At the dinner table Zac asked us if “There was a point where wanted to quit?” This edition of the Gran Fondo Ephrata had been a hard one. It rained, heavy at times, for a majority or the 80 mile ride—30 of which was gravel, though there was a section where, perhaps, “path” would be a better a better description. We had also battled, as a team, through a long section of brutal headwind, and now we were all sitting at a large table inside the Mexican restaurant in Ephrata waiting for calories that would come from a real, sit down meal, each of us recalling some point along the route where we were ready to pack it in—crawl into Bob K’s white car and get warm—but none of us had done that.
The ride had started in a light rain as 200 participants, all in various states of preparedness for the weather, had strung themselves out behind an escort from Ephrata PD that would drop us off at the first section of black gravel. We found each other in the mass of team jerseys and brightly colored rain jackets, not because we had all agreed upon a unified kit, but because we have grown familiar with how each other sit on a bike.
The rains made picking a line difficult. One could easily find the tracks laid down by earlier by traffic, but that line could suddenly vanish, or turn to peanut butter, slowly grinding your pedal stroke down to nothing. The rider in front of you could flat, or a large embedded stone would suddenly appear and it would take a quick flick of the handlebars and hips to avoid a puncture or potential crash.
Our clothes soaked through quickly, most of us had fenders, and only had to contend with the falling rain, though I, due to events outside of my control had saddled without any protection from the dirt and water being flung off my wheels. My feet were the first to soak through and go numb.
We were looking forward to our first stop, an Antique (capitalized because that seems to be the name of the establishment) shop that stands were the Gran Fondo’s route joins with Highway 28. The Antique Shop is not a scheduled stop on the route; it is just about ten miles short of the official rest stop. The Antique Shop is packed with various knickknacks, old watches, cigar boxes and used books. This is done to such an extent that it feels almost claustrophobic, but if you pick around these and move to the back corner you will find an espresso machine. It has become our tradition to stop here for a mid-ride coffee.
Coffee is an important part of any ride, as is warmth. Earlier, Bob K had pulled the plug on this edition of the Gran Fondo Ephrata. He was on the backside of the flu that’s been making the rounds and decided he wasn’t up for riding in the cold and wet when he was just starting to get better. Graciously, he decided to drive and meet us along the route with warm, and more importantly, dry clothes.
If there is a section of the route that is not fun—even in optimal conditions—it is the section just after The Antique shop. This stretch is in the large shoulder of the highway 28. Rain falls from the sky and road water is splashed up from by passing cars; it covers us in waves as each pickup truck, car, or semi, with trailer barrels past us. It soaks our dry clothes and the lets the chill in. It will be these waves of water, and me, riding just off the back of the group; not wanting to take a turn so that I do not add to the spray on my friend’s faces, that I will recall when Zac asked his question at the dinner table.
Highway 28 is the most stressful part of the Fondo route, but today it is not the hardest. The hardest section is reserved for an 18.4 mile stretch of road named Palisades. The road curves out and away from the highway, along some farms, and a school, before eventually ending when it turns to gravel. Today Palisades road is beset upon by one nasty headwind. Nathan quickly organizes us into a rotating pace line, like the ones we practice on Tuesday night across the summer when the weather is warm and dry. Those rides are fast, and at their pace—sustained over a long period—we would cover this stretch of road in less than an hour. However, today we can barely manage 13 mph, as our little train picks up riders who join us for a turn or two, before gently dropping out, deciding to face this hellish wind on their own. The windward side of the line is cold, with the warmth increasing as you drop back, and roll into the fold, where, in the sweet spot at the back of line, when you are between descending and ascending on the wind, you receive your reward for having worked the front, a little more warmth.
This is why, when sitting at the long table at back of the Mexican restaurant, we could all furnish some reason for why we wanted to quit but didn’t. We may have all thought about stopping when we were cold and soaked through, or tired of the gravel rollers or the wind, but we couldn’t. We kept riding because of who we were with. Everyone had taken a turn protecting someone from the wind, or ridden alongside someone when they were in a tough spot. And so we just kept riding, just as we do when we are all pedaling in time on some other day when the weather is good and there is nothing to do but to keep on riding.
Words by Robert Grunau | Photos by Mark Longman