Sea Otter Gran Fondo 2012

April 30, 2012

Admittedly, I’ve been distracted. And maybe a bit disheveled – but in the most marvelous of ways. In the weeks to come, I’ll share a few of the exciting bits that have fallen into my lap, but for now, the crux of life is such that puzzle pieces are falling into place, question marks straightening up into exclamation points. And its all happening from the saddle of a bike. Most recently, from the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey.

Wheels churned, hubs ticked, and riders jockeyed as the peloton morphed like a swarm of bumblebees, humming over the hot asphalt that paved our way into the 96 miles ahead. Just a few moments prior, I had been sitting at the starting line with a good friend – antsy, eager, and excited for a great ride . It was she that suggest that I give it a little extra. “I think you should push it,” Mel said, “I’ve got earphones, and I think you should just go win the damn thing!”
She was only half kidding and I chuckled rocking back into the pedals of the Amira. “Ok,” I said with a smirk, “I’ll see what happens.”
The gun went off, and our mass of riders lurched forward, slowly at first, as everyone gained their bearings and clicked into their pedals. I spun easy for a few moments and then flashed Mel a smile – letting out a loud and lovely “WHOOP,” I felt our bikes distance from one another and off into the first climb I went. Like a rocket that only needed a thought to guide it to its target, Amira acted as a slingshot with just a couple of pedal strokes – out of the raceway, away from the banners, the colors, and the other 300 some odd riders we cruised silently and with grace, giving nods and spilling “good mornings” as we rolled.
My pedalstrokes were soft and easy and I made my way straight to the front of the line where the male dominated peloton was waiting, unbeknownst, for me. As a triathlete, familiar with riding at the front, you always have this inkling that there is a stray rider out there, pushing big gears like a bat out of hell, attempting to leave the pack in the dust and making headway. But these riders were behaving as a peloton, gauging their movements on those around them, working together to break the wind that would surely be our nemesis on this almost-bluebird-day.  I couldn’t see another ponytail in the bunch, nor could I see another pair of women’s legs, which meant that I was alone and in newly charted territory. I have never participated in a cycling event; my cycling history is still considerably lacking in comparison to my swimming or running, and I have still only raced bikes in triathlons. I held my breath a bit as the elbows, hips and drop bars were swallowing me right up, hubs were whizzing, pedals tapping lightly, and carbon steeds leading, falling back, establishing a position. These riders taunted each other, silently, with the power of their legs, the prowess of their bikes, and the flashy colors on their jerseys. And then there was me.
And I felt strong. So, this was how it was going to be. A few riders pushed past me without anything to say – their eyes dead set on the road, riders, and spinning legs ahead . Others smiled and nodded as I passed, or they over took me. These sportsmen-like gents surprised me; there didn’t seem to be any racing to catch or to pass me without courtesy, no renegade spit balls aimed my way to dodge, or overt attempts to push me off the road while racing (as in triathlon, ahem.) No, here in this completely male dominated sport, there was just enough space for a woman and a whole new world of cycling was opening up, right before me, along with the valley that revealed vineyards and farms dappled by the rising sun.
We churned well into the 15th mile of our ride and a few of the guys had introduced themselves. And those that hadn’t were beginning to show their colors; the representative from Bicycling Magazine in his flash rainbow kit whom couldn’t crack a smile. The ex-Red Bull/Cannondale XC racer that was sure to dominate and determined to be courteous about it. The CEO and Founder of ClifBar, out for a good time and a great ride, and countless other serious riders, some with smirks, some determined enough to finish well that they would blow through water stations and pee in the saddle to avoid giving up their good lead on the others. My face was likely painted with disbelief– this was just a ride.  Or so I thought.
For what feels like all of bicycle time, the Europeans have had what they call “cyclosportives” (or sportives, gran fondo in Italian) which are organized, mass-participation cycling events, usually held annually, where participants wage personal battles against themselves and, ultimately, the clock. Some ride the event like a race with prizes awarded and subsumed glory. Most sportives will feature a challenging route, with technical climbs and varied terrain, grunts and glory. Here in America, the name “gran fondo” has stuck, but we don’t tend to have a clear understanding of what this really means. We want to think that “gran fondo” literally translates to “big ride,” but that simply isn’t true.  In Italian, “fondo” means “bottom” – like “scraping the bottom of a pool” (“raschiando il fondo di una piscina”.)  Literally, when talking about Gran Fondo, you can say “big climb” because riders climb from the “bottom.” And that is exactly what we did as we spun our way through the flats of Salinas Valley, and towards the climbs that make this gran fondo famous.
