The Alpine Challenge is aptly named. Set in the mountains around Alpine, CA, the 72-mile Pine Valley course includes oodles of beautiful mountain roads and the famed Dehesa Grade ascent. By the time I crossed the finish line, I had cycled 72.28 miles and gained/lost 7,684 feet of elevation.
Alpine Challenge elevation profile
There must have been 200 riders queuing up for the 7am start at the Alpine Community Center. This would be the start for both the 72-mile Pine Valley ride and the slightly shorter (but still brutal) 62-mile Descanso ride. Mark and I lined up near the front with the half-dozen Descenders participating that morning. Mike and Dave V. we’re looking very sporty prior to the start and I knew they were both looking for a good performance.
I really didn’t know what to expect. Mark and I had ridden very well the week before at the Tour de Cure, but this was a different kind of event. There were a lot of “real” cyclists here, some traveling a long ways to test themselves on the difficult course. There were also quite a few pro and semi-pro riders in the peloton that morning. Our plan was to stay as close to the front as possible without blowing up by going out too hard too early.
The race started with the lead riders going way too fast for me. I’ve figured out that this is just standard operating procedure for competitive rides so I hung on the back of the lead group, gritted my teeth and waited for them to slow down a little. It’s quite a rude shock to the system to launch yourself cold into climbing 5-8% grade as fast as you can. Notice from the elevation profile that there is no warm-up area, it’s basically “go!” and then start climbing. The peloton quickly strung itself out from the early accelerations and Mark and I were probably 6-8 riders from the front when we decided to ease up a little, let the leaders go and save ourselves for the much bigger climb that was coming – Dehesa Grade. We picked a steady tempo and were passed by just a handful of other riders.
After screaming down the 10-mile long Harbison Canyon descent, we turned left onto Dehesa Rd. and began a 23-mile climb through Alpine, Descanso, Guatay, and finally to Pine Valley. Consider for a moment what it must be like to spend almost 2 hours climbing a 3,200 foot hill on your bike. Well, I actually had a pretty good time. Initially, it hurt a lot to match Mark’s uphill tempo, but as what usually happens to me, the more time I spent in the saddle, the better I felt. About 2/3’s the way up the hill, I was feeling really good. We were also slowly bringing back some riders in the breakaway who had bonked on the climb. We stopped for water just short of the top and the guy at the rest stop said there were really only a half-dozen or so riders in front of us. That’s all I needed to hear, for me it was now “Go Time!”.
Mark and I flew up the last bit of climbing, descended into Pine Valley and I went to the front to put on a steady tempo. As long as we didn’t crack on the remaining climbs, we had a shot at a top 10 finish. I couldn’t believe it – I honestly hadn’t expected to be doing so well. With these thoughts in my head and a breakaway rider just up the road, I picked up the pace a little more. Mark started having some difficulty staying on and he released me of my team duties saying, “you’ve got the legs, go get them.” I took off.
I caught the guy in front of me (“Google-jersey-guy”) and dropped him climbing out of Pine Valley. I stopped for Gatorade at the SAG stop at the top and he caught me again. It was a frantic moment watching him pass me as I tried to get Gatorade into my bottle. I soon caught him again passing Viejas and tried to work together a little. His advice was to take it easy so as not to bonk on the final 1,000 ft climb back into Alpine. No thanks, I dropped him on the descent and didn’t see him until the finish.
What goes up must come down and so I was on a 17-mile descent back the way I had come up. I caught up with a SDBC rider who was on the 62-mile course – he was positively flying. I tried to hang on with him to make some more time on any would-be chasers and to possibly catch another breakaway rider, but he was just too fast for me. Before I knew it, I was climbing again back into Alpine.
The last 1,000 ft climb into Alpine is where a lot of riders are destroyed. By the time you get there, it’s warmed up (it was 85+F), your legs have way too much climbing in them already and you’re already imagining the post-ride beer. I double-GU’d, drank most of a bottle of Gatorade and set a fast tempo. Since the 62 and 72 mile courses share much of the same roads, I passed dozens and dozens of riders. I had no way of knowing whether any of them were actually from the 72-mile breakaway group so I just kept hammering. By the time the course finally tipped downhill for the last couple of miles through Alpine, I was toasted. My legs hurt so bad that I actually GU’d with 1 mile to go – I was afraid of bonking on the last mile!
I rolled back into the community center with a ride time of 4:13:50. Mark came in about 4-5 minutes later. After conferring with some other riders about who was where, it was determined that I probably finished in 9th or 10th place among the 72-mile riders. To me, this was a FANTASTIC result. It validated my result at the Tour de Cure and proved to me that I’m on the best form of my (rather short) cycling career.
Next stop – Monster Climbs Trip in June. More on that later.