Don’t let the title of this post fool you. On most any count that matters, it was a great day. The ugly was pretty much all me and my legs. I can’t really complain because the weather was great, the course was beautiful, the on-course volunteers killed it, and I had no mechanicals or bike-related issues. I was probably a good 40 minutes slower than I’d hoped, but pretty much anything can happen during 264km on a bike with lots of climbing.
We caught the 1pm ferry from Vancouver and were all settled in at the Delta by probably 4pm – almost ideal timing to hit the 5:30 pre-ride dinner and briefing at the Empress Hotel. We were ostensibly to start promptly, but as it turns out we had about an hour to mingle and drink before the briefing got started.
I don’t generally drink much the night before a big event, but I decided to buy a tall boy of the Spinnaker fondo label Kolsch (part of our nice ride package, above). Very tasty stuff and, as I was reminded by a table mate, it was carbo-loading and entirely appropriate.
The briefing itself lasted no more than 45 minutes and the dinner spread was great. While I could have used a little more protein of the non-meat variety, there was a lot of food that worked and, as you might expect with the Empress, it was all top notch. Hummus would have been nice, but I can’t complain. I was back at the hotel by about 8, I think, and had a decent sleep of close to six hours.
The Empress start at 6:20amI’d had a bit of a rough week with a nasty two-day migraine on Wed-Thurs, so I was a bit concerned about the possibility of lingering effects, but upon hopping out of bed at 4:40, I felt absolutely great. I took it really easy ride/run-wise this week and my legs felt fresh. I got over to the Empress at roughly 5:45 for check-in and breakfast. Again, a good spread, that might have benefitted vegans with a little peanut butter 😉 As I’m likely part of a very small minority in that respect (and willing to be a little dairy flexible when needed), the bagel and cream cheese was fine.
The ride got underway right at 6:30, with a motorcycle escort out of town. Probably 20km into the ride, the front group broke off as those who were riding for time began hitting their pace. My initial plan was to head out on the early flatter part of the ride at a solid, but un-blistering pace. I figured if I could average 31-32km/hr through the first 75k, then I might be able to hit 30km/hr average over the ride, for a time of nine hours or so. That was the goal, anyway. With the distance and climbing, I also planned to use all the support stops. The first early one at Sooke Mountain Cycle is pictured above.
I’d hooked up with some Victoria riders by this point and we paced each other well until the next stop at Jordan River and further, still, to the third stop at Port Renfrew. I’m glossing over everything through this point of the ride, as Jordan River was a very small ‘carbo’ stop on the side of the road at roughly 70k, and we’d rolled though some very pretty terrain uneventfully to this point. At 90k I recall being a little under three hours, so my time goal plan was on track.
Even the first significant climbing that gets you to Port Renfrew at roughly 110k and the first hot food stop is of the longer undulating variety. I had been experiencing some lower back tightness during this early climbing. However, I often get some of this earlier in long rides and find it dissipates and I usually ride through it successfully. Plus, there’s a nice long descent into the Port Renfrew support station after the climb. I must also give nods to the veggie chilli here (yay for vegan protein).
I did find the lower back tightness lasted a little longer than I expected and had a significant impact on the biggest climb of the ride to the next support stop at Lake Cowichan, roughly 150k into the ride. For the first 10 or so km after Port Renfrew, you get some nice flat rolling, and I kept going with my Victoria riding friends. However, as my body forced me to ease up on the climbing I usually enjoy, I had to back off and let them drop me. They were actually finishing their ride at the next support stop, so we wouldn’t have kept riding together anyway.
I was hoping I’d really be able to benefit from swapping to a 12-30 cassette a couple weeks ago and ‘mountain goat’ my way up this portion of the ride. However, the lower back was causing a very noticeable lack of power on the climb. It was also sometime during this section that I began running into more significant problems with quad/adductor muscle cramping and locking. I guess having two easier gears given how my body was behaving was a benefit of sorts, just not the better climbing I’d hoped for. I’m really glad I didn’t have to do all that climbing with a 39-25 as my smallest gear.
I should also note here that you get a very deceptive segment after the big climb, as you ride toward the stop. Faced with a largely flat to slightly downhill ride I was planning/hoping to settle into a decently high gear and spin the tightness out of my lower extremities while hopefully making up for a little of the excessively slow climbing I’d just done. However, mother nature’s cruel sense of humour was on full display on one of the falsest flats I’ve ever ridden. The massive headwind in this section was barely better than the climb and I found myself grinding away just to hit 25 or 26km/hr when I was expecting to flow through this area a good 8-10km/hr faster. Mind you, the way my pace was beginning to drop, would only continue to worsen for the remainder of the ride.
