By Uli Fluhme
The road continues to slightly rise at 2-3%. I'm sitting third wheel behind two massive guys. We're all the way to the left of the road, which is a bummer because the wind is gusting from the right. I do my best to get as much draft as possible, riding rarely more than an inch away from the dirt. Behind me sits a string of about 20 guys doing the same.
I'm pushing 53/14. A couple of times the straight road takes a small dip which means I'm spinning out my 53/12. About a minute ahead, we can see the lead group of 30 in the distance. The chase seems futile: we're barely 30k into the 155k GFNY Argentina and only have these two horses of men trying to get back to front while the rest of us is hanging on for dear life.
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The inaugural GFNY Argentina took place on December 6, 2015 in the San Luis region, an area well known for bike racing excellence. The Tour de San Luis professional races for men and women are the biggest of their kind in South America. Each January, European pro teams flock to the Southern hemisphere summer, to compete and get their bodies ready for the spring classics.
Every year The Tour de san Luis finishes one stage atop the Mirador and GFNY Argentina also climaxes there with the post-race meal back in Potrero, just a curvy and fun 5k/3-mile descent away.
The beginning of December means the start of summer in the Southern hemisphere where days are long and San Luis temperatures reach 25-28C.
GFNY Argentina starts in Potrero de los Funes, a small vacation town 10km/6 miles from San Luis, situated at a picturesque lake and surrounded by hills and mountains. A racecar track surrounds the lake. Throughout the year, it's used as regular road which makes for fun cycling.
The local Continental team Somos Todos San Luis "drop the hammer" and make sure that the wheat is immediately separated from the chaff. The first 10 twisty kilometers through the town of El Volcan are an all-out affair and I'm soon victim of the pace: relegated to the crop. Just as we reach the straight road to the Lake of Trapiche, I'm waving goodbye the lead group. Around me, others are still desperately trying to close the gap.
I settle into a manageable pace and wait for the gruppetto to form. About 5k later, the two horses come up from behind, dragging along a string of riders.
The seemingly futile attempt to catch the front again turns into a triumphal success just before we hit Trapiche lake. As we reach the front, I tap the main horse on the shoulders and say "Animal. Incredible." I turn around and spot Luciano Burti, former Formula 1 racer turned GFNY racer. We laugh and shake our heads, knowing well that we're operating on borrowed time here.
In the first hour we cover 44.2k/28 miles on a net uphill and there are no signs of a slow down from there. I know that there are two hills along the lake and make sure I hit both of them at the front of the peloton. It provides me a buffer as I get handed through to the back. At the first hill, I just about make it across the crest at the tail end of the furiously racing group. The second time round, a gap opens up with a few meters to the top. I duck down deep and try to sail back to the field on the descent, making it one last time.
Back on the main road towards San Luis, the Continental team at the front uses the next incline to get rid of the clutter: me. The team strings out the race in a single file and I'm redlining yet again. A few guys behind me start popping off. I can see the crest but that only means that the pace picks up even further because the riders at the front are already on the descent.
I let go. The field slowly pulls away. The neutral service rolls by me, telling me that the race is "up there". Oh really?
I turn around and wait for the guys who have been dropped just before me. There is Burti and a couple other familiar faces from the original gruppetto. We get into a decent rhythm and rotate in a Belgian circle. 90k/55 miles into the race, the third group rolls up to us. We join forces into the strong headwind to the turnaround at 120k/75 miles. It's a seemingly endless stretch, mostly uphill but stunningly beautiful. The two-lane highway is all ours. When we see the lead group come back the other way, we know it's not much longer until we get to enjoy the tailwind.
I use the tailwind on an uphill section to get rid of a few riders that have been getting a free ride by playing tired or pointing furiously on their legs and uttering something that sounds like "cramps".
I keep riding at or close to the front. At some point the pace gets so slow that I decide to go all the way to the end of the group, put in the big ring and "attack" the gruppetto 1k before the beginning of the actual climb up Mirador the Potrero.
A short guy, looking like a climber, immediately follows me as if he was waiting the whole time for this moment. A sizeable gap opens up and we begin the climb together. He pulls ahead of me while I try to find a sustainable pace. My legs started cramping a little earlier so I knew I would have to be careful. I don't have a computer or even power meter but ride purely by feel. I vouch to not touch the 39/25 and try to ride as much as possible in 39/21. I keep the climber in sight but knew he would remain ahead of me unless he blows up.
A kilometer into the climb, I turn around and see the first three followers two bends below me. I guesstimate 40ish seconds. Shouldn't be a problem if I keep this rhythm.
I've done over 100 gran fondos but few have had a finish line as spectacular as GFNY Argentina. Although only 1,270m high, the hill overlooks hundreds of kilometers of plains before the earth rises again in the distance towards the Andes. Finishing there, I felt like it didn't matter whether I was 31st or 331st.
Uli Fluhme is CEO of GFNY World. He and Lidia Fluhme created and run Gran Fondo New York.
GFNY Argentina: www.gfnyargentina.com - next race: November 27, 2016