About 4 months ago I chatted with Susan,
Labeja: I’m thinking of doing the Levi’s Gran Fondo this year
Susan: You have said that for the past 3 years
Labeja: That’s true.
Susan: So why don’t you just do it?
So after 3 years of considering it, I signed up for the fondo, checked with my riding buddies and Chef Steve responded with my favorite words, “I’m in!”
In mid August after our family vacation I started training for the fondo. I logged my regular rides with a few changes that included 3 weeks of hill repeats with my neighbor Wes – another crazy man who is always “in!”, 3 weeks of hard Saturdays (the pre-ride, A-ride routine) and I added a couple crazy rides that included a 111 mile 9,000 feet ride on my Mom’s birthday, a 70 miles 11,000 feet road and dirt day with the crazy folks at Celo Pacific, and of course the SwamDo 93-miler.
Of course the biggest part of my training was I measured my weight and body fat on a daily basis, tracked what I ate, and even used a graph to trace what caused fluctuations in my stats. For body fat I used a hand held sensor, which has a margin of error around 1%. Here are the results:
August 19 (day 1 of tracking): weight 173lbs; body fat 9.8%
October 1 (3 days before the Fondo): weight 173lbs; body fat 10.2%
Suffice to say all that tracking and noting was interesting but worthless.
What time is it? Taper Time, Huh!
Another key part of my training was my taper plan for the week ahead of the Fondo. I did a half ride on Saturday (just the pre-ride which is intense) that I rode well. On Sunday, I decided not to defend my taco title at the WolfPack BBQ and ate only 9 tacos, one less than this year’s champion.
On Tuesday I rode the Swamis Tuesday ride as hard as I could but everytime I rode the front I was not able to sustain my effort, which I chalked up to overall fatigue. On Wednesday I did my regular early morning ride with Susan but after about a mile I literally had to stop with nausea. I chased Susan and caught her near the end. When I told her how I felt she wisely told me I should have just gone home. I felt ok though and did a quick 2 mile run after the ride.
On Thursday I did an easy 40 miles ride with Wes and again I was pretty tired by the end.
We hit the road to Monterey after a quick breakfast at home and I felt sluggish all day and basically slept a lot in the car while Susan drove. When we stopped for a bathroom break I discovered I had full on diarrhea for the first time in years! I was able to eat dinner but even though I wasn’t hungry. I was concerned enough that I texted Chef Steve to let him know that there was a chance I may not able to complete the ride. I slept 12 hours on Thursday night and had a running stomach all day on Friday in Monterey. We visited the Monterey Aquarium and unfortunately because I felt weak and tired I just sat down outside and waited for the family to complete the visit. It was hard to see how I would be able to spend 5.5 hours on a bike!
Susan had me drinking Gatorade on Friday and eating bananas to combat my loss of fluids and nutrients. She also drove us most of the way from Monterey to Santa Rosa on Friday and encouraged me to sleep in the car, which I did. After getting my registration stuff for the Fondo, we had dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. My appetite was completely gone at this point and I split a meal with Susan. My sleep was fitful and I woke up several times because my stomach hurt. I drank water when I woke up because I hadn’t peed in a long time, a sure symptom of dehydration.
A man without goals is like a ship without a rudder
The Fondo was scheduled to start at 8:00am in a mass start so Steve and I got there at about 6:30am with the plan being to get a good position in the starting chute. Our goal was originally to finish the ride under 6 hours. When we arrived we saw a section at the front of the chute, right behind the professionals and in front of the general population who were already filling up, that said “LESS THAN 7.5 HOUR ENTER HERE” in bold letters. We decided to take our time and return to the <7.5 Hour section just before the start. We went back to the coffee area where I ate my breakfast sandwich and we relaxed.
About 30 minutes later we ambled over to the 7.5 hour section where we were told no entry because there was some fine print at the bottom of the sign that we selectively had not read “LESS THAN 7.5 HOURS ENTER HERE…if you completed it in 2014“. The general population area was now pretty full so we went back there and ended up behind around 400 people.
Steve and I kicked ourselves mentally for maybe 10 minutes for this and I told Steve I thought the first 5 miles would be the most dangerous as we would be surrounded by all these “rookie” cyclists.
At 8:00am when the ride set off we surprisingly found that everyone rode relatively disciplined on the right side of the road. Steve set off passing people and I chased after him. After I caught up to him someone passed me on the left and I stayed on his wheel and we passed a lot of people. We caught up to Hartono, a Strava friend from Orange County. As we went up a brief climb I pulled away from Steve but then as we descended I felt my rear tire go soft and I knew I had a flat tire. Steve stopped and helped me change it. A Moto support guy also stopped and he helped me pump the tire and gave me a spare tube to replace the spare I had just used. We set off again and soon caught and passed a lot of people many of whom followed us until there were around 40 people behind a 3 man rotation of Steve, a guy in a Mellow Johnny’s kit, and me. Around this time I forced myself to eat a harmony bar even though I was not hungry.
The Fondo has 3 major climbs with the first one being around 3,500 feet followed by a steep descent and then another 3,500 feet climb immediately followed by a long descending to flat section leading up to the final climb and then 20 or so flat miles to the finish. Our plan was to take the first climb at an easy pace and then go hard on the subsequent climbs. We would stop at only one rest stop at mile 55 which was the “lunch stop” and it was after the 2nd climb.
We approached the first climb at mile 30 and after a course marshall told us the climb was 15 miles, we rode it at a steady pace as per our plan. A noteworthy sight just after the climb began was a man who made Steve’s day because he was standing on the side of the road in full kit holding an expensive Italian bike with one hand while smoking a cigarette with the other. The climb gave way to some rolling hills and Steve pulled away from me on the descents. Around mile 45 the climb was officially over and there was a rest stop that I rode past while checking to ensure Steve hadn’t stopped.
