Category Archives: Bike Races

Northern light

At the end of June I packed up my bike, flew to Whitehorse, and prepared to ride my first 24 hour mountain bike race under the midnight sun. The 24 Hours of Light is something I’ve been talking about for years; plans to ride with friends in 2014 fell through at the last minute. In 2015 I was there as a solo rider, ready for whatever the race might bring.

The first night was the captain’s briefing. I checked into a plain but clean and friendly motel in the centre of Whitehorse, reassembled my bike without too much difficulty, and then rode over to the Beringia Centre. We drank beer and ate pizza amid the mammoth skeletons, were given free pairs of giant souvenir underpants, and learned that laps ridden naked between 10pm and 6am counted double.  I left the centre at 10pm with my sunglasses still on, and went for a little detour through hoodoos, sandy singletrack and meadows full of wildflowers high above the city. It seemed strange to arrive back at the motel in full light, knowing that it was time to sleep in order to be ready for the 24 hours ahead.

10pm in the Yukon

I arrived a couple of hours ahead of the noon start the next morning, with plenty of time to set up my very minimalist campsite in the quiet camping zone (I wasn’t really planning on sleeping, so I had just bought a thermarest and a down jacket), lay out my food and water supplies, and chat to some of the other racers. It was a beautiful morning, with a light breeze shaking the trees and sunlight filtering between scattered clouds. As more people arrived the start area began to develop a carnival atmosphere, with swing bike races and a kids’ mini-course and crowds of family and friends gathering at the edge of the meadow.

Noon rolled around very quickly, and we parked our bikes by the fence and lined up in the starting corral on foot. When the countdown finally began we raced around the meadow in a Le-Mans style running start before grabbing our bikes, leaping on, and pedaling across the line.

24HoL  start line

It’s hard to describe the feeling of riding away down the doubletrack: full of energy and excitement, so eager to see the course ahead, and yet completely calm. For the next 24 hours, I had one task: to ride my bike. The world felt suddenly distilled and simple. It was an entirely different experience to setting out on a road race, where time and speed are of the essence. This was uncomplicated, unhurried, clear and beautiful.

The course was amazing. Just over 12km in length, it began with rooty, gently sloping singletrack through sunlit trees with trunks of ash and silver that eventually took us to a steep, switchbacking climb that led out onto a narrow bench with incredible views across the valley to the distant mountains on the other side. A steep, sandy descent on the far side quickly dumped the elevation in a grinning rush before leveling out into more beautiful singletrack through groves of spruce, with the odd tumbledown hut among the trees. The final stretch back to the start was wider, flatter, and very rooty.

24HoL course

I could have ridden those trails forever and never grown tired of them. Even at the very end, many many hours and pedal strokes later with sandpaper eyes and exhausted legs, it wasn’t hard to go out for a final lap because it was one more chance to ride the course before the clock ran down and I left the wild open landscapes of the north behind.

Early on, though, I rode in a haze of wonder that after all of the time and all of the imagining, the dream was finally real. The riders – around 200 in all – quickly spread out, with the team riders racing ahead while I reminded myself that there was a long way still to go and no-one to step in for me when I tired. I set an easy, steady pace, with plenty of time to take in the beautiful surroundings. I rode for a half-lap with a new friend from Whitehorse, then she stopped for a break and I fell back into the silence of the forest.

The bench, 24HoL course

Aside from brief pit stops to eat and refill my water, I kept going steadily for the first few laps. Then the race organizers fired up the barbecue, and the promise of something more tasty than granola bars lured me away from the course for a while. My legs had lost some of their early spring and I was bitterly regretting the fact that in my hasty departure I’d forgotten to switch up the rock hard seat that came on the Spitfire for something more comfortable, but after two very welcome smokies and a longer break I was ready to roll again.

As evening wore into night the light in the woods seemed suspended in some magical, golden state. In spite of the kilometres already behind me I felt like I could have kept riding in that light forever; it was as though time no longer existed, and it was just me and the bike and the trees and the singletrack winding ahead. All there had been, and all there would be. The climbs were getting harder, but were never so long that the promise of the views on the bench and the wild, laughing descent ahead wasn’t enough to keep my legs moving.

Naked tandem at 24HoL

As midnight neared the sky was still light but the sun had dipped below the trees, and the air was cooling rapidly. A fire was blazing in a pit near the start line and as I warmed my hands over it between laps, one of my new friends passed me a beer. Down on the course two naked riders set off on a tandem to cheers and hollers from the campground. One of my goals for the race was to ride a midnight lap, and I set out again as the countdown clock neared the halfway mark. The woods were darker now, and I was glad that I’d had twelve hours to get to know the course. A chill had sunk into the air and in spite of my tired legs I was glad to reach the climb, where I warmed up considerably.

Riding out onto the bench above the valley at midnight was one of the most incredible moments of the 24 hours. The sun was suspended on the horizon at the very end of the bench, a ball of red and gold beneath a darkening sky. I rode directly toward it through swirls of dust that riders ahead had left dancing and glowing in their wake. I didn’t realise that I was holding my breath until I finally swung away from the fiery sky and dropped back into the trees. It was more stunning than anything I could have dreamed.

Early hours at the 24HoL campground

I rode on for a while, then stopped for a quick catnap. The kindness of the strangers who had become friends had made my minimal campsite far more appealing; they’d added a down wrap and a comfy chair while I was out on the course. I hadn’t intended to sleep, just to take a longer break to let my legs recharge, but the down wrap was warm and cozy and my eyes drifted closed for a while. Opening them to find myself lying beneath shadowy trees and a twilight sky on the side of a mountain in the Yukon was strange and surreal. A deep chill had set in, but the lower reaches of the sky were glowing gently with the promise of a beautiful day to come.

In spite of the recharging effects of the catnap, my legs were feeling the hours and the distance. My remaining laps were much slower, with refueling stops for coffee in between and naked riders flying by me on the climbs in brief, surreal glimpses. Gradually the woods filled with light and warmth as the sun rose higher, and the start area started to bustle with people emerging from RVs and tents.

Dawn on the bench, 24HoL

On what I knew would be my final lap, I took my time and tried to soak it all in: the trees, the singletrack, the swooping rush of the Midtown Boogaloo compression, the valley soaking in the morning sunlight from the bench, and the laughter of the descent on the far side. Then a slow, slow pedal through the spruce groves, brief doubletrack, and high fives and hugs at the finish line. I chatted to other riders for a while then suddenly realised that my dust-caked legs were no longer willing to hold me upright, so I found a chair and slumped gratefully into it as the clock finally ran down to zero.

Someone handed me another beer, and I donated my remaining water supplies to the local bike club. My new Whitehorse friends performed one last act of kindness and arranged a ride back to town for me when I mentioned that I’d been planning to call another cab. But first, there was one final surprise left in an event that had been full of so many: I had placed second in the solo women’s category.

