Have you ever been on a climb so long and so steep that you legitimately thought something extremely bad was about to happen to your neuro-cardio-vascularature (not an actual word)? Like the copper you were tasting was your ACTUAL HEART, detached from the aorta, projectile-vomiting blood out of your body? Your unnaturally loud mouthbreathing so embarrassingly awkward that you SHOULD feel self-conscious except for the fact you may be leaking tears AND urine and so this is like no higher than 7th on the list of bad shit that is happening right now? Well, throw in some beautiful scenery and super nice volunteers and you have the Garrett County Gran Fondo!
The coolest thing about Garrett County (GCGF from now on because I am too lazy to type it out), is that seven of the hardest climbs are timed and they use those results for a cool KOM competition. The uncool thing is if you are a doofus idiot and get your Gran Fondos confused and end up at the Mountains of Misery gran fondo thinking THAT was the one with timed climbs. Sadly, it won’t be, and after sprinting the first two big climbs you will blow up like the fucking Hindenburg halfway through before fading to 27th. Yes, I am a doofus idiot. Your results may vary.
So I tricked my friend Brad into riding it with me, because he is young and impressionable and therefore easily mind-controlled. We signed up for the Diabolical Double, which was 124 miles long and well north of 15,000 feet of climbing. There are other, shorter options, but you obviously want to get the best value for your money and why pay more per cry? That’s like paying $15 to sob loudly at the 7pm showing of Toy Story 3 instead of paying matinee prices. Why would you do that? Also, stop manipulating me, Pixar.
I made Brad drive because I have teenagers that need cars and I am not fully in control of my life at this current time. We left at around 3pm on Friday and pulled in to packet pickup at Garrett College in McHenry, MD around 7pm. We were so hungry that we blew off the pre-race briefing, dropped our stuff at the hotel, and went to grab dinner at a local pizza place. We scored a table by the big picture window that overlooked both Deep Creek Lake and the road that just happened to be part of the route for Race Across America (the supported cross-country bike race). While we ate, we saw several racers go by. They were all near the end of their west coast to east coast journey and to a man looked completely and utterly destroyed. Seemed like a good omen!
Now what happens in McHenry stays in McHenry, but it’s important to note that our shared room at the local budget hotel had just one single king bed for their two guests. We were going to *very, very masculinely* greco-roman wrestle to submission to see who got the bed, but we were both tired and like all old dudes do, eventually fell asleep watching sports.
We got up way too early Saturday for the 7am ride start, but I didn’t want to miss out on the free hotel breakfast and besides, they had a make your own waffles waffle maker! The last time I made my own waffles at a hotel it was right before I ran in the worst conditions the Boston Marathon had seen in 50 years. Another good omen!
The weather wasn’t supposed to be great to start the day, but like all big shots, I sprung for VIP parking. That meant we were able to park right next to where the ride started and finished and could sit in the car right up until the ride was being staged. Fortunately, the rain mostly held off and we milled around getting stuff ready. I pumped up my tires and was alarmed to see my rear tire at just 60 psi. My mind immediately went to the bad place – either slow leak or something else. There was also a small cut in the tire which I found the day before, but had elected not to do anything about. NOW I WAS PAYING THE PRICE. My stress level, which had been fine, skyrocketed. All I could do was pump up
the jamz my tires and hope for the best.
If you look at the GCGF for what it is – a stunningly beautiful, albeit difficult supported bike ride – then it’s totally fine. You listen to your body, you go at your own pace, you take your time, see the sights, eat the food. You enjoy yourself.
Then there’s me. Less than three miles into the ride we hit our first timed climb.
410 feet of vertical climbing in .7 miles. Average grade of over 11%. It’s your first climb so you want to show everyone that you are a lover of climbing and hey, I GOT THIS. Then you are halfway up and you have downshifted into your absolute lowest gear and you 100% cannot feel your fucking arms. Am I having a stroke? Is my eyeball going to pop out? Why does this matter so much to me? All I can think about is how badly I want to make a good showing and why are these other dudes passing me? Mercifully, the first climb was over for me in four minutes and 32 seconds. Hold your breath and wrestle a canvas bag for 4:32 if you want to get a sense of how I felt at the top. Fortunately hundreds of other riders either didn’t give a shit about the climbing competition or didn’t realize they had ridden over the first timing mat, because I had the 8th fastest time of the day. Desperation is my P.E.D. of choice.
Brad and I slow-rolled for 8 miles to recover but still, I silently swore revenge against any middle-aged dude that dared roll past me during that time. Oh you think you’re fast buddy? Well, just wait until my lungs finish scarring and I will absolutely show you!
If the organizers drove a stake through your heart right as you crossed the finishing timing mat on Overlook Pass, that would be an apt description of the White Rock climb. It was longer, with more climbing (1.03 miles, 531 feet). All the hill climbing I do at home just does nothing to prepare you for going up 500 feet in a mile. We have short and stabby hills around here. They have long and decapitatey stuff there. Still, I didn’t throw up or pass out and ended up crossing the timing mat in 6:33, good for 9th best time on the day.