Then the steep descent began with signs for “Dangerous descent”, “Slow down”, “18% gradient”, etc. I’m a good descender thanks to all the aggressive group rides I do but took it slow after seeing those signs. The most worrying sign was “Accident Ahead”, and on the last corner of the descent I saw the emergency services vehicles which were there to treat someone who had lost control of their bicycle. I couldn’t see any sign of the cyclist although I saw this sad article later in Velonews.
As I completed the descent my front tire popped signalling my second flat. As I was stopping Steve appeared from behind me – he had stopped somewhere to pee. I ended up using Steve’s tube as the spare I had gotten from the Moto guy could not fit my aero wheels. I was just glad to get the tube in without any errors and I sang to Steve, “You’re so beautiful”
We set off up the extremely steep second climb. I was in my lowest gear when a girl in a Team Whistler kit went by us spinning at a high cadence. Steve said, “Oh it’s on now” and immediately jumped on her wheel. Steve and his new friend opened up a gap on me. I went into half marathon mode, found a pain level I could sustain and caught up and passed Team Whistler and a lot of other people. At the top of the climb I looked back and behind me was:
1) a skinny kid in a Norcal size extra small jersey that barely fit him – the arms were flapping,
2) Team Whistler
3) some random guy in survival mode.
I let them go by me and sat behind them letting them pull as I waited for Steve. As usual after a few rolling hills Steve reappeared.
We had a brief conversation with Norcal:
Norcal: Are you guys pros? (with amazement in his voice)
Labeja: No, we are just 40 year old guys riding bikes
Steve: I’m older than 40!
Labeja: How old are you?
Then we got passed by the first pro on the Panzer Route whic was 116 miles, with a dirt section, and was limited to 250 riders. The pro had a moto following him who would blow the horn each time he came to a group. As the moto passed us Team Whistler got on his wheel and chased him until she couldn’t keep up anymore. The pro kept pulling away from us so I yelled at Steve to go, which he did and he got behind the moto until we came through a curve in the road where the moto took a bad line making Steve slow down and they were gone. It was amazing watching the pro just keep pedaling away from us like he had some sort of engine.
Our little group was now Steve, Team Whistler and me. At this point we caught up to my friend Hartono again around mile 53. As planned, Steve and I stopped at the lunch stop at mile 55 and Team Whistler spoke her first few words when she said she would stop with us. I used the stop to get a new tube, new C02 and a bit of food then we set off again. Team Whistler got her food and took off without waiting for us so that was the last we saw of her.
Now we began the big beautiful descent to the ocean. I was careful with my braking and tapped just gently on the brakes going downhill but despite that I heard my front tire pop once more. Steve who had been very supportive of my first 2 flat tires was visibly frustrated and stood to the side. I tried to take the front tire off but couldn’t and I saw red and experienced what I call a “pull out a shotgun moment”. I seriously considered just putting my foot through the spokes and breaking the entire wheel apart. Despite Steve’s obvious frustration, I told him I needed a little help and graciously he took the tire iron and helped me get the tire off the rim and I took it from there. After getting it off Steve correctly diagnosed that I needed new rim tape which was causing the pinch flats – so in went a tire boot.
Starting again after this stop was difficult. We had about 40 miles to the finish and very low motivation levels. Fortunately a lot of it was downhill and flat and we passed a lot of people. Although I still had no appetite I forced myself to eat again at this point.
Around mile 70 we came to the final climb which I had expected to be a small pop-up. It was a narrow pretty road and you could tell it was going to be an epic climb. Steve said let’s keep it below 300Watts to which I responded lets keep it below puke! So off I went up the hill again trying to stay in my sustainable pain mode and pedaled out of sight of Steve. I left just a little bit in reserve and the climb was so steep at certain points that we must have passed at least 10 people painfully walking their bikes uphill.
Once I crested the climb, as usual Steve caught me and we were down to about 20 miles of beautiful countryside to ride. Around mile 85 we started a short climb and I had to tell Steve to slow down as I felt my body crack a little bit. We rode together slowly and a skinny guy in a yellow jacket we had passed on the prior climb passed us. As we crested the climb I started to feel better so I yelled at Steve to “Catch the fucker!” to which he obliged and a few seconds later we caught and passed him.
Then as I was pulling we passed a guy in a Chico championship jersey. As we passed him he asked if he could work with us and as part of the conversation we realized he was the 55+ Chico time trial champion. All of a sudden Steve and Chico were off to the races and they set a hard tempo. I pulled through once or twice and then after pulling through a third time Steve and Chico dropped me. Steve slowed to wait for me and fortunately they came to a red light which we crossed through together. Steve took off again and opened up a gap on us and then we all got passed by a fashion-code-breaking guy wearing worn out 2XU shorts with an exposed undershirt tucked into his shorts and worn out shoes.
Chico came up and told me to jump on his wheel and together we caught back on to Steve. Steve and Chico worked together and caught 2XU who I noticed had a panzer number so he was both hard and fast despite dresscode no-nos. Together Steve, Chico and 2XU rode hard while I was in total hang on for life mode. I may have taken 3 pulls the entire last 10 miles of the ride as these boys just went hard and harder and harder until Chico just dropped off and said “…that’s enough for me.” In the last 3 miles we caught and passed Hartono once more.
We finally got to the finish and we completed the ride in 5 hours 40 minutes of ride time, which was right on target.