By Mike Maltais
Winthrop’s first foray into the exotic world of European distance cycling drew a good turnout Sunday morning (Aug. 4) but the nearly half-a-hundred experienced bike riders – the majority from out of town – encountered the fatigue of high elevations and harsh weather before the 80.37-mile Winthrop Gran Fondo spit them out the other side.
Three local riders, Jake Whipple and Dave Acheson representing the Methow Cycle and Sport /Blue Star Coffee Racing Team and Chris Bloomquist of Winthrop, were among the 49 who departed from the Barn.
Race organizers from Vicious Cycle of Ephrata stressed that the Fondo was a distance ride and not a race, however, elapsed times were recorded as a courtesy for each of those participating. On that basis Whipple posted the second-fastest time of 6 hours, 7 minutes, 48 seconds, about one-half hour behind Brian Ecker riding for Fanatik Bike Company of Bellingham. Acheson, with a time of 9:55:36.73, finished 40th among the 42 riders who eventually completed the course.
Weather conditions at the Barn appeared fair and favorable as the riders departed the starting line early in the morning. However, as hours passed and the cyclists ascended the Boulder Creek drainage and three 6,000-plus foot elevations they had to cross, changing weather conditions gave a forewarning of what was coming. Anticipating the possibility of unpredictable conditions, the official race website had earlier cautioned riders: “It will likely be hot, but high in the mountains anything can happen.”
Among several advisories delivered to the assembled cyclists before the start of the ride was the admonition to “watch out for cows; some have been reported along the course.”
Near mile 22, riders had to conquer 6,500-foot Freezeout Ridge. Over the next 10 miles two more heights of 6,900 feet at Three Buttes and 6,600 feet at Lone Frank Pass had to be cleared before the course descended 4,200 feet into Conconully.
The long, cool descent into the 2,300-foot-elevation Conconully basin at about milepost 50 preceded the thunderstorm that finally caught Acheson and other riders as they began the long climb out of Conconully to the Loup Loup North Summit,
“That’s where we really got hammered,” Acheson said of the cold downpour of rain and hail.
As he arrived at the Loup aid station, Acheson said he witnessed a number of riders who had taken shelter there to fight off the effects of hypothermia.
Aid stations were sited near mile marks 14, 26, 48 and 63 and a few support and gear (SAG) vehicles patrolled the course.
From the North Summit the remainder of the course took riders down the south fork of Beaver Creek, past the entrance to Pipestone Canyon to East County Road via Bear Creek and from there on blacktop back to the Barn. Along the way was a final push above 5,300 feet.
Of the 49 cyclists who started the ride, 42 made it out the other side.
Acheson agreed that if challenge and adventure was what most Gran Fondo cyclists came to the valley seeking the event should be back next year bigger than ever.