Monday, August 26, 2013

Emerald Isle boys in the White Mountains.

Hello Cafesupporters:

Been awhile... I know, I know...

Contrary to popular myth, I didn't crash headfirst into a ravine, quit blogging or have a meltdown fueled by Affligem over-consumption and doping story fatigue.  No,, the explanation for the long vacancy is more mundane actually:  Professional day job overload.   You can relate, I'm sure.   I've always ascribed to Stephen Roche's oft stated belief:  If you're not a pro, then cycling needs to come after your real job, and your family.

So racing was out this year.   Came down to either riding or blogging with the little time I had free.   Blogging was on the bubble and bumped from my free time activity grid.

So it was a summer without racing... but not without riding of course!  Did get some great rides in during a family holiday to Mont Tremblant (did some great long steep climbs up in the Laurentians) and the usual rides with the local cafe boys around home.   It's been a great summer for the bike.  

The old red guard rolls out of Loon.  (photo WMGF Facebook page)
The inaugural White Mountain Gran Fondo this past Saturday gave me something to shoot for.   I had to do this one, for it was an event whose idea was conceived on my kitchen table two years ago.  I was scheming as usual with my good friend, the ex-Irish Professional Paul McCormack.   A few beers, a NH map, a little fast Eddy nostalgia soon morphed into a power point that Paul's entrepreneurial skill, vision, professional network (Bill Sykes, Paul Nixon) and event management experience converted into reality -- largely thanks to the amazing people at City Year New Hampshire and the Bank of New Hampshire.   City Year is a non-profit organization whose volunteers do a lot to help keep inner-city kids in school, and on the right track.  They christened their first Gran Fondo,  'A Big Ride with a Big Purpose'...  

It was also a big ride with some significant historical context in these parts.   Back in the 1970's,  many of these same roads and climbs in the White Mountain region of New Hampshire served as the venue for the Mt. Washington Grand Prix:  A 2 day amateur stage race that, back in the day, was the early September classic that closed New England's summer racing season.   There was options for 34 or 100 mile Saturday road races, followed by Sunday's 8 mile killer hill climb up the Mt. Washington Auto Road.   It was the last 'big one' before autumn came, riders went back to school, and the then-small, seasonal cycling circus generally dispersed.

The Mt. Washington Hill Climb grew in popularity through the years, but the road race went missing long ago... I think 1979 was the last one, if memory is correct.

Paul and the City Year team conceived a slightly different but similar course for the White Mountain Gran Fondo that brought back much of the same feel of that amateur, participation-oriented road race:   Mass start at LOON Mountain ski area in Lincoln.   Immediately up the steeper side of the Kankamagus Pass.   Scream east down the Kank, climb up over Bear Notch, and dive down to Bartlett. The a long hard drag up 302 ramping up to the 12-14% wall of Crawford Notch.   Onto the plateau into the headwind past Bretton Woods resort and the last-century Mt. Washington Hotel, the left  and 25 miles over some tough rollers to Littleton, where many were surprised by a super steep serpentine climb out of town.  More rollers and then a truly tough finale: A long 4 mile climb at 90 miles, and the final dive bomb descent back to Lincoln before the a two mile final drag back up to LOON.

Fran Riordan goes through a ritual
he's done a thousand times before
OK, it's not the Maratona Dolomiti, but it's pretty hard. One Sunday a few weeks ago the Flandria Cafe's 'paddy brigade' did a recon ride of the route.   To celebrate Paul turning 50,  I joined him and two other Irish cycling internationals from 'my generation' who now live 'over here':   Francis Riordan and Gary Thomson.

Fran Riordan grew up in Dublin and was a Irish national Junior champion.   Stephen Roche calls him out in his biography 'The Agony & the Ecstasy' as 'the guy he could never beat in the sprint' as an Amateur.   Fast and dedicated, as a young international, Fran won a lot, and over a decade became a veteran campaigner whose personal suitcase has been opened in countless places, clubs and races that require respect:  He won the King of Mountains the Ras Tailteann.  Tour of Ireland, Tour of Britain, Tour of the North, Manx International, you name it and Fran was in the thick of it.  He did a stint with the famous Foreign Legion at ACBB, in France.   He stuck it out full seasons in Belgium.  Metier?  You bet.  Alan gave him the call to come over stateside to ride with his Killian's Red team in the mid 80's.  Fran and his wife and family eventually settled in Connecticut, where a bad crash in the New Britain Criterium ended his active racing days a few years ago.  The passion, and the knowledge are all still there though.  Fit and still riding to work everyday.  

