“Gran Fondo”: it sounds funny at first, but when the Italians name something they do it with both purpose and flair. The general translation is ‘huge ride’, and they’ve been running for years around Italy and Europe, regularly attracting upwards of 10,000 riders for the big ones like Nove Colle, the Tour of Flanders Cylcosportif, or the Amstel Gold Cyclosportif. The distances usually run short, medium and long, up to 250km at Flanders, and there’s even a gran fondo race circuit where it’s not uncommon to see ex-road pros lining up.
Vancouver’s iconic and ancient – Lions Gate Bridge symbolically denotes our farewell to the city, and the 115km still ahead.
My last training ride was logged the Wednesday before the ride, and the two days of rest were planned to hone my form to the perfect edge for the 120km distance from downtown Vancouver north to Whistler. My two months of prep had gone according to plan – with a big ride on the weekend, a climbing day midweek, and 1 or 2 shorter rides to keep the legs tuned. In the end, most of my weeks were 3 days on, 4 days of rest – and at 47 years old, that rest was critical to not pushing myself into fatigue-mode.
But as the weeks progressed I could feel my form, strength, and endurance growing, until it was time to put the hay was in the barn, as they say. I felt good, ready to go.
Mrs. Pez left for Whistler Friday afternoon – to beat the Saturday traffic jam, and enjoy a quiet night of r&r. I picked up my race packet Friday afternoon, and spent the evening making sure everything was ready for the next morning.
Race Day: September 11, 2010
• 4:30AM – I hear my 4 year old daughter ‘s foot steps clunking down the hall – she’s had a bad dream and is looking for a little comfort. At least I won’t sleep past my 4:45 alarm, and now that I’m awake I explain to her (once again) what’s going on today. She knows I’m riding my bike to Whistler, (although she has no idea where that is), and I remind her I have to get up soon – “But it’s still nighty-time Daddy” she says. 10 minutes later she decides she’d rather be in her own bed, and after I gently kaibosh her idea to have breakfast with me, I tuck her in. She’s out cold in about 30 seconds flat – man I miss those days…
My breakfast of champions – scrambled eggs with prosciutto and cheese, toadt with peanut butter, jam & cheese, cereal with yogurt and milk, coffee, and juice.
Halfway through my breakfast daughter #2 starts making noise. She needs a bottle, so I decide I can feed her fast and still get out of the house by 5:50 as planned. I heat the milk, but she takes her time drinking… 10 minutes is 5 more than I counted on.
My kit was layed out last night, my musette packed for the day. Mrs. Pez had my overnight bag and I’d be self-contained from the time I left until I reached Whistler several hours from now. The weather looks good so I pull off the fenders I strapped on last night, and am rolling the bike to the door when I notice the bottles are missing – still in the fridge upstairs.
No matter how I try, it seems impossible for me to leave for a ride on time…
• 5:55 AM – I’m out the door and I have to catch the Seabus at 6:02 AM to ferry me across Burrard Inlet to the start in downtown Vancouver. If I miss it, it’s 30 minutes till the next one.
It’s still black outside, and the streets around my neighborhood are dark – as in no streetlamps dark – I ride as fast as I feel safe. Somewhere I hit a jaw-jarring pothole and my heart stops a I wait for that telltake “sssssssssssss” of a flat…
Nothing – I’m safe. But my saddle has shifted backwards, I can fix that later.
I roll to the gates of the Seabus and see it’s sailing in, get this….
“30 SECONDS” – boomed out over the way too loud for this time of day P.A. system. No time to buy a ticket, my ride is leaving and I’m late. I ride down the pedestrian ramp – strictly forbidden of course (even though I’m alone) – the Seabus workers at the bottom yell at me to dismount and walk my bike. Methinks that lady was once a drill sergeant.
I do as I’m told, while the P.A. booms: “Sea bus departing in 20 SECONDS”.
The Seabus makes I an excellent way to cross Burrard Inlet .
• 6:02: I step on board and the doors close behind me. I’m the last one on, and join about 35 other riders all with the same plan as me. Big sigh of relief as we set sail for the 15 minutes crossing to downtown.
