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-pav√© – 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

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