Having never participated in an event of this kind, I had no idea what to expect when I signed up for the 50+ mile 8k of climbing inaugural Grand Fondo event on Catalina Island with a group of about 400+ riders including some of the top mountain bikers in So Cal. It had been more than 30 years since I had visited the island with my LA based French windsurfing friends but the idea of mountain biking the island hit me earlier this year as I thought of new adventures close to home. So often you think you have to travel great distances to find adventure when in reality this amazing place we live in has so much to offer. And this event did not disappoint from that perspective.
Yes Avalon is a bit “kitschy” and you could instantly recognize a cyclist in civilian clothes from the average overweight sunburnt tourist but I knew the island had way more to offer. I couldn’t help thinking how much more rugged the landscape appeared from the ferry as approached the island compared to the perspective I’d developed gazing out of the many flights out of LAX which make a sweeping left turn and pass to the east of the island. This island has some serious terrain.
The start of the event was at the Casino and we pedaled the short distance back to town and then bam, the first climb on one of the few paved sections began and would take us up to the ridgeline about 2000 vert feet from town. The views that unfolded in front were stunning – wild, undeveloped, green hills and valleys which are much more varied and complex than my good old Malibu Mountains. And to boot the views looking east to the water were almost surreal. I never saw any of the famed wildlife – boar or buffalo but that may have been due to the need to focus on the riding.
As for the ride itself, I was trying to regulate my output without a watt meter to avoid blowing up early. I had survived l’Etape a few weeks ago and thanks to the advice of Jake Winebaum tried to focus on riding my own race. The “fun” began when we hit the dirt at the top of the climb as my introduction to the challenges of a mountain bike race began.
Now I’ve ridden a mountain bike for many years recreationally and mostly on trails I know like the back of my hand. This was different. The roads were often washboarded with off camber turns and loose rock. Picking your line down some sections was very important and I knew right away how the fatigue and my lack of experience were going to force me to really focus on choosing the right line. I had a few hairy moments when I knew right away I made a bad decision but you just had to fight the instinct to brake and keep turning the wheels. Kind of like hitting a patch of ice on skis.
On the northernmost part of the island, we turned to go south at about the halfway mark and we got our first taste of the balance of the climbing which would be in store for us. The brochure had talked about 22% climbs and suddenly I realized they weren’t exaggerating. There is no climb that can force me off my bike in the Santa Monicas but here it wasn’t a question of if, it was a question of when. My computer doesn’t measure grade when the pedals don’t turn but I was pedaling on some 20% + sections so I’m guessing a few sections were mid to high 20s. They lied!
The other place where they lied was the vertical climb. The brochure said 8k and at check in they said 7300 but when we looped back to the top of the initial climb looking down at Avalon at mile 39 with about 7000 on my computer, the race crew waved us back right (west) down the long spine that heads south of town along the western edge saying “12 more miles”.. I knew I was about to be taking out a loan from the pain bank and the 7300 feet was a pipe dream. And this is where mountain biking can certainly claim supremacy in dishing out pain over road biking…. A series of sharp climbs often over 20% some of which had to be walked which keep coming and coming. Made me long for a nice long smooth climb on Stunt or Piuma.
The reward however were the amazing views plunging to your right down the very steep incline to the water some 1500 – 2000 vert feet below. The marine layer was being blown up the cliffs and at times would partially obscure riders a few hundred meters in front. The temp variation from the sunny east side of the island to the cold windy west was substantial. Eventually we made it to the last aid station where I noticed I was at about 8300 ft and heard another lie “it’s all downhill from here”.
By now I knew better than to trust anyone so I just kept trying to stay just under the cramp zone and stay focused. I’ve been riding just under 5 hours with about 15 min of stoppage time (Tom Hill’s parting comment wishing me good luck was no lollygagging at the rest stops!). The descent to town was trickier than it seemed, weird off angle hairpin turns and lots of loose rock but the feeling of riding down into the sunshine of the other side of the island and a cold beer made me ignore the niggly little aches and pains (sole of my foot??).
Finally I hit the smooth pavement down some fun sweeping turns just below the Wrigley mansion, a blast through town and a final push to the finish just past the Casino. Nearly 9k of climbing, 51 miles in 5:34 (riding time 5:19). The big guns like Nate Whitman were in under 4 hours I heard but I was happy with the effort and so happy to have discovered a truly incredible and very wild place to go which is a mere one hour boat ride from our backdoor. In the words of our former governor “I’ll be back”.