Friday, July 27, 2012

Gran Fondo Reggio Capitale

What to say about the Gran Fondo?  Well first off, what is a Gran Fondo?  I've heard various opinions/descriptions.  It's a large ride (ie many participants) it's a long ride (yeah 'long' is open for interpretation), it's a big ride (especially involving climbs of many thousands of meters).  I finally went to the web and this definition seems to come closest to describing our event best:

We’ve all heard the term “Gran Fondo”...but what does it really mean? A true Italian Gran Fondo is a mass-start, timed cycling event, run over closed roads, with full support and post-ride podium presentations. In short…it’s the closest most of us will ever come to knowing what it feels like to be a full-on Italian bike racer.  And it could be the most fun you’ve ever had on a bike!

So by that definition let's see how our event stacked up:  Mass start?  Check. (but maybe not such a great idea, more on that later) Timed?  Sort of.  If you bumped an extra $75 on your registration fee you got a time chip but there were only four timed sections of road between 10 and 15 km each, you raced for a time in those sections and you rode the rest of it. Closed roads?  Nope, but we had a bald guy with an impressive beer gut on a Harley riding in front of us most of the race, directing us at turns and waving us through blind intersections when the road was clear.  Full Support?  Check.  It was there, it just wasn't always obvious where. Post Ride Podium?  Closest to knowing what it feels like to be a full on Italian bike racer?  Well, short of shaving my legs and pretending my family is Italian like that kid in the movie Breaking Away I guess that's true.  Most fun you've ever had on a bike?  Yeah, maybe.  I would say it's in the top three cycling events I've personally participated in.  So I guess if it wasn't a true Granfondo it's the closest I'll ever get.

The idea for this event was born back in early spring when we realized that we would be in La Canadienne's homeland on the days of Both* the Desperado Dual bike race and the Ladies only version of the Rockwell Relay (aka pamperfest).  We both searched the 'net for an alternative somewhere in Ontario (preferably Ottawa, but we were also going to be in Toronto and near Montreal, any of those would do as well) and as luck would have it we found one, not just in Ottawa but a ride that started in Kanata, a mere 2 km from the home of La Canadienne's parents.  What were the chances?  It's like they planned the event with us in mind.

*Interestingly enough all three events:  The Desperado Dual, The Pamperfest (Ladies Only Rockwell, no pampering this year, or so I've been told) and the Gran Fondo Reggio Capitale all took place on the same day.  July 21st.

So without giving it a second thought I signed us up way back in March, thus qualifying for the early spring rate.  That would be $125.  And what do you get for your $125 (US currency)?  Glad you asked.  There's the requisite SWAG-bag (complete with complimentary tube of DZ nuts, I had to explain it's use and association with local cycling hero Dave Zabriskie to the Canuks) and a race jersey, which at the last minute we were told we had to wear for the event unless we had signed up as a club, in which case we were allowed to wear our club colors.

In addition we got email updates on the event.  Weekly updates, sometimes multiple times per week.  The more I read about the event the more I wondered if we were going to be disappointed.  We were hoping for a race and this was going to be a ride.  Emails mostly dealt with area hotels, cafés and coffee shops on the route.  Diners to stop for lunch and interesting local attractions in the towns we would be passing through.  I've signed up for lots of races (and at least one 'ride') and not once did I have time to take in the local flavor at a coffee shop or bend an elbow at watering hole on main street.  As we got closer to race day I started preparing myself for 'ride' day and figured even if the local cyclists were more interested in wine and cheese tasting rather that turning the cranks I was going blow this out as fast as I could, even if me and my favorite ride partner were the only ones so inclined.

You know it swanky event when the bottled water comes in, you know, bottles (with a cork no less) 

and the registration event is lit with chandeliers (in the shape of maple leafs) 

What your 125 bones don't buy you is enough volunteers to check you in and distribute the Swag/gear in a timely manner.  Gran means big (in numbers of participants) and by the time the shouting was over, this event had matriculated more than 1500 riders.  Unfortunately those same 1500 riders were relying on two people with laptops to check them in and distribute their race goodies.  We arrived exactly on time as directed and still waited nearly two hours.  By the time we left, the line had stretched to twice its length.  Add that to July heat and humidity and you've got lots and lots of angry/frustrated bike riders.  Some riders I talked to waited three hours before they finally gave up and came back in the AM.

We grab the goods and run before the locals realize that we're interlopers from the south and form a lynch mob.

Race morning, last minute hydration and snacks.  La Canadienne gives the Gran Fondo 'you must wear the race jersey' rule the 'says you' treatment.  It's Rockwell Relay day and she's going to fly the flag even if she can't ride the race.