Solo women prizewinners, 24HoL

By the time I made it back to my motel the exhaustion had kicked in, but I was also starving hungry and caked in dust. I showered an impressive amount of dirt away, decamped to the motel restaurant where I devoured a burger the size of a rugby ball and a plate of fries that would have fed a small army, and then retired to my room where I passed out cold for the next few hours.

I knew that a 24 hour mountain bike race – especially one ridden under the midnight sun – was going to be one of the most memorable experiences I’d ever had on my bike. It exceeded my expectations beyond measure. The warmth and friendliness of everyone I met, the incredibly beautiful course, the strange and ever-changing northern light, the surreality of being passed in the night by riders wearing nothing but a helmet, bike shoes, and butterfly wings – it was everything I’d hoped and far more. As Robert Service said, there are strange things done in the midnight sun, especially at the 24 Hours of Light.

24 Hours of Light Tom_Patrick_Yukon_News

Photo credit to Tom Patrick of the Yukon News, who also provided a great write-up of the event.

Whistler GranFondo, take three

This was my third time riding the Whistler GranFondo. This is the year it was supposed to be easy. I didn’t do any targeted training, but I’ve done a ton of riding this summer – just over 300km a week average since July 1st – and as a result, I’m in pretty good cycling shape.

2011 was my first Fondo. I’d registered in 2010, but had to sell my registration following a serious injury and major knee surgery that left me unable to ride. I went in with a great summer of training behind me and blew all of my expectations out of the water with a 4:47 finish. I had never expected to come anywhere close to five hours.

2012 was a disaster. I contracted a serious gastric illness at the beginning of July, and by the time doctors finally diagnosed it six weeks later I was 12 pounds below my ideal body weight, severely malnourished, and had ridden my road bike exactly twice over the entire summer in preparation. Riding that Fondo was physically the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I can only attribute my surprisingly good finish time (4:54) to my drastically altered power-to-weight ratio.

This year, I felt like I was ready for the ride. Time isn’t that big a deal to me, but I felt I was in a good place to come in at around five hours again and feel pretty comfortable doing it. And then last Friday I slipped on a wet dock at high speed in the aftermath of a late summer thunderstorm, turned my right thigh into tenderized steak, and suddenly everything was up in the air.

I went out for a ride two days after the fall. It took me two hours to cover 25km. I wasn’t unable to pedal, it just hurt like crazy. Every downstroke felt like I was ripping flesh apart under the huge bruised area. I took a few days off, then managed 40km in two hours. I still couldn’t generate any real power with the right leg. A steady pace was fine, but uphill effort made the muscle under the bruise scream.

Bailing crossed my mind, which for me is inconceivable. I don’t give up on things. I never seriously contemplated opting out the year before. But we had had an insanely stressful week, during which I’d barely slept, and coupled with the injury I had to question why I was even thinking about riding. At the same time, I knew that it would be like last year: once I was on my bike, I’d be in a situation that I was completely in control of and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that I can bully my body into doing pretty much anything. Mind over matter.

And that’s exactly what I did. It wasn’t like other years, when the atmosphere was enough to provide motivation. I showed up to the start alone, and waited in a damp drizzle that gradually soaked both me and the bike and seemed to slightly depress the entire atmosphere compared to previous rides. Oh Canada was beautiful and moving, but after that it was just a slow, increasingly wet parade through Stanley Park and over a gloomy Lions Gate bridge to Taylor Way. A rider had taken a hard spill at the start of the Causeway, and we were all held back as we passed the scene. She looked shocked but conscious and moving. Very tough to go down so close to the start, but easy to do in the slippery conditions. I hope she’s fully recovered now.

The rain fell steadily as we passed through North Van, and after my own bad fall the week before it really tempered my approach to the early part of the ride. I kept it slow and careful on the descents, wary of the slick road. On the uphills I stayed with the pack, though not entirely by choice; I was consistently frustrated by riders who wouldn’t move aside to allow me to pass. There were just too many people on the road at that point, including a number of riders who were more concerned about chatting to each other than moving forward or allowing others to do so.

The Galileo coffee stop was time-consuming (almost ten minutes for the bathroom – pointer for next year, more washrooms) but very worthwhile since it included a jolt of their amazing coffee. After that the pack finally started to thin out a bit, and I was able to start dictating my own pace. The KOM climb was great. I passed people slowly but steadily all the way up, and wasn’t passed by a single rider. I put on a small spurt for the Squamish sprint, but sprinting is never going to be my strong point.

Sea to Sky, Whistler GranFondo 2013

As we started the long haul out of Squamish, I realised that the NSAIDs I’d downed with breakfast were wearing off and my bruised leg was starting to hurt quite badly. My left knee, which took a hell of a whack on the top tube when I fell, was also protesting in a slightly more subdued way.

At this point it became a mind over matter battle again, but in a different way than last year. Then, it was weakness. This time, it was pain. Is it weird to say that in some way, I didn’t really mind? All of these things are just challenges. I don’t compete in events like the Fondo to prove that I can be faster than other people; I’m not an elite athlete and I know that there are always going to be folk who are faster than me, so comparative times don’t really interest me much. What I care about is pushing myself to my own limit, and then just a little bit beyond.

Just out of Alice Lake, I passed the scene of a horrible accident. A rider was lying in traffic in the opposite lane, with a shocking amount of blood surrounding him. His devastated teammates were holding each other for comfort at the side of the road, and an ambulance was already there. I read afterwards that the rider was in a critical condition in hospital. I really hope he’s okay.

It was hard from there on. Pain is a different kind of battle, focused and immediate. I kept taking deep breaths, trying to ignore what was going on with my legs, and pushing on. The kilometres were clocking steadily by – 80, 90, 95 – and even though I knew exactly how much climbing there was to come, I kept encouraging my legs on.

Whistler GranFondo 2013

That “last hill” sign is so freaking deceptive. I know the Sea to Sky so well that I have no illusions. It’s a slog from there until the brief respite before Function Junction. Don’t let that one small flat stretch fool you. The hill still has a long way to go. The hill wants to beat you. It wants you to be one of those people gasping and swearing and gradually getting slower and slower. It wants you to be one of those people lying by the side of the road, massaging the cramps out of their hamstrings.

And still, I kept up my pace. I couldn’t push it harder or faster, but I could keep it up. Almost everyone in my part of the pack was flagging by that point. I was flagging inside, but I wasn’t letting it get as far as my legs. I just kept plugging away and pushing away and keeping the pedals turning, all the way up.

With Function Junction came that familiar burst of adrenaline. Through the village I alternated between racing forward and getting hung up behind people who blocked the shoulder that was our main route through. It was frustrating, but once we reached the final turns it didn’t matter. I pumped the pedals as hard as I could, raced to the line, and raised a fist in triumph. I finished in 4:45, beating my 2011 time by two minutes.

736011-1027-0033s

Was it harder than last year? No. Not even close, really. But last year succeeding in the race was inextricably entangled in other events, giving me a motivation so strong that it’s not surprising that I did so well in spite of my appalling physical condition. This year the difficulties were a barrier to overcome, not a motivation that pushed me forwards.

