The alarm woke me (and Karel) up at 5:30am so that I had time to eat a pre-race/event meal (2 waffles + PB, syrup and banana for me) and to warm-up with a cup of coffee.
My athlete/good friend Meredith arrived to our house (via car) at 7am and we all drove to the parking area for the Hincapie Gran Fondo, about 20 minutes away. I rode with Meredith to chat about the execution for the "fun" 80-mile bike event while Karel followed in his car.
I'm sure you can agree with me when I say that you can't help but get excited when you see other like-minded individuals doing what you love to do. Despite the mid 40-degree temps, there was a big field full of vehicles, all with bike racks and a road lined with cyclists, heading a mile down the road to Hotel Domestique.
It was very nostalgic as it reminded me of all of the bike events that I went to with Karel.
After riding our bikes on the hwy for 1 mile (we had the shoulder, which was marked off with cones - again, a well organized event!) we arrived to the hotel around 7:50am, with about 20 minutes to spare before we could position ourselves in the corral.
We dropped off our gear bags, stopped at the port-o-potty one last time and then secured our spot near the front of the corral.....only to wait there for the next 50 minutes.
Despite the shivering, we had a good time in the corral. We were cracking jokes, I organized some photos on my phone, we took some selfies and we enjoyed listening to the announcer (Chad) get the crowd pumped up for the adventures ahead.
After the pro and VIP call-ups, it was time to start our ride at 9am. It was about 2 minutes later that we finally started to roll our wheels up the hill. The ride stayed neutral for just a short time and then we finally started to pick up speed.
Although I am calling this a race (start line, finish line, bib number w/ chip = race), I had absolutely no expectations for this event. My number one goal was to give my best effort throughout all 80-miles, ride confidently with my improved bike handling skills and be challenged by the other cyclists who could bring out the best in me. And I also couldn't wait to climb as I love the feeling of going up a hill (or a mountain).
The first hour went by fast. It's amazing how one stretch of road can go by so quick when the road is lined with cyclists. I found myself with several small groups of riders but every group seemed to be a bit disorganized with no rotating and breaks in the group. Throughout the entire ride, I made sure to take care of myself with hydration/calories and paying attention to the road and riders ahead of me. I've learned a lot from Karel and three tips that I always remember when riding in groups:
1) Don't ride behind sketchy riders or behind people who you don't like their riding style
2) Don't depend on anyone else - take care of yourself and do what you need to do to not get dropped
3) Move yourself up in the areas where you don't excel (ex. sharp turns, u-turns, downhills) so that you don't get dropped
Karel managed to move up to the front lead pack of riders right away as his bike handling skills allowed him to squeeze through all the riders ahead of us in the staging area. Looking back, I should have made more of an effort to try to follow him instead of patiently waiting until there was room to find my own clear path. Karel "raced" with the lead group to the top of Skyuka mountain, in the company of Andrew Crater (and his girlfriend Debbie, who won the female race) and George Hincapie (and other pros). Later Karel told me that George was not even working hard on Skyuka and he made it look so easy as Karel was really giving a hard effort to the top.
When Karel got to the top of Skyuka, his legs reminded him that he was not yet recovered from Kona/3 IM's this summer so he backed off the effort and just focused on surviving back to the finish. He later told me that he should have just backed off a gear on Skyuka and then he could have rode comfortably with the second big group (which George and other pros).
Once we turned off Hwy 11, the fun began. I found myself riding well in a group and then when a climb came, I moved myself up to the next group. Because it was so windy out, I made sure to not expend more energy than needed - in other words, even if a group was not super fast, I had to decide if the group was worth leaving just to do my own solo effort in the windy conditions.
Although it was cold out, I was dressed well with compression socks, cycling shorts, a base layer t-shirt, a jersey and arm warmers. I also had gloves (which I took off after the descend down Skyuka) and ear covers. I would roll down my arm warmers during the longer climbs and then roll back up. It was an absolutely wonderful day to ride - although extremely windy.