Race prepped and ready to roll.  Unlike any race we've been in before, the start/finish location of this event is riding distance (even after putting in more than a hundred miles in the saddle) from our house. I liked it.  It might be time to start the Gran Fondo West Jordan

Lots and lots of cyclists but no race jitters today.  I have a history of freezing up on game day.  Not today though.  We're both relaxed and looking forward to a good time.  Just a ride through the country.  There are three distances to choose from in this particular event.  Medio (100km/60 miles, Gran Fondo 170 km/110 miles and super Fondo 220 km/135 miles).  The race is marked with colored arrows, red, green and blue corresponding to the various race distances.  Or so we thought.  They cut our 170 km group (500+ of us) loose at 8am.  That many cyclists all clipping in and jockeying for position is always fraught but we manage to get out of the starting blocks without incident as far as I could tell.

As I suspected, the 'wear the race jersey' rule has resulted in a peleton that looks like a page out of a Where's Waldo book.  Easy enough to find La Canadienne though.  This photo is taken by La Candienne's father, he had to walk all of 500 meters from his back door to take it.  I know the fact that this race starts almost in the shadow of La Canadienne's parent's home has almost reached beating a dead horse status at this point, but I still can't believe we found the perfect event, in the perfect location at the perfect time.

No neutral start, we're free to charge out as fast as we want with traffic control from the local constabulary.  We hook up with what looks like the lead peleton and La Canadienne stays with me for about 3 miles then cuts me loose to ride my race.  She knows I've been itching to see what I can do with a century distance for the entire year since I stood roadside and watched every one from our crew completely destroy the Desperado Dual century race.  This ride will be fairly similar.  About 3000 feet of climb (albeit at sea level) compared to 3500 in the Desperado and 108 mile distance vs 109 mile in the Desperado.  Unlike the Desperado, the climb in this race is spread out over rolling hills as opposed to one solid climb.  Not sure if that's advantageous or not.

The real challenge early on is finding your group.  The one that will push you to stay with them but not so far that you won't finish.  Problem is on flat roads in town everyone rides about the same speed, it's only when you slow for a turn and push to get back to cruising speed that you know whose a baller and who will let you down.  The old adage about judging books by the cover is never more true than in cycling.  In this particular race a guy who looked like John Goodman's character Walter Sobchak from the big Lebowski emerged from the rear of the peleton 60 miles into this ride to take a pull at the point.

The Dude, Donny and Walter

At the time I was feeling it and wondering if I could hang for another 50 miles at that pace.  So you just never can tell if you're riding with folks you've never ridden with before.  Which is how most races are.  A couple of observations that I've developed, you might even call them Peleton rules to live by if you're in it win it rather than just riding to take in the scenery.  Number one has to do with old guys (55 and over) some of whom will beat you up and take your lunch money (metaphorically speaking) if you don't give them their proper respect.  I've not just seen it I've experienced it so I never pass flash judgement based on a rider's age.  The old guys you want to avoid are the ones with mirrors on their helmets.  There's a reason they've mounted a rear view mirror.  They're planning on being caught from behind (and summarily dropped) by lots of people. If you're on their wheel, you will be too.  So watch out for the helmet accessories.

Rule # 2 lady cyclists.  Same rule applies as for old dudes on bikes.  Get too full of yourself and let testosterone go to your head and you're bound to get your manhood handed to you in a musette bag (again metaphorically speaking) sooner rather than later.  As a general rule however, men are going to finish a given ride faster than women.  But look on Strava at the top times for a ride near your home.  Chances are the fastest woman is faster than you, certainly they are faster than me.  If you can manage to stay in the slipstream of the leading female cyclist on Strava you're golden.  How to identify said cyclist in the anonymous peleton?  Glad you asked.  By their calves ye shall know them.  I've broken it down using my limited math knowledge of basic Trigonometry and Euclidean Geometry.

CalvesIf the calves turning the cranks in front of you have the pleasing parabolic curves you learned to calculate in Trig?

Well then, your ride will no doubt be visually pleasing but it's unlikely you will be standing on a podium when it's over.

If, on the other hands, the legs you are following remind you of high school geometry, the pythagorean theorum and make you think of an acute angled triangle.

In short, if they look more like the legs of a guy (one who has been doing leg presses on a daily basis), that's your huckleberry.  Get on that lady-cyclist's wheel and hold on as long as you can, if you can.

