain in early January, I packed it up and took it with me. It was only once I arrived in Europe that I realized how seriously people can take cycling.

Amateurs here regularly ride 100’s of kilometers a week, spending entire weekends on their bikes, climbing mountain roads that can, in some cases, take longer than an hour to ascend.

In early January, I started putting some serious kilometers in. I figured that the Fondo, six months later, would be the ideal event to test myself, and perhaps give me some hints as to what to do next.

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View of old town Girona.

Let’s start with the results: by my standards I overperformed on what I thought was possible, and impressed those riders that I cycle with regularly. Out of 188 who registered, I finished tied for 37th. That’s in the top 20%.

With this, I was very happy.

And, according to Strava, the de facto app for documenting cycling rides, I was the fastest finisher weighing over 95 kilograms.

With that, I have somewhat mixed feelings.

The fastest chubby guy?

You might be thinking, how does a guy who’s large and new to cycling have a decent finish? If you are thinking that, you’re in luck. I’m about to ramble for pages about exactly what I did, both in those six months leading up to the Fondo, and in those four hours during the race. For those of you of waning curiosity, I encourage you to get out while you can.

It’s about to get wonky.

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Eivind and others on our Recon ride.

On ‘reconning’ the course.

One thing I have learned is that riding a bike fast isn’t something you can cram for. It takes months to gain fitness.

An exception to this is “reconning the course.” This is simply riding the course and taking notes of the potentially critical parts. I took mental notes like “3.5 kms of moderate climbing at kilometer 85.” Many riders go so far as to tape these to the top tubes of their bikes.

Here’s an illustration on the importance of this type of reconning from a pivotal moment in the race:

On the third climb of the day, I was hanging in a fast bunch of about 20. This group included the top female finishers, some of whom had team affiliations. We all hit a narrow and steep climb through a farmer’s field, and most of the bunch fought for position on the ascent. Instead of pacing on the wheels of my competitors, I settled into a tempo I could hold. Generally speaking, large people don’t climb fast.

By the time we turned off the narrow path back onto the road (about halfway), I was still feeling strong and consistent but found myself about a football field or so behind the bunch with three other riders.

Far ahead on the horizon all three of us saw the crest on the road. The rider next to me, who I’ll call Mr. British, was an older guy with a smooth London accent and an expensive racing machine.

He obviously had aspirations of a strong finish, because when we saw the crest he cut the chit chat and got serious. But I’m going to assume, based on what he did next, that he didn’t recon the course.

Here’s what we both knew: to be isolated with one or two other tired climbers, while a strong group descends into a flat portion of the course, would almost certainly mean we’d never rejoin the group ahead. We’d be screwed.

But there was something that Mr. British probably didn’t know. That crest on the horizon wasn’t the end of the climb, far from it.

Yet the potential disaster of losing the bunch led Mr. British to make a fatal mistake. I watched it happen. I heard him shift “down the block,” clack-clicking into harder gears.

Mr. British was winding up into his maximum effort to catch the group.

And, as he set about doing so, I was able to lock into a steady pace on his wheel. As he motored toward the crest, he was winding and grinding, huffing and puffing. Surely, he must have been thinking, he’d reach the group and his downhill rest soon.

I could have said “hey man, this isn’t the end of the climb.” But that would have been presumptuous. Who knows what Mr. British was actually thinking? And, after all, it was a race. So I settled in on his wheel and never pushed myself over my limit.

At the top of the crest, Mr. British “popped.” Went into the red. Every cyclist knows: stay out of the red. It can take minutes to recover from over-exerting yourself. So if you’re going to do it, you’ll want a downhill or a finish line.

Mr. British had neither.

Disheartened to see that the climb would go on for many more minutes, his body reeling from the effort, he dropped from the group, and we didn’t see him again.

I was able to coordinate my maximum effort with the top of the climb. I caught one of the leading groups and passed them, while recovering, on the ensuing descent. Without the simple knowledge of understanding when the climb would end, this story would be much different.

Maybe Mr. British and I might have adopted less racey postures and gotten to know each other, rolling into the finish isolated but well-rested.

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Riding through the villages surrounding Girona.

On training.

In six months I’ve developed something of a training philosophy. Here it is:

• do the kind of riding you’ll be doing on the day
• do it challenging one day and easy the next
• don’t kill yourself (because you need to keep training!)
• come to the day itself rested.

