I have been looking forward to the 2017 Hincapie Gran Fondo event for the entire past year. The idea of only riding my bike (no swim or run), with lots of other cyclists, on some of the most challenges climbs in and around our area, makes for a great way to spend a Saturday. Plus, I had so much fun in 2016 participating in this event that I couldn't wait to do all 80-miles and 8000 feet of climbing again in 2017. And after completing Ironman Chattanooga in late September, it was motivating for me to have another event on the calendar to conclude my 2017 racing season - even if only a bike event.
Since I didn't know what to expect last year, I was surprised to see my name listed as 4th place overall female. I guess all of the selfies and pictures that I took throughout the race kept me from being on the podium. Going into the event this year, Karel mentioned that if I wanted, he would help pace me during the event to see if I could get on the podium. Although we had no idea who would show up for the Hincapie Gran Fondo (as this event brings out a few professional cyclists and teams), I couldn't pass up the opportunity to do the entire ride behind Karel's wheel. With no pressure on myself as a triathlete and no specific bike training in my off-season, we decided that this year I would "race" the Gran Fondo.
Our assistant coach/athlete/friend Joe drove up from Jacksonville on Thursday so that he could participate in the Gran Fondo with us for the second year in a row. This year we were also joined by our athlete Thomas (who just did his first Ironman in Chatty), along with thousands of other cyclists.
On Saturday morning, we left our house at 7am and by 7:25am, we were parked in a grassy field off Hwy 11, surrounded by cars full of bike racks. The weather was cold but not too cold so we bundled up just enough to stay warm as we rode the 1 mile down the road to the event start at Hotel Domestique.
As soon as we rolled into the staging area, we secured our spot around 7:45am right behind the VIP staging, over an hour before the 9am event start. Although the waiting was a bit boring, we made good use of the time by going to the bathroom, dropping off our bags at the bag drop and walking around as one another held each others bikes.
The start of any mass start bike event is a little chaotic so Karel did not ride too aggressive from the start so that I could stay on his wheel. Although we tried to make our way to the front as quick as possible, it was a good two minutes before we could actually clip in and start riding up the hill.
A few miles later, we were on Hwy 11 and the pace started to pick up as we found ourselves in a small group.
For the first 58 minutes/22 miles, the pace was fast. There were a lot of surges and accelerations which was hard for me to stay on Karel's wheel but thankfully I had Thomas around me to keep me in the pack.
Once we turned off Hwy 11, I had a chance to recover my legs as we had a nice little downhill stretch. I liked the group that we were in and once I realized that there was no larger group ahead of us, I figured that this would be the group that I was stay in for a while.
After we started climbing again, the group kinda broke up and Karel made sure that I was always behind him. Although I had no trouble staying with others on the climb, it was the downhills and surges that were tough for me. A few climbs and descends later, we were nearing Lake Lanier for the twisty and turny flatish switchbacks around the lake. This section included lots of accelerations and it was hard for my legs to respond to all of the sudden efforts from those around me. By this time, I lost Karel's wheel but thankfully he waited for me before we made our way into Tryon.
When we went through the town of Tryon, Karel told me to stay patient. He wanted me to recover and ride as comfortable as possible until we started the Skyuka climb (first KOM timed climb of the event). Thanks to Karel's cycling experience, he was able to scope out the riders around me, which included a few ladies from the Papa John's cycling team. Karel was studying them and he told me that this was the group for us to stay into until the start of the climb and then we would break away. Although I was a little ancy to ride a little harder, I trusted his advice and rode pretty easy near the back of the group until we started the climb. At this time, I noticed that we were also riding with Anthony Sullivan (the pitchman for Oxiclean) which was pretty cool.
Once we started our climb, Karel rode at a steady pace for me so that I could pace my way up the 3.9ish mile climb. With the average grade of this climb around 10%, I just reminded myself that what goes up must come down so once all the suffering of climbing was overwith, I could enjoy the technical descend.
Because the elevation gain of the Skyuka climb is around 1800 feet, it's a leg burner of a climb. I found myself feeling pretty good throughout the climb and I thank Karel for his constant encouragement throughout to the top. Realizing that my hard effort was pretty easy for him, I really appreciated that he was there for me until the top.
Once we got to the top, I gave myself a bit of a breather to shake out my legs and without stopping, took note of the amazing view at the top. But no time for pictures as I needed to keep moving. Karel asked if I needed more nutrition for my bottles and I told him no as I had 1.5 bottles left. But thankfully, Karel stopped at the sag station at the top of Skyuka before the descend as I quickly found myself getting a little bit warmer once I finished the climb.
I was a little nervous about the technical descend but surprisingly, I found it very doable for me as my skills have improved so much over the past year, especially my descending skills. Karel had fun on the descend and even though he stopped to fill up his bottle with EFS at the sag stop, he passed me pretty quickly on the start of the descend and he still had to wait a few minutes for me at the bottom.
Once we connected with each other, we rode in a small group with 4 other guys until we reached Howard's Gap. If there is one climb that is not fun in our area (NC), it is Howard's gap. It's the most frustrating, most brutal climb to do, especially with tired legs but it's one of those climbs that makes you feel so accomplished when you get done with it. And the worst part is that it occurs less than 5 miles after you finish the Skyuka descend and you still have a few hills to navigate over before you start the Howard Gap climb.
Although I am not sure where the "official" start is of the climb, you are actually climbing for about 2.5 miles and for the last 1 mile, the average grade is around 12-13%. There are no switchbacks in this section but just a long, open stretch of pavement as your legs are pedaling at a brisk 4-6 mph. It's brutal!
