February 23, 2019, saw the eighth running of the Heartbreaker Cycling Invitational in the hometown of the Gravel Cyclist crew, Gainesville, Florida. You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of it. Not one dime / penny / cent has been spent on advertising, and for the most part, the Heartbreaker is a low-key, local event. It hasn’t garnered the attention of sponsors or mainstream media which is pretty much how I like it.
Some Heartbreaker History
Originally started as a lark some eight years ago, the Heartbreaker took its humble beginnings as a Facebook event. The ride was named as a homage to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (RIP Tom) who began their musical careers in Gainesville, Florida. Technically, the original Tom Petty band was Mudcrutch (I have another event dedicated to that name) but either way, I thought the Heartbreaker name lent itself well to my idea of a challenging mixed-surface ride.
The ride has seen various formats during the past eight years. It’s been a charity ride hosted at a brewery, a charity ride hosted at a cafe, and a ride starting and ending at a gas / petrol station (classy). The local charity I support is the Retirement Home for Horses in Alachua, Florida. These horses have endured neglect or abuse, but with the work of the good people at this non-profit, they live out their remaining days in a very happy place.
At every edition of the event, the ride’s focus has been on a fun challenge with no governing bodies or course markings; the ethos of self-support rings true at my events. The 2019 edition saw a return to its original and simplest format, that of a Facebook event, starting and finishing near the One Love Cafe. It may return as a charity ride in the future, but that’s for another time. I didn’t take an accurate headcount, but estimated attendance was 60 riders, with at least half making the trip from places such as Ocala, Tampa, Tallahassee, Deland and Orlando.
Each edition of the Heartbreaker is different, in that I change the course every year. Working with a mileage cap of around 70 miles / 112 kms for the long course (the shorter course is about 45 miles long), I attempt to guide the course close to as many towns / store stop opportunities as possible (remember, this ride is unsupported), whilst keeping the course interesting, scenic and challenging. For 2019, I like to think I succeeded.
Time to Roll
The 2019 Heartbreaker rolled out at the decent hour of 9:30am EST. The ride was run at a “neutral” type pace for the first 20 miles, mostly to get us away from Gainesville proper, and to encourage socializing among riders.
The Heartbreaker isn’t a race, but as most readers will know, rides turn into races of sorts, anytime more than three people show up
Unlike pavement / bitumen / asphalt, dirt and gravel roads are akin to a living organism. Their character can and will change based on environmental factors. Three weeks prior, I pre-rode the course with good friends in cold and misty conditions.
The roads were hard packed, almost sublime. Event day saw a high of 92 degrees Fahrenheit, which had come on the tail end of a string of 80+ Fahrenheit just days before. What does this mean? The known sandy spots on the course would be dry and loose, and pose a real challenge to the riders. It should be noted immediately that I was playing the media card this year, driving my vehicle among (carefully), ahead and behind the riders, filming and drone flying. Apologies to those who I covered in dust on just a few occasions!
Things got spicy during the first “neutral” sector of dirt, limerock and gravelly stuff, a sign of things to come. Towards the tail end of the group, riders with lesser experience flailed sideways across a brief sandy spot, in an attempt to keep their bikes upright.
A few riders were forced to hoof it, but those at the head of affairs were kind enough to keep the speed in check to allow riders to rejoin.
The Madness Begins
Safely across the busy road of 441 between High Springs and Alachua, Florida, the horde was unleashed, the “neutral” was lifted. If you wanted to ride fast, go for it. Cruise along, have at it. At the pointy end of affairs, the group flung headlong towards the first obstacle of the day, a slight drag of a climb averaging about two per cent, but punctuated bang in the middle with a known sandpit… at least it was short.
Stephen of the Top Gear Bikes crew from Ocala lined out the group, riding at maximum effort across the sand zone. I have no idea how he accomplished this feat riding 700c x 32mm tyres, arguably the worst life decision he has ever made. However, he would pay dearly for his tyre choice later. Behind Stephen, the front 20 or so riders blitzed through, but beyond that, it was a circus.
Riders were crisscrossed, shooting rooster tails of sand into the air, all in a futile attempt to power on through.
The key is a relaxed technique, power and wider tyres, but, all of this is moot when riders directly ahead of you are blocking the way. It’s a good thing this is a free event else riders may asked for a refund.
As these photos demonstrate, the once big group broke into smaller sub-groups. Onto pavement a little later, those near the head of affairs took advantage of the chaos to open an unassailable lead, even though the Heartbreaker isn’t really a race. Such was the pace of the leaders, they caught and passed the Beervagen*, one of the Heartbreaker’s signature features.
* The Beervagen is Dr Pain of Gravel Cyclist, toting around 36 beers on ice in a recycle container, towed by a BOB trailer. The Beervagen enjoys a casual pace along some of the course, and opens for business at the event’s “Finish Line”.
The leading group and sub-groups hurtled at speed towards the “Queen” road of the Heartbreaker, Bellamy Road, aka the first Federal Highway in Florida. This road has several hills along its length, a couple peaking at about 10%. This doesn’t sound like much, but anything ridden at serious speed is always painful. There had been a brief regrouping among the leaders, whose numbers had swelled to about 15 riders. However, that was about to change.