The fact that Gary Thomson won a hard
shell helmet for winning the 45-54 category?
Karma.
Gary Thomson is another old campaigner from Southside of Dublin.  He was 2nd in the Ras in 1983, running winner Phil Cassidy close.   He won a stage of the Tour of Britain Milk Race in 1984 against the might of the then dominant Soviet Russia and Polish national teams, and then rode the '84 Olympic Games for Ireland in Los Angeles.  Paris Roubaix amateur?  Yup done that.   Liege?  Of course. Tour de l'Avenir?   Yup.    Junior and Senior Worlds?  Check.  Nissan Classic?   No worries.  Gary's done em all.   Over here he rode for the IME Bolla Wines pro team.  Still fit, lean and very strong.  Our biggest collective challenge was convincing Gary he had to wear a hard shell helmet to ride the Gran Fondo.  Old school, yer man.   To wind up Paul, we thought it would be funny to have him show up to the line sporting my old Rogelli sport hairnet, but I think Paul woulda throttled him!

For the Gran Fondo this past weekend our Irish flying column went back north to tackle the White Mountains with Flandria Cafe regulars Tony Trocchi and Tom Dickinson.  Last weekend, Tom raced up the Mount Washington hillclimb in a very quick 1:16, and Tony had just returned from a July in France where among the many super rides he did were Col des Ares, and the Tour de Mont Aigoual in the Cevennes - the same route made famous by dutch author/cyclists Tim Krabbe's outstanding classic novel "The Rider (De Renner)"

The drive up and gathering the night before was the fun part.  Not sure what Tony and Tom thought about our incessant chatter and ancient history 70's-80's cycling war-story memory recollections, but it was a good craic.   The non-stop subject matter ranged from handicapping Pat McQuaid UCI election predictions... to the best way to prepare Irish oatmeal...to the fact that Tom Simpson recommended eating oatmeal uncooked...to ACBB stories.... to why that Peugeot jersey had checks... to that old Universal, Speidel and Simplex gear we all used to use... to which way the wind usually blew up the hill in the Manx international.   I think we discussed everything except what we'd be tackling the next morning.  Superstition?  Maybe.   We knew exactly what was coming.

Wasn't too nervous (although Fran said I was!)   I'd been riding enough I guess, but have had no real competitive reference.  But in the recon a few weeks ago, I felt pretty good on the climbs.

But as you know, riding and 'racing' aren't the same.   Right away on the Kank, one guy went to the front and starting drilling it, lining us all out.   It started climbing, and pretty quickly, only 10 or so were left.   Looked back.  No one there.    I sat on Gary's wheel about 5th and watched my pulse monitor climb to the limit.   The guy never came off the front, or let up his tempo one iota.   It was an impressive, Merckxian, la course en tete kinda thing.   Gary gave me a quick glance.   I knew what he was thinking - for I was thinking the same thing.  'There's no way this guy can keep this up.'  

Tom Dickinson climbs as the pressure goes up on the front group up the Kank
(photo from White Mountain Gran Fondo Facebook page)
He didn't blow though, he just kept the pressure on.  In the red zone for way too long, I finally had to let them go, about halfway up the Kank, spinning a steadier tempo solo in no-mans-land for much of the climb.   Tom D had bridged up to the group, as I came off.  It was a nice consolation to see Tom going well this year.  He's class on the bike and off.

Tom Dickinson won the 55+ category and finished
a strong 6th overall
The 2nd group finally caught me, so I tucked in, gritted the teeth and dug hard to stay with them to the top of the climb.   About 2k from the top, some guy hit my rear wheel.   Looked back just in time to see him careen into my old friend and ex-CCB teammate Gary Sansoucie, who in turn hit the deck.  I felt bad not stopping, but Gary was getting up...(or so I rationalized anyway...sorry Gary!)   Besides, the final battle to the Kank summit was heating up, and I was on the ropes after my early typical go-too-hard heroics and attempts to bring back a few guys trying to get away from our group.    I blew in the final 500 meters so bad I had to go really deep to latch onto the last two guys over the top, changed gear kept the pressure on, soon flying down the Kank at speeds close to 80 kph, trying to recover.

