Yesterday I rode the inaugural Whistler Gran Fondo - a 120 km (actually 122k, but who's counting?) race from downtown Vancouver, up the Sea to Sky highway, to Whistler Village. It was something I was looking forward to for months, and it did not disappoint!
I'd always wanted to ride highway 99 up to Whistler, especially since the highway was redone for the Olympics to be safer and wider. When this event was announced, I signed up right away. One of the bonuses was they closed a lane the entire way, so there was a good route up a road with a reputation for not being one of the safest out there.
The race started smack in the middle of downtown Vancouver, with the start line at the intersection of W. Georgia and Burrard. The route went over the Lions Gate Bridge, the upper levels highway, highway 99 (with a quick detour through Squamish), right to the heart of Whistler Village. Start time was 7 am, with everyone needing to be in the start corral by 6:30, so an early wake-up was prescribed.
Early morning in the hotel room, dressed and ready to go!
We were at the start by 6 thinking we'd beat the rush, and turns out about 2,000 other riders thought the same thing. I was hoping to finish in 5 hours and 30 minutes so I found the 5-6 hour corral, found space right at the front of it, and lined up and waited for the start. Waited, waited, waited... almost an hour is a long time to stand on a road with your bike, as thousands of riders filled every available centimeter around you.
I'm somewhere in the 4,043 cyclists at the start line...
Jason headed in the car to the halfway point in Squamish, where he was going to meet me at the aid station so I could refuel. The starting gun went, but it was at least a minute before there was any movement at all where I was standing. Then it was a couple minutes of slowly inching towards the start line, shoulder to shoulder and wheel to wheel, but once across the line space opened up and I was pedaling away. Over the bridge, up Taylor Way and onto the Upper Levels, then the turnoff to highway 99.
The Sea to Sky is a beautiful road, with Howe Sound to the west and the Coast Mountains to the east. The first half of the ride was really fun, with climbs (some steep, some rolling) giving way to fast, fun downhills. It was cool and overcast, but the forecasted rain didn't come and the roads were dry. I rode for a while with Sandra from Squamish, we chatted and worked together until she dropped me on the Furry Creek climb. I saw her red jacket ahead a few times after that but could never quite catch her again.
Our own lane on the highway, all the way to Whistler.
It seemed like no time at all had passed and I'd arrived in Squamish, with Jason standing on the road just before the aid station exit. He quickly switched out my mostly empty bottles with their mix of CarboPro and Vega Sport for two new full ones, while I ate half the peanut butter and banana sandwich he handed me. He pulled off my toe warmers since I didn't need them, and offered to take my rain jacket, but I wanted to keep it since I wasn't confident it wouldn't rain. My pit stop was two minutes long, and I clipped in and headed out for the second half.
While each uphill on the first half of the course was immediately followed by a downhill, we weren't so lucky on the second half. I hopped on the wheel of a guy in a bright green jersey, and he towed me high speed through town, past packs of other riders, making good time and I was doing everything I could just to hang in his draft. Soon after the 70k sign, the road kicked up and he dropped me. We started a gradual climb which somehow in my head ended at Alice Lake, about 5 km up the road. The Alice Lake turnoff came and went, and we were still going up. For about another 15 km it turned out - how had I missed how long that climb was all the times I'd driven up to Whistler?
I could feel that the long, 20 km climb had taken a toll on my quads. Yes, I knew this ride started at sea level and finished at a ski hill, so I was perfectly prepared for climbing... but I was definitely taken a bit aback by how much sustained effort climbing for over an hour took without a real break. It was getting warmer, so I pulled my armwarmers off while climbing, Jason honked as he drove by, I chatted with a variety of people as we all commiserated together about how tough and long this section was... then we finally hit the top. There were some short downhill sections during the second half, but you weren't guaranteed to go down after each up.
I kept pedaling, didn't stop at any of the aid stations, jumped on wheels when I could and felt flattered when someone jumped on mine. I made sure I was paying attention to getting enough calories in, and never felt the low point that inevitably comes during long events. But just past Brandywine Falls, with less than 20 km to go, a sharp spasm and cramp in one of my adductor muscles in my right thigh appeared. Every time I pushed hard on the pedals to climb, it would tense and seize. I stopped to massage it, and a spectator told me there was a short downhill just around the corner where I could work it out. I clipped back in and soft pedaled around the corner until I could coast and massage the muscle, which seemed to work.
I rode the last 15 km with a guy from Whistler, we never exchanged names but he was wearing a Snowcovers jacket - so thanks, Snowcovers guy, for the conversation. We worked together, and I knew I was finishing way under my goal time. We both decided to sprint at the finish, only he started his at about 1k out and I waited for the 500m mark. It was cool to finish strong and feel good, lots of people were cheering, and as I came around the corner I could see Jason waving and yelling just before the finish line. I finished in 5:05, way faster than my 5:30 goal so of course I was over the moon.
He met me in the finish corral with my jacket and the rest of my peanut butter sandwich, which I devoured as I recanted stories of the day and my ride, and he filled me in on how some friends did. He admitted he was a loser for not signing up, and is sure to toe the line in the future. Personally, I can't wait for next year, and to see if I can go under 5 hours.
Finisher medal in one hand, sandwich in the other.