Ah, the final event of the 2020 “season”. 2020 has been a bit of a dud, to say the least. With COVID-19 precautions cancelling most events with large groups, I’ve been able to race a total of 3 times this year - 1 sprint triathlon at Andy’s Race, 1 11-mile trail run at the Sandhills Trail & Ultra Festival where I placed 2nd female, and 1 Olympic distance triathlon at the Tugaloo Triathlon where I DQ’d due to getting lost on the run course. So I really don’t feel like I’ve raced much at all since I normally do around 10 races a year.
The Gran Fondo Hincapie was also a redemption event for me. Last year, I intended to do the full, 80-mile gran route, but I crashed (softly) on the descent on the first mountain, endured miserable rain with cold conditions, and dipped out early after the Saluda rest stop for a total of 60 miles instead of 80. This year, I really wanted to do the full 80, and I roped my husband in for the ride as well.
COVID protocols were in place with the riders starting in waves instead of a large bunch start. My husband and I were in wave #6 and rolled out at 8:45, only 15 minutes after the first wave, which included all the VIPs and cycling celebs like George Hincapie, Lance Armstrong, Christian Vande Velde, and Bobby Julich.
This event was about fun and survival for me and my husband, Lance. My Lance hadn’t done much endurance training over the summer, and was distracted by his new mountain bike so didn’t have many road miles in his legs. He also had never climbed one of the toughest mountains in the area - Skyuka - so he didn’t know what he was in for. I did, so in all honesty, my plan was to make sure we both got up Skyuka and the second climb, Saluda Grade, and then I expected Lance would head back home early, like I did last year, while I tackled the next 35 miles and Green River Cove on my own.
The wave start was actually pretty good. It kept the traffic down for the first 20 miles before the Skyuka Mountain climb. We slotted in behind a group of 4 guys who were keeping a nice, steady, not-too-hard pace and sure, plenty of big groups flew by us, but it’s easy to go fast in the first 20 miles. It’s a whole different story at mile 60 with 3 mountain climbs in your legs.
Skyuka greeted us around mile 24, and we started this 4 mile climb of 1,813 ft with an average grade of 8.7% slowly. Lance would tell me when he was dropping off a little and I would reign it in. Each kilometer was marked with the average grade, and I remember doing the first 3kms with Lance on my wheel. At a certain point, Lance told me just to go on ahead and I’d see him at the top.
This climb is TOUGH, but it was my 3rd time doing it so I knew what to expect. Basically, do what you can do and don’t stop pedaling. Ride wide on the switchbacks and manage your effort. The scenery was beautiful with the leaves just starting to turn autumn colors and vistas over the Blue Ridge Mountains. There were a few groups of people cheering us on near the top, and that was greatly appreciated. Seeing the big red KOM banner near the top gave me a bit of extra energy to push through to the summit. I managed the climb in 37 minutes flat, my fastest time yet. 30 or so seconds faster than last year, and 20 minutes faster than my first attempt in 2015!
I waited at the top for Lance and he came through, gasping and feeling like he was going to puke - a common sensation after your first time up Skyuka. He caught his breath, then we made it down to the rest stop to refill bottles, take on some nutrition, and clear our heads before the very technical descent off of the mountain. This is where I crashed last year and I wasn’t about to do that again.
We both made it down the mountain just fine, took it easy and didn’t do anything crazy like passing other riders in the switchbacks. In front of us we had about 10 miles of rolling hills before starting the second climb, Saluda Grade.
Saluda Grade is one of my favorite types of climbs. It was built for the railroad so it never gets much steeper than 8% so you know just to find your rhythm and ride well for 4 miles. I’ve also done this climb multiple times at triathlon camp so if I can do it on a tri bike, it’d be even easier on a road bike.
Very similar to Skyuka, Lance hung on my wheel for the first bit and kept me in check when he started to drop off. Eventually, he told me to go up ahead and finished out the climb in 28 minutes. Lance really felt this one and started cramping the minute he got off his bike. As I expected, it was unlikely he could do the next 35 miles and the Green River Cove climb without possibly needing SAG support so he made the right decision and cut the route short by heading back to Hotel Domestique.
