Virginia’s Blue Ridge Gran Fondo
“Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” — Benjamin Franklin
I must admit I was surprised that anybody was in the parking lot of Ballast Point Brewing, the start and finish location for Virginia’s Blue Ridge Gran Fondo when we pulled in for the ride. Instead, the parking lot was nearly full of people unpacking their bicycles, while a steady flow of cars, trucks and SUV’s laden with bikes followed us in. It was spitting rain, and the thermometer in the Xterra said 48-degrees. What were we all thinking?
In the inaugural year of the event, nobody knew what to expect in terms of turn out. I played a small role in helping to create the event as a board member of Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge — the Roanoke-based organization tasked with promoting the region to the outside world — in this case cyclists. We knew that beautiful Botetourt County, combined with Ballast Point’s new facility just had to be a great combination. A week before the ride, about 175 cyclists had signed up. By ride day that had jumped to nearly 275. These are great numbers for a first-time event. I suspect if the weather had held, the numbers would have been much higher.
But with this weather, it’s hard to believe anyone showed up.
Personally, I would have rather been in bed, listening to the rain on the roof.
But no, like the other dedicated soles there in the parking lot, I was there to freeze my butt off in the soaking rain. After all, I had paid for the privilege.
Safety in numbers
My cycling friends were in a state of flux. Would we do the 50-miler as planned or back off for the 30-mile version? Would we ride at all? The clouds were thickening, and the drizzle looked like it might become full on rain. We checked our weather apps, and our phones confirmed what the sky was saying. The rain was coming and the temperature wasn’t going up.
Yet, across the parking lot, people were donning rain gear and lifting bikes off their cars. If I had been alone, I would have bagged it.
But people were actually planning to ride. A LOT of them.
What was there to do but join in?
Riding the Blue Ridge Gran Fondo
As my group, including my wife Mary, friend Karen Deer and several other friends and acquaintances, rolled up to the starting line, there was still much discussion about the weather and how far to ride.
There was no consensus. So we just started riding.
And the rain came down harder.
Of course, it was cold. The ride started on a gentle downhill, but I needed to climb, to reduce the windchill and to give my body the chance to generate some heat. I was wearing my mountain bike helmet, having broken my road helmet in a crash earlier in the season that left me unconscious beside a Vermont roadside. (That’s another story. You can read it here.) The brim on the mountain bike lid worked well as the rainwater dripped off in streams, but not on my face.
My hands were cold and my feet were colder. My core was chilly but not terrible. I wondered if ride planners had made accommodations for hypothermia.
But on we rode.
Mary and Karen fell behind a bit as they were riding cautiously on the wet roads.
Then I became separated from all the other riders. As I rounded a curve and there was no longer anyone in front of me. Except for one guy who looked lost.
“I think we missed a turn,” he mumbled through frozen lips.
Indeed we had. Maybe too much squinting in the rain. Maybe just daydreaming. Maybe thinking about being back in bed.
We backtracked to the well-marked turn we had missed. What a great opportunity to add an extra mile to the ride!
Thanks to the missed turn, I was behind Mary and Karen and pretty much everybody else I knew. I rode fast in an attempt to catch them. The body heat felt good, despite the rain.
At ten miles I spotted the women pulled over beside the road. They were calling me to say they had had enough.
It was raining hard. “This is no fun,” Karen said.
She was right.
Mary and Karen turned back, but I decided to ride to the rest stop at mile 13, where I could maybe meet up with other members of the group and decide if I would turn off on the 30-mile route.
Alas, at the rest stop, I spotted no one I had planned to join for the 50. Another friend was signed up for the 30. I stood with her at the intersection in Fincastle. Go right and it was the 30. Go straight, and there were still 37 drizzly miles ahead. I decided it was 50 or bust. I still don’t know why.
Solo in the rain
It was kind of nice to be riding by myself. I set my own pace and began picking off riders one by one.
My hands warmed up. My arms and chest appreciated the rainwear I had bought but always talked myself out of using. (You know, why ride when it’s raining?)
Many people were wearing shorts and nylon shells. They were still riding. Here I was in gear designed for this stuff. What did I have to complain about?
Eventually, I came upon a rider dressed in yellow and realized it was my friend, Al Henry. He had wanted to ride together, but overslept and started late.
Now, here we were. The last 25 miles wouldn’t be so bad.
As we pulled into the Town of Buchanan, Al needed to stop at a gas station. His hands were so cold, he couldn’t feel them. He ran them under hot water in the men’s room and came out smiling.
A few hundred yards down the road, we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwich wedges at the rest stop. Fuel is good.
Still ahead was the section of road known to local riders at Lithia-Nace. It’s a gradual uphill for miles and miles. Perfect for generating a little heat – without too much effort.
The miles ticked away pretty quickly from that point. The rain had stopped, but of course, we were already wet, so I’m not sure it mattered.
My Garmin was jumping back and forth between an average speed of 14.9 and 15.
In my world, that’s a big tenth.
I told Al we needed to step on it, and we did. Rolling into the Ballast Point parking lot and under the super cool finishing arch courtesy of Altech bucket trucks supporting a hoisted bicycle.
As we rolled across the finish and received a cool wooden “medal” with a Ballast Point bottle opener attached, there was a serious feeling of accomplishment.
Running marathons evokes a similar feeling. During the run, you are miserable. It’s hard. Your body hurts. You ask why you signed up. You resolve to never do it again.
Then you finish and the sense of accomplishment overwhelms all the pain and your memories of mile 19.
You can’t wait to do it again.
Post Fondo Thoughts and Beers
It was raining enough, and my hands were so cold, that I failed to take pictures during the ride. Not sure the phone would have responded anyway! But, my group did a pre-ride of the course on a beautiful day a few weeks earlier. You can read the post here and see the beautiful scenery in Botetourt County.
The great thing about this ride is that it can be done anytime. Park at Ballast Point, do your ride and come back for a beer and some food. The three courses can be found at the Muddy Squirrel Website, where you can download the info on Ride with GPS. The app will give you audio instructions on where and when to turn.
The 50-mile course is not flat, but it’s not difficult either. There are no sustained mountain climbs and all of the hills are gradual. My Strava app registered about 2,800 feet of climbing. Spread out over the course it’s hardly noticeable.
Here is my Strava data for the ride. Feel free to follow me!
Finishing at Ballast Point is a huge plus. Every rider received a beer, some BBQ and pasta with their entry. I was so hungry, I ate he free food then added a cheeseburger (and another beer)
Virginia’s Blue Ridge Gran Fondo looks to be here to stay. There is a lot of enthusiasm and local support for a ride with a perfect amount of difficulty, a great start and finish location and a sweet association with the popular Go Outside Festival.
Look for it to get bigger and better.