After I finished I dropped off my bike, traded my shoes for flip flops (very nice touch by the race organizers), and headed over to the celebration plaza. I was lucky enough to pick up my lunch and beer while there was almost no-one at the food station, but by the time I was done eating the lineup was about 40 deep and the plaza itself was starting to feel packed pretty close. After the week we’d had I wasn’t feeling up to large crowds of people, so I grabbed my bags and went for a walk through the village.

Interlude

At the far end I stopped for a beer at the GLC. Sitting quietly at a table in the sunshine, flowers overhead and all of the week’s anxiety left somewhere on the Sea to Sky, I found the little oasis of calm that I’d been badly needing. I watched the kids doing insane jumps and tricks in the bike park for a while, and realised that in spite of how much fun the day had been (and this ride always will be), sometime this summer I fell slightly out of love with my road bike. All I wanted was to get back out on the dirt.

A week of bike madness

Just six days after the Valley GranFondo I found myself at the Fairhaven Village Green in Bellingham, lining up with 457 other cyclists to set out on a 170km/105 mile ride around Whatcom County.

I hadn’t really given much thought to riding two imperial centuries in six days. I figured I’d take it extremely easy after the Fondo, rest my legs, and all would be well. In practice, it didn’t quite work out like that. I’m working out of a different location, which means my basic commute has doubled to 24km. I also had some site visits to wrap up that doubled that distance on a couple of days. I suppose I could have taken the car to give myself a break, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

And so I arrived in Bellingham with legs that still felt like jello after the big push for the sub-six hour finish in Fort Langley. My quads had been whimpering and quivering after some of the hills on my work rides; I really had no idea how I was going to force them through 170km. At the back of my mind I did note that I’d just made the ride more challenging for myself, and perhaps that wasn’t a bad thing. I like challenges.

Tour de Whatcom 105 mile start

The Tour de Whatcom certainly provided plenty of motivation. We span out of Fairhaven at 7.30am, and the first part of the ride took us up and down rolling, forested hills past lakes that glittered in the soft morning sun. My legs felt the way they usually do at the end of a long, hard workout, but I focused on the beautiful scenery and tried to push them to the back of my mind. Every now and then reality would intrude and I’d realise that I still had a minimum of six hours to ride to get to the finish, and contemplate how completely impossible that seemed.

It was an exceptionally friendly pack of cyclists, and I had fun spotting other Canada jerseys as the group spread out (I’d worn mine specially as this was my first organized ride in the States.) The rest stops were fantastic. The selection of food was great and I wolfed bagels with peanut butter and nutella at every one, determined to provide my weary legs with as much fuel as I could. Volunteers were waiting to grab my water bottle and offer protein bars the second I stepped off the bike. My only small gripe was that the first rest stop only offered three bathrooms, and the wait to use one while I was there was nearly 15 minutes.

There were some more stunning mountain views near Deming, but the stretch through the farmlands from Lynden to Blaine didn’t have quite the same visual distraction. The ride did flatten out considerably here, but strong, warm headwinds kept my moving speed lower than I’d hoped. I just kept pushing on. Blaine was the make or break: I was sure that if I could just make it there, I’d be good to finish the ride. My cycle computer had broken so I didn’t have a strong sense of exactly where I was, and that part seemed to go on for an inordinately long time.

Rolling into Blaine and glimpsing the ocean ahead was pretty magical. Under a wide-open sky it was the shade of blue you normally only see in photoshopped tourism images, and the slightly cooler breeze coming off it seemed to give my legs new strength. I pedaled right back up to 30km/h and pulled two cyclists behind me almost the whole way to Birch Bay.

Baker views

From the moment we hit the ocean, I was able to get lost in the views again. After leaving Birch Bay State Park we swung onto Mountain View Road, and Baker appeared on the horizon. Pedaling toward the mountain that has always loomed so large in my imagination, seeing those glaciated slopes outlined against the deep blue sky, I felt like I could keep going forever. My favourite moment of the entire ride was the big hill down to Ferndale that pitched us directly toward the mountain. I thought of future ski tours, and the punishment my quads had taken in the past six days suddenly made perfect sense.

I was lucky enough to ride into Bellingham with a couple of cyclists who knew the route, which saved me from getting completely lost on the final stretch. It was slow going through the traffic lights, but by this point I knew the end was within touching distance. Cheerleaders were waiting to dance us home as we swung around the very last bend. I pulled over, unclipped from my pedals, and carried my bike to a spot where I could finally collapse in a heap on the grass and wait for my friends from Seattle to come and find me.

Tour de Whatcom 105 miler finisher's medal

In spite of the terrible state of my legs, the Tour de Whatcom was an amazing ride (definitely not a race) and I had a fantastic time. I look forward to riding again in 2014.

And then the following day I headed out to Chillwack for the Slow Food Cycle Tour and pedaled a very leisurely 30km around beautiful farms with some of our favourite friends. I did switch to the downhill bike, which probably didn’t do my quads any favours (it’s really not very efficient to pedal) but did spare my saddle-sore butt.

Slow Food friends

I’ll be the first to admit that I have some OCD issues around numbers. I can’t finish any workout on an uneven number; if I set out to ride a certain distance, I absolutely have to meet or pass that goal. So when I got back from Chilliwack and realised that I was just 11km away from riding 500km in a week for the first time ever there was only one thing to do. I hung up the downhill bike, pulled out the Bad Boy, and rode as fast as I possibly could along the westside beaches, up the UBC hill, and home. My final mileage was 502km, which felt like a huge, huge achievement. Strangely, my wiped out legs didn’t seem to mind that last ride at all.

It will be a very long time before I have a cycling week to match this one.

Sunset at Spanish Banks

Valley GranFondo, take two

It took this year’s Valley Fondo to make me realise just what rough shape I was in when I pushed through illness to complete the ride last year. I signed up for a second year running because I wanted the chance to ride the route properly fueled and without battling nausea and crippling stomach pain. Everything aligned almost perfectly this time around, although once again any thoughts I had of a training plan fell by the wayside thanks to the (now much improved) shoulder impingement.

I arrived at Fort Langley early enough that the air was still cool, although the rising sun promised another scorching day to come. As we gathered to the beat of a Kwantlen First Nations drum at the start line, helicopters swung low overhead to film our departure. We headed out of town through fields draped with lingering traces of groundmist, the air growing warmer with each inch that the sun crept through the sky above us.

Valley GranFondo

The kilometres unfurled incredibly fast. Before I knew it we were away from the trees and the rolling, curving roads, and spinning along the long stretch of Avenue Zero with soft blue mountains lining the horizon and the snowy peak of Baker rising above them all. As the border markers rolled by and my wheel tracked that invisible line between Canada and the States I thought again about how incredibly lucky I am to be living this life, to have escaped the cramped confines of the country where I was born for these immense, beautiful landscapes.

