Rapha Gentlemen’s Race


From the race director, Slate Olson

I wasn’t completely sure what to expect when we came up with the idea of the first ever Rapha Gentlemen’s Race. I sold it to the racers as an unsupported, unsanctioned, unmarshalled, six-rider team time trial meets alley-cat, meets ‘Cannonball Run’. Inspired in large part by the Rapha Continental style of riding long days, gravel roads, hard miles and finding your own way, the race was two very different rides over the same +/- 125-mile course.

The first portion of the ride was meant to be the same for all the teams—climbing, climbing and more climbing. Eleven teams set out from Hood River, Oregon to conquer the narrow mountain roads that led up to Lost Lake and then onto Lolo Pass for a 12 mile climb which included six-miles gravel and then they would hit the first check point after mile 55. From the first check at Barlow Trail, the course was open from there and the teams could take whatever route towards Portland they thought would deliver them the fastest to the second check before finishing at Roots Organic Brewery.

Within 20-minutes of sending off the last wave of the fastest teams I got a phone call from the Nike team that they were stopped on the side of the road with a rider whose heart was jumping out of his overly sweat-soaked chest. Vowing to get recertified in CPR, I drove as fast as I could to the broken-down group, I started to wonder if this would also be the last Rapha Gentlemen’s Race.

Maybe it was too much Stumptown coffee or exhaustion from his second place 100-mile, multi-day trail race the week before, but after a car ride up to Lost Lake, Peter jumped back onto the course to try and catch his team and finish the race. Nike, a certain favorite, was officially out however.

So was HUP United. They went right when they should have stayed left. After their flat before even seeing gravel, they took a 13-mile detour up a climb in the wrong direction. Wrecked, worn and separated, HUP earned the only DNF of the day.

Casa Bruno, the eventual winners, made up their 18-minute start handicap and passed the other ten teams before the first checkpoint. They reached the finish/brewery coming in within 117-miles and 6:34, handily ahead of the pack. They were well ahead of a strong Yakima team whose route choice took them on more of a roundabout way logging them at 130-miles.

Team Beer surprised with a stronger than expected showing (after appropriately starting the morning drinking beer). The only all-women’s team, Ironclad, rode with the elegance you might expect, without a single flat or mechanical. Finally, the GründelBrüisers earned deserved fame for spending nearly 12-hours of Subway and corndog powered saddle time in their quest to finish.

Now that I know what to expect, I have even greater expectations for the second-annual Rapha Gentlemen’s Race.

Final Standings:
1. Casa Bruno (6:34, 117miles)
2. Rapha Continental
3. Yakima
4. Half-Fast Velo
5. Gentle Lovers
6. Iron Clad
7. Team Beer
8. Cars-R-Coffins
9. Gründlebrüisers
10. Nike Cycling* (finished 4)
11. HUP United** (DNF)

Who was it that said about the Alps, “Everyone suffers, some people just suffer faster than others?” I don’t recall, but it’s a fitting quote for our group. Team Casa Bruno had a good day at the Rapha Gentlemen’s Race, but 6:40 on the bike is a long day, no matter how fit you are. Our crew has been riding and racing together for 15 years, so not only do we know what a hard day looks like, we’ve shared more than our fair share of them in the same kit, some of us riding up the road to a memorable finish, others happy to just to make it to the line.

When I heard about the RGR, my first thought was “What an excellent idea for an event.” And my second thought was, “I think I know six guys who could win that race.” I don’t like to trash talk, mostly because I don’t like to be wrong. I never hyped our group. I never challenged anyone to a duel. I just knew that this kind of ride was exactly what we loved: A long, hard day, on some of the best roads the area has to offer, with good friends. Like most people, we have real jobs, families, all the usual time constraints and priorities. But this kind of ride? This is exactly what we spend our summers doing, every chance we get. A lot can happen on race day, but I knew we’d be in the mix.

The ride itself? When we created a profile for it, it looked like something straight out of a European stage race—maybe not a Grand Tour, but f’ing hard. Rolling out of Hood River, we took it easy and chatted with the other groups. Soon enough, we figured it was time to get going on pulling back the 20-odd minutes the first groups had on us. No one wanted to ride hard with us, so we just rolled our pace—not easy, but not on the rivet either. This would prove to be the mantra for the day: a lot of time spent somewhere between faster-than-moderate, and slower-than-full-tilt. At the first checkpoint, we thought we’d caught all but one team. In fact, we were in front of everyone. From there, we knew we had to keep rolling strong, but save something for the last climb. Eat, drink, stretch, repeat was pretty much how the miles ticked by. The landjaeger salami I brought for everyone helped out immensely at mile 80 (thanks for the tip Matt!). Grochau and I had to stop at the base of Saltzman to work out some cramps coming on, and I was hitting the wall on that final climb (I queued up some music on my phone to help get me to the top). From there, though, we just cruised to the finish, very happy to step off the bikes victorious, and have a beer. Will we be back next year? Oh yeah. Grochau thinks we can do it in six hours.

Maybe because we’ve been riding and not racing together as the Rapha Continental team for the last two years. And maybe because over the last two years we’ve ridden Lolo Pass several times, though never in that direction. And never in tandem with Lost Lake, but that’s not the point. The point is, that whatever the reasons, I’m not sure we could have been any better prepared for a long-distance unsupported rally race.

