Levi’s Pain Cave (also known as the Gran Fondo)

So, what’s the “Pain Cave?” At least, according to a cyclist?

It sounds almost cozy. Well, at least if you’re not claustrophobic, like I’m not. I’ve actually fallen asleep inside an MRI machine. Seriously! It’s like I’m inside a little cocoon, warm in a blanket, and with the earplugs all the knocking and clicking takes on an almost pleasant, hypnotic anti-rhythm.

Cozy! Snuggly! Um...

I remember reading a cycling acquaintance’s Facebook posts last year or the year before. She went to the pain cave often, apparently, and even took her friends there. I felt like people were going to a party I hadn’t been invited to, but could maybe crash someday if I were lucky and clever. It almost sounded like a wild party, one where you might accidentally smoke crack and run around with no pants on, like Shoshanna on that episode of Girls.

In my Training Peaks comments on my Levi’s Gran Fondo ride, I mentioned having been working so hard on Coleman Valley Road, somewhere around mile 80 and with 6,000 feet or so already handled, that I couldn’t really even see anymore. I mean, I could see well enough to stay upright, and not crash into things or other cyclists, but time and visual perception became distorted as I kept placing unreasonable demands on my little chicken legs. I was also an emotional wreck, billowing red mist trying to pass James back and also wanting to die but being unable to stop.

In an email response from Coach Thomas, he said, “oh yeah, the Pain Cave!”

I was kind of dismayed, not only because I hadn’t met my goals for the ride, but because I realized I’ve really only been to the Pain Cave two other times this year: once during the Sea Otter Circuit Race on Laguna Seca’s famous racetrack, while trying to hang on world champion endurance mountain biker Rebecca Rusch‘s wheel (who, coincidentally, has nicknamed herself The Queen of Pain) during her first ever road race (and my second).

The other time was during the Pescadero Road Race in June, while chasing a bunch of sassy little Cat 3s up Stage Road. But I didn’t go in the Pain Cave on Haskins, an even harder climb. Just Stage, and just on the first lap.

Three visits to the Pain Cave in 2012. Pathetic, and sad! Maybe I’m…the Queen of Crashing? Queen of Making Small Wattage, like, Forever? Queen of Delivering Emotional Pain? Queen of Zone 2? My ability to push my legs and my heart into this cozy rager of a bicycle party at the upper reaches of my Zone 5 is seriously lacking.

My sad realization almost overshadowed the entire day. Almost, but not quite.

The Deets

103 miles, 8,800 feet of climbing

2010 Gran Fondo elapsed time: 8 hours, 50 minutes
2010 Gran Fondo moving time: unknown due to Garmin user errors
2010 Gran Fondo average cadence: 41 rpm
2010 Gran Fondo average speed: 10.6 mph

2012 Gran Fondo elapsed time: unknown due to Garmin user errors and results not being up yet, but probably around 6 hours 45 minutes
2012 Gran Fondo moving time: 6 hours, 26 minutes
2012 Gran Fondo average cadence: 78
2012 Gran Fondo average speed: 15.9 mph
2012 Gran Fondo average watts: 134
Stops: 6
Crashes witnessed: 2
Energy Gels consumed: 5
Bottles used: 1 (although, had I stopped less frequently, might have used both)

The Queen of Pain’s 2012 elapsed time: 5 hours 12 minutes, a course record for females
The Queen of Pain’s 2012 average watts: 212
Age difference between myself and the Queen of Pain: -7 years

Which means I have 7 years to become that awesome.


I heard an interesting figure last week. When discussing cycling power and epic rides with another cyclist, he shared with me that with proper training, most cyclists can enjoy a 7% increase in power year over year.

2012 CP20: 205w
2013 CP20: 219w
2014 CP20: 234
2015 CP20: 250
2016 CP20: 267
2017 CP20: 286
2018 CP20: 306
2019 CP20: 327

So I’ll be 44 in 2019 with a CP20 of 327w. That might be enough to approach the low five hour mark for Levi’s Gran Fondo. Of course, I might also have switched gears and become something really ridiculous, like, lazy, or a lawyer, or a mommy. Which doesn’t necessarily mean I can’t continue the the wattage trajectory, just, it might make it a little more difficult. And, the figures may have a decreasing rate of return. They probably do. But anyway, I’ve got time to get awesome.

More Deets

This day I was riding my Cannondale Super Six Evo with SRAM Red. I run a SRAM XX mountain bike derailleur in the back to accommodate a plus-sized 11-32 cassette. These days, SRAM is heavily marketing their WiFLi drivetrain to people who might ordinarily consider a triple front crankset, which seems funny to me because it’s not that difficult to achieve the same effect, all without the fancy new name and industrious marketing. Compact crankset + mountain bike derailleur + 11-32 mountain bike cassette = being able to spin up walls like it’s nbd. Thanks Coach Thomas for not giving up on getting me to switch!

The weather was absolutely horrifically freezing and miserable in the morning. James and I waited behind at least a few thousand people on the start, but were lucky to be next to a generator that was powering a coffee stand and pumping out warm exhaust fumes. But once we got going, I was the coldest I’ve ever been in my entire life.

I didn’t start to warm up until we approached Occidental. On the first King Ridge climb, I got a PR, but missed it on the second one because of a bathroom stop (I skipped the crowded potties in Occidental and took a lightning fast stop at some potties on the side of the road in one of the switchbacks in the second climb).

Another stop at Tin Barn, and then Ritchey Ranch, and then a freezing cold, moist descent down to Highway 1 (damn you, Queen of Pain, for taking my one Strava QOM on Drop to the Ocean). It was pretty painful along Highway 1, because James and I were caught up in a pretty fast paceline and it was tough to hang on, but hang on we did, all the way until Coleman Valley and my date with the Pain Cave.

My Favorite Things

1. That Diana and Nikki, my two BFFs, both had great rides. Diana’s experience was pretty intense with her first Gran Fondo, and Nikki killed it on the 60+ mile Medio route. I was thrilled to not have seen her out on course (and I saw and passed plenty of Medio riders)

Happy, Crack Free Girls

2. That James is now the keeper of the key (although I was a little sour about getting dropped just miles from the end when this was supposedly a “together” ride).

3. That I wasn’t broken the rest of the day, or the next. After the Annadel Cross Country race in August, during which I worked very, very hard and yet didn’t find the time or inclination to visit the Pain Cave, I was useless, napping in bed the rest of the afternoon. Saturday after the ride I was ready to boogie.

4. That I was able to ride so hard, for so long. After a whole year of being a very good little Zone 2 girl during my epic rides, and then having had a pretty good, long sufferfest during a few long races, I thought I would see what I could get away with. I still tried to save some for the end, but was pretty happy that I could flog myself so thoroughly for nearly seven hours and still be ready for more.

I had no idea the Pain Cave was such an elusive thing. I don’t think my Facebook acquaintance really understands its meaning either. I hope to be there again a few more times next year; maybe like with anything else, practice makes perfect, and I’ll someday be able to crash that party all cool-like, without accidentally smoking crack and running around with no pants.

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