The road took us on through Sumas Prairie, dipping in every now and again to kiss the forested foothills before swinging back out through farmlands and homesteads whose water sprinklers coated them with droplets that sparkled like diamonds. It was toward the latter part of this section that I missed a turn and headed straight on for a couple of kilometres before realising that the intersections were no longer marked and I was clearly off the route. A quick check on the website and cross-reference with Google maps and I was able to backtrack and get myself back on course. Initially I assumed that it was my own fault for being too absorbed by the scenery, but on the way back I ran into a number of cyclists who’d made the exact same error which suggested a signage issue. In the bigger scheme of things the detour was just more beautiful riding and I didn’t really mind it, but I was a little bummed that it looked to have blown my chances of a sub-six hour finish.

As we swung toward Sumas Mountain the hot headwinds found us, draining energy and sapping legs that had already carried us 100km and had the hardest climb still to come. I’d hoped to significantly improve my hill climb time from last year since that’s normally one of my strengths, but in the sweltering heat I ended up taking it slow and steady.

Sumas Mountain KOM climb, Valley GranFondo

The descent on the far side of the mountain was everything I’d remembered: tree-lined, beautifully cool compared to the beating sun on the open road, fast, curving, and fun. With just the length of a regular ride out to Iona and back I thought I was on the home stretch after that, but the heat and the way I’d been pushing my untrained legs were starting to take a toll and I could see my overall speed gradually lagging.

The last aid station provided a welcome boost, and as I reached the final 10km I realised that I was still in with a remote shot at breaking the 6 hour mark…provided I could keep my speed at 30km/hr+ for the entire remaining distance. The last part of the ride is a long, flat stretch of road beside the wide expanse of the Fraser River, and I gritted my teeth and spun the pedals until my bike computer registered the magic number. A couple of times it dipped back down and I dug deep and forced my weary quads to spin just a little bit harder. I reminded myself of the year before, when at this stage of the ride I’d been in a state of complete physical breakdown. When I span around the final corner, sweat-soaked, overheated, and totally exhausted, I saw the finish line just ahead and broke into an enormous grin.

Finish line, Valley GranFondo

I caught a glimpse of the official clock saying 6:01 as I rolled over the line, which meant I was absolutely on the cusp of the sub-six hour finish that I wanted. I knew I’d crossed the start line at least a minute after the actual start of the race, but not much more than that. I grabbed a very welcome cold towel and picked up my lunch from the White Spot tent, then called J while I wolfed my burger and downed a couple of bottles of water. It was only after that that I thought to check Sportstats, and discovered I’d not only beaten the six hour mark by just fourteen seconds (official chip time 5:59:46), I’d finished third in my age category. A great result to cap a fantastic day out on the bike.

2012 Whistler GranFondo

I knew this was going to be tough.

Mind over matter, Whistler GranFondo 2012

I didn’t sleep much the night before the ride. It was all churning around in my head: the illness, the things I’ve lost this summer, the sheer improbability of going out there to ride at all, and a burning need to be in a space where all that mattered was my ability to do one thing: ride my bike. I drifted in and out of strange disjointed dreams where I was stranded at work and missed the start of the ride, even though it was only a couple of blocks away.

When the alarm sounded, the skies were still dark. I shoveled down a giant mess of bacon, eggs and potato, silently giving thanks that for this ride I could at least count on keeping my breakfast. Then I tucked a few Stinger waffles into my jersey and set out into darkness cool enough to bring my bare arms out in goosebumps. I rode alone to the Burrard Bridge, where a trickle of cyclists emerging from sidestreets suddenly became a flood and the first smoky light began staining the eastern edge of the sky.

The corrals were more spaced out than last year, and Georgia Street didn’t feel as packed. Quite by accident I ran into my friends P and K; poor K had taken a tumble on her way to the start line, and was decorated in band-aids before the ride had even begun. Shortly after we took our places in the 5-hour corral the sun rose, flooding the streets with morning light. As the national anthem echoed from the glass and steel, I realised that eight years before I’d been on a plane flying toward a new life. It seemed somehow very right that I was about to set out on a bike ride that encapsulated so many of the very best things about that life.

Gathering at the start, 2012 Whistler GranFondo

When we finally started to move K and I bumped fists, and then we were over the line and underway. My physical condition was so poor that reality kicked in as soon as we hit the Stanley Park causeway. Last year I was so high on the adrenaline I didn’t even notice the Taylor Way climb. This year my quads shuddered as they hit the small gradient through the park. As the ride progressed I would better understand the consequences of the weight I lost while sick, and just how much of it was muscle. At that early point I was a bit concerned that my legs already felt tired, but I was also mentally ready to power them on for as long as l needed to.

The Lions Gate Bridge, like last year, was a beautiful moment. The stream of cyclists flooding along its narrow span, with the sun low and golden in the distance and all the blue mountains of Howe Sound waiting ahead. At that moment I knew it was worth attempting the ride, regardless of where I stopped.

The first half really wasn’t that bad. I didn’t have much power in my legs, but I maximized the breaks on the downhill sides of the rolling road and pushed myself as hard as I could through the uphills. It felt like I was going slow, but I passed a lot of people on the climbs. I was so conscious of where the limitations were making themselves felt: my cardio was fine but my shrunken leg muscles were a whimpering, jello-like mess.

En route, Whistler GranFondo 2012

The day was glorious. The sky overhead was unbroken blue, and the road unscrolled ahead of us incredibly quickly. I paused to refill my water bottles and scarf down a couple of waffles at Galileo, then pushed ahead through Squamish. And then the long climb began. I had nothing left in my legs. I hadn’t really had much to begin with. It became a case of mind over matter, where I just told myself over and over: this I can do. It doesn’t matter how my legs feel. Just believe that I can keep the pedals turning, and I will.

There was a point at the very end of this summer’s long illness when I hit the wall. I was cycling home from work and I literally did not have the energy to keep my body upright on the bike. I’ve never known such an absolute and bone-deep exhaustion. Whatever my legs were feeling during the Fondo, it was just my legs. I still had enough willpower to keep them moving.

It was hard. It was brutally hard. There’s no source of hope on the Sea to Sky: I know every turn so well that at the top of each long, long hill I knew exactly how much climbing I still had to go. I kept eating, giving my vitamin-depleted body the fuel it needed. I managed my water a lot better than the previous year, taking pulls every few minutes and filling up the bottles whenever needed.

By the time I passed the Salt Shed I was done. More than done. But it was also close enough to Whistler that I knew I was going to make the distance. The mental dialogue between my mind and my weary legs didn’t stop. Over and over: this I can do. This is within my control. If I want to keep the pedals turning, I can.

And then Brandywine Falls, the final hill, and Function Junction. Riders all around me breathing a sigh of relief to be in the village, except that I’d glanced at my clock and understood that with a last, final push, there was a chance I’d break five hours. One more hill, and down into Creekside. Up again. The final curve ahead. I raced past everyone on that last stretch. The finish line: one last effort. A fist raised in triumph, and after everything that happened this summer it felt like redemption. This I could do.