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Chris Carmichael’s Final Week of Road Race Training Plan

I wasn’t by any means militant about training philosophy and I don’t intend to be in the future. This is thanks to hills. In Barcelona, they are everywhere. Here, a ride consists of cycling to a hill, and then going up it. This jibes nicely with Eddy Merckx’s (the Michael Jordan of cycling) training maxim: “If you want to go fast, don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades.”

Going uphill demands that you hold constant power for a length of time. In the Fondo, when it was up to a small group of us to hold high speeds on the flats for 30 minutes to finish the race ahead of the pursuing bunch, it wasn’t speed intervals on flats that my legs remembered, it was climbing to the town of St Feliu, perched on the top of a ridge, in 17 minutes (you probably don’t know what I’m talking about, but suffice it to say that it was very hard and my feet went numb).

Your determination can fade, but the hills are always there.

Here’s a simple “training for dummies” formulation I’ve distilled from dozens of books and blogs:

• Monday: ride hills.
• Tuesday: avoid them (keep heart rate low and pedal strokes light).
• Wednesday: ride more hills.
• Thursday. Avoid them.
• Friday. Hills.
• Saturday: Group ride.
• Sunday: Rest.

Do all this for 10 to 15 hours a week.

That’s it!

Cycling is pretty simple stuff.

A word on diet.

I wasn’t that serious about all this training. If I was, I would have cut out all the beer I like to drink, or the tapas I like to chuck down my throat. I might have hit the starting line 5 to 10 pounds lighter, which would have made a difference to the story you’re about to hear. Cycling is for those who are pear shaped. Defined, slim, and vascular legs. Skinny arms, chest, and most importantly, stomach.

Losing weight, if you are a fatty like me, is the quickest way to get faster. But then again, I never like to take the easy way out, and in this race I wasn’t particularly incentivized to do so.

This Girona Fondo course was designed for those internationals who might not have such a flat stomach, who might not want to spend 1000’s of dollars to fly to an international cycling destination only to be subjected to an hour and a half climb. You know, Tour de France stuff.

So our course was somewhat manageable. But don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t some charity ride.

Here’s the stats: 125 kilometers, four climbs, and lots of hills (1700 meters, or 5500 feet of vertical ascent). If you couldn’t keep a minimum pace of 24km/hr, you’d be swept up by the ‘broom’ van.

So, in the case of this race, “survival” meant staying out of the van.

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2016 Girona Gran Fondo Race Profile

It begins.

Hundreds of us lined up in the cobbles of Girona’s old town in the shadow of the cathedral. A motorcade of Policia and freelance motorcycle owners guided us, in green neon jerseys, to the quiet country roads where the fondo would start.

After not more than 5 minutes of pedaling through the roundabouts of suburban Girona, we were out of saddle straining up steep inclines.

I expected this, of course. I reconned the course. But I did not expect to be hurting so bad. Just to stick with my bunch, I was already in threshold heart range. The dreaded “4” zone on my computer. That’s anything over 166 beats a minute. One only has so much time at threshold. A slim budget. It’s where races and climbs are won, but you only have so much to give.

I was already giving it just to stick with the bunch. Halfway through the series of steep ramps, I settled into a rhythm that was mine and let others go at their own pace. We’re talking about a 125 kilometer race here.

In retrospect, at least some of this heart-pounding was from adrenaline, and perhaps it was exactly this that inspired me to push so hard on such steep ramps.

Adrenalin, like amphetamines, can be a mixed blessing for riders. Sure, take a little of either and you’ll go faster. But the downside is the confidence they give you. Coked up riders don’t know their limits. They have a hard time staying ‘out of the red.’

Here’s what’s strange: you can slowly build just to the edge of the red and, depending on the type of rider you are, you can hold it there for quite some time. But pushing over into the red is a disaster.

Your heart can beat erratically, trying to clear lactic acid from your muscles. You sweat profusely, your skin trying to re-find a suitable temperature.

Fifteen minutes into the race that’s where I found myself. Squarely in the red. Splashed pools of sweat on my top tube.

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The fuel of a rider, energy bars, non-alcoholic beer, sports drink.

I probably wasn’t the only one, though. Most of the riders flying past me on these ramps would slowly appear on the horizon later in the race.

