Gran Fondo – My Cycling Waterloo

This summer with all of my cycling including RAGBRAI, I was feeling like a cyclist and an athlete. I was not able to keep up my training routine in September because of all of my travel. Nevertheless, I had signed up for two Gran Fondo’s more than 5 months earlier.

Misty morning start for the Jensie Gran Fondo  at Stafford Lake in Marin County
Misty morning start for the Jensie Gran Fondo at Stafford Lake in Marin County

First up was the Levi’s Gran Fondo in Santa Rosa. This is one of the most popular Gran Fondos on the west coast. Former pro cyclist Levi Leipheimer started it in his hometown to raise money for local charity. Santa Rosa is my home town too, so I liked the idea of learning more about the roads between Santa Rosa and the coast. The longer routes include my favorite all time road:  Coleman Valley Road between Occidental and Highway 1.

I knew I was not going to be able to manage that uber hill, so I signed up for the most modest route “Piccolo”.  Apparently I also bought the full kit way back in February, although for a bunch of reasons I did not receive it until end of August. And then it was sized for petite Italian women. So I decided I would drive over on Friday to register and exchange my kit for a larger size. Since I needed to be home Friday evening, my plan was to drive over again early on Saturday morning.

Beautiful redwoods lined the route on Nicasio Valley Road.
Beautiful redwoods lined the Jensie Gran Fondo route on Nicasio Valley Road.

A bunch of stuff went sideways on Friday so I was feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by the time I arrived at the park where registration was set up. I successfully nabbed the last bits of kit in my size and got my number. I enjoyed the few vendors set up on Friday (there was the promise of a much bigger expo on Saturday) including the Petaluma Pie Company. But then I stopped to ask for advice about parking the next morning. I would be driving 2 hours early in the morning. Alas, the volunteer said the small amount of parking would be full by 6 a.m. so he suggested I park at Santa Rosa Junior College and ride my bike to the start. This would add a 20 minute ride on bike-unfriendly roads. Really?

Suddenly I just felt overwhelmed. I called Sarah Harriet as I drove home and she gave me permission to not go. I decided I was just not up for it and immediately I felt a flood of relief. And then I started my period, so that sealed it. I am not a woman who shuts down her life once a month, but I know my body well enough to know that doing a challenging ride–thousands of people, hills, tired–was going to be a bad experience all things considered.

Plus I still had the Jensie Gran Fondo the next Saturday.  I stayed the night at my Auntie J’s house and drove through the dark of night to Mill Valley–a town that does not believe in lighting–to register. It made for a long day of driving in traffic, but I was fairly confident that this Gran Fondo was going to be a better experience. It is the first year that the Marin Bicycle Coalition was sponsoring a Gran Fondo and they partnered with Jens Voigt to make it even more great.

I love the Point Reyes area so I loved the opportunity to do something associated with my favorite former pro-rider Jens Voigt and ride my bike in this bee-uu-ti-ful part of California.

My ultimate Waterloo: Sir Francis Drake Boulevard feels much steeper than it looks.
My ultimate Waterloo: Sir Francis Drake Boulevard feels much steeper than it looks.

I got up early the next morning and whizzed over country roads in the dark to Stafford Lake. Parking was plentiful and I had my $10 handy to pay the park fee but they waved me through and never asked for it. I needed to check the air in my tires and I made my first mistake–I pushed my bike through the newly mown grass and collected a lot of grass on my tires. I found a tire pump and coffee and had a delightful conversation with a woman from London who was in NorCal on business and decided to do the Century loop. Good on her!

Jensie's brand new Trek Madrone parked right next to my humble Trixie.
Jensie’s brand new Trek Madrone parked right next to my humble Trixie (also Trek).

I also spied a woman I knew was from Sacramento because of her “Hot Italian” jersey, which is a Midtown pizza place that is a huge cycling supporter. We moved to the way back to start so we were out of the pack. Within the first 100 yards I realized my computer wasn’t working and in fact the sensor was broken. This meant I would have no idea how fast or far I was traveling. Uffda.