• 6:30ish: – I round the corner downtown, and see in the early dawn light, a sea of lycra and Goretex covered humanity. Looks like all the 4000 riders got here before me. Chances of me getting a decent start position look pretty bad – I’d say none, to nil at this point. While I’m surveying the crowd, and rider says hello and asks about my trip to Italy. PEZ-Fans saying hello never gets old.
Looking west on Georgia Street – now all I gotta do is find a spot at the front…
• 6:43AM: – After walking my bike past the crowd to observe the front, I’m making my way back along the barriers when I hear a voice – “Hey: Richard!” I look up and recognize Bill Riley, one of my riding buddies and the rest of his Йquipe Cafй team inside the barriers and sweetly positioned close enough to the front of the mass. Without a second thought, I step forward and pass my bike over the barrier – I’m in baby!
• 6:50AM – 4000 riders sing “O’ Canada” – easily the most rousing rendition since the Olympics here in February. The sun is poised to crest the horizon in 3 minutes and the racer ‘Giro’ category rolls under the start banners.
Bikes and riders are jammed in like sardines filling the whole of Georgia Street for 3 blocks, somehow we’ll get sorted when our time comes.
The Йquipe Cafй crew did an admirable job of : a. finding each other at the start, and b. looking calm before the start.
Part One: Vancouver To Squamish
• 7:00AM – REM’s “I Am Superman” blasts from the PA system, as 2 blocks of riders click in and begin rolling through downtown Vancouver. 65 seconds later I’m through the start gate and my timing chip has signaled I’m away.
Likely the most popular shared fear amongst the riders is being taken down in the massive crowd. I assume the vast majority of these riders have little experience riding in a pack, while a large and more dangerous portion think they know how to ride in a pack but actually don’t.
But everyone remains calm and alert as we head west through downtown, past Coal Harbor, and onto the Stanley Park Causeway and the Lion’s Gate Bridge. I’ve ridden over it hundreds of times, but this is the first time on the main road with only cyclists – it’s a pretty cool feeling and a very different perspective. I chance a couple glances at the views of the North Shore mountains, but continue at an easy pace, trying to stay together with the guys I’d started with and hope to ride with as a team.
3998, 3999, … 4000. Looks like everyone’s here.
It’s very cool that there are actual fans out cheering us on at this hour. And not just a couple of unsuspecting tourists here and there. Lion’s Gate Bridge is a beautiful viewing spot, and a lot of people have walked up the bridge span to cheer as us we crest the top.
The next big obstacle is the climb over Taylor Way which gains 60m over 800m length according to my CycleOps Joule. I guess my adrenaline is pretty high but the Joule doesn’t measure that one, and but my heart beats at a steady 158bpm as I crest the climb thinking “that wasn’t too bad”.
The crowds are much thicker here too, some hold signs to cheer their riders, others just cheer. These people don’t know me from Adam, but they’re truly enthused by what we’re all doing. The positive vibe is infectious, and even though I’ve ridden these roads for years, it seems like each pedal stroke is on brand new terrain.
The real fun starts as we turn left onto the Upper Levels of the Trans Canada Highway and head for the open road. My neighbor Ed had to bail on the ride after picking up a bug from his daughters (who are the same age as mine), but pledged to be roadside right here to cheer me on. We miss each other.
Riding the highway on the closed roads is at first surreal. No cars and nothing but cyclists. There’s a 3km climb at 3.6% that strings out the bunch even more, but there are still plenty of guys bolting for glory in the early going. I’m trying to curb my enthusiasm as there’s still over 100km ahead, but looking around I see that only one of the guys I rolled out with is still with me – Bill Riley races with the masters and reminds me of Jens Voigt.
Every overpass along the route was crowded with fans and supporters.
We consider slowing up so the other guys on Йquipe Cafй can catch back, but little groups of guys keep trucking past, and I’m starting the see the train leaving the station… “alllllll aboard…!”
Another group of four rolls by on the left, led by a weathered and tough looking Master wearing a TT helmet – 3 guys spin on his wheel, and I decide it’s time to punch my ticket and jump in. My plan is to surf as many wheels as I can, and with this guy happy to do some work, who am I to argue? Bill tells me the TT guy is his nemesis at the Masters TT races, so I suggest it’s time to let him do some work for us.