Once the ramps were finished, I was able to re-join the bunch. “Fats love the flats” is a joke I use to express the fact that larger riders have higher power outputs, making them fast on flats and descents. Smaller riders have a better power to weight ratio, making them faster in the hills. The steeper the climb, the more any excess body fat will punish you.

I used this advantage to re-join the top bunch of non-contenders. The ‘rest of us.’ The top group of semi-pro riders had already established a breakaway.

Our group proceeded in a large bunch through flat, humid and dewy roads for the next 20 kilometers or so, until we made a sharp turn into a forest to start the second climb of the day, a leafy three kilometers on the side of a mountain.

“You can’t go into the red again” I’m thinking as I entered the forest.

Instead of doing my best to hold the bunch of 30 or so riders, I set in at my own pace. That pace, it turned out, was much too slow. The strong riders ahead, who saw the climbs as the decisive moments or a race (and they almost always are), took off.

Many minutes later, I found myself cresting the summit with a strung-out group of about six riders. Nerves set in. Had I lost the bunch? I was beginning to sense my mistake.

The only thing that kept me optimistic was the water and food stop immediately after the summit. On the course, there were four “rest areas,” each of which we were required to pause at to get our race cards punched. I had enough food and water, so I could get in and out fast.

I assured myself I could make up time there.

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Atop the mountains looking to the valley where Girona is located.

Rest stops.

Normally, at events like this, riders lounge at rest stops, dine on homemade brownies, sandwiches, and treats, refill their bottles, catch up with friends, and take a bathroom break.

Not at the Girona Gran Fondo. This was more like an F1 pit stop. Riders were fighting for position. “Quickly!” one shouted as he instructed the race volunteers to serve him first. People were forgoing both water and food. They were there for the punch in their race card, nothing else.

I watched, somewhat in awe, as those I was riding with clipped back into their pedals and barreled down the other side of the mountain without so much as a water refill.

It was a very muggy day. And I sweat a lot.

I refilled both of my bottles, just in case. Never pass up a chance to fill your bottles, I thought. My arms were shaky and covered in perspiration. My nerves were growing. I was slowly starting to think through the implications of my mistake. Why didn’t I just put a little more energy into staying with the group? I surely could have stayed with them.

Part of me had hoped that the riders who attacked on the climb would be here taking nature breaks and dining on treats. Maybe taking selfies and chatting about the beauty of Girona? Perhaps I could take advantage of their lack of seriousness and preparation to make up time.

But there were no brownies or conversations. There weren’t any riders either, they had already jumped back onto the road. I thought about how badly I had screwed this up as a few race volunteers clumsily poured water my way and spilled it over my hands.

They hadn’t had much practice filling bottles.

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I pulled out on a descent with two Dutch guys on fancy American bikes. All I could think was “crap,” here I am between two buddies, slicing down the damp roads, after a climb that I rode too slow. I’ve lost the bunch. Three. Isolated. Riders.

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Els Angels, a 5km quiet climb in Girona.

The comeback.

The next section of the race was a combination of slow, steady uphill gradients — think 2%-3% grade climbs for 10km-  and then rolling sections through farmlands (with incredibly scenic mountains surrounding us that we, thankfully, didn’t have to climb). By the time me and the two Dutch guys got to the long highway ramps, the jettisoned riders from the back of the main bunch came back together, and these dropped fragments formed a paceline of about ten riders.

A paceline is when riders line up single file behind each other in order to save energy. Often, the rider on the front of the paceline will “take a pull,” or stay on the front, anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes, and then fade to the back to rest and recover. Pacelines (and drafting behind other riders more generally) is worth underlining because it’s the single most important thing in bike racing strategy. In terms of rules, strategies, and tactics, cycling is a relatively sparse sport. It can pretty much be summed up like this: don’t waste your energy.

The rider at the front of a paceline, depending on the conditions, is expending 30% more energy to ride on the front. Those behind that rider are, in a very meaningful way, getting a free ride. A “tow.’ Getting ‘sucked down the road.’

I had no idea how dedicated these guys were to getting back on the bunch. Our pace wasn’t all that strenuous. I didn’t have a clue as to how much time we had lost (it was two minutes) but at the time I was thinking the worst-case: “We’ve lost the bunch. They are probably gaining even more time in a stronger paceline.”

