With just a couple of months to before Gran Fondo day, now is the time to get a better understanding of the efforts you will face in September and start talking about strategy for building toward your personal achievement. We sat down with John Beardsley, USA Cycling Certified Coach and the second overall finisher of the 2018 Garden State Fondo to review the course and hear his own experience of last year’s 4 timed climbs on the Estremo route.
John, you endured last year’s cold, wet, and absolutely GLORIOUS edition of Garden State Fondo. You powered through the challenging 107 miles when many bailed or opted for a shorter course. Then you came in 2nd overall, and you don’t even consider yourself a pure climber. Can we talk about how you achieved this result?
I was very lucky to finish second overall on the timed hill climbs of the #1 Gran Fondo in the country last year. As a coach I’m grateful for this chance to share a bit of how I prepared for the ride, and how I tackled each climb along the way. I’ll give you an overview of some of the key elements of my summer’s training, and profile each of the four climbs you have to look forward to along the Gran route.
Great. Let’s begin with training. How did your season look like last year?
I had a pretty fun path to the form and fitness that allowed me to perform on Gran Fondo day last September 9th. A big event, a new bike, and one very particular equipment choice all came together in how I organized and executed my training in the months before the Garden State Fondo.
My road racing season runs from early March to late August. I tend to organize this around a spring peak in mid- to late May, usually around the Bear Mountain Classic and Gran Fondo NY (GFNY). Then I back it off a little and recover/reset in mid-June before building up toward a late season peak.
In July, I put together a few weeks of fairly straightforward “sweet spot” style training - increasingly long bouts of 15 to 45 minutes just under FTP, or lactate threshold, or call-it-what-you-will :-). Then in August, I moved towards some race/event specificity, doing repeats on a local climb that mirrored the TT course for my event as closely as I could find: a 7ish-minute climb followed by a fast downhill section, then a quick steep ramp into the finish.
But training modalities aside, there’s one key element to the execution of these training blocks that undoubtedly helped me on the Garden State Fondo: doing them blind. Well, data-blind, at least. In other words: by feel. I hadn’t yet put a power meter on the new bike I got in early July, and only looked at my heart rate data after each ride. Going into these efforts, all I knew was a ballpark duration for the effort, the general profile of the terrain, and the number of repeats I aimed to do for the session.
Can you explain how exactly training WITHOUT a power meter helped you perform at the Gran Fondo?
Training without a power meter for several weeks in July and August on climbs similar to these I was about to ride on the Gran Fondo, I became more attuned than I’d ever been to that feeling of being right on the edge. Going just as hard as I could without blowing up, and knowing I’d still have a little more to give for that next roller, or for that final kick to the line. To paraphrase an old saying, “the [power meter] makes for an excellent servant, but a terrible master.” Without that all-consuming wattage to attain or average for a given interval, one allows oneself these little micro-recoveries, catching a tiny breath every here and there. Maybe the graph doesn’t look as neat afterwards, but do you work harder where it counts and sneak some recovery where you’re able? Absolutely. And does that make your efforts more sustainable and eventually faster? Absolutely.
So, now that your internal time-to-exhaustion clock is on its way to laboratory-level precision, time to bring it to that other, minor little detail…
Great. We spoke about training and simulating climbs, now let’s talk about strategies to beat the climbs on Gran Fondo day. Can you walk us through each of the climbs on course and share some advice on how can we achieve our own best times on them?
Sure. Let’s start:
Black River Road
This is the most dangerous and deceptive of the four climbs on the Gran Fondo course. With the timing start at mile 24, there’ll still be plenty of others around you on the road - but don’t give in to the temptation to try and jump ahead of everyone. If you go out too hard, this one will bite! You’re looking at almost 600 feet of elevation gain over 2.4 miles, with more than 400 of that coming in the last mile!
It starts out gently rolling along the Lamington River, but when you turn left away from the water, you know you’re not far from those ramps upwards of 15%. Just try to remember those double digits when you’re eyeing up that cannoli at the first rest stop, just 3 miles earlier. The best advice here is to set a challenging and consistent pace, but remember everything which is still yet to come.
Now this is my kind of segment! A short, steep pitch to begin with, then a false flat and rolling tail end where you can put your head down, and even some of the bigger boys like me can take some time back on the wiry climber types. Plus, this time the refueling stop comes directly after your hard effort, not before.
By the start at mile 55, you’ve settled into a rhythm and shaken out most of that Doggone Hard effort (and the cannoli). You’re a stone’s throw from Pennsylvania, tracing the eastern bank of the Delaware River, when you hook a right and run smack into nearly a mile of 5%, with some healthy doses of 8-9% thrown in for good measure. But that’s just the first third of your effort. Once you’re up past the steep first few minutes, it levels off and even dips down a bit. But now you’re atop a ridge, with open rolling fields to either side, and brutally exposed to the winds. If you’ve got friends with you, now’s the time to get behind the big guy! If you didn’t blow it all on the starting ramp, get low and aero and try to hold onto all the momentum you can. A true time-trialist’s delight.
And now we come to the one-two punch. Climbs #3 and #4 come what feels like back to back, at miles 71 and 77 respectively. But as the intervening miles are largely downhill, you’re hitting Frog Hollow as soon as 10-15 minutes after finishing Rocky Run. Yikes.
Remember how fun it was flying down Buffalo Hollow Road back at mile 38? Well, that’s right next door, and now we’re paying for it, in reverse. This one might more accurately be called “All the Pain, All the Gain.” With more than 600 feet, this is the most elevation gain of our four climbs, and the highest total average at just under 5% for 2.3 miles. The stair-steps just keep coming, and you’re surrounded by thick woods most of the way up, so don’t be surprised if you’re a little delirious and disoriented by the top of this one.
I found this one the hardest of the four. The first starts easy and gets harder, the second starts hard and gets easier, but this one is just hard the whole way through! At least you have a sturdy downhill straight afterwards, ushering you speedily towards...
A popular refrain seemed to develop among riders we encountered in the latter half of the day: “oh, it’s all downhill from here...except for the uphill parts!” And nowhere did that ring truer than at the top of our final timed climb. From there, still 25 miles and 1500 feet of elevation gain between you and home!
But, this climb in itself is a small mercy. Yes, it’s the longest of the day at just a shade under three miles, but it averages a positively benign 2.8%. I’d be surprised if you had enough left in the tank to go out too hard on this one, but if somehow you do: save it! Three miles is a long old way. We’ve got a gentle, consistent grade climbing out of the town of Califon, but the final three tenths of a mile kick up and over 8%, where you can lose plenty of time in just a few hundred feet if you’re not judicious with your effort.
And there you have it! 107 miles, 7,800 feet climbed, and just about beer o’clock.
Any other piece of advice?
If you can ride the Garden State Fondo with a group of friends: do it! First off, the benefits of camaraderie over such a long day can’t be overstated. But beyond that, each of these climbs has significant stretches of very gentle gradient, if not flat or rolling/downhill stretches. These faster segments give a significant advantage to anyone riding in a bunch. So if you can keep your group together all day long, your climb times will thank you!
This summer coach John will lead advanced Garden State Fondo training rides for athletes registered to ride the inaugural Estremo route. Stay tuned!