First of all, let me start by saying that if you’re checking out this post hoping that I’ll have some magic formula about bike gearing and fitness about gravel rides, this post may not be for you. I’m also taking a break from writing about all things related to Open, adjuncts, and leadership so if you want that jobby job talk, check back in a week or so, and I’ll try to write about that magic.
Here’s the honest truth of my first Gran Fondo experience: I had NO idea what I was signing up for when I rolled into Bloedel-Donovan last Sunday for the Whatcom Grind p/b The Bellingham Grind Corps.
I had four goals. 1] Have fun while riding my bike (Check!) 2] Enjoy my day away from the laptop and phone and be in the mountains (Check!), 3] Support my friend Kip who is totally rad about sponsoring my bike team (Check!) 4] Suffer my way to some better fitness (Check AF!).
When I finally rolled into my garage that evening, I had ridden 59.7 miles and 7333 feet of elevation. True, I was the Lantern Rouge when we arrived back to Lake Padden, but I did it! That’s some serious riding in my book, and let me tell you, I put the Gran in the motherfuckin’ Fondo!
And oh-my-gawd I loved every minute of it. It was some of the most beautiful suffering I’ve ever done on a bike. It was akin to everything I love about backpacking with that feeling of being far away in the mountains only I was on my bike. I can’t stop talking about it, so I should prolly blog it out.
Here we go in some Lessons Learned style of bloggy blog blog bloggery.
Lesson 1: Listen to people when they advise you about gravel grind gearing.
I was really stubborn (surprise!) about not wanting to purchase the right gearing for my cyclo-cross (CX) bike and I regretted it. I love my CX bike, and I refused to listen to the Mister about buying new gearing. What if I don’t like this kind of riding, I said. What if I’m able to ride some of the steeper pitches, I said (ha ha ha, hindsight). What if I regret not putting the money towards my future new sleeping bag, I said.
He sighed and shook his head. I could put what I have on your bike but then you’ll spin out on the road, and I think you’ll be unhappy with how slow you’ll be on the 25 miles of pavement, he said. We should just run down the shop and get you a [enter all the bike gearing talk here], he said. We could do [enter money that I didn’t want to spend here], he said.
Fuck it. I’ll just ride what I’ve got and suffer through it, I said.
When I finally resigned to walking my bike up the switchbacks for the first time I hated myself for being so stubborn. What a frickin’ loser I am! Why do I have to be so stubborn? Why me? Why didn’t I research more? Why did other people know to have plate-size gearing and I chose to ignore them? Why! [Shakes fists at heavens!]
All I needed to do was spend the money (I get a discount with my bike team sponsorship) and I’m married to a very skilled obsessive perfectionist meticulous bike mechanic who would have installed everything for me.
Ready to slap me yet?
In my defense, I have very specific financial goals right now, so avoiding some risk on gear for an outing that I didn’t even know I’d like is my version of being a responsible adult.
So now that I know I LOVED it, I’ve got a little list that will make my bike a magic machine for the uphill spinney-spin-spin. I can’t tell you how many times I clicked my gears hoping there two–three–no–wait–five–no seven–any–easier gears. Nope! The hike-a-bike miles were unavoidable but I know I could’ve ridden a few more of those switchbacks had I listened to my Mister. As much as I hate to say it, everyone I didn’t listen to was right. Dammit.
Lesson 2: Ride with friends and give zero fucks about the killers going race pace.
When I rolled to the start, I knew almost half of the people there. And if I didn’t know them, I recognized them from racing. There’s a whole group of folks who live to destroy one another with their pace on a bike–bless their hearts–and albeit I adore them as people, I learned long, long ago that I can not and should not ever care to keep up with them. Drop me, bitches, I care not! A Killer, by definition, is high-praise from me, and there are a ton of those people here in Bellingham. A Killer is person who spends a fair amount of time suffering while riding very fast. Usually finds a way to a podium or five per year during various race seasons. Trains hard to stay fit year ’round. This sister? Not so much. I’ve named my current muffin-top “Kittens Mittens” after my favorite winter beer. As in, my “Kittens Mittens” has made my jeans tight but I know I’ll lose those ten pounds by June. As in, my “Kittens Mittens” brings all the boys to the yard, damn right, I’ll lose it by June. And so on.
Prior to the ride, I made a deal with myself that I would ride as best as I could, and when we started, I felt great. Like really good. My quads were a bit tired from rides earlier in the week, but I felt pretty okay. Like my own version of being a Killer.
And then we went up and up and up and the views of Lake Whatcom were lovely. It was hot and sunny and gorgeous and green. The Chanterelle Trail was all the Pacific Northwest beauty. I had six teammates at the rollout, and three of them were with me. The sun was shining like it was summer. Yes, Dolores, I have seen something so full splendor.
I had a plan that if I couldn’t do both climbs, I’d bail on the second and ride the roads home. Or I’d find a convenience store, buy a 40 with paperbag and drink it while I waited for my Mister to come pick me up. Me and my “Kittens Mittens” would bail with some style. You know. Klassy.
Another motivator was this new idea (to me) of a “supported ride.”