So I did something nuts, I went to the front and started pulling. I guess it got people fired up, because a few minutes later an energetic Catalan rider jumped in front of me and said something that sounded like “let’s ride a little” and proceeded to lead the group off the highway and into the farmlands.

Through the valley, our little group, now together for something like 20 minutes, began to pick up riders from the bunch ahead.

While all this was happening I was awkwardly dropping salt tabs into my emptying water bottles, anticipating the next water stop. I’d have no time to add them to the bottles at the rest break.

Just a few months before, on my first ride of the hot season, I learned the hard way. You need to put salt in your water. Just trust me on this.

At the second rest stop I came in with speed, just like an F1 driver. My empty bottle was pre-loaded with a salt tab and its top was loose enough to pull off quick, but tight enough that it wouldn’t be shaken off by the road’s vibrations.

It seemed that the bunch ahead was breaking up. As we picked up more and more strong riders, our bunch started moving fast through the valley. Was it due to a tailwind or more advanced riders? Either way, as we powered into rolling forest-neighborhoods our group was getting larger and stronger. The mistake I had made on hill #2 was being made up for.

The narrow roads, weaving through narrow forested roads, made it feel like we were flying. But I knew that climb #3 was coming up, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake again.

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The author enjoying the rolling terrain of the valley.

Back in the game.

Of course, nobody else wanted to take it nice and easy up the climb. Everyone went ‘all out’ once we hit the concrete uphill in the middle of a cow pasture. This part of the course felt like something directly out of the Spring classic races held in Belgium and France. A single track road surrounded by fields, trees, and stone walls. The first 25% of the climb was steep. And for a big guy like me – who puts out more power than most riders but must also carry those muscles and stomach fat up hills – climbs become exponentially harder the steeper they go.

After the steep bits, through the fields, the bunch had split into three groups. The 15 or so strong riders who battled on the ‘Spring classic climb’ were a football field or two ahead of me, and the second bunch of determined riders keeping a steady tempo. At the back there were those who had blown up– gone into the red.

This is where Mr. British had made his critical error, mistaking a crest in the two lane highway for the peak of the hill. Seeing his blow up helped crystallize in my head an honest-to-goodness strategy, something that until this point in the race had been something more like “survive.”

Before the race, that was it. “Go fast and survive.” But going through this experience made it clear to me the nuance and fun of all that is happening on the road.

Seeing Mr. British almost pop on the road made me realize how important it was to get to that bunch before they crest the hill. The principle is simple: making up time on hill is so much easier than doing so in descents or on the flats. If you end up alone on the flats, the strong bunch of riders would settle into pacelines and make matters worse. The entire bunch would be sitting in a slipstream while you’re out there expending energy just to maintain the same speed. Making up time on the flats, if you could even do so, might require you to dig deep into your energy for half an hour or more, whereas you could make the same kind of progress on a hill in just a few minutes.

So, it all of a sudden became clear. I knew the climb. I knew the riders were a football field and a half ahead. I remembered my training and clicked up my effort to a high, painful, but sustainable level.

Luckily it didn’t take me long to catch the group, right on the crest of the climb. And then something strange happened: they all started taking it easy. Taking bottles and eating gels like their work was done (quick aside: I used around 3500 calories during this race, and ate something– a gel, wafer, or bar, at least every 45 minutes, not to mention all the weird stuff I was drinking. I could write an equally long article about eating and drinking on long rides).  Emboldened by my triumph on the long climb (for a big guy like me, just staying with climbers on a hill is a huge win), I moved to the front of the bunch during the long descent, which had an unexpected benefit.

I came into the third feed station at the front of them, which got me back onto the road quicker. That strong bunch of about 30 became 15, and were were hammering it downhill together.

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Photos of the Fondo course from the recon ride, near water stop #2.

Meeting Cervélo.

The descent was followed by a series of roller-coaster hills through cow paths. Beautiful riding, and on a day like this, after a rain, somewhat dangerous. I was positioned towards the front of the bunch leading into a short gravel climb. For the last 40 kilometers, or so, there was one rider who stuck out. “Cervélo” was being very aggressive the entire time. Always leading the bunches, occasionally breaking away. And I noticed again that, heading into the gravel climb, Cervélo and I seemed to be setting the tone. It was me and Cervélo (also a big rider, but noticeably more fit looking) who were pounding out the watts through rolling terrain which favors larger riders. I was also sitting behind his wheels, careful to conserve my energy and conscious that I had taken some strong pulls early in the race.