The ride around Lake Lanier was fast - it's like a rollercoaster with twisty switchbacks with hardly any climbing. One thing that really helped me out with my ability to ride confidently on this course was knowing every mile of this 80-mile course. This is why we always tell our athletes to know their upcoming race courses because it helps with terrain management and you can execute so much better on a familiar course than one that is unknown.
Once we went through the town of Tryon (which had a nice cheering section for us as we rode by), we were only a few miles or so away from the start of the Skyuka climb. It's been almost a year since I have done this climb so it felt very knew to me and I was excited to experience it again.
Around 26 miles into the ride, I was climbing the first KOM. I didn't hold anything back but at the same time, I wasn't leaving it all out on the course as I still had a long way to go (with 2 more big climbs) until the finish.
The climb is tough as the grade is steep and there is no section that lets you "recover" with an easy spin. You give a solid effort (you have no choice) all the way to the top for 4+ miles.
I found myself passing a lot of guys and I felt like I was really moving. Part of me wished that I had someone to push me up (ex. sitting on Karel's wheel) as I felt like I was giving a good effort but I wanted to be challenged a little more. Perhaps it was for the best because later I learned that I had the 3rd fastest female time up Skyuka.
I made sure to enjoy the unbelievable mountain view at the top but I didn't stop to take any pictures as I didn't want to get cold before the technical descend. The aid station stop was less than 1/2 mile from the top so I quickly stopped (and looked for Karel in case he waited for me - nope!) to refill my water bottle (I had gone through 1 bottle of 250 calories in 26 miles).
I noticed a large group of cyclists but didn't pay attention to who was there. My only thought was that I need to get down this technical descend before they do so that I can hopefully hang with them for the next climb - Howard's Gap.
I made my way down the descend but it wasn't without one quick pic. Despite the scary descend, there are water falls and a few of the views between the trees are spectacular. The pavement was sketchy, just like the tight switchback turns but the volunteer support was amazing and with the few cars out on the road, they always gave us the right of way.
I made my way down the descend while having a heart-to-heart conversation with my brakes (please don't burn off!) and was so relieved to be on the bottom.
After a mile or so, I looked back and saw the group coming so I made sure to ease up so that I could try to get on a wheel.
Luckily, by the time we hit Howard's Gap (how brutal, it's just a few miles after the Skyuka climb!) the wind was blowing right in our face (as if that climb isn't hard enough!) the group was riding at a controlled effort and I was able to "hang on" just fine up the climb.
While riding with the group, I wasn't paying attention to who was around me. I had a short conversation with another lady (not sure if she was a participant or not as I didn't see her bib number) who was riding extremely strong. She mentioned she use to race bikes.
Once we got to the top of the Howard Gap climb, I was SO relieved. Although we still had a good 50 miles to go, I felt like the hard part was over and now I could have some fun!
The group made a quick pee stop before descending down into Saluda (and by descending, there is still climbing going on in the mix) so I continued on for a few miles before the group caught me again. I didn't want to face the risk of possibly losing the group when they started after the pee stop (as I am not so great at rapid accelerations or punchy efforts) so I always tried to stay ahead of the group when they stopped.
When we made our way to start the last section of the ride - the Green River Cove loop - it occurred to me that I was not just in any group.
I finally made the effort to look around me and I realized that I was riding with George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, Jimmy Johnson, Brent Brookwalter and likely some other pros that Karel would recognize.
THIS IS THE GROUP I NEED TO STAY WITH!
Although I'm sure I would have had fun with any other group as the course was well marked, there were event course marshals out on bikes to offer support and cops controlling traffic (although very few cars were out)....there were a few extra perks with this group that I was riding with.....