I was ready to tackle what was ahead and actually felt really good and strong. I did the next 10 miles on my own - more rolling hills - and then grouped up with some guys from Florida who we had met along the way and chatted with at the rest stops. We did the next few miles together before hitting the switchbacks for Green River Cove - 17 switchbacks, 2.4 miles, 971 ft of elevation with an average grade of 7.5%.
When climbing mountains, you have to do your own thing so a gap quickly formed between me and the guys I was with (let’s just say I’m lighter and it’s a bit easier to power myself up a mountain). There were lots of tired souls on this climb. I saw lots of walking, lots of zigzagging across the road, and I came up on a team who were literally pushing one of their teammates up the road. There were 2 of them pushing and so they were spread out 3 wide on this narrow road with switchbacks. I had to sit behind them for ages before I could find a gap to get by them, and then one of them stopped right in front of me and almost took me out! I was just glad to finally get by, push to the top, and finish. Once I crested the final part of that climb, I noticed two cyclists from the same team waiting at the top for their struggling teammates. I didn’t think much of it, but the woman in the group gave me an encouraging call, happy to see another woman out there working hard (there aren’t many of us in cycling). I finished that climb in 20 minutes.
I had to climb a bit more to get back to the same rest stop in Saluda, where I was planning to fill my bottles and text Lance to tell him I was on the final stretch. Unfortunately, they had just about completely packed up the rest stop so I couldn’t refuel - uh oh! I texted Lance with my ETA and hit the final climb into the town of Saluda, then up a bit more to the state line to make the final descent down Watershed.
I always look forward to the descent down Watershed, but in reality, it’s a bit of a letdown. It’s not particularly steep so while you think you can coast down the hill to home, you find yourself having to pedal the entire time. Plus, the road is really bad on the SC side so dodging potholes is definitely an important part of this. I found myself on my own so power as I may, the guys I had passed on the climb previously zipped by me. At one point, the team that was helping push their teammate came by as a pretty big peloton. Looking back at it now, I should’ve tried to jump on the back of that instead of fighting the wind out there on my own.
The descent was done soon enough, but I knew there were some kickers getting back to Hotel Domestique AND a final climb up to the finish line. I still felt good so I gave that final climb my best shot, out of the saddle to start and then passed many struggling cyclists with a climb time total of 5:10.
Lance, my husband, was there at the finish line and his first question was, “why did you let them pass you?” I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t see any cyclists pass me in the finishing shoot - what did I miss? It turns out that minutes after Lance received my text at the last rest stop, the finish line MC announced that Lance Armstrong was being the ultimate friend and helping his team and buddy, who had never ridden more than 50 miles, finish the race. They were just leaving the last rest stop! So my Lance knew that me and Lance Armstrong were out there at the same time, and he was waiting to see who came in first. Well, Lance Armstrong and his team finished less than 3 minutes ahead of me. It’s crazy to think I *could have* said I beat Lance Armstrong, even though neither of us were out there racing.
Post race I grabbed my bag and changed clothes. Disappointed, again, with the finish line food as there were zero vegan options, and I couldn’t even have beans (cooked with ham) nor collards (cooked with fatback). I had some coleslaw (not vegan), two pieces of cornbread (probably not vegan, either), and a ginger ale. I didn’t stick around for a beer since I didn’t have much solid food to fill up on, so Lance and I made our way back to the car and headed off.
I’m glad I redeemed myself by finishing the 80+ mile route, and I felt really strong throughout. I’m happy to have my husband do most of it with me, and experience that pain together. We used to do more cycling events like this together but haven’t had the chance to do it recently. I’m not sure if I would do the event again - it is very expensive and while it’s well organized and you get a jersey out of it, the post-race experience has been poor for me due to lack of vegetarian or vegan options (isn’t at least a vegetarian option standard by now?). The awards system is confusing and 4 days later, I still don’t know exactly how I matched up against others in my age group or gender. For an amateur cyclist on a budget, it’s those little things that make a difference. I’m sure the VIPs are beyond taken care of, and it feels like the rest of us are a secondary thought. But now that Lance has experienced Skyuka and Saluda Grade, I’m hoping we can go up there more and do our own, self-supported rides.