As we turned onto the gravel climb I realized that I was the strongest rider in the bunch. Here’s how the realization went. I knew that after the gravel climb there was only one more climb on the course (and then 3-4 rolling ramps heading into the finish). We were at about 90-95 km mark of 125. So when we hit the gravel I was in 3rd or 4th position in the bunch, now about 15 of us. I set in my effort level at high tempo. I’m not sure if it was due to the length of the day, my salt tabs and healthy appetite for gels, or that the climb was at a friendly gradient for larger cyclists (this climb was perhaps 4%) but I started pulling away.

I wasn’t blowing up and I wasn’t giving a threshold effort. I was just pushing hard, but nothing that I couldn’t sustain. Again, the hills had helped. So I just kept it dialed in. And, at the end of the gravel, unsurprisingly to me, Cervélo hit the crest of the rolling climb with a big effort (he caught me as I had caught the bunch on the previous climb) and I gave a huge spin to grab his wheel.

Riding behind Cervélo, who was taller than me, I was able to get maximum rest. Perhaps 30% power savings sitting in his slipstream. I was there and could hold his wheel. I turned around after we had settled into our pace and realized we were alone. Not only had I caught the bunch but, after the next uphill section, we had completely left them behind.

What a change from a few hours before, when I thought I might have spent all my energy on the first few ramps. As we flew down the sketchy descent (lots of gravel) I started thinking. “Wow. This is getting really fun.”

The two of us were tearing up the flats after the descent. “You’re strong” I yelled.

“My mates are in the bunch behind” Cervélo said in a posh British accent.

“So this is for bragging rights? I can get behind that.” I said. “I might be able to help you on the flats” I said between concentrated breathing as I focused on holding his wheel.

A few minutes later, as we took a left onto the highway that would lead to climb #4, we turned around to see on the horizon a deflating sight. The bunch. Thirty riders. Had they all teamed up again? A cloud of competition behind us on the foothills of the climb. Perhaps it was two football fields? The thought I had, as we turned the corner into the woods, two large riders heading uphill, with me mostly struggling to hold Cervélos wheel, was something like “ah shit.”

“How long is it?”, Cervélo asked of the climb. “Not exactly sure”, I said.

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More likely to see a cow than a car.

I wasn’t, even though I had ridden the course I was confused as to the exact distance of the climb. A week previous, during our recon ride, my training buddy Eivind crushed me on this very hill. I went into the red trying to hold his wheel. When I yelled I was giving up, he turned around to say “the top is right here!” So I knew where the top was and, when I saw it, I gassed it.

The best place to use your energy on a hill is on the crest. That’s where you can maximize your speed and recover on the other side.

When I saw it I called to Cervélo. “This is the top. Let’s hit it hard.” And so I led him (I hadn’t taken much time at the front until then). I remembered what happened next on the training ride: Eivind, who knew the course well, hammered on the rolling descent, which featured winding roads and slight inclines – the type of roads that big riders like us can make time on. I was thinking of Eivind, who helped me with the recon ride. I’d gone all out, holding his wheel just a week before, going way faster than I would have on my own, getting a sense that I could take the corners and small inclines at full gas. Today, I was doing the same for Cervélo.

So when we emerged from the mountains, many minutes later, onto one of those long roads that stretched to the horizon, we got a chance to turn around, and look up from our bikes, and peer into the hills from where we came.

No riders. No colors between the leaves.

“I can’t see them” I said to Cervélo. “We just need to hold them for another 25 kilometers.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if had Cervélo, at any point, became suspicious of my enthusiasm and vigilance. But his race had become mine. We were both determined that this bunch, the one with containing the friends he wanted so badly to beat, was not going to catch us on the flats and ramps that remained.

“Hopefully we can find somebody to help”, I said. A paceline of two riders is not terribly efficient. Our rests were short while we switched places at the front, grinding big gears, holding high speeds through farmer’s fields. But everyone we passed was bonked. Had hit the wall. Was broken by the kilometers. A few of them were riders from my own cycling group who didn’t take up my whoops to join our wheels.

We must have passed 10 or 15 riders during this portion, we literally had a fire burning in our saddles. The mantra was running in my head: “stay away from the bunch.”

