My first hitch of the day was applying sunscreen to my arms, and then trying to roll up my arm warmers. The forecast for the day was hot: yet leaving my house by the light of the moon and riding to the start of the GranFondo required warmth, thus the sunscreen/arm warmer combination. The two don’t mingle, it turns out, and I think all of my sunscreen was scraped off by the time my arm warmers were in place.
These are the things you just can’t plan for, but they always make race days memorable.
I left my house at 5:45 am to ride the 10 kilometers to the start (in effect making it a 132 km event, since my mind did record every kilometer we passed), when the second hitch struck. There are no streetlights on my road, and I couldn’t see a thing. I gingerly glided down the hill in the dark, hoping I didn’t spill before I even got to the starting line.
Once down on the well-illuminated main road, I was immediately caught up in a cheerfully growing peloton making their way over the Lion’s Gate Bridge, to the start of the race on Georgia Street. Thus began the camaraderie – I knew no one, but felt a common bond. For those who don’t do these races, this a big part of why we do them.
A full hour before the race, thousands of riders were already in place for the start. It was a sea of spandex and rubber, so I had to text to find my friend. Once in place, we watched the circus unfolding around us. Finally at 7:00 am, Barney Bentall and Jim Cuddie sang our national anthem, and then hopped on their bikes for the 122 km ride to Whistler. I know, cool, right?
This beginning section was what I feared most: bikes everywhere in a narrow corrider, unclipping from my pedals hundreds of times until we got some space between us to ride freely. But my fears were unfounded: race organizers did a bang up job and it went off without a hitch. We were on our way.
Riding through West Vancouver was so much fun – it was thrilling to have our own lane on the highway, and spectators huddled on overpasses and along the exits to cheer on riders. I was so relieved to be actually on my bike and upright after the start, I felt rather invincible.
That wouldn’t last long however: shortly after Horseshoe Bay riders were off their bikes and motioning for us to slow down. A rider had crashed and looked badly injured, medics were already on the scene. One look at the accident and I lost my mojo, slowing considerably for a while after. A split second can change everything.
I had lost my friend but found her again as we rode up the Furry Creek hill. We decided to stop at the next rest stop in Britannia Beach and grab some food. The rest stops were somewhat of a party, with hundreds of bikers milling about and always familiar faces. It was nice to get off that seat, if only for a couple of minutes. We refueled and hit the road; it was literally all uphill from here: the biggest increase in elevation occurs between Squamish and Whistler. I had ridden to Squamish and back in training, but didn’t have much knowledge of the road from that point on.
It is drastically different when driving.
As luck would have it it was getting hot as we started the uphill slog after Squamish. I noticed lots of riders beginning to slow down, and could see the distance was taking its toll. My knee was starting to throb, and getting up out of my seat was painful. I kept my head down and hoped the pain would subside eventually, since I otherwise felt fine, if a tad tired.
I pulled into the rest stop at the Salt Shed, with about 30 kilometers to go. Thankfully the medical tent was even closer than the water station. I walked in and asked, “What do you have for pain?” One volunteer sat me down and started rubbing what I hoped was miracle cream on my knee, while another got me Advil and refilled my water bottles. As this was happening two other riders came in asking the million dollar question, “What do you have for pain?”
With 30 kilometers to go, I was fairly certain I could finish, even if I had to pedal with only my left foot. But eventually either the Advil kicked in or the cream started to work, and I felt better. This was fortuitous because this is where the killer hills lurked. The sun was beating down on the asphalt and reeking havoc with tired riders. Many were pulled over during the last fifteen kilometers trying to stretch out muscle cramps, while others were losing their lunch. I focused on the road in front of me and counted down the distance; the kilometers at this point passing almost intolerably slowly.
Finally we were at Function Junction, and the tree cover provided a break from the unrelenting sun. The undulating hills that brought us in to the village were much kinder than the previous steep climbs, and of course there was the knowledge that the finish was near. Things were getting better.
Riding the last couple of turns were actually pleasurable – despite the pain running through my body, from a sore neck to an incredibly sore butt – knowing the race was behind me, the finish line in sight, and a beer would taste incredibly good soon.
Sitting on the grass later that evening, listening to 5440 play an outdoor concert as the sun fell behind Blackcomb mountain, it was hard to argue this was not an amazing event. I had been nervous about making the jump to road riding, but was euphoric I had done it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
If you plan on heading to Whistler this weekend, pump up your tires and join the crowd: you will be served better by two wheels than four. The RBC GranFondo is in town. If your Italian is rusty, GranFondo translated means long race, massive pain. The upside is that cyclists will have their very own precious northbound lane along the Sea to Sky corrider from early morning until late afternoon.
For this special day, cyclists will not have to choke on exhaust. They will not be forced onto the gravel shoulder of a road by cars insistent on hugging the white line. They will be able to enjoy the breathtaking views in their peripheral vision without the distracting roar of engines.
Combine these attractions with the aging demographic, who find cycling easier on the joints if hard on the pocketbook, and you get 4000 participants in last year’s inaugural event. A huge turnout by any race standard. This year the event has almost doubled in size – it sold out in April to 7000 riders.
And yes, I’m one of them.
I have logged hundreds of miles, much of them uphill, in preparation. I’ve gone from shakily practicing those damn toe clips in my driveway to manouvering skillfully through intersections. I’ve only fallen once this summer (and that was down stairs without my bike). I feel ready for this challenge – but for one caveat.
I’m used to avoiding hulking weapons of steel, otherwise known as cars, on my rides, but what about the 6,999 other cyclists? I’ve ridden with the occasional friend in my training, but it’s hard to practice riding in a pack without, well, a pack.
So I’ve been busily interviewing every cyclist I know and Googling the hell out of “Tips for cycling races.” The best advice I’ve had so far has been from my friend and uber-athlete, Chrissie, who told me NEVER, in any circumstances, take your eyes off the road. This may seem obvious, but I frequently shoulder check while I ride, which entails taking my eyes off the road for a millisecond. This is a no-no. I am to use my peripheral vision to shoulder check.
The other thing she told me was to not watch the wheel of the rider in front of me, but rather look through them at the level of their hips, in order to see the road in front of that rider (as best you can without possessing x-ray vision).
So eyes front and slightly raised.
But what about all of those obstacles that we swerve to avoid, like broken glass and large potholes? Cyclists that I know will point these out with a wave of their hand if they are in front of me. If I’m alone however, I sometimes don’t see them until the last second. The answer, according to bloggers, is to slowly and steadily steer around these obstacles, with the emphasis on slowly and steadily. If you see it too late, and if it’s not big enough to swallow you and your bike whole, then ride through it rather than swerve and risk the rider behind you crashing into you.
Once again, the message here is eyes front. I’m getting it.
So it goes without saying when reaching for water bottles or fuel, do it without taking your eyes off of the road. My friend caught grief from riders in the Napa GranFondo when she inadvertently dropped her water bottle. Of course it was a mistake, but one that could have had consequences. I’m planning on not touching my bottles until well out of the pack.
Eyes front, steady hands.
Of course there are other niggling worries for the 120 km ride: proper nutrition and hydration, fatigue, my incessantly complaining ass. But they all pale in comparison to staying upright through the thickest of things. My biggest challenge will be to remain focused on the road in front of me, even if the rider beside me is naked.
Eyes front, smiling permitted.