Brian Nicholson: Reasons to Run: Gran Fondo Moab is an intense, exciting bike marathon

Published: Friday, June 17 2011 9:53 a.m. MDT

Riders pass through Castle Valley on their ascent to the pass in the La Sal mountains during the Grand Fondo Moab bike race in Moab, Utah, Saturday, May 7, 2011.

Brian Nicholson

About ten years ago, I was assigned to cover the LOTOJA Classic, a bike race of more than 200 miles from Logan to Jackson Hole, Wyo. It was amazing to watch both individuals and teams push themselves past a huge physical challenge, not to mention sitting on a post for over 12 hours.

Ever since then, I have considered getting a bike and hitting the road. Last year, I finally put together the dough to get a bike, and all the related gear associated with cycling.

The first season of cycling was sort of a struggle. I rode a little, and ran a little, doing neither sport with any noticeable amount of motivation. I had run the Ogden Marathon in May, then sort of halfway trained for my first century bike ride, while mixing in some runs here and there.

This January, I set my sights, once again, on the Ogden Marathon, when a friend suggested I sign up with him for the Gran Fondo Moab. The Gran Fondo is a pleasant 60-mile ride at the beginning of May through red rock country, with a “small” 5,700-foot climb in the middle.

At first glance, I had no interest doing that much climbing. Last summer I avoided hills like I avoid celery. It’s just something I don’t do. But as the spring progressed, and my fitness increased, I finally conceded.

The Gran Fondo (written granfondo in Italian) means “marathon” in English. And a marathon it was. By virtue of the terrain, the course was divided up into natural sections of about 20 miles each, which I will briefly try to describe.

The first section, which starts right near the race’s sponsor, Poison Spider Bicycles, heads north to the Colorado River, then east along the river to the Castle Valley turnoff. This part was relatively flat and the peloton cruised along it at a pretty fast pace.

Then came the second portion, which really should be considered the start of the race. After making a right turn toward Castle Valley, I started to understand the real meaning of climbing.

As the landscape turned prettier and prettier, this portion if the course, which started out ugly, gradually tapered off to less ugly, then progressively got uglier, and uglier. Some riders were throwing out numbers like 15-percent grade, which really meant nothing to me, a lazy farmland rider.

At about Mile 28 was the first water station, and after stopping briefly and learning that the top was around 13 miles away, we turned the corner and I was overwhelmed with the hill and the daunting realization that there were 13 more miles of them. Holy burning legs, Batman.

As I pedaled on, I started to find a rhythm, a cadence of breathing and pedaling that seemed to suit my granny gear quite well, and I trudged on. It seemed if I just kept up that same rhythm, I could continue.

Toward the top, there was a pretty good head wind and several switchbacks. What was weird about that, was that the head wind continued to hit me in the face, regardless of which direction the switchback took me, as if the laws of physics didn’t translate into Italian.

At long last, I finally saw the aid station, which I was sure marked the top of the mountain. I rested and took in some manna from heaven (Oreos) and drank of the sweet nectar of the Gods (vanilla PowerGel), and soaked in the victory of conquering such a feat.

At the top, the angels who were bestowing all the nutritional goodness, mentioned that there would be fast downhill section of about eight miles, a brief uphill section, then 20 miles of steep twisting turns to return to planet Moab.

In my mind, I had envisioned a pretty easy road from there on, which it ultimately was. But in fact, that aforementioned hill was deceivingly large, and as it turned out, the previous “top” of the hill was not the end of the hills. Once we reached the top of this second hill, it all became clear. This point was essentially the end of the race, and the measure by which the winners are given their prizes. It also marked the end of the second portion of the race.

The last section can only be described with a few words — a screaming fast, white-knuckle, sound barrier-breaking, where’s my ripcord?, descent.

It was awesome. And the founders of this race, only in its second year, really had the right idea putting a black diamond ski run at the finish. All the cursing I had done in the first 40 miles was completely forgotten at the arrival of the adrenaline excreted in those last 20. So much that I can hardly wait to sign up for next year.

A flatlander no more, I now have no fear of those puny little 3,000-foot hills near my house. Make no mistake, I’m certainly not fast, but the Gran Fondo Moab has completely changed my perspective on cycling. It was both wonderful and daunting, exhausting and invigorating. It taught me, yet again, that if you put your mind to something difficult, regardless of how hard, you can achieve it.

Brian Nicholson has completed marathons from Boston to Beijing, a host of Ragnar relays, and has developed a keen taste for all things Gu.

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