It’s hard to turn a blind eye to the “Fondo Phenomenon.” You must agree, these massive group cycling events have taken off like wildfire over the past year since the launch of the first Canadian gran fondo last September– the inaugural 2010 RBC GranFondo Whistler. Missing out on that race, I was darn determined that in 2011, I would finally experience the thrill to ride with over a thousand people.
Last weekend I was one of the excited riders to toe the line at the inaugural 2011 RBC GranFondo Kelowna in the sunny Okanagan. Because summer had decided to do a no-show here in Squamish this July, I knew that I was not the only person who was making their way into the interior of BC in search of dry roads and warm riding. The Kelowna ride fell perfectly onto the calendar as I was just returning from a 148km running race in Crowsnest Pass, Alberta.
I invited one of my other endurance specialists, JF Plouffe, from Challenge by Choice Performance Coaching, to “fondo it up” with me. It would be a great way for us co-workers to get out for a day of play together and as an added training benefit, we both had major races coming up. JF was going to hit the Gear Jammer mountain bike race the following weekend in Squamish and I had registered for Ultraman Canada in just two weeks time.
When I arrived at the Delta Grand Okanagan Resort the day before the ride for race package pick-up, I didn’t know that a race check-in could be so smooth! We collected our race plates and shwag bags on Friday night. Friendly volunteers, no line-ups – it was a quick in and out at the host registration hotel. Since we were staying at a friend’s house and hence, driving to the start line in the morning, I did a quick scan for parking. Thankfully there was ample parking because many of the racers were staying at the host hotel or were simply going to just ride to the start line. One stress of big events off the check list!
Morning came quick as it always does on race day. I was up at 5am to enjoy a massive bowl of oatmeal loaded with berries, banana, nuts and yogurt. Paired with a coffee and blue skies, I knew today was going to be a great day on the bike. JF and I arrived at 6am to the start line and by 6:30am we were all set to go. Figuring that we would be somewhere short of 4hrs, we put ourselves in the second start block. There was lots of space to move about – another bonus! The vibe around was awesome, everyone smiling, eager to get riding! After Katia Wells-Green, a 13 year old with an amazing voice sang the Canadian anthem, we were off.
The first 10km were cruisy as the peloton moved away from the downtown core. After a few railway tracks and tight corners, we began a series of gradual climbs which broke up the group as everyone settled in to their own comfortable speed. JF and I spent the next hour riding with strangers, taking our turns pulling at the front of the pace line before jumping on to ride with other sets of cyclists. It was awesome! Perhaps the best part of riding in a gran fondo is that, unlike triathlons, drafting is permitted – this dynamic allows for way less work when you ride with a group of people! When I overheard a conversation between two cyclists that were nearby, wondering if we were now on “that 5km climb,” I thought, “Ahhh, yes! This must be the back side of Predator Ridge.”
This was the longest climb of the ride but I climbed at a steady pace, kept a high cadence and took frequent sips of water. As soon as I crested the top, it was time to intake some calories. I had food in my jersey so didn’t need to stop at the aid station. The ride went onwards out of Vernon – I loved the rolling countryside and smooth pavement as we made our way down to Okanagan Lake and then hooked right, cycling through some side roads that would eventually connect us back to Highway 97 South and the route to Kelowna.
Now, I have no idea how many cones the RBC GranFondo Kelowna set-up crew used but the highway was VERY well marked and traffic was reduced to single lane. As cyclists, we had plenty of room to move about with great views of Kalamalka Lake to our left. Twice we ventured onto parallel roads, leaving the highway at various points. At Oyama, traffic marshals heavily controlled a highway crossing just before Aid Station 4 at the 83km mark. Not needing to fill up yet, JF and I pushed onwards around Wood Lake to the last aid station at 95km. We were riding by ourselves by now, taking in the beauty of the Kelowna area and starting to chit chat about what we’d be doing post ride. JF was off to treat his wife to some time at the local wineries, whereas I would be hitting the car for the road trip home!
I appreciated the KM signs every 10k that had lined our route. With only 14km’s left to go, it was time to start picking up our pace. My legs felt awesome so JF sat on my wheel for a bit as I put my head down. I was now motivated to push on and get across the finish line! When a group of six riders came up from behind and passed us like we weren’t even pedaling, I quickly jumped onto the fast moving freight train and was gone.
Not realizing that JF had missed the opportunity, I dropped off the back of the group with 1km left and geared down into cruise mode. I could hear the finish line music and as much as my legs wanted me to just go on and finish, I wasn’t about to cross without my cycling partner. We had come here to ride together so there was no way I was going to snake him to the finish. I came to a dead stop and waited, squinting my eyes back to see if he was coming. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity (but I’m sure was only 30 seconds or so) my high-fiving ride partner caught up and we cruised it in to the finish with a time of 3:46.
A secure bike check allowed us to leave our two wheel machines as we headed to the food and hydration table and onwards to the stretching tent. The stoke factor in the air was high as we chatted with some of the riders we had met on the course. Everyone had loved the route, the weather, and especially the camaraderie of a big group cycling event. Despite being a very competitive athlete, I didn’t see the RBC GranFondo Kelowna as a high stress ride. It was actually just a nice way to enjoy some miles on the bike with a marked route and as much aid as any rider could want. RBC Gran Fondo Whistler up next? I certainly hope so!