My plan was to go faster than last year. Seemed simple enough on paper, but in the back of my mind was the lurking fact that I’d missed a few crucial rides due to some mid-summer boys’ trip to Chicago (yes: my kind a town) and my current training sensations just weren’t quite up to what I remember from last year. I’d posted some decent power numbers on recent training rides, but had missed some long group rides that last year really solidified my base before the Granfondo.
7000 riders make their way across the start line.
Never mind – the weather was record setting perfect, and while my friend Bill Riley rightly referred to Vancouver as the “city that summer forgot”, the weeks leading up to the Sept. 10 ride were bright, AND warm. Race day at Whistler got as high as 32 Celsius, and this year’s 7:00AM start was warm enough that extra layers just weren’t needed. Perfect conditions for a fast ride.
The Seabus from North Vancouver has never seen so many cyclists on board, and for the first sailing at 6:02AM!
Critical to my strategy his year was my starting place with the Alta Class group – where for a slightly higher registration fee, you get a spot at the front of the 7000 strong field. If I couldn’t post a fast time from here, then the only excuse would be me.
Just after 6:30 am I shuffled into the lead corral, and said hello to former NHL star and avid cyclist Trevor Linden, as the skies east of downtown Vancouver brightened with the promise of a glorious day ahead. Trevor’s TNA team had 3 teams of 9 entered in various time categories of the ride.
Sometime around 6:30 AM I bumped into local photographer and avid rider Hans Sipma, who was sporting a neck brace from a recent accident. No fondo for him, but I quickly handed him my instamatic and asked for a pic. Eleven years ago, Hans bought me a beer at a local advertising awards show, which resulted in my meeting Mrs. Pez – but that’s another story.
National Unity Never Sounded So Good
Shortly after the Giro class licensed-racers rolled out at 6:40 we shuffled up to the start banner, and I found myself about 50 riders back. Close enough to snap a decent photo of Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy and legendary rocker Barney Bentall sing a pitch- and bilingually perfect version of the Canadian National anthem. It was right up there with last year’s version by the 4000 riders.
At 7:00 AM we rolled out and my plan to take it easy and surf the wheels quickly went out the window when just after the start, the Trevor Linden’s TNA team train chugged past on the Stanley Park causeway. Being so near the front, my ego refused to let me slip backwards at this point, and I punched my ticket for a ride with the fast boys. Last year’s cruise across the iconic Lions Gate bridge when I had time to quickly glance at the still waters of Burrard Inlet was replaced by a big ring pace line that allowed only views of the wheel in front of mine.
The sun makes its appearance as we cross Lion’s Gate Bridge.
I’d moved up to top 20-30 and settled into a decent rhythm, even if it was faster than I’d planned… 40-45kph was much higher than my usual 30kph training pace. But like the dorky friend said in Risky Business…. “sometimes you just gotta say… What the f—“. My body would let me know sooner or later what speed to ride at.
Up ahead I saw a Velonews kit on a tall lanky guy and was a bit surprised to see another of the world’s cycling media here in lil ol’ Vancouver. When I say tall and lanky, I mean these in the extreme sense, and sure enough, only one rider I know to fit that bill is tech-guru Leonard Zinn, who was here riding the course for the first time.
Pez Off The Front
The route breaks down into 2 parts, the 60km to the halfway point at Squamish, and the second 62km from Squamish to Whistler. Although the halfway point brings you back down to sea level before climbing 1500 meters to the 628m elevation finish, there are two decent climbs of about 1 km each before you reach the 60km mark.
The first climb at Furry Creek is a straight shot up a 7% ramp that really looks worse than it is, simply because you can see the whole climb loom up ahead as you round a left hand bend at its base. I went over this one near the front, riding my own pace and actually feeling pretty good. The legs and lungs were responding nicely… So far.
That’s about 122km and 2000 meters gained.
Somewhere over the top, there’s a rolling plateau that soon enough descends back to sea level at Britannia Bay, and the second, longer climb. This second climb is about 1500 meters long and after a 6-7% ramp for the first 2/3, hits a false flat before another short drag to crest its summit.
Somehow on the descent into Britannia, I found myself off the front with Leonard Zinn, I think there was one other guy up the road, but along the flat leading to the next climb, I looked back and saw a gap of maybe 50-100 meters. I commented to Leonard about a ‘fine mess we’d gotten ourselves into”, to which he suggested we use the gap to our advantage on the next climb – which was just around the bend.
Volunteers kept a brisk pace refilling bottles at the aid stations.
I led Leonard onto the first slopes of the climb, and settled into a gear that would get me over the top in not too much discomfort. Then maybe 100 meters in I heard the approaching whoosh of the bunch closing in fast. Some shouts as TNA rider and renowned chocolatier Thomas Haas attacked out of the group and went by me out of the saddle and hammering – a maniacal grin beaming off his face.