Cervélo and I flew into the final rest stop, just over 20 kilometers from the finish line, sweating, but only needing a bottle each (I had again pre-prepared my salt tabs and loosened my bottle tops, a move I was congratulating myself for figuring out).

And then, coming out into the tree-lined streets of Banyoles, a town famous for its tranquil lake, home of the rowing events in the 1992 Olympics, I saw a familiar and friendly sight. The black and red Altura jersey of Eivind! He’s unmistakable on the road. An imposing rider from Norway, he somehow glides up hills as well. Sitting on his wheel is like being towed through the headwinds. He was riding with Ryan, an excellent climber who also rides with our group. About 50 meters ahead, they looked like they had adopted a moderate pace. Popped from any group and isolated on the road. They were chatting!

New blood.

I felt like we had stumbled unto a gold mine. I turned to Cervélo, “see those guys up there, they are going to help us. They are strong.”

And as we flew up on them I started yelling “hey boys this isn’t a Sunday ride! Let’s give it our all!” And they laughed. And realized that we meant it. And they got out of their saddles and got onto the paceline.

Now there were 4 of us. And, shortly, we were joined by a smaller climber who I’ll call “Synapse” due to the model of his Cannondale brand bike. Then there were five of us. And 20 kilometers to go.

We kept a paceline and, led largely by the bigger riders, Cervélo, Eivind, and myself pushed a big pace, well over 40km/hr through the rolling ramps and flats on the outskirts of Girona. A few times Synapse came up to take pulls, an effort for which I was grateful, but found trouble getting much benefit behind such a small rider. At one point, I changed the order of the paceline– rudely butting in in front of him– reasoning that he can get a rest behind almost any rider, but stuck behind Synapse I felt I was, more or less, in the wind.

With the extra riders, something magical happened: we kept our pace. In fact, for the second half of the ride, over 70 kilometers– not one, not one rider– would come past my wheel. Instead the five of us hammered and flew past those who had hit their walls. I watched the kilometers turn over on my cycling computer. I reminded myself of the training. Of those many 20 minute max effort hill climbs. And I reasoned, if I can go max for 20 minutes, I can go ‘just about max’ for 40. Right?

The end is in sight.

As we turned right into Girona, there was one final ramp (‘ramp’ is a word riders use to when talking of climbs that only take a few minutes, or one where you can can see the top). It was one that we didn’t ride during our recon. But there was no way I was going to give up after all we had done. I was past thinking about the pain.

As a police bike picked led into the roundabouts the final 5 km of the course, there was only Eivind, Synapse (who would never take a turn at the front again) and myself. Having a personal policia motivated us to keep our pace high on the road home.

Eivind took a fast pull for a few minutes, we were struggling just to hold his wheel, and then waved his hand to say “that’s all I got.”

After Eivind’s effort, I pushed my pedals as if they were counterweighted by 50 pound dumbbells. As if the stair climber was set at 10. I was, as they say, pushing squares. I was depending on my computer being correct, that there were indeed only 2 kilometers left.

It wasn’t long until we saw the blue inflated arch. The type they put across finish lines. There were race timers sitting behind a fold-out table, a few riders, and a couple volunteers clapping us in.

Eivind and I rolled across the line side-by-side (well, technically, he was in front of me by a meter or three, but who’s counting?).

It was fitting that we finished together, having ridden so many kilometers on each other’s wheels leading up to the event. I am positive that Eivind had more in him, but for me, I am not so sure. I was very glad the race was over. And also overjoyed that the bunch did not catch us.

Synapse offered a “thanks” as he regained his breath at the end. It was the first time he spoke. Keeping up with us on the flats like that must have been a huge effort.

Somewhere along the way we had lost Cervélo. The big rider with the nice bike who wanted to brag to his buddies had imbued my day with a sense of purpose, added a sense of shape to the race, and got my mind thinking of strategy instead of survival.

IMG_9260
The awards party in the garden of the Girona castle.

I spent about 10 to 15 minutes at the finish, and only a few riders trickled in, including Ryan, with whom we immediately starting sharing stories of our stampede to the finish.

I never ended up seeing Cervélo again, but was shocked to learn, many hours later during the podium awards ceremony, that the top women in the bunch we had broken away from were indeed those in first place.

For the sake of bragging rights over beers, and with the help of Eivind and some great riding from Cervélo, we had not only caught the group and created a small gap, but built a significant lead in just 20 kilometers.