Finish line, Whistler GranFondo 2012

When I got off the bike, I actually felt better than I did last year. My legs were trashed – they’d long since passed the wet noodle stage and felt more like tenderized steak – but I’d monitored my food and water intake pretty carefully, so in spite of the heat I wasn’t dehydrated. I did down a couple of bottles of water to be on the safe side, and draped a wet towel gratefully over my bandanna, but overall I was in reasonable shape. It had been a desperately hard ride, but that felt right. I needed to prove that I still had it in me to push through barriers.

I made my way to the Celebration Plaza and ate a couple of lunches and drank a beer while I waited for my friends to cross the line. It felt very good to finally let my legs stop moving. I realised, reflecting on the ride, that most of the twelve pounds I’d lost over the summer was probably quad muscle. My cardio had held up really well considering how limited my activity and preparation had been; it was my legs that let me down. Right from the start, they had nothing in them. I had to bully them every single kilometre from Georgia Street to the finish line.

Given everything that happened this summer, it was unlikely that I would even start the race. It was amazing that I finished it. What was really miraculous was that my time was 4:54, just seven minutes slower than last year. All of that preparation in 2011, the miles I rode, the 30km daily commute – it made no real difference. Yes, this year felt ten times harder, but in the end it was willpower, not physical condition, that mattered. Clearly, I need a better training strategy next year. Right now, though, that’s the least of my concerns. I’m just going to hold onto this moment, when I made it against all the odds.

Triumph, Whistler GranFondo 2012

And then I accidentally bought a pair of skis on the way home, but that’s another story.

The hardest ride

A couple of weeks ago, I got really sick. It started with a skull-splitting headache on Friday afternoon, went through three days where I only left the couch to throw up, and then settled into a miserable, nauseated week where I struggled to keep the blandest food down. By Tuesday I’d lost eight pounds and was so weak that just turning the pedals for my morning commute was a challenge. In the back of my mind the Prospera Valley GranFondo, a 160km ride scheduled for the coming Sunday, loomed over me. Training was out of the question. I just kept wobbling to work and back in between uneasy meals of plain bread. I don’t think anyone who’d seen me in person during that week expected for one second that I would be able to start the race, never mind finish it, and I would have agreed with them: and yet I never seriously considered opting out. I knew that I had to try.

Final preparations didn’t go well. I was too queasy for lunch on Saturday, and lost the pasta I ate for dinner. Breakfast on race day was a slice of dry bread and half a cup of milky coffee. I figured I’d just keep eating small amounts every hour or so to try and stay fueled enough to keep pedaling. This strategy worked until I ran out of Honey Stinger waffles; these had gone down well, but the Cliff bar I ate for the third snack left me severely nauseated. I gave up on eating at this point, and consequently rode from about the 90km mark in an unrelenting bonk.

The ride itself was very cool. A helicopter tracked the riders for the first stretch, hovering low over a field of grass that roiled in the rotor wash as it filmed the peloton pouring around a sharp corner. The Fraser Valley is a gorgeous place to ride; long, flat open roads, farmland and little rivers, and rolling hills at the valley’s edge. I always love cycling down Avenue Zero, watching the border markers as Canada flashes by on one side and the States on the other. I didn’t feel too bad at the start of the ride; I could tell I was weaker and slower than normal, but turning the pedals and keeping up a steady pace felt comfortable enough.

242nd Street, Prospera Valley GranFondo

It all changed after the Cliff bar. The worst of the nausea wore off after a while, but I didn’t feel right after that and there was nothing in the tank to draw on. I could feel the Sumas Mountain hill climb looming over me like Everest, a 9% gradient as insurmountable as the moon. I stopped at the aid station just before the start of the climb, drank as much electrolyte charged water as I could, and took some deep breaths. With leg muscles that felt like overcooked noodles, I had no idea where to find the power to get me to the top.

It was a slow climb. Painfully, agonizingly slow. I just kept pushing the pedals down, one after the other after the other. It felt far steeper than it probably was in reality; I’m sure it wasn’t any worse than stretches of Cypress or Seymour. My calves and quads quivered and twitched but somehow kept going. And then, all of a sudden, it was over and I was raising a fist in triumph as the road leveled. The beautiful, sweeping curves of the descent made every straining pedal stroke feel worth while, and I suddenly started believing that I was going to finish the ride.

Sumas Mountain, Prospera Valley GranFondo

I will be honest: the rest of the ride felt like it took an eternity. The roads unwound slowly in front of me, and a fine rain started to fall. I stopped at all the aid stations to stretch, consider and reject the idea of eating, and top up my water bottles with electrolytes; in the absence of any other calorie source I was going through them crazy fast. At one point a large group of us took an unintentional break when a very long train rumbled by, blocking the road for about ten minutes. The stops were necessary, but they also brought home how beat up my body was from riding while in such poor shape. My left ankle, which has never bothered me before, ached like a rotten tooth; and my sporadically problematic shoulder was a solid knot of pain.

The final climb took me by surprise. It wasn’t long, but it was as steep as the Sumas Mountain stretch. I snarled at it, stood up out of the saddle, and actually did a much more creditable job kicking the bike to the top than I did on the mountain. I knew once that was done that all I had to do was keep the pedals turning and I’d make it to the end. The sign telling me that I had 5km to go took me by surprise, and my weary body somehow summoned a burst of energy at the thought of finishing. I raced back up to 32km/hour – no mean feat with no fuel and 157k already ridden – and passed several riders on the final stretch. Then I rounded one last corner and the finish line was right there in front of me, and I heard them announcing my name as I bumped over it.

Finish line, Prospera Valley GranFondo

I got off my bike and suddenly the lack of food caught up with me. Everything went dark and blurry, and the world span. I wobbled over to the bike park area, put my bike on the rack, and thanked the volunteer who hung a medal around my neck. Then I staggered a few yards away and fell down in a heap on the grass. My legs wouldn’t support me and my right shoulder locked up completely and refused to move. I was beyond worrying about any of it. I figured my body had earned the right to a meltdown after what I’d put it through. I accepted that I was going to be horizontal for a little while, so I called J and texted my fellow riders K and C. C had finished the Medio a couple of hours before and was napping in my truck, and K was still en route to the finish. My time was 6:34, which is really slow, but I didn’t care at all: I was just so happy that I’d made it to the end of the ride.

Medal, Prospera Valley GranFondo

During some of the moments when I felt really rough, I did wonder why I was there. There was no pressure on me to ride; my friends made it clear that they thought I should at least have downgraded to the Medio, if not stayed home. I think it’s a hangover from the lost summer of 2010; I never want to be in a position again where my body won’t do the things I ask of it, or where physical limitations mean I can’t do something that I really want to do. Maybe somewhere in the back of my head I was remembering the first Whistler GranFondo, and how much it hurt to be on the sidelines.

It wasn’t the longest ride I’ve ever done, or the toughest route. But being so sick right beforehand definitely made it the hardest. I’m just so glad that I gave it a shot. I’ll be honest: there were moments out there when I was hurting pretty badly. But it wasn’t nearly as painful as it would have been to miss out.

