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“On a Binge” by Nashville’s Best Coach

Coach Sarah Portella tackles the SOLD OUT 2018 Bookwalter Binge Gran Fondo in Asheville, NC

By Sara Portella, from I Tri Training

I happened across Bookwalter Binge Gran Fondo, or The Binge, as I heard it lovingly referred too, kind of by accident. As in I had never heard of this event and was searching on the Gran Fondo Guide website to find a ride to finish out my cycling season. The website promised lots of climbing, fall scenery, and WorldTour pro’s coming out to piddle around with us mere mortal cyclists. Sign me up!

Photo: Brent Bookwalter from BMC Racing

Brent Bookwalter from BMC Racing

The event did not disappoint. The gran fondo (with three different distance options of 87, 70, 35ish) started from Warren Wilson College, a few miles outside of Asheville, NC. The ride was to be overall chill, but there would be three timed climbs. The top three male and female riders for all the climbs would win some cool prizes.

Coach Sarah Portella

My husband and I signed up for the whole distance, which I totally recommend. We all gathered at the college, and after the director announced all the pro’s that were in attendance (Brent Bookwalter, Megan Garnier, George Hincapie, Ben King to name a few), we took off en masse on our journey. The peloton all stayed together for several miles (until the first timed climb) with the pro’s riding amongst us and chatting with us like we were all good friends. When we came to the first timed climb I was situated toward the back of the group. My only plan for today was to ride hard up those climbs so I took off and had to weave through cyclists to get to the front. I finally made it through all the riders and knew I was one of the first women. And then the descent came.

The Asheville area had gotten a lot of rain over the past month (and a ton the day before the event) so the race directors had given plenty of warnings to be careful of gravel in the roads. The weather was about 48 degrees so the roads also hadn’t had much time to dry out after yesterday’s deluge. The first descent wasn’t too terrible, but I kept it conservative and made it down safely. The group peddled as one through the rolling roads and through the first two stops, where everyone stopped and chatted with the pro’s before taking off as one.

The Asheville area had gotten a lot of rain over the past month

The next climb was coming up, and this one was the hardest of the three because it had some fairly steep sections (10% ish grade). I kept pushing and kept passing people. Eventually I made it to the top and again, pretty sure I was one of the top females. This descent was sketch! Super tight turns down the mountain with gravel in the middle of the lanes and wet roads and all the leaves! I was not confident in my descending abilities on this one at all and was embarrassingly slow. But I did not wreck! My plan was to wait at the bottom of the climbs/descents for my husband since he wasn’t trying to crush the timed sections so at the bottom of that one I hung back from the main group. When he caught up we had a nice flattish section to pedal steady on before some other solid climbs and less treacherous descents.

Three and a half hours into the ride I started feeling a bit fatigued. I still had one more timed section to go so was feeling a bit nervous. I took in some extra nutrition and a surprise extra aid station was a couple miles out from the climb. We stopped there for a bit more fluid and I started to feel better. We literally missed the main group by 30 seconds. We could see them up ahead on the road, but needed the nutrition so decided against trying to chase.

After the stop the road gradually climbed up, I would say 1-2% grade. Just enough to know you were working. The timed section came into view, as did the dirt/gravel road. This ascent was a three mile climb on unpaved road. Surprisingly I felt the rain helped. It was packed down well enough and the gravel wasn’t too chunky. There were only a few sections that were dicey where I felt I needed to be careful of my back wheel slipping (mainly on the curves where it pitched up). I was able to keep a steady effort most of the way up and passed a few stragglers from the main bunch too. As far as this climb I had no idea where I stood since I started out behind everyone. I just hoped I did enough to keep me in the top standings.

The timed section came into view, as did the dirt/gravel road.

By the top I had actually gotten a second wind and was feeling good. And thankfully the gravel/dirt section ended so I didn’t have to descend on that terrain. The roads were a bit dryer on this side of whatever mountain we were on (I think Black Mountain at this point) and the descent was a bit less technical. My husband and I had about 15 miles to go and I was able to get in a good groove and ride. The miles ticked by quickly and 87 miles and 7500 feet of elevation gain was suddenly behind us as my husband and I turned into the college.

The two of us hung around, ate some burritos and waited for the timed climb awards. I had squeaked by on that last climb to get 3rd place overall female for the combined climbs. I scored a photo with Brent & Jaime Bookwalter and some fun prizes!

3rd place overall female for the combined climbs

Photo: L to R, Jamie Bookwalter, Sarah Portella 3rd, Lori Nedescu 2nd, Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) and Stef Sydlik 1st in the 2018 women’s amateur Gran Fondo category

I would recommend this event to anyone that loves climbing, cool crisp air, and beautiful scenery. A great day to be out the bike is guaranteed. Happy Training!

The 2018 results are here:


About I Tri Training

Based in Nashville, TN, Sarah Portella is a USAT L1 Certified Coach, USAT Youth & Juniors Certified Coach, USATF L1 Certified Coach.Based in Nashville, TN, Sarah Portella is a USAT L1 Certified Coach, USAT Youth & Juniors Certified Coach, USATF L1 Certified Coach.

Sarah traded in her eight to five job in order to pursue her passion for coaching. Over the past several years she has been able to watch her athletes grow both physically and mentally as they learn new skills, set goals, and reach those goals.

Sarah is an Ironman Finisher, 70.3 IM World Championship Qualifier and a USAT All-American Honorable Mention (2016, 2017).

If you are looking for a personalized coach to take your training to the next level, the please visit or contact Sarah at

About the Bookwalter Binge

Ride with the Pros in a challenging Gran Fondo in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina every autumn.

Join Jamie and Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) and friends for a great bike ride alongside pro cyclists as they celebrate the end of their season racing all over the world and the country.

The relaxed Bookwalter Binge Gran Fondo ride is studded with racing on timed segments of tough climbs that provide an epic challenge to all. Three routes of varying length traverse some of the most beautiful roads in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina: Gran 7,400 ft of climbing in 83 miles, Medio 5,500 ft in 62 miles, or Piccolo 2,500 ft in 29 miles.

For more information, please visit

Phtoto L to R: Brett and Brent Bookwalter

Brett and Brent Bookwalter