Our coworker Brian just completed Jeremiah Bishop’s Alpine Loop Gran Fondo in Harrisonburg, VA this weekend. It has a reputation as the toughest ride on the East Coast, and with it’s combination of long distances, steep hills, and gravel, has been known to take even very experienced riders to their limits. Fortunately, Brian finished the gran fondo, and we’re checking in with him to see how it went, what he would do differently, and what advice he has for anyone wanting to attempt it next year.
-Hi Brian. Can you tell us a little bit about how you felt going into the gran fondo?
I felt pretty good going into it, but I think I could do better next year. My fitness was generally pretty good, but not having done it before, I definitely wasn’t ready for how difficult the gravel climbs would be, and they took their toll. I also made some stupid mistakes in the first half of the ride that almost undid me in the second half. Other than that, I felt pretty good on the bike, and was overall just happy to have finished.
-What was your favorite part?
Crossing the finish line to find my amazing girlfriend waiting with a bottle of Clif Recovery drink and a plate of food.
My favorite part of the actual ride was the descent off the first KOM section. Wide open highway, gentle curves, and high speeds. It was really exhilarating, and not something I get to experience too often. You truly get a feeling of flying, and it’s one of the most fun things I think you can do on a bike.
–What was your least favorite part?
I think the two gravel climbs might be physically the hardest thing I’ve done, but the last 20 miles was much more difficult, mentally. Even on a really, really hard climb like Reddish Knob you can still settle into a rhythm—you just accept that you’ll be pedaling until the top and get to work. The last 20 miles however was full of short and steep rollers that were just long enough and steep enough to be very mentally draining after so much saddle time.
-What equipment choices worked well?
I think the Gatorskin Hardshell is probably the single most impressive piece of cycling equipment I’ve ever used. I hit some rocks (not gravel, straight up rocks) and holes that by all rights should have detonated a clincher tire, yet I never flatted the entire ride.
The compact was also a great choice. No, actually, it was the only choice. After the first road climb I thought maybe I should have gone with a 52/36 chainring combo instead of a 50/34. After the first gravel climb though, I realized I never would have gotten up it with a 36.
-What equipment would you change next year?
-I think next year I would definitely ride a cyclocross bike or an endurance road bike. Something like the GT Grade or a Fuji Altamira CX with bigger tire clearance, disc brakes and a lighter weight would have been perfect.
-25mm tires were fine, but next year I’m definitely going with 28mm or 30mm tires
-Lighter wheels. My winter wheels were chosen for their durability, but it didn’t take long before I started feeling the 2150g weight. Having seen the course, I would feel more comfortable using a carbon wheel next year.
-Would you do it again?
After I crossed the finish line I swore I would never do it again. But I woke up on Monday morning thinking about how I would train and set up my bike differently next time. So I guess the answer is yes, I will probably be on the start line next year.
-Any advice for someone thinking about doing it next year?
-Spend as much time climbing as you can! I didn’t this year, and I definitely paid for it. Not immediately, but later in the ride.
-Take full advantage of all the aid stations. I didn’t spend much time at the first two, only stopping to fill up on fluids and that was a big mistake which I blame on race day excitement. I should have stayed a few minutes longer to eat real food and stretch, but instead I ended up bonking around mile 60 and really suffering up Reddish Knob and the last part of the ride.
-Don’t take the “pro pee break” at mile 15. The only people who will stop are the pro’s and super strong riders, so you’ll find yourself alone very quickly, with nobody to pace up the climb.
-Run the widest tires your bike will fit, and make sure you have new brake pads on your bike
-Don’t start all loaded down with your own food. The aid stations are really well stocked, and had Honey Stinger gels and mini Clif Bars you could take with you. I would recommend just having 1 or 2 gels in your pocket at the start, just in case, and then loading up at the aid stations.