Pretty soon we’re in with a fast moving group of 20-30 riders, but I can see clear pavement between us and the next pack – maybe 150meters up the road. It’s a big one, and it looks like the mass plan is to ride fast, pay later. Since I’m not here to lollygag, and am well aware of the braggin’ rights that will last a full year after today’s performance, I adjust my ride plan and light a couple matches, and bridge up to the next group.
We average 38kph for the next 10km, which include a bunch of rollers and 130m of climbing. We’re making good time.
By now I’m into the groove and start to pick out a few ‘rivals’ from the group. Let’s see – I can beat that guy, yup, that guy too, … better pass the guy with tri-bars who’s going slower than everyone else before he takes me down… Hopefully the organizers will ban those things next year.
On the long climb past Horseshoe Bay I roll to the front of the group, not really trying to burn it, just riding a pace I feel comfortable with. Then I spot one of my buddies: “Gregoirrrrrrrre!” I call out as I catch up to Greg Scott – long time bud and my driver at the 2006 Giro. In the weeks leading up to the ride Greg claimed he wasn’t riding and would be using the old Greg LeMond trick of riding himself into shape in the first part of the race. He certainly seemed to be doing fine, and I chuckled at how the gamesmanship among friends never ends.
But my pace carries me on upwards and over the top. We’re 21km in and reach the first long descent- we drop for 3km and the rest is welcomed – even though my legs feel great. Conserve, conserve, conserve is my mantra – at least until some squid gets in my way and I have to drop him out of self preservation.
Here Come The Climbs
There are 2 decent climbs between here and the halfway mark at Squamish to weed out the pretenders. The first climb at Furry Creek gains 100m in 1800m. We climb it in about 5mins 20seconds, which is a gear higher than my recon runs. Although I’m averaging 174 watts for the ride, my power climbs to 350 on the low slopes, and averages to 284 for the climb- pretty good for me. I spend 70% of the next 5 mins at my max heart rate zone. I’m a little concerned we’re going too fast, but I’m not ready to lose the group, and towards the top I start to make up some places as a lot of guys fall back.
There’s a short plateau that takes us to a 2km decent back down to sea level and Brittania Beach – home of a defunct mine that’s been converted to a tourist attraction – you know the kind you never visit even though you’ve lived nearby for 30 years? Yeah – one of those. The descent is fast, but here’s no place for heroics –still too many Freds wobbling by trying to make up time.
The road levels out for about a km, then we hit climb #2 – about to carry us up 122m over 2.41km. The lower grade is 6% and it’s not really a tough climb, but there’s a deceptive false flat about 2/3 of the way up that hides a grinder of a few final meters to clear the summit.
This time I’m going up for around 7 minutes, and it looks like a whole new group has formed – I recognize only a couple for guys from the last climb. I assume that means I’m moving forward – always better to be optimistic.
Again I start at the back, but this time the tempo is more relaxed than the last climb – my average power drops to 248w and I spend 84% of my time at threshold… much better I say. Sure enough I move up through the group when the pace slows, and use my light weight to advantage, silently laughing at the big guys cranking out gigantic watts just to maintain forward motion.
We crest the summit and again I’m at the front of the group – which is fine as we roll down another long descent on our way to Squamish and the halfway mark – but not so fine as we hit a couple small rollers and I’m sitting first wheel burning up valuable energy I know I’m gonna need later.
Squamish falls at almost exactly the halfway point, and is a clear marker on the course – everything to get here has been fast and fun – but I know the real ride starts now, and the hurt is gonna hit somewhere in the next two hours.
The pace as we hit the flats into Squamish and the day’s big feedzone relaxes, and another rider says hello – it’s Johnny Tam of the Йquipe Cafй team – we’d seen each other’s names on the group emails over the last few days, but never met. Johnny’s looking fast and has been riding ahead of me in the group for a while now – he’s been my unwitting pace setter.
• 8:50 AM: I peel out of the group and roll into the feedzone – set up across a huge parking lot at the Squamish Outdoor Center – which is also home of the start/ finish of the gruelling Test of Metal mtb race – one of the toughest in these parts. The feedzone set up is pretty slick – racks are lined up tri-style to park your bike, volunteers wait at tables to serve up energy drinks, water, bars, gels, bananas, they‘ve even got pizza and pasta salad supplied by the locally famous barefoot Bistro in Whistler – home of the frozen vodka tasting room – complete with ice block as a bar, and fur hats to wear while you sample flights of premium vodka.
