San Diego Gran Fondo 2010 – Episode I “The Weather Strikes Back”

(Ed. note:  Think opening crawl of a Star Wars movie.  Cue the John Williams composed theme music now. . .)

Boredom had engulfed the cycling routes of the Midwest.

The question of whether competing cycling clubs should merge was in dispute.

Adding to the uncertainty of the times,

short –sighted club organizers cancelled a favored century ride.

While the local cycling clubs endlessly debated this chain of events,

two Kansas cyclists were secretly dispatched to a far-away land to learn more

about a new ride, something called Gran Fondo….

As the summer of 2009 transitioned into fall and the final rides of the year fell into place, my neighbor and regular riding partner, Dan, and I mused about trying to do one “big” cycling event each year. While researching possible rides, one in particular jumped out as a “must do”. . . .the 2010 Gran Fondo Colnago-San Diego.

As their website states, “Gran Fondo” is Italian for “Big Ride”. Gran Fondos are long distance, mass-participation cycling events – not races – that have become immensely popular.  Participation is open to recreational and competitive amateur cyclists.  Typically, thousands of riders of all abilities participate.

Some cyclists enter a Gran Fondo for the challenge and satisfaction of making it to the finish line; others want to push themselves and their friends; and some ride to win. Regardless, a Gran Fondo is an unforgettable cycling experience and several Gran Fondo’s have popped up around the country. San Diego had its inaugural Gran Fondo in 2009 and the repeat in 2010 was designed to be extraordinary. The Gran Fondo Colnago-San Diego offered three route options for cyclists of all abilities:

101 mile (162 km) Gran Fondo — Long Route

53 mile (85 km) Medio Corsa — Medium Route

32 mile (51 km) Family Fondo — Short Route

All three routes were set to take the riders over the famed Coronado Bridge.  Participation was limited and the ride “sold out” at roughly 3,000 riders. We, of course, had our sights set on the long route featuring a total of 5,500′ feet of climbing and the King of the Mountain challenge.  We would face a timed climb of roughly 7 miles, approximately 40 miles into the route, and up the winding Honey Springs Road. The climb ranged in grade from 3% to 12% with the steepest portion very near the summit. The total vertical of this portion of the ride would be 1,858 feet.

Dan’s daughter had previously moved to San Diego and lived in the Little Italy area near downtown which was also situated mere blocks from where the ride would start. With that kind of staging area and with Southwest flight credits in the bank, how could we resist signing up? We committed early once registration opened up and while still optimistic that we would be able to get plenty of training rides in over the winter. The previous year had produced a mild Midwest winter with little snow that allowed us to continue our long weekend rides. Combined with the regular dose of indoor training, we were convinced we could handle the century ride in early March in spite of the fact that we had not previously done a century before  the month of May. Little did we know that Mother Nature would have a nasty winter in store for 2010. By way of comparison, we were able to ride 158 outdoor miles in January 2009 and only 24 in 2010. February was better – 115 miles but still well shy of the 205 miles from February 2009.  They were a cold 115 miles driven in part by the panic which was starting to set in knowing the first Sunday in March would be a 101 mile effort. Far too much time was spent spinning indoors knowing it would help but not entirely translate to the road. The panic was tempered by our belief that the anticipated and much-needed San Diego climate would fill in any gaps in training.

We arrived in San Diego the Thursday night before the ride. We had never flown with our bikes before but, they arrived safe and sound courtesy of Southwest Airlines. As a side note, Southwest is one of the most bike-friendly airlines in the country with a baggage fee of $50.00 each way for a boxed bike. They popped up right away in the oversized luggage area. We woke up Friday to the expected sunny San Diego weather. After a casual breakfast and assembly of our bikes, we were set to soak up some SoCal culture.

We planned to ride up the coast a bit to take in the scenery and stretch the legs. Starting just north of La Jolle, we rode up the old Pacific Coast Hwy. 101 through Del Mar, Solana Beach, Encinitas and to Carlsbad before turning around. With the ocean off to one side, we were clearly not in Kansas anymore, Toto! Truly nothing to compare it to back home. It was a great tune up ride and just what the doctor had ordered to counter Midwest winter doldrums.

The ride was highlighted by a stop on the way back at the Pizza Port in Solano Beach With a handful of locations, this is where Pizza Port began. Even though it’s the smallest of the Pizza Ports, Solana Beach is the one with the most history (and some would say “character”). With great pizza and outstanding handcrafted brews, it was a must-do on our agenda. Although not our typical mid-ride fare, we were glad we took a break on their sidewalk patio while enjoying a pint and a slice of pizza while watching the world go by on the Coast Highway.

