Non-Expert Review: Palisade Gran Fondo

The First-Annual Palisade Gran Fondo seemed like a good first race ever for me. It skirts a gentler middle ground between long group ride and hyper-competitive race. It's a timed event, but riders aren't obligated to race. The sixty-eight mile distance hits my personal sweet spot of long, slow, burn. The weather in Palisade mid-May was likely to be lovely 70s with loads of sunshine. A perfect and very pleasurable fit. The location was also perfect for leaving our kiddos with grandparents so my husband, Sven, and I could ride it together. 

I met the race organizers at packet pick-up. Everyone was incredibly friendly and welcoming. The vibe was relaxed and fun. Super chill. There's a strong Western Slope culture of supportive women cyclists in the Single Track and Skinny Tire Sisters group. Event Director, Jen, is a long-time member of the Sisters. The evening sun was emerging after a long, cold day of rain. I was among instant friends grinning and chatting about our shared passion for cycling. Maybe I really could do this after all!

My personal goals were:

1. Finish

2. Not last

3. Have fun

4. Win the amazing DT Swiss wheelset in the raffle.

Locals call the first climb “Puke Hill.” Officially known as 38 Road, it runs south out of Palisade and up onto a mesa top thick with gorgeous fruit orchards and vineyards. Quaint farm stands, fruit stalls, wine cellars, and a pie store beckon from the sides of the road. Long views of the Grand Valley river bottom open up to the west. It’s been a wet spring, and everything is lush and fragrant. I don’t know when I’ve seen so many shades of green. All of this nests between red desert cliffs. It really is breathtaking. 

The rains have delayed an asphalt resurfacing project, and Puke Hill is currently packed dirt. Rideable dry, though, or so I hear. On race day the sky was hammering out a steady deluge. Puke Hill was snot-slick rivers of muddy bentonite. A handful of riders bailed out even before the race started. Understandably. It would not have taken much for me to do the same.

During the weather delay, officials rerouted the course around Puke Hill. I heard someone say that we might get turned back at the first aid station depending on how bad the weather was over there. Convincing myself that I could suck it up for that first leg got me to the start line. 

I dropped in behind the leaders and chatted with a really nice, very fast local Sister named Lori. We were trying to figure out how best to draft and also keep ourselves out of the road grime spraying off the wheels in front. Sven fell in behind us.

Rain had scoured away some of the route markings, and just a few miles into the race the leaders took a third of the the field, including us, around a wrong turn. Long minutes ticked by as we rapidly increased the distance between ourselves and the actual route. We all finally turned around when we came to a dead end. The riders around us evaporated, and Sven and I got back on route, chasing the main group.

The rain had sort-of stopped and we had started passing other riders by the time we reached the first aid station. From there we headed up the big, grinding climbs of Reeder and Purdy mesas, laughing that we couldn’t possibly get any wetter than we already were.

Everyone we passed or chatted with along the way was incredibly friendly. There was a sense of communal suffering that made us all nice to each other. A group of women stood at the end of a driveway out in the middle of nowhere cheering and ringing cowbells. They were awesome! We caught Lori again at the second aid station.

The long, fast downhill section along Kannah Creek was my favorite part of the ride. It’s another incredibly gorgeous stretch of road. Pine forest, lush river bottom farmland, and bare cliff edges all framed the massive black clouds racing to meet us.

Lori and I cheered each other on as she, I, and one other rider drafted behind Sven. We all leap-frogged each other in the unrelenting rain and winds off the new storm cell until we were back at the first aid station with 21 miles to go. Lori got out ahead of us here.  

Out of sight of the aid station, Sven and I didn’t see any other riders ahead or behind us for miles and miles and miles. I was disoriented and freezing. My feet were sloshing around in standing water inside my shoes. I had rolled my leg warmers down over my shoes to block the wind, exposing my legs to the stinging rain. I let myself get discouraged for just a few minutes while I struggled up the last hill past the landfill. 

As the sun finally came out for good, we caught up to the guy Lori had been riding with. Lori was long gone. Probably already at the finish, I thought. We missed another turn after a railroad crossing and landed on a busy street south of the finish line. I saw Lori and another rider pulled over about a block ahead looking at a map. I signaled our turn back to the route, hoping she saw us.

I crossed the finish line about a minute ahead of her, taking first place for the women!

The podium!   l to r: Lori, me, Jen, and Tina

The podium!   l to r: Lori, me, Jen, and Tina

I have serious anxiety about racing, and I had to dig deep for the courage to give it a try. 

I couldn’t have picked a better first race. Jen and Dave (and the terrible weather) put together an epic ride. It was very well-organized and very professional. The timing was totally pro. The supportive volunteers and staff were all great. Dave drove the course and shouted encouragement at us at just the right moments. Cowbells were everywhere, as were people telling us we were doing great. Aid stations were well-stocked. The food and beer at the finish were fantastic. The swag  and prizes were very generous. (The wheelset went to the woman who took third. She’ll be a force to reckon with next year!) The other riders were an inspiration when I wanted to give up. There were even hot showers! Hot. Showers.

The route is absolutely gorgeous, and there was almost no traffic! Seriously. Nearly four hours of riding, and only three or four cars passed us. I can’t wait to ride it again. Under warm sunshine! When I have time to stop at a wine cellar and that pie stand. And when I can just slow down and really enjoy the beauty of this amazing ride. I’m  especially excited about riding the Kannah Creek section again. I would do grinding hill repeats just to go down that stretch over and over. I’m even looking forward to trying out Puke Hill once it’s paved.

I learned a lot in my first race.

I learned that I need to carry less food on a supported ride and to stop fewer times. (I need to practice putting on my rain jacket in a huge headwind while pedaling.)

I learned to successfully blow my first snot-rocket. (Desperate times….)

I also learned that the underlying reasons I fear racing so much don't need to get in my way. On this day, on this route, in the pouring rain, climbing up the 9.5% grade, and achieving three of my four goals, I faced down my fear.  And won. 

The first image on this article is from this source. All others are either my own or from the Palisade Gran Fondo and related Facebook pages.