The big day. The 122 kilometre, 2,060 meters uphill, RBC GranFondo Whistler. It was back in March or April when I first thought of this goal, and April when I signed up for the clinic that included my non-refundable (read: “well, I guess I’m committed!”) registration and workout plan for the summer. In all, five months of training and preparation and I was as ready as I could be and as focused as possible. I only started cycling 10 months ago – could I pull this off?
My alarm was set for 5:00am, but as usual with important events or plans, I woke up about 10 minutes beforehand. It wasn’t the most restful sleep, but I was fine. After a solid breakfast, stretching and triple-checking to make sure I had all my gear, I was on the road at 5:25am and headed for the start area on Georgia Street at the Vancouver Art Gallery. I got there at about 5:45 and the majority of riders had yet to arrive. It was still dark out.
Things started to get more interesting about half an hour later, as cyclists began to accumulate by the hundreds. It was misty/drizzling ever so slightly, enough to wet the roads and the riders. Georgia Street would be our roll-out and each block over a five-block stretch from Thurlow to Richards was partitioned by designated “corrals” based on estimated ride completion time, where riders would self-determine how fast they think they’d be. The pros and those aspiring started up front, followed by those hoping to finish in around 4 hours. Then the 4.5 hour group. Then the 5 hour group… and so on, back to the 7 hour+ group. I positioned myself nicely in the middle of the 5 hour group.
At about 6:45, after some speeches by politicians and the like, and a communal singing of Oh Canada! the gun sounded and they started rolling the riders out. With 4,000 cyclists participating, and roughly 1,500 in front of me, it took 20 minutes for me reach the start line! We cruised down Georgia Street under controlled, marshalled speeds in a slight rain shower and after a brief stop for a(n already) fallen rider being attended to by ambulance, started ascending the hill up to the Lions Gate Bridge. Once over the bridge, we turned right up Taylor Way, which is an infamously steep road of about 1 km in length and 7.3% grade, that accesses the Upper Levels Highway. This was the first test of our legs and stamina and a sign of things to come.
After getting to the Upper Levels, the density of riders really thinned out. A steep climb like Taylor Way will do that. We swung left where the planners had devoted the entire two eastbound lanes to the Fondo riders and moved vehicle traffic to single lane over on the westbound side. The hills continued, albeit at a more moderate incline, up and over Horseshoe Bay which, at that time was about 7:50am. Around then the rain stopped and the roads began to dry.
The rolling hills, with their challenging rises and rewarding descents continued all the way to Squamish. Every hill has it’s payoff, and I was loving the opportunities to catch my breath and fly downhill, often passing 70 km/hr. My bike set-up and body weight (about 190 lbs) help me gain good speed while maintaining control.
After Squamish, the real challenge began. As you’ll note on my telemetry (bottom), the last half of the ride is almost entirely up-hill (approximately 50km) and takes a toll on your energy and muscles. What’s worse is that I was a bit irresponsible and attacked some of the early hills too hard (like Furry Creek, which had been officially timed for each rider as a King of the Mountain competition). I was, as they say in cycling, ‘burning too many matches’ and perhaps not saving enough energy for the remainder of the race.
I stopped at one rest-stop, Stop 3, which was just after Squamish, where I replenished my water and energy drink and ate some fruit. I packed my own energy bars (I eat Larabars, which are all natural, gluten-free and with whole nuts, grains and delicious things like chocolate and peanut butter) and rationed myself to about half a bar (100 calories) every half-hour. I thought about stopping at the final rest-stop which was with about 30km to go, but by that point I thought I had enough water, and otherwise did not want to quit pedalling. After my initial stop I noticed how difficult it was to get the legs pumping again on my bike. It would have been even harder had I stopped again.
The final 30km were the hardest, as you might imagine. You’ve already been through 90km and about 1,500 meters of climbing, and everything hurts. My back was stiff and sore and everything from the waist down was either numb or full of lactic acid. And yet the legs kept working. Every new hill was a devastating prospect, and each one I climbed a little slower than the last. You could see everyone else slowing down too, which was at least a little reassuring.
With 10km to go, you realize that it’s almost over, but there’s still a big chunk of riding left. At least 20 minutes’ worth! This is where mind over matter comes into play. This is where I began reminding myself of all the hard work I’d put in, and that no matter how I felt mentally or physically, I knew that I could and would not only finish, but finish strong. I refused to let myself down, or to give in to the pain. I dug deep.
We were under one kilometre to go when we rounded the corner off the highway and into Whistler Village, and one cruel little joke had yet to play out. The road into the finish line was uphill! Not by much, mind you, but there was a small yet visually insidious hill left to tackle. Nothing compared to what we’d done already, but at that moment, when I had nothing left, it was the last thing I wanted to see. I stood up out of my saddle and pedalled. Making the last turn, I could see down the straightaway to the finish line, put my hands into the drops, stood up again, geared up and sprinted as hard as I could. I overtook two riders and flew through the finish. It was early enough in the ride that spectators were still 3-4 deep along the finishing 200 meters. The cheers were inspiring, and I overheard the emcee call my name and extol about my sprint finish. It felt awesome.
Completely exhausted, as I sat back and cruised into the finish corral I was overcome by emotion. All that hard work – this aspirational and somewhat foolish goal I’d set to do this ride within a year of taking up cycling, the months of preparation, and the pain and suffering of actually putting muscle to pedal for 5 hours – it was all over and I’d done it.
This was undoubtedly, unequivocally, without question the hardest physical thing I have ever done. I had absolutely nothing left in the tank. My legs were fully depleted, my will-power sapped and if I’d seen another hill I might very well have stopped. My official chip time was 4 hours 47 minutes: under the 5 hours that I’d benchmarked and within a respectable 1 hour 20 minutes behind the winners (top rider was 3:21). I’m quite thrilled! I rode a good ride, only a few mistakes, like pounding it up Furry Creek hill for the KOM competition, which just about killed me for the rest of the race. Overall though, I handled it well and the hard work paid off. Mission accomplished.
Telemetry and photos (note: if you’re wondering why my ride is a little longer and higher than the Fondo specs, it’s because I started my computer from home, not from the start line, so +5.5km and +50 meters):