I’d never actually wish for another cyclist’s misfortune. But still, right near the start of the Gran Fondo Asheville road race on Sunday, I couldn’t help but be a little glad to see one rider pull off with a flat. Because it meant that maybe I’d actually finish in front of someone.

As a flatlander from Florida, I lined up for Sunday’s race admittedly stressed about what was to come. Back home in South Florida, we don’t have those things – what do you call them? – where the ground curves upwards and then back down again.

The Gran Fondo Asheville (which benefits the important work of Friends of the Smokies) began in the parking lot of New Belgium Brewery and then breezed its way down Riverside Drive. Right away, it’s clear the Gran Fondo is unique: instead of going for an overall speed, riders in this race are clocked instead on time trial areas of a couple miles each (full results here). So instead of the agro riders jockeying for early position you see in most races, this felt very Asheville, like the Southern-courteous morning line outside Tupelo Honey.

The route headed northwest of town into farm country, prairies of hay and cattle rolling out to the skies. The riders remained clumped in slow-moving groups until the timing gate that signaled the first time trial. Right as our time started counting, there was an out-of-the-saddle-worthy uphill, and suddenly this huffing-and-puffing Floridian was getting blown away by Carolina-mountain-strong riders.

The time trial dipped down, and those in matching team outfits darted off at well over 40 mph. A gradual climb came next, up through grasslands and by farmhouses. It leveled off only for a minute, then to the right, and up another hill that threatened to never end.

Following the time trial, the route veered off in two directions, with those doing the 60- and 100-mile routes heading further north. Me, I took a right, back toward town, and down through more farms and then thick old growth. The route followed the French Broad, the sounds of the rapids nearly drowning out my regular downshifts.

It occurred to me near the end, with the pack of riders thinned out now along Riverside, that this is a fine way to end a few weeks in the mountains. After riding up Town and Elk mountains, after an epic (for me, at least) climb to Craggy, testing myself in a road race seemed fitting. How would a Floridian do against these mountain riders? Could I have surprised even myself with a podium finish by besting the climbs?

Yeah, no. My time trial took 14 minutes and 40 seconds, good enough to put me in at No. 347 out of 420 riders. It’s safe to assume all those behind me were probably fixing flats.

But there’s a bit of encouragement for any hill-adverse rider thinking about tackling the Gran Fondo Asheville next year: The overall winner of that first time trial, nailing that section at 8 minutes and 20 seconds, was Camilo Villegas, a 35-year-old from Jupiter, Florida. He averaged an insanely fast 25 mph.

Cheers to you, Camilo, for representing us flatlanders. 


Eric Barton is a freelance journalist who, like all Floridians, spends as much time as possible in Asheville. You can find his work in Bicycling, Food & Wine, and the BBC. Probably right now, you can find him at Chai Pani, All Souls Pizza, or combing the breweries of the South Slope.