Early on in big rides I like to pretend I am a professional athlete, so when I hit aid stations I just take sports drink and whatever ATHLETE NUTRITION they offer. In this case, Hammer fully sponsors GCGF so they had all manner of gels and fuels and whatnots. I grabbed a few caffeinated gels and stuffed them in my jersey pocket, swallowed some Endurolytes (they sound important), and drank some HEED. HEED is scottish for BIG HEAD, but also English for “this tastes like ass”. Seriously, in this day and age, how can a sports drink taste this bad? Whatever. As a pretend professional athlete, I need to replenish MAH GLYCOGEN RESERVES, so I dutifully drank it down.
It obviously worked, because some way, some how, my Sam Friend Rd. climb (1.35 miles, 593 feet), was my best of the competition. I did it in 7:51, the third fastest time of the day. Thanks, HEED!
Brad is also cruising right along and for the most part we are riding together, but there are also killer hills between the timed climbs that are just as wicked as the timed climbs themselves. Stuff with scary-ass names, too. Devil’s Half Acre. Pig’s Ear. Skullfuck Farm. Okay, I made the last one up, but you get the idea. Bowman Hill (1.68 miles, 771 feet) did not have a scary name but I am going to petition to have it changed because it was straight up to heaven with zero flat recovery spots. Usually when I climb hills around DC, I stand up like a spastic moron and pedal out of the saddle swaying side to side like a 5 year-old overdosing on pop rocks and coke (aka cocaine). GCGF is so long though, that I was just sitting in, hands in the drops, pedaling as fast as I could.
We were about 50 miles in to the ride at this point (still not halfway!) and folks obviously had “enough of this shit” because I ended up with the 6th fastest time – 10:53. I do not ever want to do something that hard or long again (this is foreshadowing).
BIG SAVAGE MOUNTAIN
Brad had been having a strong day, but Bowman Hill and other untimed climbs like Killer Miller (real name) were crushing his knee. Right before the 4th aid station he took a right while I went left. Taking the prescribed cut-through, he was able to reduce his ride down to “just” a century with six timed climbs. Despite the knee issues, he still finished 31st out of over 330 riders in the climbing competition.
Now I was all by my lonesome, and on cue it started raining REALLY hard. Fortunately I rolled up on aid station 5 just as it started and was able to eat 5,000 M&Ms while I waited. JUST LIKE THE PROS DO. Maybe I was waiting a little longer than usual, because I knew as soon as I left, the biggest, baddest climb on the course awaited me – the climb up the side of Savage Mountain (4.23 miles, 1611 feet). The stats are deceiving because there are sections of the climb which are downhill, which make the total average grade just 7.3%, but there are also long, sustained stretches, in the sun, of 15%. In fact, when I did this climb last year I had such a hard time that at various points I considered unclipping and walking, or quitting cycling, or both. I definitely paper-boyed back and forth across the climb and was so destroyed that I had to alternate 10 seconds of standing and pedaling with 10 seconds of sitting and pedaling. For 30 minutes.
As I pedaled upwards, all I could think of was to conserve energy for the REALLY bad part of the climb. I didn’t want to be reduced to paperboy status or struggle to just make the cranks turn. Then I made a left turn and…was done. It didn’t seem right at all, but sure enough, I had miscalculated and had already done the hardest part of the climb. I took 3 minutes off of my time from last year and probably could have shaved off some more if I had worked harder and not worried about falling over. Still I was ecstatic that I hadn’t asked for the sweet, sweet deliverance of a sudden aneurysm (like I begged for last year). 28:01 was only the 16th fastest time of the day, but felt like a huge victory for me.
DRY RUN AND THE END
Because the only thing more boring than writing about seven timed climbs is reading about them, I will spare you the excruciating details and just say that I felt the best I have felt in ages and put up times I am really happy with for the final two climbs. I had the 7th fastest time up Dry Run (2.9 miles, 1,070 feet) and one of the faster times to the end. Of course no one knows how the final climb came out because the heavens opened up right as I was finishing and completely fried the finishing timing mat.
No matter though. When I got to the end, I cried tears of joy, as I always do at the end of stuff like this. It’s just who I am. I got my official finisher’s hat, grabbed a free beer and some bbq and toasted the ride with Brad who had finished really strong about 90 minutes before me. He was fresh and showered and I was cramping and teary. Just like the pros.
I found out later that night that I finished 8th in the climbing competition and even better, 4th for 40+ (aka old people). So if they had a podium, and if that podium had spots for the top 4 places for old people, I would have been on it!
I found out later that some of the fastest riders did the whole GCGF on singlespeeds. It completely ruined any sense of accomplishment I had. Okay not really, but now I wonder if it’s something I could ever even consider trying.
Now I can’t wait to go back.