There aren’t many riders here yet, which seems another sign that I’m making good time. My watch says I’m at least 10 minutes ahead of what I expected. Between mouthfuls of banana I call Mrs. Pez, who’s hopefully awake – it’s still before 9:00 AM and she does enjoy a good sleep-in. She answers and I tell her to make sure she’s early at the finish – let’s face it – half the reason we do those things is to impress the girl…
• 8:55:40 I remember I’ve never done this ride in one shot, so although the distance will be no problem, there’s no telling how the next 60km will be under these conditions. As I boldy go… Captain Kirk would be proud.
Part Deux: Squamish To Whistler
The second half of this ride/ race will be the toughest for sure. Apart from the first signs of fatigue pinging the kegs, the stats are anything but ‘easy’.
So far we’ve come 64km – just past halfway, climbed about 930meters (3051feet), and descended all the way back to sea level. Ahead is another 1098 meters (3600feet) of climbing to get us to Whistler, and the finish at 670meters above sea level.
The worst section begins now. The next 25km starts out with the longest flat section of the ride (almost 5km), but then gradually rolls into the longest climb of the ride – about 8 km, from Brackendale that gains 330 meters, then drops for another 5km down to 195m, and then climbs again for 4.5km up to 375m.
Here’s where I think about conserving the energy for what’s ahead, and for the first time really notice my legs have done some work today.
At the start of the long climb from Brackendale I notice a change in the pace of the ride – the original adrenaline has burned off, and although the riders are strung out in a constant line, there’s a lot more work being done and the pace is noticeably higher than on my recon ride last week.
Somewhere between kms 80 – 90, grinding through the toughest section of the ride.
The 4% grade is not hard, but taken after 2 fast hours, and pushing the pace, my workload goes up to 237 watts (while my average has been around 175) for the next 4 km. It only takes 11 minutes, but the effort is starting to show, and I know the steeper slopes are still ahead.
“Gregoire!” I call out as I once again pass my bud Greg. Judging by his pace I’d say he snuck in a few secret training miles.
I reach a short plateau, round a sweeping left hand bend and see the looming 8% grades that stretches over 400m. The string of riders has started to bunch up and I latch onto a large group of maybe 50 riders.
From here the ride gets tough, my power climbs to 260 and somehow I spend 70% of the climb at my max heart rate. The speed has slowed but I keep lighting those matches as I work my way through the group.
Riders are spread across the road, fatigue is showing on a lot of faces, and I’m spending more time dodging, changing lines and just getting around slower riders.
While the first half of the route flanks the waters of Howe Sound, the second half turns into the mountains and gradually climbs to the alpine of Whistler – site of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Somewhere on the climb I see another bunch of guys I know: the Left Coasters. There’s 4 or 5 of ‘em, and there’s some comfort in finding some familiar faces.
One of the guys says hello and reminds me that we last met on top of the Mortirolo at the Giro in May. He was travelling with Thomson Tours, and I’d peeled into their tent to say hello and scrounge a coke.
That’s about it for the yip yap, and it’s starting to feel more like work than a casual bike ride. There’s still a long way to go. Over the top of the climb we’re part of a big group that’s gathered over the last few kms. On a straight section of road we can see another large group – maybe 50-100 riders – about 2-3 minutes ahead. The gap is too far to bridge alone, and judging by the fact that I’m at the front of our group sharing the work with the Left Coast guys, I’d say we’ve found our gruppetto for the rest of the day.
We crest the last climb of this section at 90km in, and enjoy 3km of descending – and rest, before the final push to Whistler. The descent is a bit goofy as a couple of novices roll past on the way down, and instead of rolling through to the front taking up lead wheel, they ride the brakes and slot in at second wheel – disrupting the groups’ momentum and generally annoying the more experienced riders.
As soon as we’re off the descent these guys disappear as we start pedaling again. Good riddance.
Over the next 25km, we climb 391m to gain 325m altitude over a series of ups and downs – like climbing a staircase. Me and the Left Coast guys have taken over the front of the group – not so much out of choice, but if there’s a split I don’t want to miss it because someone else can’t hold a wheel, and I get the sense that we’re just more comfortable setting the pace.