2012 Pacific Populaire

It doesn’t seem like it should be anywhere near time to start writing about the spring cycling season. My mind is still very much in the mountains. And yet yesterday was the 2012 Pacific Populaire. I signed up for the 100km distance even though I haven’t cycled further than 20km – or even been on my road bike, for that matter – since October. I figured that if I could do the ride 30 days out from a blown knee, I could certainly finish it in spite of being completely out of cycling condition.

After a late night drinking beer and participating in a hot sauce eating contest (perhaps not the ideal preparation) the morning did not dawn promisingly. When I woke at 7am, I could hear rain pounding on the bathroom skylight. An hour later it had mostly tapered off, and I made my way through the soaking streets to the muddy registration area at the Riley Park Fieldhouse. There were a tremendous number of cyclists gathering, and everyone was in good spirits in spite of the dubious weather.

For the first couple of kilometres I was part of a huge pack of cyclists riding elbow-to-elbow, but then the traffic lights thinned the group out as we passed through Kits on our way to Marine Drive. On the UBC hill I realised that my quads were in no way recovered from the heavy skiing on Friday, but speed had never been a primary concern for this ride; it was more about getting back on the road bike after the winter, and having fun.

The clouds started to break as I crossed the Arthur Laing bridge into Richmond. To my surprise, I didn’t need to look at the route card once on the first half of the ride. It makes me realise just how established my life here is now: I know these streets like the back of my hand, and every one is permeated with memories of other rides. Just before the Woodward’s Landing control, I gave a nod to the Ossur HQ where I was fitted with my knee brace just before the 2010 Populaire.

At the control I ran into my friend P, and after getting our cards stamped and ingesting fistfuls of cookies and carrot cake we waved a hello to J, the third member of our group, who arrived just as we were departing. P and I joined up with some riders who were motoring along at a decent 32km/h; I knew my tired legs wouldn’t be able to keep that pace up for any distance, but it was fun to ride as part of the pack for a while.

The second half of the ride also brought home just how much of a personal challenge the 2010 ride had been. I remembered zoning out in my own little world of pain somewhere in the strong headwinds on the New West Highway, but as I pedalled along yesterday I found that there were whole stretches – including the transition from the highway to River Road – that I simply didn’t recall at all. This time the winds were gentler and I stuck with the fast group as far as River Road, where my quads decided that 28km/h was quite speedy enough. My neck and right shoulder were also feeling the unaccustomed hours on the bike by this point, and I had to stretch them out repeatedly to try and ease the twinges.

I crossed back into Vancouver on the Canada Line bridge and headed through blossom-filled side streets back to Marine Drive. Under blue skies the kilometres ran down surprisingly quickly. The hill up to Arbutus on 25th felt like just as much of a slog as last time, but infinitely less painful. I let my speed drop on the final stretch and just enjoyed the last of the ride back to Riley Park. When I got there I splashed through the mud to get my card stamped, then found a patch of sunshine to wait for J and P. (P was actually going way faster than me until a flat tire waylaid him on the New West Highway.)

My official time was 4:15, which is slow compared to my GranFondo times from last summer but not bad at all considering my total lack of preparation. My legs and lungs did well apart from the residual quad tiredness, but my problem shoulder was pretty sore today. I need to spend some time cycling up mountains to get back into proper cycling shape, but realistically I know that’s not going to happen while there are still opportunities to be skiing down them.

Second time lucky

When I found out the date for my knee surgery last year, the very first thing that crossed my mind was “Well, shit. Now I can’t ride in the GranFondo.” With surgery in July and a general rule that you should stay on a stationary bike until about 12 weeks into rehab, I wasn’t sure I’d even be riding on the road at all by September. 122km to Whistler was out of the question.

In the event, I was riding again a month out of surgery and gamely trucking the 6.5k to work in about 45 very slow, creaky minutes by September. But yes, riding to Whistler was definitely still out of the question. Come the day, I just tried to avoid hearing more than I had to about it. It wasn’t like the start of the ski season, when I knew I’d be back in a little while (even if it felt like an eternity). This was something that I just plain missed.

All of which combined to make this year’s Fondo really important, as so many of the post-surgery  milestones have been. It’s not the same as it would have been before. There’s lost time to make up for, realistic adjustments to make to performance expectations, and my own sense that I have to absolutely kill it at these events to prove that I’m not weaker than I was before my knee was rebuilt.

And so on Saturday morning, the alarm went off at 4.45am. I got up, brewed a huge jolt of eye-wateringly strong coffee, and cracked as many eggs and potatoes as I could into a gigantic mess of a homemade hash with a few pieces of bacon for flavour. Just before 6am, I left home. A hint of an orange glow was just touching the sky to the east, but the Kitsilano streets were still dark. As I reached Cornwall, cyclists suddenly started flooding out of every side street and streaming across the Burrard Bridge. It was an amazing moment of unity in the pre-dawn darkness.

Georgia Street was an organized chaos of bikes and people. No-one really knew what they were doing, but volunteers and mimes (yes, mimes) moved them along. I found a spot right on the line between the 4.5 and 5 hour corrals, and sat tight. Shortly before 7am, all riders were asked to remove their helmets for the national anthem. This week marked the seventh anniversary of my move to Canada, and I couldn’t help but get misty-eyed. I’m so grateful to be here, in this amazing place that has given me so many opportunities. And I’m even more grateful to J for making it possible.

When we started moving, it was very slow. One cyclist beside me joked that it was going to take way more than five hours to walk to Whistler as we hopped along with one foot clipped into our pedals and one foot out. It didn’t matter; dawn was breaking, the start was right up ahead, and in that moment before you cross the line anything is possible. Somewhere in my head, this wasn’t just an opportunity to ride well but to show that I’ve truly overcome the aftermath of injury and surgery. I wasn’t concerned about the field, or my friends’ performance, or a fixed time; all I cared about was doing well enough to prove that I wasn’t limited anymore. It’s only myself that I fight in these tests.

The first part of the ride was perfection. Sweeping onto the Eagleridge interchange above Horseshoe Bay and realizing that all of that curving, winding, rolling highway sliced into the feet of the mountains that overshadow Howe Sound was ahead of us was almost unbelievable. The sun was just starting to edge over the peaks, bathing the landscape in morning light, and the ocean to our left glittered like a carpet of jewels as we sped forwards. Hold back? It wasn’t even conceivable. I pushed as hard as I could, and felt like I didn’t even stop to breathe until we were diverted from the main highway in Squamish.

The Alice Lake aid station was a disappointment, which was partly my own fault. I didn’t realise that it was the main stop for riders who were considering the Fondo a more leisurely ride, and was laid out accordingly. I had to fight through milling cyclists to park my bike, and then head to one end of the station for the washrooms before heading to the far end to refill my water bottles. When I headed back to the park area to reclaim my bike it was even busier, and I had to negotiate a passage with several cyclists before I could actually clip back in and return to the ride. In hindsight, I would never stop at that primary aid station in the future – I lost close to fifteen minutes for what should have been a five minute washroom and water stop, and the other aid stations were all much better at getting cyclists in and out quickly.

