Fun at the GranFondo Axel Merckx

I have to admit I was dreading the ride.  After our 110 day/11,100km trip on bike around Canada for the Big Ride for Let’s Talk, all I wanted to do was not ride my bike.  I was definitely dreading the 160km ride I agreed to approximately 12 days after our stint around this massive country.  But a promise is a promise, and there was no way I was going to back out.

 

The ‘ride’ I am talking about was the GranFondo Axel Merckx.  I met Axel in 2011 during a race in Oregon but of course, knew of him for some time.  I also know his wife, Jodi, from way back in the ‘over 20 year ago’ day when we both raced for the same Canadian Team.  Though we never really raced together I felt like I knew Jodi from donning the same jersey.  Axel is the son of, in his words, ‘a legend’.  I think cycling fans worldwide would agree.  His father is none other than Eddie Merckx, AKA ‘the Cannibal’ on the bike.  He started something like 1500 races in his cycling career and won more than a third of them.  He was a prolific winner in a sport where so many variables make it all but impossible to win anything, let alone win year after year.

 

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Meeting Axel at the Cascade Classic in 2011

 

Anyway, Eddie is the Man, but Axel definitely holds his own.  Axel is a force.  He won a lot of races himself and even has a bronze medal from the 2004 Athens Olympics to his name.  He is a leader on and off the bike.  After meeting him he sent me a note asking if I would come ride his GranFondo event.  I said I could not, something along the lines of ‘my coach will hang me by my toenails’ was how I explained not being able to ride.  I was training for the world championships.  The following year, I was training for the Olympics.  The year after that I was bike touring with Peter, loaded up with camping gear and slow as a turtle on two wheels.  I figured if I did not do the ride this year, chances are I never would.  Riding the bike is fun but riding in packs is kinda not that fun anymore.  Now, with the Big Ride over, I knew I’d be more into hiking, running, mountain biking….all things that make a person slow on a bike on pavement.

 

So there we were this past weekend with a promise to uphold.  Peter and I spent our first week back after that big ride getting up into the forest for some easy hikes.  We even rode the road bikes one day, making a foodie pilgrimage to Banff on the legacy Trail for lunch.  We ate too much sushi and rode home with stomach aches.  The next day I accepted an invitation for ‘an easy hike’ up a local ‘easy mountain peak’ with friend and former Olympian, Beckie Scott.  We spent the morning walking up the steep but non-technical trail to Ha Ling, a peak we see from our living room.  The sun was shining, little wind blew and we had a great time out there in the Rocky Mountain backcountry.  That is, until we had to go down.  My legs started giving out with more than half of the 3000 feet left to descend.

 

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Me and Beckie on the mountain that shredded my poor legs

 

Speed skaters know very well the effects of DOMS: delayed onset muscle soreness is what I am talking about.  I lived with this many a time training for the ice during 10 years with a Chinese Coach who knew nothing of the ‘ease into things’ methods of preparation.  DOMS kicked into my poor legs on Friday, the day we left for Penticton.  I was in so much pain I could hardly walk down the ramp from the airplane to the airport.

 

Friday night we spent a bit of time with a crew of awesome women at the Bike Barn in Penticton.  This was my first glimpse of the kind of riders set to go the distance on Sunday.  We had a Q&A because I was ‘all talked out’ after the Big Ride and the 235 events I did during it.  It was something else to be in a bike shop filled with fit and motivated women, all hanging out, enjoying bread, cheese and all things that go well with local wine.  I tried to walk normally and hoped nobody noticed I was limping.  I suspect people thought I was sore from the Big Ride.  No, it was the ‘easy hike’ that did me in.

 

The next morning I spent a bit of time at the bike expo with Axel and Andrew Byrnes, a very tall guy who happened to win a gold and silver medal in rowing for Canada.  We signed some autographs, met riders, took photos with anyone who asked.  All the while I was standing there on my sore legs, hoping somehow the pain would go away.  Seeing so many people genuinely excited to ride the event the following day was fantastic.  That there were 2700 people set to ride the corto, medio and gran fondo distances is epic in itself.  There was a good, non-competitive vibe that I more than appreciated.  Even with sore legs I started to feel good about riding my bike.

 

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I never look small.  I look small here.