Helmet by helmet, I was picking my way to the front of the pack from “the bottom”- only half knowing how to respond to the wheels and grunts that made up the pack. Sometimes I found myself on the outside in a clean line, other times snuggled right into the middle. Miles 20, and then 30 ticked away and I grew more and more comfortable sitting on the back wheels of the riders near me, slowly but surely deconstructing everything I knew thus far about holding my own on a bike. Having become part of this rolling thundercloud, I was fully expected to become part of the team, fall in, trust lines, hide in the wake of the peloton, and seek out the vortex of the men powering around me, and avoid getting whiplash from a quick breakaway when the lead riders surged through a turn, leaving me exposed in the crosswind and completely out of the swarm. I did get caught once, separated and falling quickly from the head of the pack. One of the pro riders came back to scoop me. “You were in an exceptional position up there,” he said. “Are you ready to push to the front? I’ll go with you if you’re ready. You want to be up there. I want you to be up there.”
I was beaming. Each time I would get bumped to the front and into the lead, there was a rider there to close the gap and pull me back in. Like a little secret weapon, they were hiding me, waiting for me to attack.
We swung into the water stop at mile 43, and headed down the dirt road towards a shaded drive where an aid station awaited us. Sandwiches smeared with peanut butter and boiled potatoes and oranges were shoved into eager mouths while water and electrolyte drinks were replenished in bottles. Then, with chipmunk cheeks, the riders would hop back on their bikes, attempting to pull on their bib shorts and zip jerseys as they headed back out to the main road. I quickly filled my bottles and got back in the saddle. With my supply renewed, and another 20 miles to go before the next stop, it was time for me to settle in. We had covered a good bit of ground already – the flatter half of the ride, covered with vineyards and views of the farmland beyond. Now, it was time to climb, and play a new game.
The peloton had spread considerably, and there were now two separate packs – the one at the front contained a few professional riders, and then there was ours – comprised of 8 or 10 guys of all ages, and I. It didn’t seem to matter how hard I pushed up the hills, or how fast they pedaled through crosswinds, we stuck together. And so, into the hills we rode, defending, for the most part, the positions on the course that we had established in the push of the peloton. The lack of a female voice (or a bike smaller than 54cm) beyond mine was making my status in this group crystal clear – though it was just a ride, and not a race, I was taking great solace in the fact that the only two women whom really had a chance of savoring glory at the finish were me, and the bike I rode – Amira – a Specialized SL4 demo that had been graciously gifted me for the day. With this in mind, I relaxed into the saddle, and started focusing on her as my steed. As we began the 10 mile climb to the Cahoon Summit, the sun began to beat down on our backs and the wind disappeared – humming sounds of howling wheels disipated and made space for the cicadas and breathlessness that were already singing in the spring of the canyon. In low gear, and with sweat dripping from my wrists, I tap danced on her pedals, dropping a few of the stragglers whom weren’t such confident climbers.
“Good girl,” my compatriot said in low, proud voices.
“Good girl,” I swooned to Amira.
Eucalyptus trees, twisted fences, and old posts lined the road leading up into the last three miles of the challenging our weary legs. Still, Amira and I danced. We didn’t really know what lay ahead, but things as they were – a rocket of a bike beneath me, a sure personal victory, an apparent PR on the horizon,  a team of accomplished riders pushing me on as I pedaled, and euphoria that seemed too good to be true – there was no reason not to dance just now.
I hadn’t ridden this far since Vineman last August. And I certainly hadn’t pushed this hard, been this in touch or tuned into my bike, nor felt more in control on a ride in as long as I could remember. With 60 miles behind me, and a rolling decent ahead, the last 36 miles seemed to be a breeze, even though our brains were melting in the formiddible heat. There were 4 of us now, two older men and one younger whom formed an echelon (or paceline) and began barreling down on the backside of Cahoon. We were going through water fast, but not as fast as we were hurtling towards the next station. Amira’s wheels, hot on the back of one of the other riders – handled like a dream, weaving her way through the pine-scented air, whipping through turns and cornering like a champion. My watch was following pace and ticked up – 30 miles per hour, now 38, then 42, 45 miles per hour and holding, holding, holding. A corner would divert us right, then left, and all I could do was feel my heart beat in my chest and smile. Now, I am a wholehearted believer in the fact that bikes develop relationships with their riders. In that broad field of men, it was a true pleasure to have a girl so fast, smooth and powerful under my power. After a ride like this, I could hardly stand the thought of parting with her. “Perhaps if I name her, or set a record with her, I’ll be able to claim her as my own.” If only. The road began to flatten again and we rolled through a little town where a handful of spectators were clapping for us. Just 16 miles to go.