After Alice Lake, the climb started. One of the surprises of the summer is that I’ve suddenly become a good climber. I’m not fast, but I’m steady – I don’t lose pace no matter how long a climb continues. Right through the ride (and in Kelowna too), I would pass riders continuously on the climbs and then have them blow past me on the flats or downhills. Clearly I haven’t got it all right, but I’m pleased about the progress I’ve made in this area at least.

I was doing well until we hit the headwind. This wasn’t far out of Alice Lake, and it quickly escalated from slightly detrimental to brutal. Even the downhills were hard – we had to pedal at capacity to hit speeds above 40k, and that’s where we should have been picking up time at 60k+. That said, I have to take some responsibility for how tough that stretch was. I didn’t draft at all. I lost track of the number of times someone popped out from behind me and said “Thanks for pulling me!” I do too much of my riding solo to have learned these skills, or be comfortable riding that close to the people around me.

The last 20k were brutal. I thought they’d be the home stretch, but the headwind slowed everything to an agonizing crawl and the kilometres ticked down painfully slowly on my cycle computer. And I know that road so wretchedly well; I knew just which landmarks we still had to pass, and that even once we saw the “Welcome to Whistler Village” sign we still had 8km to go. By that point, each kilometre felt like a lifetime. I’d planned my pace and energy output so carefully; I just hadn’t planned for the temperature and the headwind (it felt like a superheated hairdryer pushing us backwards) and how they combined to sap my energy.

When I finally swept around the curve to the finish line, I found enough strength in my legs to pump the pedals that final distance. The spectators were awesome – they cheered us middle-distance finishers in as though we were picking up Olympic gold medals. Crossing the line was amazing, a moment of pure joy made all the more poignant by the fact that I was just yards away from the clinic where my world came crashing down around me 18 months ago. And then I stopped, just before the entrance to the day skier parking lots, to check the clock. 4:56, which included some moments before start line and after the finish line. Due to some technical difficulties with the result boards, that was as much as I knew about my time for the next 24 hours.

I hung around in the rider paddock area until all my friends came in. This gave me a few organizational gripes on a day that was otherwise very well-organized – the hydration station was right by the gate between the bike park and the rider paddock, which meant you either had to stay in the bike park or fight your way back through the crowds every time you wanted a drink. I was super dehydrated, so this was a huge problem. Trying to get through the gate was horrendous – milling people wanting water on one side, and dozens of people trying to meet up with their friends on the other side (even though there was a designated meeting area out of the main traffic area). I ended up spending an hour or so sitting in the shade behind the nutrition tent in the bike park, simply because I couldn’t face going back and forward through the gate to get more water. It was too bad, because most of the day was an essay in exemplary organization. The start couldn’t have been handled better, and the wet towels and water tanker providing a cold shower at the finish line were very thoughtful and appreciated additions.

About 90 minutes after I finished J and L came in, and we compared notes on the ride. K crossed the line about 30 minutes later, and in the best shape of any of us after stopping for baguettes and wine at the Alice Lake station at lunchtime. For all of us, the adrenalin was high: we’d completed the ride, regardless of our various restrictions (I have the wonky knee, J has an ongoing foot problem, and K sustained some serious damage in a skiing accident in March.)

Photo credit: D. Heidrich

Not long after that our very good friend R showed up with my truck and my J in the passenger seat, and we all decamped to the Scandinave Spa to recover. Apart from the slightly worrisome bike security (we had to lock two very expensive road bikes to a flimsy wooden rack that looked as though it would fall apart in the face of a strong glare, never mind a good kick), it couldn’t have been a better plan. I was still badly overheated and spent most of my time in the cold plunge pools, but did treat my battered muscles to at least one soothing warm pool. Lying back in a hammock in a flower-strewn meadow on the tranquil mountainside couldn’t have been a more restorative experience after the heat and energy and chaos of the ride.

The next day the results came in, and for me they’re way ahead of the game. I finished in 4:47, which puts me 71st in my age group and 1,889th out of the 7,000 riders (78% of whom were men.) I’m pretty proud of that.

It’s been a long, tough year, but I finally feel like things are back on track. This summer has been about making up for the time that I lost, both at work and at home. I’ll never get that time back, but the long period of reflection it forced on me had its own value in the end. I came out the other side more determined, more thoughtful, and more appreciative of things that I maybe once took for granted just a little bit.

Now I have to decide what the next adventure’s going to be. All I know is that I don’t want it to be easy. After all, as a wise man once said, easy is boring.

The best bike ride of my life

Saturday was GranFondo day.

Between a family visit, temporary change of job and two tiny new foster kittens, it snuck up on me very quickly. Most of my training plans went out of the window, and I found myself on the road to Kelowna with a car full of people and bikes and very little of the preparation that I’d planned. It was only when we pulled up in front of the hotel and saw what could only be described as wall-to-wall bike porn that it really sank in that I was just 12 hours away from my first bike marathon.

After a nervous night’s sleep, I woke up at 5am to a bright and sunny morning in the Okanagan. The hotel opened its cafe early for a riders’ breakfast; my friend Cass and I joined the line at 5.30 and piled our plates high with oatmeal, pasta, egg whites, and in my case sausages and bacon. (Perhaps not the best cycling fuel, but I can never resist sausages and bacon.)

After breakfast we wheeled our bikes out of the hotel. The street outside was already bustling with riders stretching their legs, circling on bikes, snapping photos and doing last-minute mechanical checks in the early morning sunshine. We headed for the 5-6 hour starting corral, where by a happy coincidence I found my friend and training partner Jodi in the crowd. The three of us waited together as start time neared and the crowds and excitement built.

Just before 7am, the national anthem echoed around Water Street and then the gun sounded and the first riders poured over the start line. Those of us in the corrals further back edged forward a yard or two at a time for a few agonizing minutes. Then we too reached the start line, and I was able to swing a leg over my saddle and clip into my pedals and the ride was on.

Crossing the start line (photo credit: D. Heidrich)

The mass start was a whole new experience for me. (Because I was so badly injured during the Pacific Populaire, I started right at the back and didn’t ride as part of a big group.) There was such tremendous energy as the pack of cyclists flowed like water over the line and away down the street. I realised almost immediately that I’d placed myself in the wrong corral for the pace, so I moved to the left of the group and settled into a steady pedalling rhythm as we swung left onto Glenmore Road and headed out of the city.

It’s hard to describe how amazing those first 30 or so kilometres were. The morning air was fresh and cool, with the sunshine casting long shadows down from the rolling hills as we left the city behind us and cruised into lake country. The spectators were a total surprise to me: all along the way people lined the road, waving and cheering and clanging cowbells as the riders passed. With the lane dedicated to the event and traffic held back at every intersection, there was nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the ride. It was about as perfect as a cycling experience can possibly be. I couldn’t wipe the grin from my face; even the spectators I passed were shouting “Love the smile!” The pack began to stretch out as riders settled into their cycling rhythm, but I still found myself moving steadily forward.