Hours later, when we were all discussing the race over a late lunch, the riders in my group teased me for my enthusiasm and surprising form on the day. We recalled these stories to the best of our abilities and tried to piece together the four hours we had spent on the road.

My decent finish depended on the slipstreams of stronger riders like Cervélo and Eivind.

Eivind didn’t end up meeting the group at the after-party (there were about nine riders from my regular group that came out).

But if he did, he’d probably have joked that he was just trying to hold my wheel. He’s cool like that.

 

____

Thanks to Jane Beresford for her help with this article.

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 11.18.22 AM

Example of a 4 week training block from my Strava account.

Published on 08.16.16
  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    A reader asked me if this was a good bike and if disc brakes are worth it:

    http://www.bikeradar.com/us/road/gear/category/bikes/road/product/review-cannondale-synapse-ultegra-disc-15-48942/

    My response:

    This bike is excellent and I’d 100% recommend disc brakes (hydraulic only, which this model has)… I’ve ridden very expensive / light bikes with standard brakes and the first thing I notice isn’t the carbon, or how light or stiff it is, but that the brakes suck. Discs FTW. All those arguments online are honestly stunning to me “esp the ‘it isn’t really necessary argument’, i think this guy (Patrick) said it best when he said “it’s only an argument amongst those who don’t have them”

    http://redkiteprayer.com/2014/10/thoughts-on-disc-brakes/

  • Matthew Newton

    Wow, man. Loved every word. Epic. Felt like I was out there with you.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    thank you Mat appreciate that!

  • http://www.enkosiafrica.com Jordi Casinos

    I am over six months behind you in leg work and, as usual, a galaxy (I wish I could count in football fields like you do!) behind you in perseverance, planning and focus.
    Having said that, your sports epic across the Girona hills was my first read on the topic and really encouraged me to keep pedalling. Believe it or not I learnt more than one thing, going out solo or with experienced riders feels like being behind the wheel for the first time with me trying to lecture, it has been so long that second nature ends up being impossible to explain.

    I will reconsider sharing the road with you… unless struggling to keep up in your slipstream!

  • http://www.enkosiafrica.com Jordi Casinos

    Being a big man living in hill country, I can tell you every time I go out I repeat my downhill mantra “next bike with disk brakes; next bike with disk brakes.”

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    haha yeah I also mentioned that they are perhaps even more relevant on road bikes because 1) you’re going faster and 2) 90% of the time you’re braking from the hoods, where you don’t have an efficient angle of attack on the lever. to me the most fascinating part of the whole thing is how the conversation has played out online and in the pro peloton, regarding the actual tech it’s tough to imagine disc brakes not being the primary system in 5 years, and even tougher for me to imagine not riding one :)

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    haha look forward to it! part of the reason i published this was Derek Sivers advice that sometimes the best time to explain something is very quickly after you’ve learned it b/c years later you consider those things to be ‘obvious’ in cycling for me, nothing is obvious, and that (combined with the fact that it’s such a detail oriented sport, basically *repeating* yourself over and over for hours) has been part of the pleasure for me… i’ve certainly noticed that in some of my business scribblings i overlook a lot of things that I would have noticed earlier on

  • http://www.enkosiafrica.com Jordi Casinos

    I now officially fear you. :P

  • http://teachingyourchild.net Nathan Bills

    That sounds like a lot of fun Dan. Really makes me want to ride. I have been watching the poor souls pedaling in the 104 degree TX heat lately – not my cup of tea. When are you going to start organizing more rides?

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    yeah that sounds rough! by organizing rides what do you mean? here in BCN I generally do about one a week. You should come out! :D

  • http://teachingyourchild.net Nathan Bills

    I was thinking that you said you were planning to start a boutique bike tour company or something exotic like that. I was bummed to miss the BCN ride last time. Hoping to be back over there soon so maybe next time around.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    ahh yeah gotta say that’s temping, I’m going to try and do my first mini-tour here in a few weeks, but I could see posting something like this in the DC and trying to drum up a crew. Would be very fun.

  • Bunty

    It was a pleasure reading. I’ve been a big bike enthusiast to say the least, often focusing my travel around awesome trails. The love of travel through biking eventually led me to TMBA. It’s serendipitous to see you on the bike now.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    awesome! :D a lot more bike talk coming down the pike here

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