The weather took a turn on Saturday with rain off & on and we elected to not ride. There were other distractions and the much-anticipated University of Missouri and University of Kansas basketball game was on tap to close out the last game of the year before tournament play. For reasons I am not entirely certain of, there is a fairly large KU fan base in San Diego. I’m convinced I was the only MU supporter in the area. Dan’s daughter and her then boyfriend/now husband, Mike, both graduated from KU and we met them at one of the local KU joints to watch the game .  Much like the weather, it turned out to be a gloomy day for Mizzou. However, with a trip to In & Out Burger for lunch and our pre-ride pasta dinner yet to come, it was all good.

One of the great Little Italy attractions is the Saturday farmer’s market. We had loaded up on fresh bread, vegetables, pasta and dessert that morning all to be saved and prepared that night for the mandatory pre-ride carb loading. We did not fail and put away more than our fair share before returning to the hotel for final preparations and a good night’s sleep.

The good night’s sleep was more of a wish than a reality as I must confess to feeling just a little anxious about the next day’s ride. I probably had spent just a little too much time looking at the elevation chart. The hills featured on our route were a touch more intimidating than the rollers of Missouri & Kansas. In addition, the forecast wasn’t looking good and the local meteorologists were all consistently reporting the likelihood of rain throughout the day. Well, this still didn’t seem terribly threatening. Honestly, how cold could a fluke San Diego rain storm be? And when was the last time the weather man was right about anything? However, I had also been checking for the previous two weeks. In what turned out to be a very fortuitous decision, I had purchased a rain jacket and packed my cold weather gear at the last-minute.

The morning of the ride arrived and greeted us with gray skies and ominous clouds. It was not raining yet, but with an hour to go until start time it was pretty clear what we were in for.  A light drizzle turned into a serious and steady rain prior to the start. Those who were unable to seek shelter under the available awnings stood shoulder to shoulder, wheel to wheel trying to keep some semblance of good humor. Those that had rain jackets quickly donned them.  A few. . .amazingly few. . .packed it in before the ride even began. The remaining 3,000 or so cyclists from 49 states and 7 different countries sat anxiously awaiting the start. In the final moments, the rain pounded away with even more dedication. By the time we were ready to be led out by a line of Ferrari’s and celebrity riders, standard gear had become completely saturated and the water flooding the streets was running over the top of riders’ shoes and wheels on its way downhill.

With ample buildup, the start was signaled and the riders, chilled to the bone and losing patience, were allowed to roll out. Rolling down the streets otherwise deserted of traffic, the weather was temporarily shoved to the back burner and the mindset of the century rider began to set in. It quickly became obvious that this was no longer the ride to savor that we’d once expected. It was now a ride to endure and the satisfaction of the finish line would be the reward rather than the scenic vistas.

We made our way quickly to the bridge that would drop us into Coronado. Regularly closed to pedestrians, riding across was something I’d been really looking forward to. Pedaling in the lanes typically devoted to oncoming traffic, it was a quick climb to the top and a fast run down the other side for those of us fortunate enough to not get a flat. In all my years of participating in organized rides, I had never seen so many flats. There were more people changing tubes or waiting on mechanical assistance in the first 5 miles than I had seen in my previous 20 centuries combined.

While the scenery we had hoped for was not available, it was fairly impressive to ride along the ocean with the surf whipped up by the storm. The ride along the San Diego Bay was a relatively quick one, especially without the distraction of a sun-kissed shoreline. Aside from the occasional glance toward the rough sea and the sandbar along the road, my view was of the wheel in front of me. However, it was not a day to be drafting. The spray off the wheels in front forced us to ride slightly off to one side of the preceding rider.

The ride inland began by cruising through some gentle, early climbs through well manicured suburbs along the Olympic parkway. The second rest stop was at the Olympic training center. This is where the transition from city to countryside took place. We were unable to see much of what lay ahead due to the fog which had settled in on the hilltops.  With only the knowledge that there was a big climb out there somewhere, we remounted and headed out. The numbers decreased significantly due to the route split for those electing to do the 53 mile route. The century riders and KOM crazies pressed on hoping for a break in the weather.