As we leave town we pick up speed and hold a fairly steady 40 km (25 miles)/hr pace Which feels almost effortless given the number of riders pulling up front and pushing from behind.  The problem with this start en masse and the relatively flat roads is that the peleton never breaks up. This happens (with the exception of the breakaway) in every flat tour stage, but those are pro riders on closed roads.  And even under those ideal circumstances there are incidents, sometimes catastrophic, occasionally fatal.  I try to put that fact out of my head as we chew up the open country roads.  Problems arise when we hit intersections with stop signs on the generally desolate roads.  The peleton stretches out about a block long and no matter how many hand signals, yells, and gesticulations come from the leaders to slow down or prepare to turn, it just doesn't reach the guys near the rear and more than once wheels cross and riders go down.  The peleton may not cost you physically, but there is a mental strain that may equally taxing or perhaps even moreso.  There's also the mad scramble that happens at every 90 degree turn as cyclists push to stay with their current group of riders.

In every other race I've been in a hill climb shows up early on and the peleton invariably fragments as riders find their comfort zone in dealing with the hill.  No such hills on the Gran Fondo and subsequently we ride in a group of 60-70 riders for mile after mile.  About 15 miles in I sense ... something, a presence on my left.  My initial instinct is a dump truck or a similarly large, commercial-grade vehicle.  something displacing lots of wind but oddly no sound of an engine.  It's at that point that I get passed by what I will refer to as the Canadian Bull.

We're doing 40km an hour and he flies by with designs on the point of the peleton.  The amount of wind he displaces is at once impressive and familiar.  The same thing has happened to me on group rides involving Rodzilla, when he would get a bee in his bonnet and decide to charge from behind and barrel past us on a stretch of flat tarmac.  Getting passed by the Bull is like that, a diesel truck engine on a carbon fiber frame with equally large pistons pumping almost silently but displacing a huge amount of air and pushing lighter objects (ie all other cyclists) around in their jet wash-like wake.  He's definitely in the Rodzilla weight class, greater than 260 lbs (easy) but standing about 72".  I remember thinking he was better suited to nose tackle on a defensive line than leading out a fast moving peleton.   But moving out was what he was up to.  I figured it wouldn't last, that his strength would wane and his stamina would flag and drop off.  I couldn't have been more wrong.

Odd things happen when lots of cyclists ride together over long distances.  Some you only hear about and assume they are urban legend, or you read about them in cycling magazines and figure only the pros would think to do that and or be able to pull it off.  Case in point something Rodzilla told me about (and intimated that we should maybe practice just in case it ever became relevant).  Apparently the pros, those who are competing for the podium on any particular stage race and can't afford to pull off for a 'natural' break roadside, will have their teammates pull alongside and pedal while pushing them as they take care of their business.  I was skeptical, for all the reasons that anybody reading this will be skeptical, but Rodzilla swore it was true.  I had probably already forgotten that particular piece of cycling lore when at about 30 miles into the ride in a peleton of about 60 riders, a skinny guy, kind of looked like Sandy Koufax only Sandy Koufax at fifty years old,

wheels up to me and asks if I'll do him a big favor.  Sure I suppose, if I can.  So he asks me if I will pedal and push him while he takes a leak (his bladder seems to be smaller than it used to be and we skipped the first feed station at 20 miles in).  Now remember, I have 20 riders in front of me, about 30 behind and we're three wide across the street moving at a solid 22 mph.  I figure we try this and we're dead but I remembered Rodzilla telling me that's how the team riders do it.  So I planted a hand in the small of his back and pedaled for both of us for about a minute.  I have no idea how he took care of his business and couldn't have looked even if I wanted to, had to concentrate on all the riders around us.  But he did what he needed to do and now he owes me big (his words).

So it's that kind of peleton, we're killing this ride and we know it.  Averaging close to 40 km (25miles) an hour for the first 40 miles.  We all skipped the first feed station in Ashton, which was my plan all along even if the peleton had stopped, my only concern was if two bottles would be enough for the 45 miles to Perth and the second feed zone.  Thankfully the weather has cooperated.  Earlier in the week Ontario saw its hottest day ever recorded but race day we're at a reasonable 80 degrees, but it's muggy.  East coat muggy, not 'it just rained so everything feels moist' Utah muggy.  I debate tucking a third water bottle and maybe an extra energy bar and or PB&J sandwich in the rear pockets, but it feels bulky and uncomfortable and I figure I can do the 45 miles easily enough and if I run out of water I'll drink up at the station before I fill the bottles again.

