Two years ago I did this half gravel/half road race called the Ronde OHOP down near Eatonville, WA, and I absolutely loved it. So it was with much enthusiasm and optimism that I signed up for the Ronde von Palouse.
The RvP is staged in the rolling, windy Palouse hills twenty miles south of Spokane. It is a Roubaix-style race, meaning that the course contains both paved and unpaved sections. The unpaved sections are rural gravel road, some of which is packed hard and some of which is loose, deep golf ball-size rock.
The main pre-race subject of conversation about the RvP revolves around tire selection. The majority of the race is on asphalt, so you definitely don’t want to go with low pressure knobby cyclocross tires, but on the other hand 23mm road tires could either get sucked up in the loose gravel or end up sliced by a sharp rock. I decided to mount some Continental Gatorskins onto my cyclocorss HED Belgium wheels, which I, though heavy, ended up a respectable compromise.
I checked the official web site the day before the race to discover that the course had been changed from three thirteen mile relatively flat miles to two rather hilly twenty three mile laps. The revised course had more hills, but less gravel.
The Cat 4 race didn’t start till ten after eleven, and Steve and I showed up with nearly two hours to spare. We’d spent the night in a Spokane motel, and had each ingested gut bombs at the airport Denny’s. I’d had banana pecan pancakes – a choice I would make again.
I wanted to get in a good warm-up so I took a spin on some nearby gravel – all systems were go – and then I jumped onto the trainer for a good thirty five minute workout.
The race started with a big downhill followed by a big uphill, which I climbed fine, no problem. A couple of guys rolled off the front and found myself in the no-man’s-land between the peloton and the breakaway. I knew the guys in the break, and knew that I couldn’t match their pace, so I eased back and was absorbed by the group.
|Not twenty feet of flat on this crazy race|
Next we hit a series of nine rollers. A few guys up front were really hitting the climbs hard, we’d crank at max RPM down and then punch it up, max RPM down and then punch it up. Come about the fifth or sixth roller the group was really breaking up, and this is when I lost touch. I jumped on the wheel of another lost soul and we really drilled it up a slightly flattish portion trying to catch on, but no luck. I eventually lost that guy but then partnered up with a strong guy from Fisher Plumbing.
My teammate, Steve, had managed to stay with the forward group, but within four or five miles I could see him up ahead riding solo. We had nearly caught him when I saw him make a hard right onto the gravel – he was supposed to make a soft right. The race volunteer yelled for him to turn around and he was just turning onto the actual race course when I came by. Steve jumped on. I had to keep my eyes on the road ahead, avoiding potholes and loose rocks, so I didn’t notice that Steve had gone off the back until the Fisher guy and I hit the pavement.
We pushed on as two and then picked up a third guy on the 5K long hill climb leading to the finish line. When we rolled across the line on the first lap I was starting to get a second wind and thankfully didn’t succumb to the temptation to turn left, ride back to the car and take a DNF.
The three of us worked really well together through the rollers and onto the back stretch. The Fisher guy and I ended up dropping the third guy somewhere near the start of the gravel section, and then I popped about three miles into the five mile stretch of unpaved road. From here on it was a fight to the finish. I just had to put my head down and turn the pedals. The fact that I could see the finish line, up high on a hill, three miles in the distance made the final climb even more painful as it seemed as though the red banner just floated out in the distance like some mirage, never getting any closer.
I finally crossed the line, happy to have finished the race. Steve showed up a few minutes later and we loaded the car and headed to Goldendale for the Grand Fondo wondering how on earth were we going to manage ninety miles and six thousand feet of climbing the very next day.