Karel went ahead of me as he spotted Joe ahead on the climb so once he connected with him, they soft pedaled together until I caught up at the top of the climb. There is actually a little more climbing once you turn off Howard's gap but thankfully it "only" goes down to around 4% so it feels flat.
When we started our descend after the climb, I noticed that we were in a small group with no one behind us and no one in front of us. Karel was able to organize our group of 6 so that everyone was rotating and taking a very short pull at the front. Karel told me to stay at the back and not take any pulls so I stuck on the wheel of whoever was in the back. Although this section was only less than 4 miles, it was nice to have some company, even if just a small group.
At this point in the ride we had covered about 43 miles in 2.5 hours and accumulated close to 5000 feet of climbing. Although two major climbs were behind us, we still had 20 miles of the Green River Cove loop, which included lots of descending along with 2-3 steep climbs in route to the backside of the loop and then the well-known 17-switchbacks at the end of the loop. I was most looking forward to the backside of the loop as I told myself that once the switchbacks were complete, we would only have around 15 miles left of riding.
My legs were a little tired but my energy level was good. I felt strong on the bike and very well fueled. Learning from Karel and his cycling days, I made sure to stay up on my liquids (I started with INFINIT and then moved to EFS which was on the course) and any extra calories (Skratch chews and Enervitine caffeinated gel), particularly between the climbs and before/after any descends. I had a lot of extra sport nutrition in my pockets so that I could pick and choose as I went along. It was starting to get warm out (low 60's) so I found myself wanting to drink a bit more than in the early parts of the ride.
I was really happy with my descending skills on the Green River loop and although the climbs were tough, I still felt like I was riding well. I had received word from a few volunteers that I was the 2nd female on the course in the Gran division (80-mile) but even though I didn't know if this information was accurate, it was nice to have a little confidence from others that I was in a position to be on the podium. I told Karel that I was in 2nd and he was happy for me as we weren't sure if there were teams of ladies in front of me or if I was near the front of the event but we both knew that in bike racing, it's not over until it's over and we still had a long way to go.
Once we made our way to the backside of the loop, we decided that we would all needed to refill our bottles (me, Karel and Joe). Right before we made our stop, we were caught by the "George Hincapie" group and his team of developmental riders on the Holowesko/Citadel team. Since I rode with this group for most of the ride last year (from Howard's gap until the finish), I knew these guys were just having fun out there and not "racing" but I was more worried about any ladies behind or in this group.
Ours top was super quick (just enough time for a few sips of Pepsi and a quick potty stop for Karel) and then we were off again with topped off water bottles with EFS.
Although I knew that I would be faster in a large group, I was worried about getting dropped from the group and being caught by some strong cyclists behind me. So we made the decisions for Joe and Karel to take pulls and to ride strong until the switchbacks. For the next 7.8 miles, Joe and Karel rode really strong as I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder, worried about being swallowed up by the group of cyclists that caught up to us at the sag stop. Luckily, we were never caught but I still had 2.1 miles of 17 switchbacks (at an average grade of around 8%) next on my to-do list.
Each switchback was marked as 17 out of 17, 16 out of 16, etc. and some are a bit more pitchy than others. Although the switchbacks were nice to change up the rhythm and to stretch the legs out of the saddle, the in between sections of some of the switchbacks were tough. Joe gave a super strong effort until we reached the switchbacks and he told me and Karel to go ahead as he needed to recover. I was so grateful for his help as it really helped us stay away from the pack behind us. Karel was feeling a twinge in his groin so in an effort to prevent his leg from cramping he was managing his effort (which was still tough for me at times!).
When we made it to the top, I was relieved that the last long climb was complete but we still had 15 more miles to go.
As we made our way into Saluda, we did a little more climbing before we finally reached the SC border to start our descend down the watershed. Although this was one of those descends that you still had to "work" for, I was relieved to not have to climb for almost 7 miles as we made our way out of the watershed. By this time, we were connecting with cyclists from the medio division and Karel was hauling it. As I learned from last year (missing the podium by less than 30 seconds), every single second counts. I stayed on Karel's wheel and gave my absolute best as we slowly inched our way to the last climb toward Hotel Domestique. I had no idea of my time until Karel mentioned that we had a chance to break 4:30 (Last year I did 4:45) so I did my version of "sprinting" until I finally crossed that finish line.....in 4:30.40.
After we crossed the finish line, I received a medal for finishing but since my legs felt super empty, I spun my legs around the parking lot with Karel until I felt like I could put my feet on the ground. Karel was really happy for me and I was happy for myself that I was able to put together such a strong ride without any low moments. Plus, regardless of the results, I had so much fun out there.
After Joe and Thomas finished, we hung around the food area to refuel until we heard the final results that I landed on the 3rd spot of the female podium. Yippee - mission accomplished all thanks to Karel (and a huge help from Joe on Green River Cove).
We stayed for the awards at 4pm, where I received my prize for 3rd place (a Michelen tire and a $200 Hincapie Sportsware gift certificate) along with a handshake from Erik Zabel (which Karel thought was super cool as he was one of Karel's cycling idol's when he was younger). It was a great honor for me to stand on the podium with two super strong and talented cyclists and I was proud to represent the triathlon community.
What a great way to finish off the 2017 season and to kick off the 2018 season!
If you are interested in this event, I highly recommend it!
If you are interested in this event, I highly recommend it!
Here's a video that I made (10 minutes long) of our adventure on two wheels, which included the Skyuka climb. Taken by our new Garmin VIRB ultra 30 camera.