I’ve never done a supported ride, and I’ve always thought that Gran Fondos were for The Swells. And a lot of them are with all the sag wagons and champagne and fancy foods and costly entry fees. And I’m sad to report that I didn’t join the Grind Corps crew earlier because I thought it was only for The Killers. And it can be. But it’s also for people like me. People who look forward to cheap beer, a sandwich from Cafe Velo, an aid station with cool people to talk to, and friends who were in it for the fun of riding and walking bikes in the mountains. People who sample everything at the aid station. And love it. Like me.
Lesson 3: Stop and look at the views. PRs be damned. Let the clock tick.
I took a long time to finish. In fact, I was the Lantern Rouge of the entire pack. Last place.
Kudos to the volunteers and my teammates who hung out waiting for us to arrive. I really appreciate the time that they took out of their weekend to make sure I had everything I needed for pure joy on the bike. For a very reasonable price, I was set up for a day of adventure! I’m pretty sure the guy who came in first was already back in Seattle going for a local recovery ride by the time I rolled in, but again, see Lesson 2.
Lesson 4: Take more pictures.
I wish I had stopped to take several photos that I skipped because I was suffering to push my bike. My phone was in Camelbak and taking it out to aim a photo took effort. I was super sweaty and I know that’s when I drop my phone so I just kept it in my bag. I missed the opportunity to take a photo of a dead crow that was gorgeous and dark deep blueish black. So Goth! Missed the barn where they had bikes hanging from hooks as decoration. So cute! The brown lawn ornament that was a Sasquatch cut out with glitter. So Out County! All the flowers. The view of Skagit county going up the Anderson climb? Gorgeous! Some of the switchbacks that just kept going up and up and up. The hilarious spray paint art that one usually sees during aerial shots during the grand tours. Cheeky course organizers! The smiley faces on the rocks in the clearcuts. Or did I imagine that?
I also wish I’d documented my own version of the ride markers that either directed us to go left, right, caution-a-gate, or continue straight. We called them route markers at first and then magic circles and then suffer circles and then eventually beer dots.
“Let’s connect the dots to the beer at the park” we said.
Lesson 5: Slow the heck down on the descents and give your hands a break.
I loves loves loves me some fast downhill on a bike. I got bugs in my teeth from smiling so much and I let it rip way more than I should have. My Garmin told me my top speed was 33.8 and you know, that’s kind of badass, but totally unsafe on gravel roads. By the time my hands were hurting from braking, I was close to not having the hand power to grip my brakes.
My middle-aged lady hands aren’t as strong as they used to be, so I need to slow this sister down in the future to make sure I stay healthy. It made typing (which is mainly how I make a living) a bit hard on Monday.
Lesson 6: I wish I had encouraged more women to join me.
I can recruit ladies to race cyclocross and cross-country all the live-long day because I love it. If I truly love something, I like to encourage others to join me. My friends Kerri Love and Marcy Sutton did these rides last year, and I found their enthusiasm contagious. Marcy’s a hardcore single-speeder and she bought a geared bike (wut!) so that was a sign of serious fun-to-be-had. Kerri pitched the idea to our team several times, and I’ll now join the Kerri chorus for all the ladies.
So if you’re reading this, and you’re on the fence about joining the fun, hop on over to Bike Reg and sign up. I’ll be the Lantern Rouge so you don’t have to, and I’ll make sure we set a slow-so-we-can-survive pace. I’d like to go a bit faster for the next ride, but we can sort that out once we get there. Either way, it’s a different kind of day in the mountains, and more women should do it. Beer tastes especially sparkly delicious at the end, and you can look up at those mountains and say you did the grind on your bike to get to one magic dot to the next on mostly gravel.
And if you’re a Lady Killer, there are women you can ride with too. It’s a great way to train and suffer on the bike. You can race one another if you want to do that. I’ll support you by drinking your share of the beer. Kidding. Not kidding.
Concluding Thoughts on the Lessons Learned:
I need more adventuring in my life. It felt really good to set out with a goal of trying something new and doing it. The work that I do is really unpredictable, ever-changing, and filled with ups and downs. Plans change all the time. Priorities can switch hourly. It’s been awhile since I put myself in a position of doing something new and unknown yet I teach/train people to do that all the time. New terrifyingly hard experiences remind me to be more empathetic and patient. I talked my Killer Mister into joining me so now we’re spending twice the money. But who cares? I’m stoked he’ll join me or The Killers and my sleeping bag will have to make it another season.
Prior to the ride, I thought I’d spend some time thinking about a few projects I’m working on and that I’d be able to draft some thoughts in my mind. HA! I only thought about the next switchback and my own suffering. It was perfect. Just want I needed.
This post is, of course, not that serious. Some of the other writing that I’m working on outside of the jobby job is. Let me conclude with sharing a quote from The Weekend Effect: The Life-Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork by Katrina Onstad.
A good weekend is alert to beauty. A good weekend embraces purposelessness. A good weekend wanders a million different paths, but always involves slowing down and stepping out of the rushing stream of life (p. 12).
The Gran Fondo, or gravel grinding, for this working gal, makes for a great weekend. Thanks for reading, friends.
Now go ride your bike.
Hilarious! My wife and I read your memoir and have decided its a must read for anyone new to these mixed surface rides!! So funny and well done! We are planning on riding a few of the Bellingham Grind Corp rides this year!
Stoked, Michael! Thanks for reading, and I really hope to see you and your wife for our Grind Corps rides. Super fun suffering on a bike with great people and stellar views. Hope to meet you in real life on the bike:)