This year, I finally got to do the Alpine Loop Gran Fondo. I helped out at the start by road guarding at an intersection on Court Square as the mass of riders left the old town area. After the riders passed, I then jumped on my bike and played a little catch up leaving town.
It was great to see the Shen-Rock Composite youth MTB team rolling along participating in the valley loop. I found a few friends and we worked up through the pack of riders until we caught the front pack at the base of the 33W climb to West Virginia. I decided to see how my legs felt and started rolling along at a steady burn as Connor Bell pulled away up the mountain. I have climbed this hill a few times and have experienced some bad drivers. On this day, with many more cyclists at my side, I felt the drivers either were put at ease because of the beautiful sunshine and perfect weather OR they realized we outnumbered them 10 to 1 and decided not to honk and yell at us out their windows. The climb continued steadily and wound up the mountain. I found a target that worked well until about a quarter mile to the top. It was a middle-aged man on a mountain bike. I kept him in my sights and reeled him in just before the top.
The descent to Brandywine was as clean as I have ever seen. I had a blast ripping through banked corners with wide open sightlines and super-tucking on the straights upwards of 50 mph. When it flattened out, I caught onto a group for a bit until we got to the first aid station. Being only a few miles in, I wasn't very hungry for food but found I was surrounded by many friends and had to ask how their ride was going. I found Kyle Lawrence and we rolled out toward Fultz Gap together to tackle the next climb.
We reached the base of Fultz Gap after a good chat and the road goes from paved to gravel. Then it turns up. We get going up, then up steeper, then looser, then steeper, and then right about when I think I am going to slip a rear wheel at the same time that my legs are failing, it starts to level out. That was my first time on Fultz Gap, but I will go back again (with bigger tires).
Over the top of Fultz Gap there were some road repairs that sometimes left loose gravel. It made for a sketchy descent, which I love! It was bumpy, and narrow, and bumpy (I lost a frame pump and then recovered it). Out of the bottom of the descent we rolled into Franklin. It was at this time that I found Connor Bell and Bryan Lewis. As I started pacing with them, I began battling a few cramp spasms in my sartorius. I fixed the situation by cramming down some ham sandwiches and mustard at the next aid station, and we continue on. It was such beautiful rolling country. We rolled into another sweet descent with fresh pavement as we charged into the Brushy Fork aid station. I got some snacks and a Coke, and we relaxed for a while; mentally preparing for the pain cave that was coming.
The Brushy Fork aid station is the last support until you reach the top of Reddish Knob. The route that JB chose for us to get from Brushy Fork to Reddish Knob is up a climb made up of single track for trucks. It is a fire road made of rock and dirt. This is not the same as gravel. But I accepted this challenge. I climbed it last year on my mountain bike during the Shenandoah Mountain 100. I was warned to ride 28mm wide tires or larger, but I was on a BMC TeamMachine demo bike with Continental Ultra Sport 23s. They were okay but when I was chasing a target I cased hard enough to pinch a tube. I replaced the tube and rolled along at a more modest pace to minimize the chance of repeat flatting. It just so happens I was less than a mile from the finish of the KOM challenge. Oh well. I have plenty of excuses for not winning that ;)
At the peak of the ride on top of Reddish Knob, people are extremely happy. They are finished with the "gravels" and they know they have a long downhill ahead of them. I still had Connor and Bryan with me but at this point we also got Ken Bell and Danny Gibney to join us before descending 3000 feet in 9 miles. Connor is a solid technical rider and Danny proved the same as we twisted down the s-curves of this descent. I remember thinking, "Danny is entering this turn way too fast," but I trusted his skill. He braked really late and then dove into the turn as Connor and I followed. We were pedaling and super-tucking and over-stressing our smile muscles. We finished the main portion of the descent and realized we hadn't hit any rough spots or sink holes on the road. This was because Kelly, from the shop, had marked every one of them with bright orange paint the Friday before the event. We then finished making our way to the next aid station at the Briery Branch Community Center and fueled up for the final leg.
The rest of the ride turned into a slum for me. My legs had had enough. This was my longest ride in a while and the most elevation I had ever conquered in one day. The group pulled me back to town and we strolled into Turner Pavillion to receive our finisher bells. Our bikes were hung on the racks by Matt Smith and we proceeded to pig out on the delicious meal provided by Hank's Smokehouse.
If you haven't tried this event I highly recommend Jeremiah's Alpine Loop Gran Fondo! Run big tires and easy gears. It will soften the blow.
Photo credit to: Joe Foley Photography, http://www.joefoleyphotography.com/site/2015-alpine-loop-gran-fondo/