Riding the Giro Di San Diego Gran Fondo Bike Race

A small child sitting on a motorcycle

You know, not so many years ago I was such a ‘timely’ person that I would often have my review of the opera performance I attended posted even before the show’s stars and staff made it home the same night! Nowadays… not so much.

I rode the Giro di San Diego gran fondo bicycle race last Sunday (September 16th). It was the longest ride I ever did in a day: 111 miles total (plus another 8 not very flat miles home after the finish line) with elevation gain of 8,100 ft. [Route map here] And it sure didn’t help that the heatwave that had came in 3 days before was lingering on a bit and much of the hilliest bit of the route was traversed in 100+ Fahrenheit. Most riders survived, however, though we are all much skinnier for it afterward.

The race’s started and finished at San Dieguito County Park in Solana Beach. I turned up there a few minutes after 6AM on race day and was surprised that the registration tent wasn’t completely up yet. The organizers and volunteers were operating under headlamps and running late (people who hadn’t picked up their packet the day before were supposed to be able to pick it up at 5:30AM on race day, after all), and for a while things were rather chaotic. The volunteers were doing all they could to catch up, though. By 6:30 or so registration was running smoothly and an assortment of muffins were laid out for us to munch on, though orange juice and coffee didn’t turn up until later.

The Revolution Bike Shop of Solana Beach was there to provide mechanical support for the race. I had taken both wheels off the bike to give the whole machine a good washing and lubing the night before, so I was very grateful to have professional mechanic give my bike a good look over to make sure I didn’t goof up too much.

I went out with the first wave of riders at 7AM and quickly dropped out the back of the group because, aside from setting way too fast a pace, the group seemed bent on running every red traffic lights it passed. The second wave caught me somewhere on Manchester Rd. I tried tacking along, but found the pace too speedy for snaily me, too (I could have kept up with them up San Elijo hills, perhaps, but at the pace I’d probably blow before I got to Cole Grade Rd and the other real climbs, so dropping off was a no-brainer for me).

I had sort of expected parts of the route to be closed to traffic, but it turned out we were on open roads all day long. There were many photographers out, though. Some were stationed at scenic curves on the road and some were zipping around in a vehicle. Occasionally I’d spot a police cruiser or CHP officers riding along on motorcycles. I didn’t see much of the SAG support cars until I hit Palomar South Grade Rd at mile 51.

Anyhow, that was how things went for me on my ride inland toward San Marcos. I must have gotten passed by 3 or 4 waves of riders. I later learned that many of them were actually riding the medio fondo route rather than the gran fondo: there were three road ‘races’ going on; the gran fondo and the medio fondo went on the same route until Valley Center where medio fondo broke off to climb Lake Wohlford and then return to the coast while the gran fondo route went up Cole Grade Rd and Mt Paloma before returning to climb Lake Wohlford. The piccolo fondo only covered 30 or so miles from Solana Beach to San Elijo hills. Because of the route differences, starting times were stacked so that the gran fondo riders took off between 7-8AM, the medio fondo riders between 8-9AM, and piccolo fondo between 9-10AM). A few gran fondo riders ended up blowing spectacularly later down the road because they overexerted themselves trying to keep pace with folks who were riding a shorter route!

The routes were pretty well marked with blue (gran fondo), green (medio fondo) and red (piccolo fondo) arrows, except for the very crucial Barnham Dr turn off from San Elijo Rd where no sign or course marshall was present. Since the course was changed just a few days before the ride, I had made it a point to study the route beforehand, but even I was confused since the route bible identified the turn off as ‘E Barnham Dr’ while the actual street sign only said ‘Barnham Dr’ (the way roads are in Southern California, those can be two different roads). Not a few riders missed that turn and ended up adding unnecessary miles (and hills) to their already loaded day.

I had a conversation with a friend not very long ago about the benefits of training/competing with other people instead of doing things solo all the time. My friend was of the opinion that one should be so self-contained that one is satisfied with what one does and wouldn’t really gain anything from playing/riding with anyone else. It was an odd thing that I, who ride solo most of the time, couldn’t get across to my friend that one can be self-sufficient and still learn things about oneself from the experience of playing/riding with others. It was from riding with others fitter than me that I realized that being able to survive riding up Juan St in Old Town without stopping doesn’t make me a stud. There are people who can sprint out of that climb and leave me in the dust on even gentler slopes like Canon St in Pt Loma or the Cabrillo tidepool hill. Had I not realized that I could push myself more because it isn’t only possible to repeat tidepool hill 5 times in less than 30 minutes, but that a bunch of people do just that twice a week and don’t consider themselves great climbers – and they don’t look like an escapee from the pro peloton either – I would still be slugging my way up hills like a chump today and be satisfied that that was the best I could do.