We cover the first 45 miles to Perth in just under 2 hours and stop at the only red light not manned by police support that I can remember in the entire race.  I take the opportunity to snap a self portrait before the light changes to green and we charge down main street.  the Canadian Bull can be seen to the extreme right of the frame, as tall as any rider present and twice as thick.  I scan the road ahead for a park, parking lot, roadside tent, anything that might be the Perth feed station but I see nothing.  The light turns green and we thunder down the avenue, pass the cemetery and follow the green and blue* arrows out of town.  I figure they must have put the feed station on the outskirts, a thousand bike riders can make for tricky traffic management, especially in a small town, but we ride for a couple of miles and nothing.  I start asking the riders around me if they saw a feed station.  I get shrugs and blank looks.  Am I the only rider who has eaten all his food and drank all his water?  I do notice that a few wise cyclists have tucked a third bottle in their jersey pocket (La Canadienne as it turns out is one, though she doesn't end up missing the Perth feed zone) but most, near as I can tell are as bone dry as me.  We give in to group think and keep pedaling because it makes more sense to move together and as fast as we can to the next feed zone in Lanark, around the 100km (65 mile) mark.

*Red arrows are the medio fondo distance and they will be heading back toward the starting line out of Perth

When we get there my Garmin tells me we've covered 63 miles in 2 hours and forty seven minutes, averaging exactly 23 mph without a pit stop at all.  About the time I helped Sandy Koufax with his moving potty break I felt the need to take care of business myself, but I was too shy (and let's face it, a little disgusted ... and afraid, that too) to ask him to return the favor.  By the time we stop I no longer need to go.  I assume my body has accessed its inner dromedary and began absorbing any excess fluid, beginning with what's in my bladder.  I down two water bottles, eat a banana and some cookies, stuff a second banana and another package of cookies in my pocket and I follow a skinny cyclist in a cherry red bib kit (the Canadian Bull's l'il buddy as it turns out) up the hill and out of town.  The arrows we are following are green (Gran Fondo arrows) but I ask anyway just to be sure.  Our chubby Harley rider is still back filling up on cookies and muffins at the feed zone and he's not out in front directing us at the moment.  Skinny red bibs assures me we're right as rain and soon we're joined by the rest of the lead group.  We're down to about thirty cyclists now and the few stalwarts who did the majority of the pulling begin to allow a pace line to develop.  As we head into the Lanark highlands we start to hit continuous positive grades with occasional short steep pitches.  The lightning pace we've been keeping, which I suspected we wouldn't be able to sustain, slows and my legs start to feel fatigued for the first time in the ride.

We arrive at a turn off the main road before our support motorcycle, but the road is marked and there's a race marshal there pointing us down the road so we follow it.  It's a steep(er) road and we are down to right around 30km(20miles)/hr and pushing hard to keep that pace.  About a dozen riders break away from the peleton and I stay with them.  At our current pace finishing the 108 mile course in under 5 hours is a real possibility and I realize I may never get this close to that goal again.  So I dig.  Up ahead I can see what looks like about a half mile of 10% grade and I start preparing mentally for the effort when Mr Canadian Harley speeds past our group and makes a circling motion with his hand.  We're going down the wrong road, have been for about two and a half miles (all up hill by the way).  The bilingual expletives start flying from all quarters (and I learn some new words in French* that I'm sure I'll never use) as we in unison slow and make a 180 degree turn back to highway 511.

*Interestingly enough, nobody apologizes for their salty repartee by saying "Excuse my French"

The Canadian Bull, center stage, finding out he's been duped.  Not a good time to be in his line of sight

We spend a good five minutes in this intersection, confused, angry, tired and frustrated.  The race marshall, who looks more like a lumberjack than a cyclist has no clue what to tell us, his directions are for the super fondo distance, which is the route we followed out of town.  It's not his fault but he's the only race representative around to vent on.  Most of these riders spent better than two hours, some three waiting outside the registration tent last night, some never got the gear they ordered because of a shipping snafu and some are just hot and tired because they've been riding, hard, for 3 hours now and after three hours of riding, any ride, you're looking forward to being done.  The lumberjack marshal takes it in stride.  These are Canadians after all and though collectively there's a lot of rage in this group, they are in the end, friendly, reasonable people.  Like any Canadian you've probably met.

The Bull might be the exception to the reasonable Canadian rule of thumb. We finally find a rider who knows the area and points us down a road that will take us back to the race route and we're off.  The Bull puts all his anger into pedaling and breaks away from the pack (on a hill, I keep expecting hills to kill this guy and I keep being surprised when they don't).  At first I try to stay with him but there's no sense to it.  He'll blow off his steam and come back to the pack.  It's inevitable but still hard to watch if you're tucked in with the lead group.  Well we were the lead group at one time.  Now we're the leaders of the lost riders, not sure where that puts us in the general category of race participants.