 

I did a little spin around the Okanagan wine region to see if I could actually pedal, realizing fast it was far easier to sit and spin than take a single step.  As long as I didn’t have to get out of the saddle I was okay.  Peter and I went over so I could be the guest starter for the piccolo fondo races that started at 130pm.  To see so many little ones out on two wheels, some of them on fred flinstone style bikes still too young to pedal, just given’er, was priceless.  What a scene.  Again, super positive vibe that would continue all weekend long.

 

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awesome kiddie racing in the piccolo fondo!

 

That evening we went to a local vineyard called Poplar Grove for a reception.  A beautiful view made the good wine taste great.  Appetizers made things even better.  Axel thanked the new 3-year sponsor, Prospera, for the commitment and support of the ride, showing once again he was not only a great bike racer but oozes charisma and charm as well.  Just how Axel looks so fit is beyond me considering he runs a massively successful U23 cycling team, is a father of two beautiful girls, husband, who knows what else he does…and he looks ready to ride the Tour de France.  Peter and I had to laugh because of the miles we’d just finished and the unfortunate fact that both of us failed to lose a single pound.  I guess there is something to be said for willpower, or lean genes.  I don’t have either of these.

 

Waking up at 5am for the 7am start would make one think we had some master plan of proper nutrition, fueling and planning for the ride.  Oh no, no such happenings in our hotel.  We somehow managed to be rather late for leaving considering we still had to locate (with the help of Jason, our go-to man for anything and many things we were asking for and about) our timing chips, a saddle bag with spares and c02 cartridges, get coffee, eat and be on the start line ready to go.  We both managed a coffee and a single Belgian style waffle.  We started with water in our bottles and no food in our pockets.  We started the race and the roads went uphill.  We both realized it was going to be a long and lonely day if we didn’t hold onto the front group for at least the first climb, followed by the flat road until the second climb of the day. How fun was it to cruise along in a huge peloton or riders after riding thousands of kilometers with only the three of us.  How fun was it for Peter to draft when he had led the way for me all around Canada.  How much did it hurt- oh did it hurt- to go hard once again after riding hundreds of hours in the sub-aerobic zone of the Big Ride.  The GranFondo was the anti Big Ride.  And it was so very worth it.

 

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Me not worthy of this starting #!

 

I got a flat tire just after the third hill, about 10 kms before the planned stop for food Peter and I not only wanted, but needed, to make.  It was tragic to see our group, our big mass of perfectly paced riders for us, not to fast and definitely not too slow, roll away as we both stopped to change my empty tire.

 

Soon enough when we started to roll again, another group caught us, we latched on, and the pace was fast and good again.  At one point a woman was at the front, pulling for all she was worth, with a bunch of guys sitting in her draft.  When she slowed down they all went around her, surging as they pulled through, leaving her with a gap to close.  I was behind her and thought why would I go around and let her continue to be gapped when all I needed to do was give her a little push from behind and she could close the gap for her and me.  I did so tentatively, hoping it would not freak her out, and the gap was gone.  After it slowed down, as it always does, she thanked me saying ‘nobody has ever given me a push before!’.  If only riding came with some common sense and we all helped each other out more than we do.  I guess it’s bike racing that teaches this more than anything.  Or maybe good teammates who know what it’s like to be dropped and have been helped along the way.

 

Nonetheless, I liked my riding partners and groups all day long.  It was cool to be a part of something collective and positive.  Something that not only had all the riders out doing their thing, but over 500 volunteers making the whole thing flow.  Not to mention all the people out cheering on the roadside for us- the riders- not the racers!  It was funny to get so much encouragement for just riding the bike.  It was appreciated.  The community came out and gave its warmth to us on the scorching summer day.

 

All in all it was a great experience to be a part of this event.  If you are ever considering the challenge of a GranFondo, it’s worth the trip.  It’s far more than just the ride, it’s an entire weekend of fun and festivities.  There is so much beauty in this region to experience.  There is great wine and food to be had, satisfaction for exhausting oneself on the bike, and a collective suffering to get you through the rough spells that are inevitable when riding so far.  Jodi and Axel put on a great show.  In doing so, they give more than most people know back to youth cycling and development in their region.

 

And my legs?  Well, I was rocked after the ride, re-hydrated with some Tree Brewing Co. Grapefruit Radler beers, slept like a log and woke up for the first time in 5 days able to walk without my legs searing with pain and buckling.  I think the Fondo actually helped get some bloodflow back into my quadzillas!

 

 

 

 

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