I kept hearing about Gran Fondos but have never done one. What better time than the crazy year of 2020. The event took place on August 22/23 and I was super excited about it. I admit , it took me some time just to explain to myself what the whole idea and rules are about. Essentially , we are racing against one another but not the whole time. With close to 100 miles, only 4 timed sectioned matter for the General Qualification. Essentially, this is a nice mix of “social” riding and full out racing. The timed sections were mostly hills so there is that. I kind of like the idea and was excited about it. Who can time it better? The interesting part about it was also the fact that we are racing on our own , submitting our GPS files to RideWithGps and based on that , the Final standings will be established. We had the option to start either on Saturday or Sunday but made no difference to me since the weather was very similar. It made more sence that I do it Saturday and try to explore more on Sunday before getting back to work on Monday. The plan for Sunday was to take on the tallest peak east of the Mississippi river – Mt. Mitchel – Elevation 6,684′ . That was also the highest peak in NC , a month after climbing the tallest peak in WV – Spruce Knob – Elevation 4,862′.
Understanding that climbing was one of my weaknesses , I decided to work on it in 2020. My weight was down to 158 lbs so that was supposed to help a bit as well. Huge thanks to NC local and WUCA President Mark Poland, i received some tips on Dos and don’ts. He guided me to a friend of his who was kind enough to offer his Air BnB for the duration of the event. His name was Jamie, also avid cyclist who owns a Cycling Touring company. The location was just perfect, about 2 miles from the start and midway up the hill on Elk Mountain that I will have to actually tackle during the Fran Fondo. Without much time wasted , I had a nice dinner , layed out all my supplies for the start the next morning and went to bed.
The morning was a bit misty but the temperature was just perfect. I was super excited to give this one a go. The interesting thing about Asheville is that although it is on the east coast , due to the terrain and elevation , it wasn’t as humid was I was used to. I navigated through the deserted streets of Asheville and arrived at the start. We were told that we can join anywhere during the first 6 miles or so and still get full credit but I wasn’t going to shorten my experience. Sadly due to the Pandemic, the streets were deserted as if you are in some bad movie or a dream but one can still feel the vibe and historical importance of the town.
There was some small last minute changes to the route but the time sections were the same. Essentially my read on this was that I need to race 1/4 of the time and recover as well as i could in between. I had to ensure that I am at full speed at the beginning of each timed segment and give it my best.
Section 1 – Bear Creek
Description: Bear Creek starts with a fairly significant gradient, get over
the climb with a group and hold tight.
I was descending right before the start of this section and attempted to generate some nice speed going into it. My HR was low at 130 and I gave it a great effort to kick start it, according to Strava , I cranked up to 750 Watts and most of the effort was around 170 to 175 HR and 300 watts with 294 Watts average and 164 bpm. The power was a little higher than I wanted it to be so early. We had long way to go and countless hills to climb and this was about my FTP power but definitely a good effort. I finished 5th Overall out of 25 total riders.
Section 2 – Walnut Creek
Description: This climb starts at a manageable gradient but
eventually pitches up to double digits. Enjoy the pain!
I had about 13 miles to recover before the next Timed Section. Honestly, I was just trying to catch my breath, lower my HR, eat , hydrate and pedal softly.
This section was nearly twice as long with some decent climbing in it. In fact, according to ridewithGPS , 4.5 % grade on average with a kicker of 18.1 %. I really felt that 18.1% as i was pushing as hard as I could. My HR was insane and I was passing racers as if they were stopped and not pedaling. The roads were narrow and curvy ,and even included few hairpins so I got that high mountain pass feeling 🙂
This was a full out assault effort and I was feeling hurt at the end of it. Time to recover I though as we were now halfway done and the temperature was increasing. 4th place overall on this section
Section 3 – French Broad River
Description: After Walnut Creek and the upcoming Elk Mountain,
this long and “easy” timed section should be welcome.
As the description suggests this section was long but relatively easy. However, I was running out of supplies and slowly cooking under the sun. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any AID stations so we had to carry anything with need with us. This was not particularly efficient going up hills since climbing is really power to weight ratio. I found nice gas station with outdoor seating and decided to stop. There were already a dozen cyclists refueling at the same location. I had a strong coffee, filled up my bottles with more Skratch Labs Hydration mix and pressed onwards.
There was 36 miles before TS#2 and TS#3. I was trying to recover and just enjoy the scenery. I went into it a little tired and not feeling 100%. It was relatively flat section with a little hump at the end. But the thing was, I still had to go as hard as i can, its a race after all.
I did not perform as good as i did in the last 2 sections and finished 7th overall
The interesting thing was that there is no offcials around you, no aid stations, not even many racers and you start at different times. It was just a wild guess how you stack against the competition. All I could do is give it my best and move on. The final Section was just 6 miles away, I was cooked, legs were sore and my heart felt like is going to come out of my chest. I did stop once again at a gas station to refuel and catch my breath. Upon exiting the gas station I was met by an older gentleman who was also doing the Fondo but a shorter version of it. He actually though i looked like George Hincapie and decided to stop and say hi. How funny is that.
Section 4 -Elk Mountain
Description: Elk Mountain is an enjoyable climb…shaded and no
steep pitches. Feel free to go all out knowing that it’s all mostly
downhill to Wicked Weed.
I told you that my Air BnB was up Elk Mountain. It felt like you need to be an Elk to go up that hill. It was steep and long and I was having hard time going up. I climbed part of it the day before and it is a small beast. However the beast in me was dead at the moment 🙂
The last section felt super tough, i was having hard time keeping my hearth rate manageable and was not generating the power i wanted to. I was tired, a bit dehydrated and running hot. I did catch up to the gentleman i met at the gas station up that hill but also saw myself being overtaken by two other racers and it didn’t feel good. I was 10 minutes behind the leader and 10 minutes behind him just on this stage alone !!!
At the end I was happy to finish 2nd in my age group. This actually gave me qualifying status for the National Grand Fondo in 2021. I was 8th overall.
After the final climb , i caught up to Jorg Decressin on the way down and we chatted along about anything cycling , Gran Fondos and life in general. He was also from Maryland and had traveled to my country of birth – Bulgaria. Small world and great way to make new friends. Fun and done. Looking forward to National Gran Fondo Asheville 2021.