After about 10km we reach a town with a sign pointing us toward Almonte.  Nobody knows if we're supposed to turn there (apparently the guy who routed us this way got dropped in the preceding 10k) but I know that our next feed station is in Almonte, that all the ride distances pass through there, so I take the road and everybody follows me, for better or worse.  We hit more hills (that weren't on the original route, about a thousand extra of climb if you compare my GPS data to that of La Canadienne's) and as the riders spread out we start working solo.  I get dropped by about 20 riders in the next 25km.  It's demoralizing, especially when it happens on climbs.  I want to look for a reason, nutrition, fatigue, hydration yata, yata.  But the cold hard fact on this particular day is you're not always the strongest rider in the group.  And in races that's especially true.  I accept that I'm not the lead out man today and push as hard as I'm still able toward Almonte.  I'm still making great time.  Sub 5 hour finish doesn't look like it's in the cards, but I will definitely cover the century mark in under 5 hours, something I've never done before and not an easy feat no matter what road you are riding on.

Almonte comes up at the 120km (85 mile) mark and I tell myself the last 25 miles are an individual Time Trial.  I down two bottles of G-force (Canadian Gatorade?) and fill a third bottle with water, eat a bagel with PB&J and another banana and I'm out of there.  I'm at just over 4 hours elapsed time for the ride, still averaging better than 22 mph (about 33km/hr) and I aim to keep that pace. Most, if not all, of the riders that dropped me on the way into town seem content to hang out at the water station eating cookies and bananas and comparing notes with other riders about the route, support etc.  I see my two friends:  Skinny Red bibs and the Bull mounting up and we form a three cyclist breakaway as we head out of town.

This trio breaks up faster than the Oneders did in the movie That Thing You Do.  We hit a hill and the Bull and Skinny Red* crest it and disappear, never to be seen by me again.  We're hitting Medio Fondo traffic now and the real challenge becomes tucking into the drops and pushing with everything left while not hitting them.  The route takes us over some truly horrendous roads.  There has been uneven, potholed pavement to contend with, like you would expect on any country roads but about 20 of the last 50 km are Rapha-worthy, gravel, sand and pebbled country lanes.  It's on one of these pitted farm roads that I hit the century mark in 4:41 minutes (elapsed time, including feed stations and getting lost, then sharing our feelings about being lost, then getting unlost).

*pretty sure skinny Red's name in Alexandre Gagnon, I found him at the top of the leader board when I downloaded my race data

I skip the last feed zone in Carp and finish the race distance of 108 miles (170km) in just over 5hrs 8 minutes.

I get out the camera for the only film I've been able to shoot (or at least that I've bothered to take the time out for) as I ride past La Canadienne's parent's house.  The race route goes right past it.  Did I mention that?  I finish the official route (plus whatever penalty mileage we accrued on our misadventure) and head back to the domicile where my in-laws and son are watching from their front porch to wait for La Canadienne.

I find her and discover that she in turn has found friends. She has used her not inconsiderable charms to convince a skinny French Canadian cyclist to pull her through most of the last 75 km of the ride.  They finish in 5:45 (and change) with an average moving speed of over 30 km (20.1miles) per hour.  Our finish times are personal records for both of us for that distance and not by a little.  It's been a great ride/race, better than we could have expected or asked for.

We take the obligatory victory pose photo,

drink our celebratory beverages,

and we pile into the support vehicle for the long, tedious drive home.

Except no we di'int!

We pedal the 3km (2 miles) back to La Canadienne's parent's house because, you know, the race started just down the street (did we already cover that?)

It would be hard to draw up a better event with a better result in a better locale.  I have a hard time finding any fault with it (even with the registration hiccups and the re-route fiasco) still incredibly enjoyable.

A review of the Strava stats five days post event shows me at #3 (of 50 strava cyclists who rode the Gran Fondo distance) including Red Skinny bibs/ Alexandre Gagnon and I assume the Canadian Bull (Noel Monge?) both of whom beat me to the line by about eight minutes.

La Canadienne is currently the QOM (that's right, a first place finish) among Strava riders.  Sure, only 5 have posted but number two was a full forty minutes slower than our Canadian cyclist. So a double podium finish (of sorts) for the duo representing West Jordan Utah.

The perfect anniversary ride.  Thanks, honey.  Happy Twentieth.

More adventures in Canadian cycling coming up including biking in Le Parc de la Gatineau

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