The Star City Medio Fondo

What’s 7,000 feet of climbing among friends? As it turns out, too much for my legs.

“You know a ‘fondo’ is a race, right?” my wife Mary reminded me as we considered signing up for the inaugural Star City Medio Fondo – the 66 mile version of the longer Gran Fondo – which was 100 miles.

“Well lots of rides are timed,” I responded. That doesn’t mean you have to actually race it. “Marathons and 10K’s are also races – but most of the entrants are just competing against themselves,” I reminded her, rationalizing all the way.

Apparently nobody told the riders who went flying by us like we were standing still on the climb up Cahas Mountain. To add insult to Injury they were riding the 100 mile version, meaning they had already done 30 more miles than we had…

The Failed Fondo

Genevieve crests Cahas Mountain


Our group of 50-somethings had been riding together all summer. We had conquered some pretty difficult outings including several in the 60-75 mile range. Since I’ve been blogging about rides in Vermont, New York and Pennsylvania I figured it was my responsibility to shine a light on Roanoke’s newest ride, the Star City Gran Fondo since it was in my back yard.  Additionally, it was created by Roanoke’s newest Rotary Club, Blue Ridge New Generations.  I’m a member of the decidedly older Downtown Rotary Club and thought the young guns needed some support.  (Ha!)

I was only slightly deterred when I saw the course profile and the 7,000 feet of climbing over the 66 mile medio fondo. I’m still not sure what I was thinking.  For that matter, I’m not sure what the aforementioned “young guns” were thinking either.

The Failed Fondo

Steve Ruhf

Things started out badly. We were less than three miles into the morning when a member of our group, Daniel Anderson’s rear derailleur got sucked into his spokes.  We all circled back to see if we could help him, but there was nothing we could do. His day was over.  The sweeper called a car to pick him up, and we rode on – Now at five to ten minutes behind the rest of the group. But hey, it’s not a race right?


Somewhere around 10 miles we came to a hill that tilted up to 16 percent for about a quarter mile. This was unexpected and not especially appreciated. So imagine our delight when at mile 11, there was a second hill, just as long but reaching 17 percent on my Garmin. Two people in front of us were walking their bikes, a member of our group joined them.

The Failed Fondo meant walking bikes uphill

A rider walks the hill at mile 11.

Fellow rider Steve Ruhf pulled over with a cramp. I was feeling pretty good that I was still riding, until he re-mounted his bike and rode past me as we crested the hill.  Are you beginning to see how this is going?


Our ride profile from Strava

It was at the top of that second hill that we missed an opportunity to save ourselves. Markings on the road indicated that medio fondo riders go right, and piccolo fondo (28 miles) riders  go left. We had a long conversation about whether we were in over our heads with the climbing. Perhaps it was best, argued Genevieve, that we bail on the longer ride. After serious consideration we opted to plod onward,determined to complete the 66 miler. Bad idea.

The route continued to roll with some challenging hills, but nothing like the ones we had encountered in the Cooper’s Cove area. We rolled happily in to the first rest stop, at mile 26 manned by the crew from Junior Achievement – one of the beneficiaries of the event.

bicycle rest stop

Aid Station 1 manned by the crew from Junior Achievement.

The highway rolled on after the break, crossing route 220 and meandering through Franklin County. The summer soybeans were now rows of brittle brown plants. A season’s worth of round hay bales pocked the fields. Their placement in my mind almost as if someone had arranged them to form a perfect pattern. Autumn had just begun to show its colors, though the temperature hovered in the low 70’s.

By the time we arrived at the second rest stop, or as organizers called them, “aid stations” I was beginning to feel the heat of the day. I took off the vest I had been wearing, and wished I had gone with arm warmers and a short sleeved jersey instead of the long sleeved version I was now stuck with.

My fellow Rotarians manned this stop, tantalizingly located in the parking lot of Chaos Mountain Brewery. If someone had stuck a beer in my hand, I probably would have bailed right there – rather than face the climb up Cahas, a mile up the road.

Rotarians ran a rest stop for the Star City fondo

The Downtown Rotary Club provided refreshments at aid station 2.


I’ve done this climb any number of times over the past 20 years. It didn’t intimidate me – even though this was a long year dating back to surgery in January.

Click here for Related story: The Road to Recovery is Covered in Snow.

Though the climb wasn’t intimidating, it still demanded respect. The best way to handle it is to conserve energy on the steeper lower slopes, and give it what you’ve got further up the mountain. I even felt a little smug, since I knew this simple strategy.

The Fateful Right Turn! at the fondo

The fateful right turn!

My smugness was blown to bits about the time I was giving it what I had. I heard a shift behind me and turned in time to see two or three riders accelerating past. Racing one another.   These were the leaders of the 100 miler. Over the next five minutes a steady stream of them rolled by. The leading female giving me a nice atta boy on the way by. “Great job,” she said. It felt more like she was thinking, “Bless his heart.”

So be it. Strava would later confirm my climb to be among the slowest of the day.

Descending is another matter. Despite the fact that a car blocked my way and forced me to break for a few tenths of a mile before it pulled over, I still managed a pretty nifty downhill, grinning the whole way to a Strava top 5.

The ride was actually beautiful, with many lightly traveled back roads, and beautiful scenery.

The ride was actually beautiful, with many lightly traveled back roads, and beautiful scenery.

Our foursome re-grouped at the base of the descent and rolled on to the Franklin/Roanoke County line and the top of the “Wall” the fabled downhill where only one’s nerves dictate your speed.  I hit 55 mph riding conservatively.

The fondo took us Near Retreat in Franklin County

Near Retreat in Franklin County

A few miles later we pulled into the third aid station at the Merriman soccer field complex. By now both Genevieve and I were cramping. We still had about 15 miles and 1700 feet of climbing to go – including the final ascent up the “old road” of Mill Mountain. It wasn’t a matter of wanting to finish. It was the ability to complete the course.

We had been discussing the options, seated on the guardrail near the parking lot.  I stood up to grab my water bottle from my bike, and my quads cramped enough to make me wince.  I looked up at the small rise required to leave the parking lot and wondered if I could even climb that.

My legs made the decision for me.  We would take the shortest route back to the car.  And so we did.

Deep Thoughts

We never saw the finish line at the top of the mountain.  As near as I can tell, looking back on 25 years of endurance events it was my first official DNF. Writing this, two weeks later, I am torn.  Am I smarter now? Or less determined?  Would it have been better to gut it out and likely push my bike the last mile up the mountain, gaining that sense of completion and dogged determination?  Or is the wisdom of aging and realizing my limits finally getting through my thick skull?

I’m still not sure.  But the car was parked at the Go Outside Festival where Deschutes and Parkway were pouring cold craft brews.   I can tell you that sitting in the sun and downing a cold one with my legs still largely in tact sure felt pretty good.