This part of Florida, like much of the United States, had seen its fair share of rainfall during 2019. Consequently, some of our favorite dirt, limerock and gravelly roads had been washed out in places. The County or local residents took it upon themselves to effect repairs. The best repairs were a mix of limerock and gravel applied liberally, whereas the shoddiest repairs, was dumping a truckload or two of sand and calling it a day.
As riders made the right hand turn onto Bellamy Road, they immediately encountered an unexpected truckload of sand, some 30 metres in length. This obstacle served as a launchpad for Tampa-based Matt Dockins, astride a hardtail mountain bike in dire need of maintenance. Matt is a prior “winner” of the Heartbreaker. His move caught the attention of Ryan Woodall, a former “winner” of the event, and a former US National Cyclocross Champion for the 30 – 34 age group. He latched on, joined by Pfaff Junior, a young local lad who sometimes rides with the Gravel Cyclist crew, mostly when he’s not winning or placing at Pro 1-2 road races and criteriums in Florida. Behind, further chaos reigned.
I was positioned at the second lump along Bellamy Road, a road affectionately referred to as being part of the remote FLAppalachians mountain chain.
Every passing rider after the lead trio had one of two expressions on their face. Mouth wide open gasping for air or a grimace. The Heartbreaker was living up to its name.
Three of the strongest women at the ride, Amy of Gainesville (former US MTB National Marathon Champ!), Anne of Ocala and Danielle of Tallahassee weren’t hanging about either, mixing it well and truly with the leading groups of men on the ride. Much as the Heartbreaker isn’t really a race, there are considerable bragging rights for the first man and woman to cross the “Finish” line.
Yours truly spent the remainder of my day driving the Gravel Cyclist Honda Element camera vehicle, filming the chasers, filming the leaders, flying the drone, and poking cameras at riders from the car.
The groups of riders strung out behind the leading trio of Ryan, Matt and Junior had little chance of catching the leaders. There was no impetus to collectively organize a solid chase group. As it was, I believed everyone scattered behind were on their personal limit, doing their best to battle the wind, heat, terrain and one or two other sandy spots.
Two gents who did make somewhat of an inroad to the leaders were Jayden and Charles, both of whom reside near Ocala. Unfortunately, Charles lost valuable time taking a wrong turn earlier on Bellamy Road, which severely dented his chances of making the bridge across to the leaders.
Navigating a course safely and efficiently is part of the deal with gravel events, whether they be races or otherwise. Sorry Charles!
With approximately seven miles of non “neutral” riding remaining, the three leaders entered the “Three Sisters” sector of dirt, gravel and a sandy bit or two. They were rolling like clockwork.
Nobody was skipping turns, all three riders were very well matched. However, the Heartbreaker would live up to its name once again. Matt, representing the fine city Tampa on his MTB, experienced a mechanical issue that saw his drivetrain lock up and destroy his rear derailleur.
Game over. The Gravel Cyclist media car turned into the Gravel Cyclist sag wagon to collect Matt and later take him back to Gainesville.
The leaders were down to two. Pfaff Junior is an accomplished sprinter and more, whilst Ryan Woodall is accomplished at pretty much anything he touches, including fishing. I positioned myself atop the grade that leads to the “Finish” line with drone aloft, conveniently located near the Antioch Cemetery; a fitting location, as the rider’s legs would be quite dead by the time they’d finished the “non-neutral” part of the Heartbreaker.
And so it came to be, two riders who made the moves, suffered in the heat and didn’t skip a beat. Pfaff Junior and Ryan possessed tribal knowledge of the finish, and historically, Ryan had “won” the Heartbreaker several times. The 2019 scenario was almost a carbon copy of Ryan’s 2017 “victory” at the Heartbreaker, where he got the better of his breakaway companion on that day. For 2019, it was all Pfaff Junior.
He launched a powerful and committed sprint up the final drag to the line, to take a convincing “victory” with a good margin to spare. Chapeau!
Ryan rolled across for second, whilst the sprint for third place was convincingly “won” by Jayden.
For the leading trio of ladies, Amy represented Gainesville well and took home the “victory”, with Danielle taking second and Anne, third.
Timing in life is everything, and the Beervagen arrived a few moments before the first finishers crossed the line.
Cold beers were waiting to quench the thirst of the riders, greatly appreciated on a day where the mercury had climbed to 92 degrees Fahrenheit… on February 23, 2019. Bottled water was supposed to be on hand, but yours truly forgot to go shopping. Sorry about that!
It should be noted that Pfaff Junior completed the 2019 Heartbreaker riding a set of tyres far past their due by date. The bead of his front tyre has been compromised by age, so be sure to give your equipment a solid once over versus grabbing the first set of tyres laying around!
The Heartbreaker will return for 2020 and likely see a new route. Thanks so much to everyone who made the time to attend my event, I understand everyone had a good time… or they told me a bunch of white lies.
Coming soon will be the 2019 Heartbreaker Cycling Invitational video, which features the viewpoints of SEVEN cameras! Many thanks to Clint Gibbs, Chris King (the other one, not the real one), K-Dogg, Ryan Woodall and Pfaff Junior for toting cameras about on their bikes day of the event. The additional perspectives come from me, poking a GoPro out the window at riders and my humble drone, providing footage from high above.
Thanks for reading!