At the 2/3 point, there was a small stop in Duncan, much like the early one in Jordan River. The course is rolling flat to downhill from Lake Cowichan to Duncan, and while I’d only been dropped once and passed by a few cyclists by this point, I was totally on my own. While company would have been nice as my real struggling was kicking into high gear, the last thing I’d want to do is have people waiting up for me and affecting their own ride.
With roughly 90k left, the lower back tightness was mostly gone. However, the problems with my legs were intensifying. The muscle cramps I’d experienced on the larger climb before Port Renfrew were turning into muscle locking and affecting everything from the hip flexors to the knees. In effect, what this meant was that riding became a cycle of getting off the bike fairly frequently, stretching, rubbing/pounding the muscles, riding again for a while and repeating. These were full-on locks too, not the kind you could ride through. Ceasing muscles and pedalling are somewhat incompatible things, in case you should wonder.
While heading downhill to Shawnigan Lake was pleasant enough, there was no making hay to get back lost time for me. My legs were purely in ride-stretch-repeat survival mode. I also knew in the back of my mind that I had another unpleasant climb to do. I’d asked the guy at the Duncan support stop what the climb was like, since I knew we weren’t descending the Malahat without first getting high enough to do so. I seem to recall him saying, “Don’t worry, it seems longer than it actually is.” In my condition, I’d be lying if I said that was reassuring.
While I am not the type of person to bail on a challenge, as I hit the climb coming out of Shawnigan Lake, I actually had fleeting thoughts of stopping. Without my leg problem, this climb would have been no biggie, but I was having insane issues getting it done. It’s also short, but pretty steep. As the course profile a few paragraphs up shows, this final climb of the ride seems to gain about 200 meters over only 5km or so, and that’s after a more rolling climb as a warmup. I recall muttering a few swear words as I hit each new climb, equally targeted at my own body and the ride organizers.
Aside from absolutely hating to quit anything, I knew that if I could just bag this one last hill, no matter how slowly, the climbing would finally be done. And, with 220+ km showing on Garmin, the support stop at the top meant 30-40k of what had to be downhill to flat coasting in to the Empress. While it was not without its share of additional swearing and muttering, I finally hit the last support station at 230km. I stayed a little longer than I would have liked stretching, snacking and replenishing fluids. While I gulped some Coke, there was no champagne for me. The last thing I needed was to further dull my abilities.
Back to Victoria
A little slight up and down after the Shawnigan Lake aid station and I was on the Malahat, cruising downhill for roughly 10k. After the last 120+ with the leg troubles, this segment was truly sweet relief. At the bottom of the big descent, the course heads down the turnoff to Langford and Colwood, winding another 5-10k through the municipal main streets. The course then cuts across to the Galloping Goose paved trail for almost the entirety of the rest of the ride.
You come off the Goose a couple km from the finish at the Empress. As I had to ride right past my hotel with 1km to go, it was tempting to just stop, but with the Johnston Street Bridge to cross, and a double decker bus and some horse-drawn carriages full of tourists the only things standing between me and a massage, I made it back in one piece. The post-ride massage was wonderful and my wife strolled over to the Empress to help me walk my stuff back. Being the recipient of a few late ride messages, she knew I’d be happy for the company.
This last segment through Langford, Colwood and down the Goose, I was doing a pretty sad pace. I was in my small ring riding a paltry 25km/hr and still stopping every few km to hammer out quad/adductor/hip flexor cramps.
Most aspects of the day were great and, saving for my personal issues, the Victoria Granfondo is well organized and well run. I guess if I had three pieces of feedback, they would be as follows:
- As already indicated, while the Empress vegetarian options were well prepared and tasty, a little more protein would have been helpful. If you were really strict about vegetarian eating, even just some hummus, peanut butter and perhaps a lentil or bean dish would have been very welcome.
- While the on-course support and volunteers were generally great, I did notice that in the last half to third of the event, the motorcycle support disappeared. I was probably more sensitive because of my issues, but riding big segments alone late, if I’d had to bail I’d have been hooped.
- At times, again more late in the ride, the signage was very difficult to see and follow. Instead of arrow signs of roughly a 12″x6″, I suspect larger placard sized calls-to-action would have been clearer.
The above are in no way criticisms and I really liked this event a lot. Just a couple things that I think might have been helpful for such a long day in the saddle. All in all, I can’t complain.
By the numbers
- Distance: 263.7
- Riding time: 9:43:40
- Elevation gain: 3156 meters