What I learned: my First GranFondo
For so many of us, biking has been a life-long passion.
Despite many bumps and bruises during the learning process, by age four, riding a bike was one of the best parts of my day.
What it has offered over the years has changed. As a boy, it was fun, it was fast; transportation and independence. Later in life it has been an invaluable source of outdoor exercise and vitality, an opportunity for heightened mental acuity to organize thoughts and arrive at difficult decisions, and a means to keep the stresses of daily life in check.
One constant is that it has always been a healthy source of solitude. I have always taken to the road on my own, with no desire to organize socially or into a team structure, or to be part of organized cycling events.
At age 32 difficult times came with a debilitating hip problem that would pull me off the road bike. Doctors, tests, needles followed by surgery, and eventually endless physiotherapy and rehabilitation would be my mantra for many years to come. The desire to ride seemed to be swallowed up by personal injury and the time commitments of being a young professional and father.
Modified bikes and other less loved activities would attempt to fill the void for more than ten years, until I had nearly forgotten altogether the satisfaction and necessity of riding.
Innocently, one day I walked into a local bike shop to look for a bike for my son and was memorized by a wall of impossibly beautiful road bikes of all colors. I was captivated by the technology that had advanced significantly in the last 12 years, and in an instant, I was asking for a test ride. I test rode one bike and purchased it 20 minutes later.
Drunk with endorphins and a renewed zeal for riding I longed to be back on the road in solitude. This time I was going to enjoy riding every way I could, a diversity of experiences. More importantly, however; I wanted it to last. With help from many doctors and physiotherapists (for which I am eternally grateful), I had changed how my body moved, and rode with a focus on comfort and injury prevention.
I began registering for short social cycling races, which I genuinely enjoyed. My body seemed to be holding up, so… enter the GranFondo. At 42, this would be the first extended road race of my life and the first time biking in a large group of riders. This was a new experience and brought some surprises.
Of course, with a Fondo comes planning. There are many insights and pearls of wisdom that can be passed on for the Fondo; these are a few of mine for my fellow first timers:
1) Nutrition and Hydration
When cycling 122km plus, I knew I needed to eat and drink on the road, but had no idea how much and at what frequency.
There is no shortage of information online to optimize fluid and calories. Perhaps more important, was testing it over multiple long rides.
For food, I trialed a couple of different items, including chews, gels, candies and bars. One thing I quickly realized is that easting while your breathing heavy is quite a choking hazard. I found it was difficult to swallow dry food (bars), felt more prone to choking or aspiration, and was needing to drink to get the calories down which was an unwanted dance of moving food and water bottle around. I quite preferred the wine gum style candies that melt in your mouth (even chewing can be exhausting at hour three).
There are many information sources for getting the basics for nutrition and hydration – I have included one below. More importantly, some measure of reading/research is advised if this is your first long distance ride. Insufficient hydration or excessive/inadequate nutrition will not translate into an enjoyable experience. Test out your research on long rides pre Fondo.
My biggest surprise was the impact of weather – specifically rain.
Chatting with other riders, I learned of years past when wet conditions and cold winds chilled riders to the bone with some on the edge of hypothermia. I wasn't out to set any records and instead was determined to be relatively comfortable during my inaugural Fondo, and cross the finish line in warm comfort.
To this end, I decided to wear my ten year old black mountain equipment coop rainproof riding pants with a nice furry lining. Additionally, I rolled and tucked into my back pocket a thin waterproof riding jacket. I decided to leave the jacket off, and if things got cold enough I would stop and put this on.
As the ride began, rain was light and no puddles were accumulating. I looked around to discover a sea of riders in thin sleek spandex riding pants. My MEC pants were getting warm and flapping in the wind. Regret started to take over thinking about the extra energy and time required to make up for the abysmal aerodynamics of my choice.
However, after two hours in the rain, my previous regret had disappeared as I noticed other riders shivering in discomfort. One fellow rider offered me a handsome sum for my pants noting, "you must be so toasty in those."
3) The peloton
The peloton has to be one of the most interesting human social conglomerates.
Depending on where you are in its configuration, it can convey protection and inspire confidence. Alternatively, it can devour you in an instant leaving you to feel vulnerable and out of place. I have always biked alone. But if you’re a single rider in the Fondo, find a team of bikers in the peloton that match your speed and personality. There are lots of other single riders that would enjoy a break from the wind.
In rainy conditions, the peloton can be complicated. After an hour of riding, puddles began to form on the road. This had a number of implications. Firstly, tire spray made it difficult to ride in line in close proximity to other riders. The spray would accumulate on my glasses, reducing visibility. Braking distances were significantly longer given reduced friction of tires on the road with the presence of water. For a newbie in the peloton, with riders all around just inches away, this was an experience that took some time to get comfortable with.
4) Post Race
Post race, everything is better. Enjoy it. Couches and beds are more comfortable, a hot shower will be one of the best you ever have.
Perhaps the greatest gift of extended physical activity is satiation of the hunger that follows. Our family had plans for a savory meal in Whistler to celebrate, and I was determined not to spoil my hunger before the good food. This may not have been a good plan – walking to dinner hours later without replenishing my calories lead to a mildly embarrassing episode of hypoglycemia in the streets of Whistler.
Still one of my most memorable meals.
Completing the Gran Fondo was a truly memorable experience. From a personal perspective it’s a milestone that reminds me that the love we have for our physical activities CAN be reclaimed even when injury or the endless responsibilities of life get in the way.
If you’re a rider who isn't riding – because you’re injured or too busy, it’s time to pull yourself out of the fog. From someone who rode and stopped and then fell in love again – Do what you have do to get back on the bike!
Have a great ride!
Dr. Case van Wyngaarden
General Diagnostic and Interventional Radiology