Recently, I was invited to George Hincapie’s Big Ride, or more romantically, the Granfondo Hincapie, as a kick off to my new team and a farewell to the great classics rider. Winding up and along the North and South Carolina border the route would take us through the mountains that I rode at my alma mater. With a little luck, I could reconnect with old friends, meet new teammates and see some of the biggest names in cycling. Beyond that, the event was taking place at an interesting time within cycling; USADA’s report had just broken and a large number of named parties would be in attendance. I won’t be writing about that exactly, but I will address what I believe the ideals of riding a bike are and how this event reminded me of them.
After filling my girlfriend with images of grandeur, tour winners, fancy after-parties, beautiful fall weather and the like, she skipped work and we arrived in Greenville Friday afternoon. We were greeted by a parking lot packed with cyclists roaming around various booths and standing in a rather large registration line. We met up with my future team director and he promptly toured us in and around all things Hincapie Sportswear. Unsurprisingly, the headquarters were chic yet relaxed. No corporate cubicles here. It felt exactly like one would expect from a family-oriented company with distinct Colombian roots.
We spotted our host for the weekend working the registration table and before I knew it, I was competing with two little girls searching for transponders in trays holding well over a thousand. After an hour or so of this, I was exhausted and my girlfriend pointed out that this was just a glimpse of normal working life. The alarm sounded off at 5:30 the following morning and again reminded me of the luxury of calling cycling my profession. My host, girlfriend and I groggily made our way downstairs for breakfast. Not hungry, our early morning trio made up for it by consuming copious amounts of coffee and drove off toward La Bastide, the Hincapie’s soon-to-be resort.
Parking in a sea of cars we rode off to the start encountering an ominously steep ride to the start. As we crested the mini mountain, an ocean of cyclists appeared before us. It was truly a beautiful sight to see, over a thousand people joining together to go for a bike ride. We can make these events as meaningful as we like, but the simplicity of people getting together to go for a ride is pretty powerful.
The announcer called for the start and the celebrities emerged from the central villa. Like New Yorkers working their way through a crowd, they slipped through the mass and appeared at the front. It’s always fascinating to see the pinnacle of cycling. Smaller than on television and wearing what seems to be far too much clothing, the awe is different than seeing a basketball player towering over you. It’s not exactly a let-down, but the realization that to be one of the best cyclists in the world requires the body of a small child that shivers in a cool breeze can be startling.
Truth be told, our intention was for a mediofondo, so we watched as the ambitious riders blasted off and waited for our peers. The flow of riders was amazing, a constant and steady of stream of people rode by us and eventually we dove in. As the ride opened up onto wider roads you could see the full scope of the peloton. The sheer size was a spectacle as well as the variety of riders. Sleek looking racers, bikes from decades ago and even a hand-cycle rider, all joined together in harmony.
I could go on and on about the beauty of this area, but my words won’t do it justice, suffice it to say, the landscape was breathtaking. A particular highlight came around mile seventeen where we rode around the perimeter of Lake Lanier. It was spectacular. Surrounded by mountains is a quaint lake community with smooth and twisting roads. I described it as the Lake Como of South Carolina to anyone in earshot.
Rolling into the first rest stop was a mistake because I quickly didn’t want to leave. We managed to run into quite a few familiar faces as we chewed down handmade ham biscuits and other goodies. After a bit of trepidation, we were on our way and rode through the town of Tryon, NC before splitting off in the medio direction. I may not have a firsthand account, but from what I’ve heard, the Gran truly lived up to the meaning of the word. Steep climbs and harrowing descents met the riders who were up for the challenge.
Our route took us up a snaking climb and into the town of Saluda before turning back south. At this point, riders were spread all over the road and the pack we would finish with had formed. It’s amazing the people you can meet on a ride if you give it the chance. Out of the vast number of people in attendance spread out all along the roads, I found my way next to one of the head directors for Hincapie Sportswear. It was a pleasant surprise and we got to talk about the team, company and all things cycling.
Our group leisurely rolled across the line and we promptly made our way to the wonderful food stands before sitting down to watch the big names finish. While this was happening, I was also in search of a very elusive pass to George’s after party. The search required help from a number of people and ended with Rich Hincapie handing me the envelope and a high-five from George himself. That was nearly as gratifying as the ride.
The dress was smart casual, which of course we didn’t really understand but knew that our job was to look like a better dressed and more stylish version of ourselves. Some very official looking bouncers greeted us before we stepped into the beautiful villa. Like everything else, the party was a hit. Catered by Table 301 with an open bar in a swank setting, it was hard not to have a great time. That and watching cyclists attempting to dance leaves a found memory with me. Particularly the moves of a certain pro-tour rider on a certain flo-green Italian team make me smile. I’m from New Hampshire, so it’s cool.
The entire weekend reminded me of how great this sport is and why we all do it. Everything beautiful can get muddled down but the essence of cycling remains. Riding a bike is fun and that is why we do it. Meeting new people, being outdoors and the unencumbered freedom make cycling what it is. Sometimes it is best for everyone to join together and just go for a ride.