In fact, exploring long stretches of gorgeous uphill roads in adverse conditions with each other, is the heart of the Rapha Continental. Over the course of the project we’ve worked through every imaginable conflict be it physical, emotional or psychological in nature, and have long since gotten down to the business of having fun in sweat-soaked Sportwool for seven plus hours at time. Even when the sun is sinking over the 1500-foot ridge between us and our car, or when we’re lost for the seventh time 100-miles into a day hallmarked by unimproved roads and triple digit temps. While we’re not particularly fast, we don’t break easily and we play well together (mostly), whatever happens.

Okay, while we were prepared to finish strong’ish we were more than a little surprised to win. But we did and here’s why:

The favorites by all accounts were Casa Bruno, Nike and the Gentle Lovers. Casa Bruno, who finished first, are all ex-professional racers and this guy Otis so they don’t count, though that might not be the “official” take on things. The Nike Team, five gents and a ‘gentette’ are all fast and have the race results to prove it, the woman was fifth at US Nats this year for Christ sake. But who could have anticipated that some of their team would suffer from heart-attack-light and severe indigestion. Also, who knew they would happily leave a man down and wantonly void (disqualify) their otherwise impressive efforts. And also, who knew they would blow the apex of every turn down the backside of Lost Lake in a scene that went from comical to absurd to dangerous faster than you can say – ‘is this your first time?’ The Lovers, arguably the most dashing, both handsome AND fast, brought someone to push and pull and labor up anything even kind-of hill or climb shaped. Hey dude, I’m that guy on our team, let’s ride sometime! In addition to the best team-work ever, they made time for bike tricks reminiscent of flat-land freestyle, the badgering of tree branches and logs in the fashion of an amusement-park ride (see photos), and countless other diversions. Needless to say this slowed them down a bit but likely not as much as you would think, and certainly not as much as their photos would indicate.

We started with HUP and Yakima. Actually, no we didn’t, we were held at the line for 5-minutes while HUP and Yakima disappeared into the horizon. Ryan was too busy moving his car (don’t ask) to make the start time. Things happen right? Besides this is a classic example of how our history together was immensely beneficial. I mean, we all took this tardy-shaped issue in stride even though it forced us to sprint, flat-out and uphill, for the first 15-minutes of a seven hour day.

HUP United got a flat, despite hours of pre-race preparation, got lost and went to the wrong lake, despite laminated cue sheets on their stems. They quit in less than 25-miles, despite the fact that Joe Staples waited for the rest of his team at checkpoint one for more than two hours. Yakima rode an additional 13-miles and something like 1000-feet of climbing for no apparent or strategic reason.

When I think about it, it’s not like we won the race, it’s more like we just didn’t lose it. We rode pretty hard too.

It was 7:00 in the morning and the policeman beside us already had someone in his backseat.

“That poor bastard. Not the way to start the day,” we said aloud.

The GründelBrüisers had assembled in two vans and we were on our way to Hood River for the Rapha Gentlemen’s Race. The Gorge was dark with clouds until the final two miles when the sun finally exploded in front of us, and we knew a good day for cycling was ahead.

I tapped away on my new-fangled iPhone, translating useful phrases into Web-quality German. Not that any of us knew how to pronounce the German words, but then, that is not the point of the GründelBrüisers.

Die Schlechten Nachrichtenbären des Fahrradfahrens.
The Bad News Bears of cycling.

Our race day team consisted of Chip, a recent winner of a B-level cyclocross race and our most in-shape rider; Shane, a 20-year-old college swimmer clad in trail-running shoes for what would be his first road bike ride (ever); The Derfer, an enthusiastic engineer with no shortage of pep; Stewie, who spends more time building team bicycles than riding them; Barry, who stands at least 6’5 and weighs in at a mean 127 pounds; and me, Weeman, who earned the nick-name ‘the Hammer’.

Given the experience and fitness of the squad, expectations were set unsurprisingly low. I jumped out in front of the Ironclad maidens during the first climb, but my time at the front of the race was brief. Though I managed to take a few souvenir photographs, though, before falling back to the team.

There was no major sense of urgency. The plan was to finish, and to finish together, as a team. THAT is what the Gründel is all about.

As the race route wove its way up the flanks of Mt. Hood, the Gründel stuck to the plan, taking in the scenery, and greeting each passing team with smiles, cheers and a few bars of Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian…Motorin” as it surged by.

We were assured our DFL standing, if we just kept pedaling.

Wenigstens sind wir HUP nicht.
At least we’re not HUP.

A glimmer of trouble blinded the team while climbing toward Lost Lake, when a couple of the boys noticed that the speedometer was reading 4-5 mph. Some quick calculations suggested this pace, even with the descents and flatlands to come, would result in a 12-hour ride. TWELVE HOURS!? We would need lights, not to mention new Gründels.

Dissention was cast aside however, and team camaraderie prevailed. As (somewhat exaggerated) news reached us of other teams imploding around us, we continued on as a unit. The miles ticked off. Streams were forded. Corndogs were consumed. We made it to Portland as the sun went down.

Es ist besser, auf dem Fahrrad als in Gefängnis zu sein.
It is better to be on the bike than in jail.

Stopping at a teammate’s house, we decked ourselves with blinking lights. We still had to get across town and climb up to Skyline, and the thought of another ascent weighed heavily on the team.

Spirits were lifted though, as we accidentally passed by the finish line bar Roots, where all the other teams erupted in applause. Race organizer, Slate Olson, sprinted out to enquire about our plan and to encourage us to just call it good.

“We’ll see you up top!” we yelled as we rolled on.

The cheering of the teams inspired us. The Gründel championed on. After signing in with Slate at the last checkpoint, we cruised back toward the bar, taking a victory lap around nighttime Portland. As we rolled into the finish, the other teams were out front, with beers at the ready to draw a close to an extraordinary day.

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