We flipped through the 80-mile aid station quickly, and with no thought given to out smarting or out pushing other riders, and rather focused whole heartedly on beating as much of the afternoon heat as was humanly possible. We rode with purpose and conviction towards our last test – the 3.5 mile Laurelis Grade in Carmel Valley, and the steady, hot climb up to Laguna Seca beyond- and it was here, that I found myself scraping the bottom (“raschiando il fondo di una piscina”) that I knew in my heart of hearts, couldn’t have been too far from the surface of this fabulous, fast edge.
Taking a sharp right, I could see Laurelis towering above me. This was the type of grade that gave your quads quivers before they even started to grind on the pedals, and I could hear the hollow sound of my own deep breaths echoing in my head as I shifted down and buckled in. Our pack of 4 separated, unable to speak to one another – opting instead to nod and acknowledge one another’s breathlessness as we passed and caught each other, doing everything that we could to remain strong and composed as the sun continued to burn into our backs.
Rounding the second of lord knows how many curves, my eyes began to water, and my legs threatened to buckle, still in my cleats. Standing in the saddle took every ounce of my energy. I needed a recharge, and was still miles from the end of the journey. At first, realizing that I was toeing this edge pleased me – I had pushed hard enough to know that I didn’t have much left; no one wants to finish a personal challenge knowing that they may have had more to give. But quickly this enjoyment turned to fear – if I didn’t eat something, and wash it down fast, and focus with everything that I could muster, I was going to bonk completely and in this heat that could mean literally falling off of Amira. Shifting down into my lowest gear, I spun without much forward motion around the next curve, grasping in my pockets for something to rip open with my teeth and eat. I found the remnants of an energy bar and shoved the wrapper back in my pocket, started humming, and tried to narrow my thoughts to each pedal stroke, then the next, and the next. Perhaps it was mental, but I felt instantly better, but could tell by the tackiness of the bar I was munching that I was dehydrated. I swigged on my water and blinked with disbelief. “HOLD ON and GO.” I said out loud. A whole new beat the clock game revealed as I crested the top of Laurelis – the one in which I was racing only my own biology to its end.
I met up again with the other guys in my pack as we cleared the last turn,again high on the roller coaster of gran fondo and heading up towards Laguna Seca – it was here that we started to say our goodbyes, and embraced the other riders coming in from the shorter Coastal Route. We had completed these miles as a team, but knew that the last climb was every man (and woman) for themselves. With just 4 miles to go, I could quantify the push now – I could almost count the pedal strokes to the finish line.
Up and up, grimacing, taking notice of my tanned skin beneath beads of sweat. My wrists and temples dripped with sweat. Looking down, so too did my calves and ankles as they wound Amira’s crank set. She was still sleek and pushing easily beneath my fury. Returning to this simple image – my legs, spinning over this powerful, yet simple machine – the pain of the day started to slip away again I rode up and over the last crest, I found that last wind to speed downhill and into the finish on the raceway, hands in the air, glowing.
There was no pomp or circumstance here. Only the promise of a cold beer, a hot shower, a sunny afternoon free to enjoy the racing, people, and scene that is thousands of bike lovers at this 4-day festival of bike love. Amongst the other riders, no one knew that I was the first woman to finish the 96 mile route. And I didn’t know that only 4 riders from that first peloton had made it in before me. Two of my pack of 4 riders rolled beneath the banners with me, smiling with their accomplishments (all four of us had new near personal records for the distance – 5:13 for me,) and we exchanged fist pumps, high fives, nods and smiles of understanding. We rode beautifully together, worked as a team, and had a great day of it, even if we did hit “the bottom”. As sat up and took in the last stretch where the day began, slowing Amira and unclipping, I appreciated this quiet end to the race that was never a race. I had expected the  speed and intensity on this course, but was caught off-guard and completely elated with the undeniable teamwork and individual power required to accomplish this day, this feat. I rolled Amira back towards the festival with the most elated grin on my face. Bike love all around me, and bike love within. As an athlete very comfortable with the solace of the water and the serenity of the water, I was overjoyed to find simplicity, and uncomplicated raw bliss were here, just where I have always hoped they would be  – on a bike, and a bike alone.

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