This Sunday ride was no different… I knew I could ride 100 hilly miles, but my comfortable pace was still way slower than most of the other riders, which meant that I soon got used to looking at other riders’ rear end instead of a clear road ahead. Luckily, somewhere in San Marcos I finally fell into a bunch of riders whose pace I could keep up with, and we rolled into the Valley Center aid station on the east side of Valley Center Rd just south of Lake Wohlford a little before 9:20AM. Alas, all the ice were gone by then and the only drinks we had were warm water and Powerade (the latter really tasted horrible warm). The volunteers were very kind, though, and filled us up with sliced watermelons, oranges, cookies, chips and even peanut butter & jelly sandwiches. Having had a practice ride up Cole Grade and Mt Palomar the week before I stuffed myself silly with food even though I wasn’t hungry.

Going north on Valley Center Rd from Lake Wohlford Rd we slogged our way up three miles worth of consistent 5% grade, quite a warm up act for the three major climbs of the day. The temperature was also getting quite inhospitable and I found myself slowly picking up some of the riders who had buzzed by me on the flat earlier. Half way up the grade I espied a handful of riders heading in the opposite direction on the same road. That was odd, I thought. No rider was supposed to come through that way since riders were supposed to turn off onto N Lake Wohlford Rd for another big climb after the descent of Palomar Mtn. After a while I turned on to Cole Grade Rd, which is not nearly as difficult to cycle through from the south as it is from the north. After two big humps we got to indulge a bit going down three miles worth of 9% grade road. The fun was only tempered by careful passing of a few riders who were too unsettled by the steepness of the downhill run to remember to keep to the right side of the lane (to allow faster riders to pass on the left). As Cole Grade Rd leveled out toward Hwy 76 I passed yet more riders going in opposite direction. It seems a bunch of the fast cyclists had missed their turn following Palomar climb and thought they were supposed to retrace the exact same route back to Solana Beach. Ah, the price one must pay for not studying the route map before race day… I’d hate to know how they legs felt having to climb up the three miles of 9% incline Cole Grade on the way back instead of the much gentler Lake Wohlford climb!

I made pretty good time and found myself at the rest station at the junction of Hwy 76 and Valley Center Rd, the official start of the Mt Palomar climb, before 11AM. Alas, the rest stop was also out of ice and sport drink. Only water was available. That was a bit disconcerting since it was now quite hot and everyone was sweating up storm. I took off without delay to start the 12 miles long at pretty constant 6-7% grade climb (the Palomar South Grade is an HC category climb) with the hope of topping out by 1PM. There was no escaping the heat, however. After the Red Gate Rd turn off riders were stopping to take a break at various tree shades along the route. By the time I got to South Grade Rd it was 108F out (according to a paramedic that was stationed there to look after heat-exhausted riders).

The rest stop at there was also out of everything but warm water. I was tempted to veer off onto Oak Knoll Campground a bit off the road and its shops of cold drinks and candy bars, but my pace had suffered so much from the heat that it was now a bit past noon and I was in danger of not summiting by 1PM. I had never ridden a gran fondo before, so I didn’t know if they would really pull me off the road and into the broom wagon if I don’t make the 10 mph turn around time in order to make it back to the finish line before dark. Half a bottle of water went splashing down my helmet and face (to get rid of the salt deposit and hopefully make my face less a target for the mercenary flies that make climbing Palomar mountain hell this time of year), then all my bottles were filled up again with water before I headed off up the slope.

If progress was slow coming up Hwy 76 toward Palomar Mtn, it became positively snaily up South Grade Rd. The slope was unrelenting and the heat was baking everyone inside out. It was also a Sunday, so every few minutes I would hear a loud engine screech before a motorcycle or two screamed out of the hairpin curve ahead (there are more than 20 hairpin turns on this fantastically twisty road). It made for an unsettling riding experience. Every time I approached a curve I wondered if the next speeding motorcycle would overcook the turn and plow me (and it) right off the mountain. By this time the real racers of the ride were now heading back toward the coast and the only riders cycling around me were in it to finish a challenging ride.