At 41 miles in, the climbing officially began. Each rider participating in the century route was provided a timing chip so they could take part in the timed climb for king/queen of the mountain prizes. Suspecting that my lack of outdoor training would be an issue, I was content to choose a comfortable grinding pace and make my way toward the top. The duration of the climb was around 7 miles highlighted by three separate markers indicating distance traveled and the grade of the next section. This added a challenging and double-edged element to what could have been just another piece to the puzzle. Was it better to know how much farther and what the grade was going to be in advance? The distance markers flipped-flopped back and forth from encouraging (Only 3 miles left!) to discouraging (There are 3 more miles left?).

My riding partner, Dan, is generally faster than I am and gradually pulled away.  Normally, we do a pretty good job of sticking together but this was every man for himself territory!  The regular curves in the road eventually took him out of my line of sight so I just kept plugging away at my pace. Eventually, the marker for the end of the timed climb came into view and was a welcome relief. Once at the top, a quick descent took riders to the 51 mile mark and the lunch destination. There was no break in the weather to be found. The air temperature was reported to be 40 degrees. Glasses fogged up leaving limited visibility and the cold rain transitioned in a few spots to light sleet.

I located Dan who was just about blue from the cold. He was suffering from his own version of a wardrobe malfunction and was on the verge of hypothermia. Without a rain jacket, gloves, or pants, he was quite literally chilled to the bone. Although a little wet and my feet were cold, I wasn’t terribly uncomfortable. I took a quick inventory of how I felt and decided to press on. Dan was able to catch a SAG to the finish. One of the volunteers called his daughter, Megan, to report one of her riders had been forced to abandon the ride and was coming down. Unfortunately, no name was given and the question became which of us it was. Megan called her mother who called my wife and the scramble for information about which one of us was still out on the road stretched from San Diego to Overland Park, KS. Finally, Dan was able to reach Megan on a borrowed cell phone. The question shifted to where I was on the route.

After loading up on food and the very popular vat of hot coffee, I found my way to my bike and continued to pedal on. However, as I prepared to head out on the back half of the ride, I overheard several local riders announcing that they were heading back the way they came. The rumor was that the route ahead was too washed out and descent would be too tricky in these conditions. Forewarned but not convinced, I chose to continue on the prescribed course.

Fortunately, the riders were right about some things and wrong about others. The roads had been flooded in places but nothing worse than we’d seen already. So many riders had either gone back the way in or abandoned due to conditions (physical, mental, and weather), long stretches of the return route were solo. Steep, curvy descents were well-marked and followed by sharp bends in the road and short steep climbs to follow. The next rest stop came into view and I had already decided that I would probably need to hit the remaining stops so I pulled in to top off on water and food. I noticed a familiar looking SUV sitting in the lot and found Megan waiting on my arrival to check my status. She had connected with her dad at the finish and had him back at the hotel for a much-needed hot shower and dry clothes. Worthy of a medal, she had taken it upon herself to drive out along the route to make sure I was doing OK. I reported I was doing pretty well and intended to press on. She said she would meet me at the next rest stop which was back at the Olympic center just to make sure.

Shortly after Megan left, one of the SAG volunteers called out to see if anyone had a spare tube. He was trying to assist a terribly dejected looking rider who had apparently already had two flats and was out of tubes and/or patches. The SAG had apparently gone through their limited extras. I had two tubes with me and offered one. The volunteer started to pull out his wallet and I promptly waved him off. Still in possession of a spare, I told him to just pay it forward someday in what I hoped would garner me enough good karma to make it to the finish without incident. The volunteer and rider both expressed their gratitude and good wishes for a successful finish were exchanged. I headed out while they started their repair.

I met Megan at the Olympic Center and, with only 20 miles to go, reported I was good for the duration. She took off and I soon continued along the route. With about 8 miles to go, a handful of riders, including myself, managed to get slightly off route. Armed with one guy’s GPS enabled phone, we got back on track and finished off the ride.  The finish line was more than a welcome sight and, with a certain amount of ironic timing, the sun broke through the clouds. I was greeted at the finish by Dan, Megan, and Mike, picked up my medal, and wasted no time in loading up. There was a hot shower in my immediate and necessary future along with a call home to report I was alive and well.

It was the most epic and challenging ride I had ever done. Anxious to return in 2011 with some idea what the route held in store and fingers crossed for more typical San Diego weather, Dan and I marked the calendar and kept the option of returning in our long distance sights. Dan vowed to have rain gear handy and I had several minutes to shave off the timed challenge. We went into the balance of 2010 hoping for a mild winter and plenty of miles in preparation for Gran Fondo 2011.


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