Over the Shoulder: Riding the Mammoth Gran Fondo – Counting Down to 2020

Journalist rides the Mammoth Gran Fondo, and survives! Finishing the high altitude 102-mile route, with 75 miles closed to traffic, in the beautiful alpine town of Mammoth Lakes.

Photos courtesy of Mammoth Gran Fondo & Captivating Sports Photography

A half-day from the heart and soul of Southern California, and 20 million Angelinos, is the little alpine town of Mammoth Lakes, California, tucked away in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. On the 7th of this past September, 1652 cyclists (plus 1 journalist) were in town for the Mammoth Gran Fondo, one of the most popular cycling events in the United State.s

The Fondo offers a 102-mile loop with 1 stoplight, 3 stop signs and 75 miles of closed roads winding through the stunning Eastern Sierras, past Mono Lake and under the shadow of 13,000′ peaks.

All smiles as the Mammoth Gran Fondo makes its way through the Sierra Nevada foothills where more than 1200 riders came together to participate in the event. Photo Courtesy: MGF/Captivating Sports

Joining the Veterans

At the starting line, I’m surrounded by riders describing the amazing route and why they keep coming back for a third, fourth, and fifth time. Starting and finishing at 8000’ elevation, I’m just hoping to make it back today.

We get underway en masse and descend through town at 30mph as the sun greets the mountain tops.  It’s a little chaotic, but riders manage to stay upright – mostly.

Turning onto Highway 395 and the first climb of the day, the large pack breaks into small groups. I latch onto one, looking for a place to hide until I warm up (it’s 45° F), or maybe until the finish.

The route climbs north over several ridges while paralleling the sawtooth crest of the Sierra Nevada. My group of a dozen settles into a friendly paceline riding past volcanic craters and cinder cones before descending to Mono Lake, which I learn is three times as salty as the ocean.

After climbing Highway 120 through tall forests of Pondersa pine and past giant granite boulder strewn fields, we stare directly at White Mountains on the California/Nevada border. The rugged angular peaks set against a sky-blue background contain the oldest living organisms on earth, Ancient Bristlecone Pine trees over 4000 years old. Although not quite that old, I am the oldest living organism in my group – and struggling to keep up.    

Hurts So Good

At Benton Hot Springs we start the steepest climb of the day to Watterson Summit.  Thankfully, a large grupetto lead by Elevate KHS Pro Brian McCulloch catches our chain-ring gang. By hiding in the middle of the grupetto, I give my legs somewhat of a rest (it’s still uphill) while everyone suffers in silence. Well, almost everyone. One rider starts calling out road grade percentage every time it increases, “5%, 6%, 7%!” It doesn’t help, in fact it seems to make things worse, as riders grunt and groan louder with every increase.

At the summit the grupetto makes a beeline for the rest stop filled with turkey and cheddar sandwiches, homemade brownies, strawberries, Fritos, Oreos, Coke and all the Clif stuff imaginable. As good as those turkey sandwiches look, I’ve learned the hard way that the fastest way to the finish line is to stay calm and keep pedaling.  So, I keep pedaling.

An hour later I’m clawing my way back into Mammoth Lakes on the final climb. It’s a cruel 4-mile right-of-passage that offers misery with every pedal stroke. I tackle not only steep grades, but a headwind and lack of oxygen.

Crossing under the finish banner as the announcer calls my name and finishing time feels monumental, like a Mammoth accomplishment. I now understand why riders keep coming back each September to ride the Mammoth Gran Fondo. With wonderful fall weather, stunning scenery, incredible course and a great host venue, the event is on par with any European Alpine gran fondo. See you next year at the starting line!

John Woodson soars into the finish with an elapsed time of 5:17:17 for the 102 mile route.
Name:John Woodson
Route:102 miles
Elapsed Time:05:17:17.451
Pace:19.29 mph
Place (Male):88 out of 808
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