The next thing I know is I’m swallowed in a swamping of biblical proportions as a hundred guys steamrolled past me like I was pedaling backwards. Maybe it was 200. All I know is any hope of glory I’d had for the day was vanishing before me eyes.
The ride from Vancouver to Whistler is truly spectacular – as long as you remember to look around.
I plodded my way upwards, still keeping what I thought was a good pace (my CycleOps Joule recorded my watts as right up there at last year’s levels), but at least a gear slower than everyone around me. Can you say ‘reality check’?
Honestly, I was surprised so many riders were here at the front, but it also proved my saving grace as I was still in the bunch as we crested the summit, and the pace slowed enough that although I was now mere pack fodder, I could still actually see the front.
Just a few of the 19,000 bananas brought in for mass consumption.
Let’s Reinvent This Wheel
From here I started working on a new strategy for the day, and to get me through the second half of the ride.
My legs told me a break and rethink to part two of the day was in order, so I wheeled into the halfway aid station at Alice Lake to refill my two bottles and grab a banana. All hopes of a decent time were removed by the clunky organization of this stop… walk your bikes into the corral, walk across a bridge, walk across a big parking lot to the food and drink stations, walk further to the porta-potties… walk back. Minutes passed.
But I didn’t care. I knew a bunch of my buddies were coming up behind, and soon enough I hooked up with my long time pal Brent Murdoch. We’ve been riding together about 25 years, (if they ever bring back the Baracchi two-up team time trial, and we decide to turn pro, I’m taking Brent with me…), and that history would get us both through some rough patches still to come.
The hardest section of the ride is the 25km from Squamish that climbs up through the Cheakamus Canyon in a series of steps that really suck the life outta the legs. And in spite of the fantastic weather, there was a mighty headwind blowing as we crested the top of the canyon climb, and would make the final 30km drive to Whistler especially tough.
I still felt good through most of the canyon, but got involved in some silly riding with a couple guys who thought accelerating off the front of the echelon was good etiquette. And here’s where the conductor came to collect for my ticket on that fast train this morning… Sure enough, that big screw of pain started slowly squashing me like peanut about to be shelled. Staying on wheels and surviving with a group became my new job #1.
And now I knew how it felt to go fast early.
On what was likely the hottest day of the year in these parts (32C degrees at the finish), thousands of these cold wet towels did wonders to cool the masses.
Death Or Glory
I rounded the last corner utterly spent. I’d burned my last match some 400 meters earlier in one final death or glory attack that indeed did catch my group by surprise and even earned me the short term loan of a few meters daylight. I knew my fate was sealed when I tried to lift my sorry ass one more time to crest a short rise before the final left hander – and a hundred meters down to the line – my legs were like spaghetti the way I used to cook it before Mrs. Pez taught me the meaning of “al dente”. In serious danger of wobbling right off course and crashing face first into the three-deep throng of fans, I engaged Plan B of my finishing strategy.
I sat up.
Hell bent for leather and winning the sprint for 385th place disappeared up the road in front of me. But as the vision returned to my spot-covered eyes, I saw an amazing site. 7000 riders bring with them a very large supporting cast, and this year’s finish line straight was packed 2, 3, 4, deep for the entire hundred-odd meters. Finishing alone in front of a cheering crowd – even for 399th place – what could be better?
Bob Roll & Alex Stieda rode it, and were joined on stage for post-ride festivities by Olympic Gold medal skeleton athlete, Jon Montgomery.
The fans went nuts, and this was easily the biggest crowd I’d ever finished a bike race in front of. The cheers heaved over the barriers – rolling me like a cork on a wave as I free wheeled past. I touched the brakes again and really slowed – I wanted to milk these last few seconds to the last drop. I swung to the barrier and stuck out my hand. Someone’s hand swiped at it, then the next guy caught my palm straight on. Bullseye.
I held my hand there in place, and I slapped my way, fan by fan, to the banner. The cheers got louder.
Ahead was empty road to the line. I looked back and saw no one behind. Fans on the other side of the road cheered and laughed – this moment was getting bigger by the… moment.
Hands appeared out of the crowd – I couldn’t really see the faces, but they knew what to do.
Slap slap slap slap slappety slap swish slap…. All the way to the line.
Not a bad way to finish ‘er up. Not bad at all.
In the end the results said I was 3:53.22 to cover 122km, 5 minutes slower than last year, but good for 133 out of 1483 finishers in my age group, and 399th overall. Nothing to be ashamed of here, but still, I wish I’d been faster than last year. I guess that’s normal, and why I’ll be back next year – like most everybody else.
The post ride entertainment was several notches higher this year, and the folks at GranFondo Canada put on an event to be proud of. Registration for 2012 is open, and you can find the link here RBCGranFondoWhistler.com.
Thanks for looking. If you have a comment or something to say – drop us a line at: Manager@pezcyclingnews.com