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Courtesy of Chuck Almarez
Billy Pearlman (far right) and Gary Roach (second from right) ride up Pitzers Ridge Saturday with Justin Moyer (far left) and Marion Herring in the Alleghany Gran Fondo.
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
It’s one thing for someone to talk a big game.
It’s another to play it.
Saturday morning, the folks of Alleghany County held up their end.
They turned out in force and with smiles to support the Alleghany Gran Fondo, a timed bike tour that took riders on a jaunt over some of the county’s most beautiful — and challenging — roads.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the effort that Alleghany Highlands officials have been making to promote outdoors-related tourism in the region.
The community support for the Gran Fondo showed that they are serious about showing off the area’s natural beauty.
Three options were offered for cyclists, who were a mix of locals and out-of-town visitors.
The toughest, the Gran Fondo, was a 108-mile route with 11,500 feet of climbing. The shortest, called the Piccolo Fondo, was 29 miles.
The Medio Fondo, which I rode, was 72 miles with about 6,500 feet of climbing.
The event attracted exactly 100 riders — 40 for the Gran Fondo, 35 for the Medio, and 25 for the Piccolo.
Gran Fondos have long been popular in cycling-crazy Italy. They’re catching on here.
The events ride a nice balance between a casual tour and a race.
There is a clock, so riders who want to push the pace can do so. There are listed winners, too.
In this case the top Gran Fondo rider was 31-year-old Andrew Armstrong of Dallas. Armstrong, who has relatives in the Covington area, finished the ride in 5:39:17, four minutes ahead of Justin Crawford of Covington.
Christopher Hincher of Staunton was third, while Roanokers Gary Roach and Billy Pearlman came in together and finished next in 6:04.45.
Only two women tackled the Gran Fondo.
Nicki Shepard of Staunton was first to finish, in 6:59:01, while Irene Bierie of Hampton came in at 7:38.55.
Forty-five-year-old Craig Burland of Solon, Ohio, was the first man done with the Medio Fondo course, coming in at 4:10:44.
Christie Heslip, a 47-year-old from Blacksburg, was the top woman in the Medio, finishing in 4:16:12, third-fastest overall.
Jeremy and Erin Bartley were the top finishers in the Piccolo, with Jeremy finishing in 1:30:30 and his wife crossing 12 minutes later and finishing second overall.
Because Gran Fondos are not an official race, those more interested in a low-key ride are more than welcome.
That tour designation also greatly simplifies logistics.
Courses remain open to vehicular traffic, so riders are ultimately responsible for adhering to traffic rules to avoid run-ins with cars and trucks.
That said, having volunteer marshals at intersections is a key.
Importantly, those marshals ensure the riders take the right turns. They also make sure drivers know bikes are in the area, and with their flags can help keep cars at bay momentarily in order for cyclists to safely clear intersections.
Saturday’s volunteer army was among the best I’ve experienced.
They were at every corner, and because the event was so long and the ability of riders so varied — the final Gran Fondo finisher needed nearly nine-and-a-half hours to finish — that equated to hours upon hours on the job.
Many sat in lawn chairs until they spotted riders coming, hopping up and waving their flags as needed.
And they smiled and cheered. Every one of them.
Clearly, they were happy to be out there, which means they were happy the riders and their families were visiting Alleghany County.
And plenty of the riders were visitors from a distance.
I rode for a time with Johnathan Min of Dover, N.J.,, and also with Robert Leggiero of Valhalla, N.Y.
As he huffed and puffed his way up the ridiculously steep climb up Warms Springs Mountain from Clifton Forge, Min looked over at me at one point and said “We don’t have hills like this in New Jersey!”
While it would have been nice to have had huge crowds of fans lining the road at the top of the climb, like they do in mountain stages at the Tour de France, the only fans were the volunteers at the aid station at the top of the mountain.
It was pretty cool to hear them cheer as we crested the mountain after a climb that ranged from 40 minutes for the King of the Mountain to an hour or more for many riders.
Curious spectators, including a few with cowbells, were scattered along the routes.
This region’s most popular bike tour/race is the annual Mountains of Misery, always held on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend on a challenging course in Giles, Craig and Montgomery counties.
The main event is 103 miles, with about 10,000 feet of climbing. The double metric option is 123 miles with an astounding 13,000 feet of climbing.
Both routes finish with a brutal climb to Mountain Lake.
That difficulty is a big part of why the Mountains of Misery sells out every year.
There’s no reason the Alleghany Gran Fondo can’t become just as popular.
The longer routes are just as beautiful, and the Gran Fondo is just as challenging.
The event’s organizers are just as good, and the volunteers and hosts are as gracious of hosts as they can be.
Like any speciality event, especially a physically demanding one, the reach can go only so far. But it would be nice to see the county’s promotional efforts continue to be rewarded.
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