I happen to be looking at my Joule and point out to the other guys that we’ve just crossed the 100km in mark. There’s always something good about ticking into triple digit mileage.
The finish line – welcome sight vs sad it over… opinions were divided.
From 20km out you can see the ski slopes at Whistler, so from here my brain knows the worst is over and a drip of adrenaline starts to make its way back into the veins.
The law of the road is unspoken, but we all know what it says. We’ll help each other as much as we need, until we’re close enough to the finish to lay down the smack and attack each other… to the death. Braggin’ Rights can be a powerful motivator.
We reach Function Junction and it’s 6km to go. But 6000 meters at this end of the stick is a long way, and it’s all rollers – up and down, from here to the line. Somewhere there’s perfect chance to drop my group and go in solo.
My group is down to 4 or 5 guys, but from here it’s pretty much every man for himself. We roll through Whistler’s original base at Creekside and I can see Scott Kennedy up ahead – he’s been riding strong all day, got away from us a few kms back, but now looks like his end is near. I find a little more gas and crank up the watts to close the gap, and when I catch him I roll straight by.
I keep going and decide this is my move – all or nothing, do or die – just 3000 meters left. We’re passing stragglers left and right – it’s clear the end was just a bit too far for some. Somewhere I put in one last jump to get rid of my cohorts – but the legs have turned to rubber – it’s clear the safest place for me is seated. I wonder if there’s one match left…
At 1000m to go I’m on the front, my rivals stuck to my wheel and showing no interest in pulling through. I curse my lax of tactics, and get ready for one more dig.
The move happens just as I lead through the second last turn – 2 or 3 guys burn by on my left and I just catch on. The final turn – a hard left – comes up fast and the sprint starts early. I beckon, but my legs don’t answer.
I sit up early – stop pedaling and try to take in the moment as I cross the finish line, I hear the cheers and claps from fans along the road – the whole thing seems a bit surreal… I’m here.
First ever North American maillot jaune Alex Steida (l) and organizer Neil McKinnon (r) flank Giro (race) category winners Andrew Pinfold (United Healthcare) 3:14:29, second Nic Hamilton (Trek Red Truck – s.t.), and third place Tim Abercrombie (Garneau Evolution – s.t.).
10:49.29 – I cross the line and my timing chip stops the clock. I look right at Mrs. Pez who’s waiting just past the line. She made it. I made it. That is a good feeling.
I clock in way faster than I expected – 40 minutes faster. I even finish 13 seconds behind Alex Steida. I’m pleased.
We spend the next couple of hours taking in the finish line festivities – some celebratory beers, a tasteless hamburger, swapping stories with all my buds who I never saw at the start or along the way. The genuine joy of everyone there is amazing. It’s a big fat, lycra covered love-fest.
Two months of training and prep, weeks of emails between buds psyching each other up – and out, teeing up logistics at home to get away with Mrs. Pez for the weekend, hundreds of new riders spotted on the local training routes as the event approached, educating my 4 year old daughter about this ‘ride to Whistler that Daddy’s doing, more local media coverage than cycling has had here in a long time, a well deserved celebratory meal and stay at Whistler after the ride, the fatigue and euphoria at the ride finish – the list of what made this a Top Ride goes on.
But the best part by far was the ride itself – the time flew by and was over in what now seems like a heartbeat. Maybe that’s why we love cycling so much – it feels best when we’re actually doing it. And why we keep going back to it in spite of the pain, suffering, monotonous training miles… It’s just so damn much fun.
My body was sore, and I was tired, but as I lay in bed that night – memories of the adventure kept me awake as I relived the day.
The ride far exceeded my expectations, and I suspect those of many riders and even the organizers. For next year’s second edition, they’ve planned to increase entries to 6000 riders – so if you’re looking for a great weekend ride in September – this is worth checking out – regardless of where you live.
Now – all I gotta do is figure out how I’m gonna go faster next year.
• The organizers, Gran Fondo Canada, have set another event in Kelowna for July 16, 2011 – and registration is open here
For event related inquiries: 604-816-1731
For registration related inquiries: 604-628-7782
• Read the: original Preview here
• See the RBC GranFondo Whistler website.
• Registration for 2011 opens on September 13th for this year’s riders and volunteers, and on the 20th to the public.
Thanks for looking, and we welcome your comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org