I was caught between a rock and a hard place. At the start of every year, I earmark one super-tough sportive to do, something that puts the fear of failure in to me. ‘Can I complete it? How will I do that much climbing? Andy, you’d better lose some timber if you’re not going to embarrass yourself’.
This year, I’d targeted the Garrett County Gran Fondo in July. It looked both epic and epically hard. A ride to rival the Marmotte or Granfondo Stelvio. The only minor problem was that it happened to coincide with my eldest daughter’s first-ever swim meet. Bah! ‘She’ll get over it,’ I initially thought to myself. ‘She probably won’t even notice I’m not there’.
Except you don’t get second chances in these things. There would be other sportives but there wouldn’t be other first-ever swim meets. Our mum and dad supported myself, Steve and our sister Jayne in everything we did, whether that was dancing, tennis or rugby. In driving rain, howling wind or blazing sunshine (admittedly not very common in the North-West of England), they were always there, shouting us on from the sidelines, reassuringly positive even when we didn’t do well. ‘Big John and Little Annie’, as my rugby mates called them, set an incredible standard and I think the three of us have tried to carry that on with all of our kids. I call Alicia “my biggest fan” and it was time to repay the favour.
It proved to be a blessing in disguise because, as it turned out, the fixture clash wasn’t the only minor problem. Being brutally honest, I was nowhere near the shape I’d need to be in to tackle more than 5,000metres of climbing over 203km. The week before, I’d been schooled by my Broleur-in-law in the far more tame Bikes & Beers Baltimore and I was feeling bruised and battered - more mentally than physically - by the experience. I needed something to make me fall in love with cycling again.
Step forward the Loudoun 1725 Gravel Grinder in Virginia, 125km and 1500m of climbing, with 75% on the gritty stuff and, thankfully, was the day after my daughter’s swim meet. A big challenge but one that was far from insurmountable. I couldn’t wait. But I was determined not to repeat the mistakes I’d made on B&B Baltimore, which meant a common-sense approach of drinking gallons of water, stretching, feeding properly and regularly and taking it easy early on.
Drinking it in
The drive from our hotel to the start line at Foxcroft School near the picture-postcard town of Middleburg gave a glimpse of what I could expect to find during the Gravel Grinder - lots of lumpy, undulating hills, vineyards, wineries and local farm shops, cloudless skies… a round of applause for Virginia please, you looked beautiful. I’d go back for a more up-close inspection of those wineries in a heartbeat.
It wasn’t a mass start; instead staggered so groups of 10 or so riders set off a few minutes apart. Unlike the Bikes & Beers events, there didn’t look to be many ‘fun runners’ among the participants, if any: this was being taken double-bidon seriously. And knowing that it was going to be baking hot later in the day, I wanted to get away as early as possible.
Rolling out of the pristine school grounds, we enjoyed a nice couple of downhill kilometres before taking a right and on to our first stretch of gravel. To borrow some words from the brochure, “Loudoun County boasts the largest and oldest intact network of gravel roads in the United States”. These tracks have been around for centuries (hence the 1725 in the title) and thanks to farm carts, wagons, cars and tractors going up and down them over the years, the stones had been compacted and ground down, so it wasn’t hairy and you could go at a solid pace. It was very different to the Gravel Grape Crusher and the Brandywine Valley Roubaix with their punctures-waiting-to-happen small boulders strewn all over the place. There were a few small hills to test the quads but nothing horrific.
I didn’t have much company but it didn’t matter: the scenery was just stunning. So many wineries with the beautiful backdrop of the Appalachians, we could have been on the Garden Route in South Africa. I saw a sign that read: “Happy eggs available here” and I thought, ‘You know what, I bet those chickens are bloody happy here’. I actually found myself saying out loud: “This is gorgeous.” There haven’t been many US sportives where I’ve thought how much Steve would have loved it, but this was definitely one.
Sign me up
Pulling in to the first rest stop, I felt back to my old cycling self. I could have easily sailed past it with plenty left in the legs but, again with B&B Baltimore in mind, I’d made the conscious decision to take my time at every feed station - there were five in total - no matter how strong I was feeling. I’d refill the bidon, stretch, wolf down a banana and slug back an ice-cold can of coke.
