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Being There: Mammoth High Sierra Fall Gran Fondo

September 16, 2013
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Over 1,000 fondoees came to Mammoth to enjoy the riding, scenery, and of course Schat’s Bakery, the best bakery in all the land.
Photo: Steve Schmunk

Labor Day weekend of 1993 my dad took me up to Mammoth to ride. I was excited to get out on the mountain bike I had finally saved up enough money, by working all summer, to buy: a $330 GT Timberline. That was my first true mountain bike experience, and I had never before had so much fun in all my 14 years. Ever since that trip bikes have been my life. Twenty years and one week later, I was back at the place where it all began for me, Mammoth Mountain. This time though I wouldn’t be playing in the dirt on my rigid GT, I was up there to ride the High Sierra Fall Gran Fondo with about 1,000 other roadies. The Fondo wasn’t the only cycling draw either. Mammoth Kamikaze Bike Games was making its debut, bringing in mountain bikers of all disciplines for five days of racing, including the notorious Kamikaze downhill. For the first time since I was a teenager the area had the same feel of when cyclists took over the town during the heyday of the NORBA Nationals and the Mammoth Cycling Classic Road Race-it was a great vibe. 

With so much spectacular riding in the Mammoth area I couldn’t help but take a trip down to Reds Meadow and Devil’s Postpile the day before the High Sierra Fall Gran Fondo. Since my first trip to Mammoth 20 years ago, my choice of bike (and price point) has changed significantly. For the Fondo I rode a 2014 Scott Addict Team that we’re currently reviewing.

With the Mammoth High Sierra Fall Gran Fondo earning a reputation as one of the best rides in the country, and being a sort of Fondo aficionado myself, I jumped at the opportunity to experience the 19th edition firsthand. And just in case I needed another reason to make the trip, triple digit temperatures were expected at home in Santa Clarita, while Mammoth was going to be a perfect 75 degrees. 
Routes for the event ranged between 103, 60, 45, and 30 miles options. The 103-mile route was the only one that made a complete loop. Its route headed out of Mammoth, with a pro-style full road closure for the first five miles, before heading North to Mono Lake and skirting around its southern shoreline as the route made its way east before wrapping back around to Benton’s Crossing and bringing us back out to Highway 395 just south of Mammoth. While it could’ve been a monstrous climbing day, considering all the possibilities the area possesses (Mt. Whitney is just miles down the road), the organizers were relatively kind and made the course challenging, but not over-the-top. A total of 6,500 feet of elevation gain ended up being the tally for the day, coming in the way of four climbs that averaged in the 4-percent range, a completely manageable grade for just about anyone. 

A stream of riders, as far as the eye could see, rolled down from Mammoth to tackle the 103-mile route under sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-70s.
Photo: Brad Peatross

Even with a fast paceline rotating at the front, the stunning scenery couldn’t be missed. No matter which direction we headed, mountain peaks, pine forests, and serene meadows were all around us. Fortunately, one thing there was little of out on the course was traffic, partly because by September the tourists are back in school and work, but also because there’s literally nothing out there in terms of towns or stores. But with six water and food stops along the route, there was not even so much as a mirage of a 7-Eleven. 

Just after making our way past Mono Lake we began the longest climb of the day, a gradual 10-mile climb that offered up plenty of scenery to keep our minds off the pain in our legs and the lack of oxygen in our lungs.

As we neared the end of the ride, with only the three-mile jaunt back up to Mammoth, I became acutely aware of the day’s work we had done. A strong headwind made the uphill stretch even more trying, but the thought of the Sierra Nevada beer tent and post-ride feast awaiting us just up the road helped keep us motivated for the remaining miles.
Once finished, I planted myself in a chair and ate and drank for the rest of the afternoon. Everyone I talked with had the same overall sentiment: ‘I can’t wait until next year’. Yes, it’s a challenging ride at altitude, but the course’s scenery, lack of traffic (and stop lights), organization, and location, puts the Mammoth High Sierra Fall Gran Fondo right up there with Levi’s Gran Fondo in Santa Rosa as some of the best rides I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in. And yes, I can’t wait until next year.
For info on the 2014 Mammoth High Sierra Fall Gran Fondo go to: www.fallcentury.org, and www.visitmammoth.com

The huge mountain peaks were a good reminder of how much harder the ride could have been, making us content to be on “rolling” terrain during the route’s second half.
Photo: Steve Schmunk

Coming at the 100-mile mark, the haul back up to town seemed to be the hardest part of the day. What had been favorable winds for the majority of the ride took its revenge on us for the last few miles. Knowing that a post-ride feast was awaiting us in the Village helped ease the pain.
Photo: Steve Schmunk

Combining with the High Sierra Fall Gran Fondo was the Mammoth Kamikaze Bike Games mountain bike event. With four days of mountain bike racing, including the Kamikaze downhill, Mammoth had its old swagger back as a premier cycling destination.


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