To a man (or woman, there were many gals out on the saddle that day putting many guys to shame with their grit and endurance), they were wonderful! Everybody was encouraging everyone else as we were all suffering on the same boat even at different speed. This was yet another benefit of riding in a (huge) group rather than solo. I don’t know if I would have toughed it out had I been by myself, considering that I had climbed this road the week before (and so sort of had nothing to prove to myself). But how can a relatively young dude like me call it quit when a bunch of women who looked old enough to be my mothers were still pushing themselves up the relentless slope of aggravation? South Grade Rd is only 6 mile long, but the uppermost section of it seemed to go on forever in the unforgiving heat. I topped out at 1:20AM and fell right in with the crowd of tired cyclists drinking and eating up storm at the rest stop in front of Mother’s Kitchen Restaurant, the official turn-around point of the gran fondo ride.

I had came up here to pre-ride the mountain part of the route the weekend before and had sat up most of my descent to familiarize myself with the turns and the four cow crossings (these are grids of iron bars breaks in the road pavement, quite something to cycle over on the way up and down the mountain), so that I could really let it rip on race day. It was an exhilarating experience! Six twisty miles of hair-raising 7% incline to coast down as aerodynamically as possible. It only took a couple of minutes to get down the same stretch of pavement that took me more than two hours to climb!

Turning onto Valley Center Rd toward Rincon Indian Reservation I finally understood why quite a few cyclists had missed the turn and continued on to Cole Grade Rd instead. The gran fondo arrow wasn’t prominently displayed at the intersection and there was no course marshall stationed to direct descending cyclists onto the correct course. A couple of cyclists that followed me through the turn asked me if we were going the right way. It didn’t help that the gran fondo route was modified just a couple of days before the race (this include reversing the direction of the loop over the mountains part). We labored up the hideously hot climb from Rincon up to Valley Center, passing many cyclists who had pulled off the road for a few minutes break from the heat. I had picked up a few candy bars from Palomar Mountain General Store, which proved a good move since many others were cramping off their bike. In all honesty, had a SAG car turn up just then a whole bunch of us would have tried to jump in and finished our seemingly endless torture.

Alas, we had no such luck and soon found ourselves climbing again, this time up N Lake Wohlford Rd toward the serene tarn northeast of Escondido. This climb is neither very steep nor very long, but after the monstrosity of Palomar Mountain in 100+ Fahrenheit even small bumps on the road added pain to my crampy legs. I was still doing well, though, considering that a few others were having such a hard time that even after they had crested the climb they were too exhausted to descent down the winding road in aerodynamic position.

Refueling at the rest station on Valley Center Rd (the same one we passed on the way to the mountain) we were all exhausted, but at the same time enlivened. The biggest climbs and 82 of the 111 miles were now behind us and it was only 4PM. Suddenly making it to the finish line seemed a possibility! Not that I didn’t remember all the downhills I had on my ride east that I’ll now have to climb up, but all the other riders riding with me looked just as exhausted as I was and they weren’t giving up. So on we rode… practically chasing the setting sun west toward the ocean. I suppose the finishing climb up Lomas Santa Fe Rd was planned to providing an exciting finish for any spectator, though nobody was still around spectating at 4:45PM.

Not that I cared… that last hill was nearly fatal to my quads and by the time I rolled through the finish line into the parking area I just wanted to roll over somewhere and die in peace. The cheery volunteer recording the number of the riders at the end of the road had other idea, though, and revived me from my half dead condition with an excited scream; ‘YEY! YOU FINISHED!!!! Congratulations!’ … before handing me a sheet of disinfecting wipe and informing me that they had ran out of finisher medal and will have to mail mine to me later. That’s the price for being a slow poke, I suppose. At least I did make it back while there were still food around, though. The salad was wilted and the pasta cold… and not quite the kind advertised in the race bible, but I was starved enough by then that they could have handed me a big bowl of skunk stew and I would have swallowed it whole and thought it tasted excellent.

So there was my first experience riding in a gran fondo. I hope it took you a lot quicker to read it than it took me to ride the thing… And I hope they don’t forget to put my medal in the mail, too. After the agony of spending nearly 10 hours in the saddle and shedding 6 lbs of weight I didn’t need to lose on one of the hottest days this summer, I really want that medal!