Our back-of-the-group-4 mopped up 2 more, then 2 more, and finally a big group of seven more, and we hit the left turn onto Bear notch in a big group.  Going up the same route I raced backin 1979, I had a flashback.   Despite that it was 34 years ago, for some reason I vividly recall muscling out of the saddle over that (easier) side of the notch way...way...waaay over geared in a 42x15, before eventually finishing 4th in the road race, just a bike length from the win in a wall to wall sprint.

Older and a little bit wiser now, the gearing stayed a little lower on the steeper part... 40x16, 17, 18 spinning faster and a lot easier.  The final k to the top was all big ring though, as our little group split us and I managed to crest over the top and into the descent with the front half-dozen.   Feeling the gear, I think I was smiling all the way down.  Wicked fun, just like I remembered it...

But a nostalgia adrenaline shot has the same half life as the time it takes a willowly young rouleur to put it in the 53x16, stand up, and crank the tempo back up to a leg burning watt level just the far side over the line into unsustainable.   On the long drag up to Crawford notch, Fast Eddy's nice little nostalgia bubble burst, and the wheels started to come off.   A few skinny boys started hammering big gears up the 4% grade, and the tempo eventually killed me off.   I elected to climb at my own tempo, which in hindsight was wise (although it felt pretty cowardly at the time).

The rest of the ride for me, like for everybody in the event, was tale of solo riding, catching and being caught.  Ones, twos or maybe three together at most.   There was no peloton anywhere.  No big groups to get sucked along in.  The three big notch climbs in the first 50 miles detonated the 210 starters.  Bodies were strewn all over the White Mountains.

Nobody was calling anyone an assassin saturday though.  The sun was out, and I won't bore you with the rest of the ride, but suffice to say it was as fun as it was hard.  Especially the 'surprise' climb Paul put in the route just out of Littleton at 75 miles that I think they should nickname the Devil's Staircase!  Needed the 25. And the final 3 mile climb to a pack of bubbly City Year kids who'd volunteer to cheer everyone at the final summit was a nice, welcome touch.  Real flippin' gear course, ye know?
Winner Eric Follen crosses the line.  Impressive ride.
(photo White Mountain Gran Fondo facebook page)

Beautiful ride, impeccably organized, and totally enjoyable.  I got to cap it with a darrigadesque fast-Eddy-special sprint-rageuse for the line with 3 other gentlemen who hammered over the final climb and relayed down the final descent long descent to Lincoln.   (Paul Mc, Gary and Nixon got a kick out of that...)

Overall winners Eric Follen and Christine Bengston
We met up at the post ride feed, our Flandria Cafe band of brothers celebrated a great ride over beer and burgers.  Gary Thomson finished 3rd overall, and took 1st place in our 45-54 age group.   Tom Dickinson was 6th overall and 1st in 55+ group.   I was 18th overall, and 5th in the 45-54.  (with my limited preparation this summer, I'll take it!) 

Despite a relative lack of miles, Fran Riordan fought like a lion through some bad cramps and finished 15th in our 45-54 age group.   My money's on Fran to come back next year and slay it.   Tony T. came in with a respectable 107th of 210 overall, and I think was clocked at 65 mph on some of the descents. (Nobody can descend like Tony T).    If there were a team prize, Flandria Cafe would have won it - even without the special prime for post-ride beer consumption!

That guy who led out of the start and exploded the field in the first 10 miles?  Well, his name was Eric Follen.   Gary caught him on the Kank descent, but he repeated the treatment again on Crawford notch, soloing away at 50 miles never to be seen again - and winning the event in 4:56.   Turned out he did the Mt. Washington Hillclimb in about 58 minutes this year...so now I don't feel all that bad about not staying with him!

So all you Northeast US based cafesupporters:  Listen up.  Be sure to put this one on your hit list for next season.   You won't regret it.

5 comments:

  1. Great story! Looks like a tough but fun ride. I will try to be there next year.
    Proost! Maarten

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    1. We missed you Maarten... you would like this one. Next year!
      E.

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  2. Just found you site a few weeks back. Glad you had a great summer. Looking forward to future stories.
    Thanks

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  3. Welcome back! RIDING your own bike vs writing about it should ALWAYS come first.

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  4. Have missed you and your stories here in the UK salute !!!!

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