Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Valley First Okanagan Axel Merckx Gran Fondo

The name is almost as long as the ride.

I had the opportunity to jump into the VFGFAMO (let's call it 'the fondo') this past Sunday, July 10th.  What an amazing experience!  I have to say, I've always been a bit jealous of the more local Whistler Gran Fondo, but have never been able to register for it due to it's proximity to Ironman Canada.  I always thought how fun it would be to be riding my bike in a huge group on the roads - and I finally got to enjoy it!

The Okanagan is a gorgeous place to ride.  I have had the opportunity to ride there many times, whether it be training or racing for a 1/2 Ironman, or Ironman Canada.  The roads up there wind in and along the heart of the desert, the vineyards, the mountain passes, the serene lakes, all of which make up the architecture of the Okanagan.  It is always a luxury to get on your bike and ride there.  The warmth, local fruit & wine are also a wonderful bonus.

A tremendously well organized event was this fondo from start to finish.  I think bike culture is a wonderful culture.  Sure, there are some dark parts to the most competitive arenas of cycling, but to the average ridership of you and me, cycling is a genuinely healthy and positive event.  And yes, bikes can be as expensive as you'd like them to be, but if you just ride your darn bike, you can be as good (or better) than those with the fanciest cycles.  So you get out what you put into it.  And it was clear on Sunday that a lot of people had put a lot of hard work into developing the fitness to do a lengthy and challenging ride.  Plus, no one was wearing aero helmets - finally, a race I can wear my regular helmet and feel like everybody else :)

I had gotten up early to bike in an extra 15 km from Summerland into Penticton (because 160km isn't enough? no...because I feel that others should get to sleep in when they're on vacation).  An absolutely perfect weather day, 25-ish C with some cloud cover, we lined up our bikes behind the Peach in downtown Penticton. I have to say, and I've said it before, that when I hear Steve King's voice, I feel instantly comforted.  And without fail, he was announcing at the fondo.  It's ingrained, the positivity and encouragment that resonates from this man's efforts to speak to each and every single participant who brings their own hopes and dreams to the starting line.  It was great to hear him there on Sunday.

The course wound around Penticton & Summerland, and then out to McLean Creek Rd, to those who ride the Ironman route, over to Oliver and then onto the Oliver 1/2 Iron route, then making a left hand turn up to the mountains just before arriving in Oliver.  After climbing (and climbing....and a little climbing) you pop back onto the gorgeous finish of the Ironman course once again as you descend into Penticton, that familiar sweet downhill to the finish line.

The ride is long and the ride isn't easy.  It was great to ride a new route through the White Lake hills and countryside, as I'm more accustomed to the IMC route.  I didn't really have a great idea of where I stood in the biking world, as I had never done a bike race outside of a triathlon before.  I had received an entry in a contest through IMPACT Magazine, (big thank you to IMPACT!!) so I hadn't prepared for this ride per se, but, training for IMC leaves you with a substantial reserve for jumping into endurance events.  As I would have been doing a training ride anyways, this was a total luxury to have a fully supported ride, company, and some terrific swag (honestly, a beautiful wine glass, a musette bag and more = awesome).

I had no intentions of smashing this ride and racing anyone.  I managed to hold off any competitiveness for at least 90km.  I think that's pretty good willpower.  However, as the crowds began to thin out (the Mediofondo, 90km) I was so thrilled to be on the open road with speedy company, so it was nice to stay with them, and occasionally ride in groups - something I am totally unaccustomed to being a cyclist who does non-drafting racing only.  Let me tell you, it is FUN to ride fast in a big group, especially a big group of boys who block the wind, as my brother calls it, "like a garage door".  And everyone was so friendly.  I've been a little intimidated by big serious groups of cyclists, but really, I think because there were so many individuals, you just naturally work together to get where you're going faster.  It was great!  It's fast paced, so there isn't a lot of chatting going on, but it's focused and positive work.  That's what cycling is all about.  Putting in the miles.

There were lots of great memories about this ride, but I'd like to share a couple that stood out.

When we started the race, you ride out on a flat, take a couple of turns, and then you start climbing up a hill.  At this point, I was riding beside a guy who said out loud to himself, "Wow, that is so cool" and he was referring to the sea of cyclists that were packed together peddling themselves up the hill en mass.  He was right, it was totally cool and I'm glad he said it - it made me appreciate that I'm surrounded by a whole bunch of people that were feeling they were part of something special.

Secondly, as we were climbing a heck of a climb up towards White Lake, the chatter in the group basically ground to a halt.  This was hard work and we had already cycled 120km I'm sure, so you're not feeling your freshest at this point.  People who neglected nutrition or hydration were probably feeling like they were about to fall into a fresh type of hell.  As we climbed in silence for minutes, as I watched one guy get helped up the hill with a double push on the back of his seat, a man slightly behind me said, "I'm hot".  Then silence followed.  Then I said, "Me too".  And that seemed to stir up a bit of laughter in the crowd, and then we were all happily cycling again.  Camaraderie is everything sometimes.

Lastly, after it was all said and done, I had to congratulate one of the men on the bike in our group, who did a heck of a lot of front of the pack work.  He must have been 6 feet tall at a minimum, and not the slightest guy on the block although quite fit, and obvious target for folks who like to draft.  Honestly, it's like watching mosquitos go after a plump juicy steak of a person.  After resting my little legs behind this guy for quite a while, I did take a couple of turns at the front of the group, although I did eventually get passed again when my front riding offered some respite to the group (and when I began to die off the front - it is HARD work up there).  At the end of the ride, this guy looked shattered.  I told him it was great riding behind him.  He said he wondered if he should start charging a toll to the pack behind him.  I laughed.  I told him he was a great garage door.  He laughed.  I found him later lying on the grass with one of the wonderful ice cold towels we got upon finishing on his head, looking tired.  I had two popsicles.  I offered him one and said that was my toll.  He looked thankful.  It made me happy.

As I left to ride off to meet my friends, all I could see at this event were smiles.  I couldn't help think to myself, am I ready to do this again and then run a marathon?  I tried not to second guess myself, and just told myself it would happen when it needed to happen.  I felt very privileged to have been a part of this event.  So again, a big thanks to IMPACT Magazine for this opportunity!  I really do think this is something that every cyclist should do at least once in their lifetime - and by the looks of things there are going to be lots of opportunities in amazing places to do so as more and more fondo's pop up.  The europeans know what they're doing when it comes to bikes - and I'm elated to see Canadians taking notice and following suit.

In the end, I finished 23rd for women, and 341st overall.  It wasn't a race, really, but it was fun to see where I stacked up in my first 'bike' race.  It definitely improved my group riding skills, and quadrupled my appreciation of drafting.  I'm going to miss that when I go back to triathlon.  Oh well.  I finished in about 5:04 with maybe 5-6 minutes of stopped breaks, so I was pretty happy with the result.  Training does work after all.  Who knew?

That's it for me.  Enough of the fun stuff, it's time to go into lockdown and focus on IMC.  I am excited - and the fire has been stoked after being up in the Okanagan on my bike this weekend.   Can't wait.

Keep working kids.  Pedal hard, wear your helmet and don't bonk.  It's that simple :)


  1. Boo-ya! I got quoted! You're right though, this new "GranFondo" craze has it's perks. You can treat it however you like, and there is a lot of friendliness. Yes, drafting is cushy, and I sympathize with the big fellas. I push more air than a Hyundai. Don't get too used to it;)

  2. can't wait for your growth spurt, then you're going to be upgraded to the 15 car garage door.