Back on the bike, it might seem an inconsequential thing to say at first, but the signage of the organisers, Ex2 Adventures was the best I’ve ever experienced. It meant there was little danger of taking a wrong turning (and I’ve done that on incalculable occasions, including B&B Baltimore) and, in turn, you could really soak up the views of the purple-hazed Appalachians. I stopped to take a few photos but they didn’t properly catch what I was seeing. I felt a bit giddy; I haven’t been that happy during a sportive since Quebrantahuesos a long four years ago.
In the weeks since Loudoun 1725, the gravel sectors have merged into one long stretch but I do remember thinking at the time that they were numerous with little respite. Each one wasn’t particularly hard but they added up to sap the legs. Like a hundred ant bites, you don’t really notice the first couple but you’re in serious trouble by the last one.
At about 60k, we had to cross a pretty little ford. There was a group of trepidatious riders weighing up where the best place was to ride through the water. I decided to plough straight in - I’d gone through far worse during the Trans-Cambrian Way. I stayed upright with just some soggy shoes and socks but, judging by the post-sportive pics, a lot weren’t as lucky and took an early and chilly bath.
Up a stiff climb and there was the third feed station and the wondrous sight and smell of free pizza. Just when I thought I couldn’t love this sportive any more…
I knew the biggest climb of the day was still to come but couldn’t remember if it came after 80k or 90k. As the kilometres ticked over on the Garmin and the mercury rose above 30C, every time I hit an incline, I’d think, ‘This is it. Time to dig in’. But reaching the fourth rest stop in a lovely vineyard (I’d have happily glugged back a whole bottle of chilled Chablis), I still wasn’t sure if I’d done it or not.
Turns out it was immediately afterwards and, man, it was a toughie. I saw a couple of riders have to stop with cramp and I really felt for them having been through that debilitating pain myself so many times before. ‘There but for the grace of God…’
At least I then got the instant reward of a long downhill that chewed up a good few kilometres and put me on the final stretch. Just 12k to go and the last feed station appeared. ‘Really? That distance is nothing, half an hour at most, I’ll just carry on’. Andy, you just never learn. Dumb. Really dumb.
Every slight rise in the road felt like a mountain. Every gravel section, which had earlier been greeted with glee, was now met by a teenager-like sigh and accompanying eye-roll; I’d had my fill of them. The bidon was down to its last drops. If I was supple enough, I’d have kicked myself.
A final vampiric climb that sucked the little life I had left in the legs (the same one we’d gone down to kick-start the Gravel Grinder) and I was immensely grateful to be back in the Foxcroft School grounds. Actually, not just grateful but chuffed. Absolutely chuffed. Seeing my wife and kids waving at me at the finish, I was exhausted but in a fantastic way. Loudoun 1725 proved to be just the tonic I needed to remedy my cycling malaise*.
*That was going to be my sign-off but thought I’d quickly mention that my “biggest fan” Alicia did amazingly well in the swim meet, with her mum, dad and little sister Addie cheering her on from the pool side. It was totally worth it. Zero regrets.
The other brother
Oh hello, look who’s turned up at the finish line with not a single sweat stain in sight. It’s that other guy – more voyeur than broleur. The shame. Too long since I’ve written anything here and too long since I’ve ridden anywhere of note. As Andy’s numerous reviews date in the drafts folder (like fine wine, I should emphasise), my cycling form has been slowly degenerating. There are gameshows from the 80s that have aged better.
My year saw an under-cooked attempt at the Mallorca 312 in May (which very quickly became the abridged 167) and a bike-packing trip around the Cairngorms in October, from which I’m still defrosting. Not a lot of riding before, inbetween, or since.
But while 2023 may have been a Strava Year in Sport to forget, it’s 2024 right now. A new year and with it the opportunity to dust off the turbo trainer and squeeze two porky pink thighs back into their lycra casings. There’s a brotherly reunion in March to relish, a Girona training camp in May to train for, and a yet-to-be-identified motivational summer challenge to be signed up to. Blank web pages to be filled, history to be written. Onwards.