The pack was nothing as large as the crush at the start at Levi’s Gran Fondo. (Auntie J saved the Press Democrat photos). I realized fairly quickly that I had a lot of grass wadded between my fork and tire interfering with my wheel. I stopped and tried to address it myself but I could not undo my wheel. So when I spotted the Mavic roaming service guys I pulled over and asked for help. They took my wheel off  and when they put it back on it must have been crooked. I did not realize it because they are pros–they do not make mistakes, right? Immediately I had to go up a hill and I blamed my weak legs on, well my weak legs.

I was a little unnerved that in the time it took me to take care of all of that I was at the very back of a dwindling pack. And even without my computer I could feel that I was not going to catch them at the speed I was going. So I did my best to enjoy the scenery and the ride. I stopped and took pictures in quaint Nicasio. And then again when we rode into the redwood trees.

Jens Voigt talking to riders and fans about his bike.
Jens Voigt talking to riders and fans about his bike.

I was also dealing with serious hills. Though my legs felt better, I  still felt like I was riding through sand. I realized that I was moving slowly downhill too. I had to pedal on downhill slopes where normally I’d be braking. At one point going uphill I dropped my chain. So I pushed my bike uphill and then down a little to where there was a wide enough space to accept help from a cyclist going the other way and put it back on. By the time I got to the first rest area at Lagunitas they were already breaking the stop down. This is really demoralizing. I was so frustrated with my bike and this stop did not have any mechanical support. I chewed on some Fig Newtons, recovered as much as I could, and learned that there was only “one big hill” between me and the next stop at Point Reyes Station.

I set off again thinking my whole route is 40 miles. This is like riding to Sunrise Boulevard and back only with hills. I can do this. The road kept dropping down, down, down and my dread went up, up, up. No downhill goes unpunished. There is going to be an uphill. And then it began. I dug deep and started to ride very slowly uphill. I worked hard and then I started to have a hard time breathing. I stopped and tried to catch my breath and could not and meanwhile 5 big vehicles with horse trailers or surf boards or kayaks whizzed by closely. So I got off to walk my bike and realized that I need to move across the road where there was an actual shoulder. Still I could not catch my breath. So I stopped to rest and still I could not catch my breath.

I have never had a challenge with my breathing, so I did not know what to think other than “this is bad.” I struggled into Point Reyes Station and went straight to the medic station. I was their first patient so they were a little over excited. They took my pulse and listened to my heart. I learned that a great first aid tool is a bag of ice. They had me breath into it and it did provide some relief.  After about 15 minutes my color came back and I started to feel better. They also made me drink lots of water.

The upside of all of this is that all of this delay meant that I was at the medic station when Jens Voigt rolled in after about 80 miles of his Shut Up Legs century route. He parked his bike right next to mine and immediately went up to the medics and thanked them for their participation in his Gran Fondo. They were so cute because they did not know who he was and they were doing their best to try to figure out why this Tigger like man with a heavy German accent was enthusiastically thanking them. After he walked a little bit away to take pictures with riders I explained. The one woman medic said admiringly, “My he has great legs.”

The ride management did not have the swag wagon organized very well so I waited about an hour to catch a ride back in the big rental truck. I am glad I did not try to finish since it turns out there is at least one more hill fondly called the “leg breaker” by locals. I loaded my bike into my Mini and headed for home. I drove straight to my bike shop to figure out what the heck was going on with my bike. Turns out the wheel was rubbing on the fork the whole time. The young cheeky mechanic said, “Good resistance training.”

The next day I was completely wiped out and still not able to take a deep breath. I also felt completely demoralized. Honestly, the whole experience has been discouraging. I do not think of myself as an athlete. I am not sure if it was a histamine attack or exercise induced asthma. Will it happen again?

I am still riding my cruiser around town. I got back out on the bike trail once. I will push through this lack of enthusiasm and find a new ride routine. But I do not think Gran Fondos are for me. At least not alone.

3 Replies to “Gran Fondo – My Cycling Waterloo”

  1. Wow….big experience. Love the pic with Jens’s bike by yours. Keep breathing and recovering friend. Athlete or not, this happens.

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