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Getting dropped — by Freddie Rodriguez — in a gran fondo

Sometimes a gran fondo is actually a race, which one VeloNews reporter discovered recently

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MONTEREY, Calif. (VN) — I don’t remember the last time I took to a starting line at 6:30 in the morning. It would have been in a junior race six or seven years ago, and even then I don’t remember ever checking the estimated sunrise time on the way to the start to verify that it would be at least light enough to ride.

At 6:30 a.m., the sun was just high enough for fellow VeloNews tech reporter Spencer Powlison and I to make the call to ditch our knee warmers in the car before rolling off to the start line on Laguna Seca, following the wheels of a handful of other journalists from the media parking lot, near the racecar paddocks.

There was no denying that this was a Giro d’Italia Gran Fondo, as the Giro d’Italia trophy sat on a pink pedestal in front of the 400 riders about to embark on the Carmel Valley loop. On the start line we squeezed in next to Tim Johnson, who was wearing his new Volkswagen kit, the same one he’d wear for the duration of his Ride On Washington that finished a week later. On the other side of Johnson, Fizik’s global brand director Alberto Fonte wished us a good morning while looking dangerously fit.

As we made our way out of the Laguna Seca compound, which is the size of a small town as far as acreage, Bicycling’s gear editor Andrew Bernstein rolled up to us. Specialized’s PR guy Chris Riekert came to the front. Former professionals Neil Shirley and Freddie Rodriquez chatted it up on the early pitches as we climbed out of the crater that the racetrack sits in. We had the makings of a real industry throw-down.

The 96-mile Giro d’Italia Carmel Valley Gran Fondo has become somewhat of a race between cycling publications. This year the trash talking between journalists started in January at the Stages Power press launch. The running themes were Shirley, now an editor at Road Bike Action, versus everyone else, and California versus everyone else. The different companies stoke the fire between the publications on Twitter and Instagram, and there was even talk of a bottle of bourbon going to the first journalist to finish.

Johnson has been one of the most silent and largest instigators since the ride last year, where he and VeloNews tech editor Caley Fretz ran away with the ride. Johnson knew Shirley from his days in the pro ranks, and when Shirley flatted two miles into the ride, Johnson laughed and said “we’re not waiting for him.” The race was on.

Thirty miles later, Shirley caught back on as the group was motoring along the flats of the Carmel valley, still 20-plus miles from the first climbs of the day. As Shirley and Mavic’s Zack Vestal rolled toward the front, Johnson looked over his shoulder at me and said, “You ready?” Before I could even spit out an answer we were both in the grassy gutter sprinting past the peloton and attacking off the front, forcing Shirley to chase just a little bit more, Johnson giggling the whole time.

That’s how the next 15 miles went: journalist attacks, Riekert counters, and Shirley pulls like a madman, until we approached the second aid station when Johnson called for a break. Some of the 380 other participants of the gran fondo rolled on, but anyone in our impromptu industry race followed Johnson’s lead and pulled into a small winery to grab some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and overly potent Gatorade.

Back on the course, the climbs started kicking up and we quickly picked off the riders who had skipped out on our little picnic. Within 10 miles and a couple of kicker-climbs, the group was down to about 20, and pretty much everyone there knew each another. The group was mostly comprised of journalists with all of the players mentioned before and joined by a few more, Ben Delaney of Bike Radar, Dillon Clapp of Road, Elle Anderson of Strava, and graphic designer wunderkind Corey Moxon of Panache, but the real instigator was about to become Rodriquez.

As we hit the big climb of the day on Arroyo Road, our upbeat rotation ceased and Rodriguez planted himself on the front, pinning it at what must have been more than 400 watts. The group proceeded to disintegrate over the next 10 miles. I wasn’t the first to pop off the back, and thanks to Jose Alcala behind us in a SRAM neutral support vehicle I lasted a bit longer than I deserved, but there weren’t more than 10 left when I dropped anchor five or six miles into the climb. Rodriguez, Riekert, and Shirley went on to shell the rest of the group, taking the Strava King of the Mountain for the Arroyo and Carmel Valley Road climbs. Anderson crushed the Queen of the Mountain.

Fortunately, when I rolled into the third aid station, Johnson, Bernstein, Anderson, and everyone else were waiting and I got to sit in for a while longer, but my engine was on empty and I unhitched on the next climb. Powlison upheld the VeloNews name and hung tough with Johnson until the final climbs back into Laguna Seca.

Between Rodriguez, Riekert, and Shirley, not one rider would admit defeat or victory, all claiming they rolled across the line together. Neither hoisted a giant check — this is a gran fondo after all. They did, however, get their pictures taken with the Giro d’Italia trophy. Still, there is no denying that Shirley won the journalist prize. But I haven’t heard if that bottle of bourbon ever appeared.

An American in France

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