Away, and up, up!

13 09 2010

Wow.

That was the word running through my head almost continuously for Saturday’s 120 kilometer Gran Fondo to Whistler. Well, except for the 20 km stretch from about 90 kms to 110 kms when my legs turned to concrete and my spirits bottomed out as rider after rider passed me on even the slightest gradient.

But with the first signposts for Whistler and the occasional well-wisher on the side of the road, as well as a Z-Bar in my belly, I got my mojo back and rode hard to the finish, five hours and 11 minutes after I set off, 4:34 of that rolling time, for an average speed 26.4 kmh.

The day started a little roughly. And a lot early. As in 4 a.m. alarm early. Then, shortly after we set off for downtown Vancouver, I realized I’d forgotten to pack along my cycling shoes. Luckily, we were just around the corner from home, so a quick turnaround and we were off again.

Dawn broke as I straddled my bike at Georgia St. and Hornby, surrounded by more than 4,000 other roadies, awaiting the 7 a.m. starting gun. The rain that had been forecast earlier in the week was now not supposed to materialize until evening; there were cracks of deep blue visible beyond the upper reaches of the condo, office and hotel towers looming all around us.

Roadies for as far as the eye can see!

Curiously, as the morning got brighter, it also got colder. Or maybe I was just getting antsy to actually ride.

The PA announcements from the start were mostly inaudible at my distant station. But when Vancouver opera singer Mark Donnelly, who’s probably better known for his rendition of O Canada before Canucks’ games, started singing the national anthem, his stirring rendition boomed up and down the city canyons. The energy of the crowd intensified.

When a helicopter cruised low overhead to photograph the throng of cyclists eager to get going, the excitement was palpable.

Then, the countdown. Given the size of our peloton, I thought it would be almost the start of the Lions Gate Bridge before we could all be safely clipped in with both feet and actually pedaling, but I was already riding as I passed through the timing gate.

We were buzzed again by another helicopter as we crossed the bridge, the sun cracking through the breaking clouds on our right.

As I expected, the climb up Taylor Way to Highway 1 started to string out the peloton. Already, some riders were suffering.

Owning a lane on the Upper Levels Highway.

What surprised me the most, though, was the number of people along the side of the road and lining overpasses at the early hour to cheer the riders on. When you’re used to hearing catcalls and car horns while riding in the city, how could you not help smiling and waving at their support!

The early morning light casts my shadow on the open road ahead.

Of course, in such a large, diverse group of cyclists, their experience with riding in a pack was all over the map. Some signaled hazards on the pavement, many didn’t. Some yielded to passing riders, some didn’t. Some called out when passing others, many didn’t. And despite a stated rule against tri-bars and earbuds, there were plenty of both in the peloton.

So it was important to stay alert early on with so many riders tightly grouped. The consequences of a moment’s inattention became tragically apparently on the first fast descent on the highway down to Horseshoe Bay.

As we screamed down the long, gently curving hill approaching 60 kmh, a couple of cyclists were perched against the concrete median frantically waving for everyone to slow down. A woman ahead of me fishtailed but remained upright. And there to our left lay a rider down, totally motionless, his face planted on the tarmac, a sickening pool of blood around his head, another rider immobilizing his neck. It was a frightening, disturbing sight. The bottom dropped out of my stomach. When I checked in with Katie a little later, it was all I could do from breaking down. We’re all too aware of the dangers we face every time we push our bikes out the front door, inattentive drivers and pedestrians, aggressive dump trucks, broken glass; but we don’t expect it in a well-organized, controlled environment like the Fondo.

A few times during the ride I felt uncomfortable with the group in which I was immersed, riders who didn’t understand “on your left,” the paceline that didn’t really know what it was doing and just managed to create a barrier preventing anyone else from passing slower riders; I just altered my pace or ducked into one of the aid stations for few moments to get away from them.

Ducking into the lunch station at Squamish meant pizza and wine!

Quickly enough though, the undulating course had its effect and strung out the peloton; there were moments when I was 100 meters away from any other rider.

Off again!

All in all, it was an excellent event, a magnificent opportunity to ride a renowned route safely and quickly. The rest stops were well stocked with fruit, energy bars, bagels, water and smiling, enthusiastic volunteers, especially the bagel person at the Salt Shed who just happened to be my beloved Katie; her smiles and encouragement came at just the right moment, propelling me up and over the difficult climbs that were still to come!

How could I not accept a bagel from this smiling, beautiful face!

Thanks to everyone who’s followed my training blog, and who donated to Team Diabetes. It was a magnificent team effort!

Next up: I try to maintain my sleek cycling physique through the long, dark, wet days of winter!

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5 responses

14 09 2010
SuperMattMan

Awesome job Mario!

15 09 2010
janice

That was a great blog and an emotional blog – so well written. What a tough and challenging ride!! Well done Mario!!!!!!!

21 09 2010
Isabel

Way to go, Mario! I love the photos, too.

9 01 2011
Make a wish |

[…] been talking about this fondo since completing the Whistler Gran Fondo last September. And initially we thought if I got into the Tiffany’s race in San Francisco, […]

17 07 2012
The heat of the day «

[…] years ago when I started this blog, the Whistler Gran Fondo was the first ride of its kind organized in Canada. This year there are five such fondos in this […]

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