At about 34km the road suddenly turned very sharply uphill, and a buzz began to spread among the cyclists: “Is this THE hill?” Eventually someone who knew the route answered, and the word spread back that we were on the climb to Predator Ridge. Climbing has never been a particularly strong point of mine, but I’d put in a fair bit of practice including laps on the UBC hill and a long slog up Mount Seymour about three weeks before the ride. I dropped into my easiest gear, gritted my teeth (apparently the spectators thought I was still smiling) and settled into a steady 10km/h climb with a cadence of about 80-90. The gradient was a lot steeper in certain stretches than my training hills, but I kept plugging away and trying not to let my cadence drop. Shortly before the summit, we also hit the Predator quasi-pavé – a stretch of loose sealed road strewn with gravel and potholes. I wasn’t entirely sure how my road bike with the skinny tires would handle it, but in fact as long as I steered around the bigger potholes it wasn’t bad at all. The biggest surprise was not how well I held my pace, but that I passed riders steadily the whole 7km of the climb.

After pushing hard all the way up the hill, I hit Predator Ridge on a screaming endorphin high. I jumped off my bike, snapped a couple of photos, refilled the water bottles I’d drained on the climb and threw an electrolyte tab in each, and gulped down a surprisingly tasty carb gel. I was probably stopped for less than three minutes, but all I wanted was to get back on the bike. As I set off on the downhill run beyond the aid station, it suddenly registered that it was only 9am and I’d just completed the hardest part of the course. This was the point when I realised I was in with a shot at a much better time than I’d planned.

The stretch from Predator Ridge to Vernon was glorious. Sweeping descents around hairpin curves interspersed with steady climbs through dusty farmlands and small lakes that glittered in the morning sun. There was a total, unconfined joy in the open road, and sweeping around the sharp downhill curves with the bike leaning far into the turn was as much of a rush as carving a hard, fast turn on skis.

For a natural risk-taker, I’m actually a very wary cyclist. I do most of my biking around town, and my level of caution is based on my days as a motorcycle commuter in London and the experience of being thrown headfirst into a tunnel wall by a truck driver who didn’t check his mirrors. I always assume that the cars around me have no idea I’m there, and unless I see a driver at an intersection look right at me I assume that they are going to proceed whether they have the right of way or not. The neatest thing about the GranFondo, apart from the route itself, was having the need for that caution and wariness taken away. It’s an amazing thing to have nothing on your mind but the bike and the landscape and the road beneath you.

As we raced down into Vernon the ride swung onto a small, multi-use trail, then looped through quiet suburban streets to the next aid station at the military camp – also the start point for the Medio riders. I didn’t stop at that one, but headed on to a steady climb out of town toward the highway. I suddenly caught sight of a flash of white-blonde hair on the hill ahead of me, and had time to wave a hello to Cass as I cycled on.

I wasn’t even watching my cycle computer by this time. As the highway curved down past the gorgeous turquoise waters of Kalamaka Lake, I could feel that my leg muscles were starting to get a little tired but my main thought was still that I really didn’t want this ride to end. Every now and then we’d pass a marker – 70km, 80km – and the few riders within earshot would shout encouragement to each other. It was a great combination of the cameraderie of a group ride, but also a solo experience where you could ride at your own pace and be alone with your thoughts and your bike for much of the time.

As we swept off the highway and down a steep descent, something snagged in my right eye. I still don’t know what it was, but it was excruciating. I rode the last couple of kilometres to the next aid station with one eye closed and little ability to anticipate bumps in the road. Once at the aid station I ducked into a washroom and doused the eye with water until it felt better. I got my bottles topped up with electrolyte mix again, and ate another carb gel. The stop was a bit longer than I’d intended, but by the time I started riding again my eye was back to normal.

Shortly after leaving the aid station we hit a brutal climb at about a 22% gradient. Spectators shouted encouragement and promised us it wouldn’t be long until we hit the top. By this time the same half-dozen riders had been trading positions for 20 or 30km (we were all going at quite a similar pace, but some of us did better on the climbs whereas others blew past on the descents) and we all grinned at each other as our tired quads pushed us slowly up the hill.

Even though we weren’t done with the climbs and still had another 20km to go, somehow after that hill it felt like the home stretch. The riders thinned right out as we headed back into Kelowna, and for the last couple of kilometres into the city I was on my own. As I swung around a line of traffic cones I could suddenly see the Delta Grand up ahead, and a spurt of energy caught me up to another couple of cyclists who invited me to join them as we headed for the finish line. Crossing the line was another amazing moment, as a small crowd cheered us in and cameras flashed.

I freewheeled to the dismount line, where I pulled my phone out to stop the Cyclemeter app and discovered that I’d come in at 4:42 – meaning that my official time had to be at least a couple of minutes faster, since I started the app running when our corral began moving. (My chip time ended up being 4:38.) I honestly thought the time was a mistake when I first saw it; I’d hoped to finish in under 6 hours, and never imagined that I would come in under 5. I’d been aware since early in the ride that I was making much better time than I’d anticipated, but didn’t think the difference would be that significant.

I hauled my bike over to the bike park area, and suspended it on a rack while I called J. While I was telling her that I was done and still trying to take in my time, someone hung a medal around my neck. I wandered into the Celebration Plaza in a complete daze. I ended up going back to the hotel to see J and change out of my sweat-soaked jersey and hideously uncomfortable bike shoes before heading back out to the plaza for food. I’d just finished the best pulled pork sandwich ever when I saw Cass pull in – she’d completed the Medio in just over four hours. The two of us got in line for the complimentary massage tent, and after very welcome massages found Jodi in the line as we were coming out. All three of us had made it to the finish line.

To be honest, I initially thought of the Kelowna GranFondo as a good training step for the Whistler GranFondo in September. It ended up becoming a very big deal to me for two reasons. The first is that it was another big test for my new knee: the furthest distance I’ve ridden since the accident, and as it turned out the fastest ride I’ve ever done. The second is because one of the hardest things I had to do as a result of last summer’s surgery was give up my registration to the inaugural Whistler GranFondo. There were a lot of very tough consequences to the surgery – 2.5 months off work, being completely dependent on J for the first couple of weeks, missing the first three months of the best ski season in history, rehab consuming my life for 8 months – but because the GranFondo registration was the very first thing I lost (I sold it when I got the surgery date and realized I’d be lucky to be back on a real bike by September, never mind riding 130km into the mountains) it’s always had an especially painful sting to it. I feel like I exorcised a few ghosts on Saturday, and I’m still stoked about my time – especially the fact that I placed 21st in my age group (30-39). The whole ride was an amazing experience, with great organization and a fabulous route. Now I can’t wait for Whistler.

Elevation graph captured using a Garmin Edge 800 cycle computer