Vicious Series #5 - Winthrop: The Big Finale

Team Egencia at the Start !
Our innocent heroine signed up for this Gravel Gran Fondo series back in January at the recommendation of her less-innocent, more-heroic friend Jamie. She had no idea what she was getting into, just that it sounded like fun (er, some people's definition of fun). This blog has covered their journey - through the pleasant hills of Ephrata, the windmills and open descents of Goldendale, the sheer brutality of Leavenworth, and the masochism of Ellensburg. After a 2 month hiatus (too hot in the summer!) the long-awaited ultimate challenge has arrived - Winthrop, with 11,500 feet of climbing in 90 miles.

I've personally been training for this for a while - for me, I wanted to win, whatever the vague notion of 'winning' in a co-ed, all age groups fondo is. I guess I wanted to prove to myself that I've improved in the past 6 months; this is the first race in a while that I really wanted to come out and give 100%. Those were probably not the right goals... out of the more than 150 people that signed up, only 95 finished. That's right... more than 30% DNF'd this race, and the weather wasn't even bad. To finish was a formidable goal... winning, well, maybe next year :P

This is what climbing forever looks like 
Actually it was quite pleasant - a nice 60 F to start. However, after we started climbing and climbing and climbing (the 17 mile climb started 5 miles away from the start, about half of it chunky pavement and the other half gravel), the temperatures started dropping. Of course, we, innocent victims of a cruel course, didn't notice. Oh no, we were hot, and whiney about the rocks and loose gravel. Our lives were so hard. Even when we summited (5100 ft of climbing to a 6500 ft summit), all was hunky-dory, all "yay-we're-done-with-the-hardest-climb".

I'm available for hill-climbing modeling contracts
Oh but no, Winthrop Gran Fondo is a cruel, cruel thing to be respected. We had two mini ascents and descents (another, you know, 1500 feet for good measure). Then, we began descending, with temperatures now in the mid-thirties. At this point, Maarten (fellow new team mate and amazing Cascardes Ride Leader!) and I separately realized we made an epic mistake (well, I made 2...). Our mutual downfall/facepalm was that we were not running tubeless on our gravel bikes. This is absolutely critical if you do this race, like more than breathing or clothing. Seriously, ride this Fondo naked instead of riding a bike with tubes in it. For non-bike people (and roadies) - why was this so bad? Because it meant we had to ride our bikes at extremely high pressures (> 50 psi) and cautiously avoid every pot hole, every large rock, and every freaking obstacle for fear that we flat. Maarten got two flats, finishing behind me. For the record, Maarten is a much, much, much strong rider than I am, and I attribute his finishing time entirely to tubes ("Blame it on the tubes, don't blame it on meeeee")

Although I had done pretty well climbing time-wise, my descent time was a snail's crawl, legimately only a few mph faster even though it was a -15% at times. It was long, taking over an hour to descend as my body crawled into hypothermia; I was wet from a long climb, and there's only so much that can save you from 35F, windy, and wet. I thought about 2/3 of the way down "this isn't even remotely fun, why am I doing this? Oh yeah, because turning around would be way worse at this point".

When I finally made it to the aid station, I came in shivering so badly (this was my mistake 2 -- bring a freaking jacket in the mountains Lo!!!)  that one of the volunteers gave me her jacket to ride with the rest of the Fondo. Wendy, sweet, sweet Wendy, you were a jacket angel and probably the only reason I was able to finish that race (next descent was even colder). I left the aid station pretty quick (no Jamie to abandon in a bathroom this time..) To give scale, I was in the mid-ish, maybe front-midish group and I rolled in at 1:05 (5 hours into the ride). They were supposed to pull you out/strongly suggest you "not" continue at 1:30 (think about it, if it took you 5 hours to go half way...)

Please don't let me hit a rock... please... please... 
The next climb began immediately after the main aid station. At this point, I started to warm up, both in the thawing sense and in the "oh my legs can pedal now" sense. The next climb did actually go on forever. In fact, sometimes when it's too quiet or I feel slightly frustrated, I feel like I'm still doing it. The grade was mostly gentle, a kind 6-7% most of the way. However, it was sandy and sucked your soul. A war of attrition began as people started getting off bikes and swearing to the heavens. The little engine that could (aka Lo after a proper 45 mile warmup) kept trucking on, picking off Roger and Quinn (fellow Egencians! I say picking off here facetiously... just wait).

When the top came, I actually couldn't believe it. I saw a guy stopped and waiting for his friend and asked him about 4 times if this was the summit. Me: "are you sure?" Him: "yes, I promise you this is the end" Me:" but really, like are you stake-your-life-sure?" Him: "Yes" Me: "OK" throws down Ibie, scarfs down all the food she has on her, throws on jacket, and pedals away for dear life. 

Pedals away for dear life was about ~12 mph. I would say, mmm, 5 minutes into the descent Roger picks me off and happily shouts (he claims otherwise) "I'm faster!!!" as he rips down the mountain showing off the power of years of gravel experience and tubeless ferocity. Soon after, Quinn, looking nothing short of jubilant, also roars down by me. Both of them finished many places ahead of me, showing once and for all, in a real gravel race, time is made on the descents not one's ability to turn a pedal going up.

After another small forever and a lot of internal begging for it all just to be over (it was a 25 mile descent, I kid not, and it wasn't slow). I pedaled for all my salt (not a lot left after 8 hours of sweating) for the last 5 miles, finishing in just under 9 hours in 65th place. Never have I ever been so relieved to be done, and never have I felt like just finishing a race was a major accomplishment. Congrats to the 2/3s who persevered and finished, whether it was first place like Thomas Baron or those who continued despite the 1:30 PM halfway cutoff. I'm amazed I've come so far in a year to complete such an epic race and to do it at the caliber I did it at. I guess I'll have to do it again next year with a tubeless setup (right, Maarten?).

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