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.

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