We had wheel support, a video camera on us, a motorcycle escort, tech support, vehicles all around us for safety....yes, this is how you ride in style :)
My biggest fear was losing the group on the Green River Cove "descend" as it has a few technical turns that I am not yet comfortable turning into at top speeds (and with a group). I did my best and managed to stay with the group until one really tight switchback (while descending) where I lost the group. Luckily, I had heard George say they would be stopping at an aid station coming up (I knew the location) so I didn't stress too much as I just needed to get to the aid station before they left the stop.
When I stopped, I spotted Trimarni athlete Joe so it was nice to see a familiar face. I asked if he saw Karel anywhere but Karel was long gone from the start of the ride. I told Joe he needs to stay with me in this group and just like my excitement, we both were feeling pretty cool on two wheels to be riding in this elite group of cyclists.
I can't say enough about the Green Cove River route but it is beautiful. Although at this point in the event, my legs were feeling a bit fatigued. I was still able to ride well but the pace really picked up and I was struggling to hang on. I had a lot of mental talks with myself "you can't get dropped now!" so I really pushed the effort to try to survive with this group. For the first time since I got into this group around mile 35 or so, they were riding hard (or maybe I was just getting tired).
I was having a hard time drafting and sometimes I was one bike behind but thankfully, a rider behind me would give me a push on my butt to get me back on a wheel (thank you whoever did that for me!).
I was really worried about what would happen when we hit the last KOM climb as I was feeling tired and I didn't know what the group would do ahead of me, but when we started the climb, there I was moving up. I wasn't able to push like I could on Skyuka, and with 17 switchbacks (and a few extra in between the categorized ones), I was doing the best I could.
There were signs at every switchback letting us know how many more we had...
"16 out of 17 switchbacks left"
"15 out of switchbacks left"
After the KOM ended, I knew it was all downhill......that is, until we kept climbing back to Saluda and then climbing some more, until we reached the South Carolina border in the Watershed.
I met up with a friend from Jax, Dirk Bockel (Challenge Roth winner, IM Kona 5th place pro, Olympian) and we chatted a bit and it was just what I needed as it took my mind away from the fatigue in my legs. I really wanted to stay with the group as long as I could because I wanted Karel to see who I was riding with (I knew Karel would be impressed and happy for me) at the finish.
With 10 miles of a slight net decline down the Watershed, I new that if I wasn't with the group at the top of the watershed, I wouldn't be able to finish the group.
This "descend" was unreal. With support vehicles all around us to stop cars, I was in a huge group going 29-31mph for 10 miles - oh the thrill! I didn't look at my speed during the ride but I could feel we were going fast. It was so fun!
When we finished the watershed section, we only had a few miles to home. At this point, I was still with the group and everyone was chatting. I thought the effort would go up but I saw that George's son Enzo was with our group, it was a great way to end the ride - causally riding up to the finish.
Well, little did I know....my race was "lost" in this casual effort to the finish. I missed the podium by 18 seconds!
I could have easily gone on my own and sprinted up to the finish to get those 18 seconds (I wouldn't have been able to get those 18 seconds anywhere else as the group helped me ride faster than I could do alone) but I had no idea that I would even be close to the top, let along top 10, at this cycling only event.
Well, lesson learned with a tough love post race talk from Karel telling me that it's never over until you reach the finish line.
There was a slight mix-up in our chips (Karel had my chip on his bib number) so we had to tell them at the finish so that the right results were shown for the awards.
After grabbing my jacket from my gear bag (I was windy and cool out), I was so ready for some food and to sit down and rest.
I was pretty exhausted in the evening as the ride, coupled with the cold, took a little out of me but I was really proud to have finished behind two professional female cyclists and 3rd place, a pro triathlete from Canada.
Although I had the 3rd fastest chip time, they went by total time - bummer.
I took a lot away from this race and like any event, I learn so much as an athlete. The more opportunities I have to be in a "race" environment, the more prepared I feel at my next race.
There's always mistakes to be made, lessons to learn and obstacles to overcome but as long as you don't give up, you will create success.