Lessons Learned, Part 2: How to Identify When a Friendly Ride Becomes a Race

I have participated in the Ride to Conquer Cancer (RTCC)  twice as part of a team called the Massey Mashers. In time I will share those stories too, but this particular post is actually about a series of lessons I learned while training with the Mashers in the lead up to the 2009 event.

Writers Note: My unfaltering ability to misconstrue things, combined with my propensity to dive headlong into situations without fully thinking them through, provides me with an unending stream of opportunities to learn life’s lessons. It’s unfortunate, but it keeps things interesting. Plus it gives me things to write about. There have been many of these opportunities, and there will surely be more, so I’ve decided to make this a serial post called “Lessons Learned”. I declare this to be Part 2 of the never-ending series. The Bee and Me, wherein I learned the hard way not to panic and close my eyes while biking at speed, now becomes the de facto Part 1.

The 2009 RTCC was the first for the Massey Mashers. The team was built around a core of teachers from a local school (my sister, Leanne, being one of them), and a group of their siblings, friends, and spouses. Most of the team members were familiar with each other from Wednesday night spin classes organised by one of the teachers, Darrel, and held at the school throughout the winter months.

The Mashers shared a desire to do something good by raising money and awareness for a great cause, but the cycling experience of the team members varied widely. For some, riding over 100 km on each of two consecutive days was just another weekend. Others were regular riders, but not accustomed to sitting in the saddle for such long hours. A few others were fairly new to cycling, or hadn’t been on a bike for a while, and were nervous about riding hills, in groups, near traffic, or all of the above.

We decided to fit in some outdoor group rides before the event to get to know each other, discuss fundraising, build some endurance, and give the newer riders some experience. We selected the Highwood Pass for one of those rides. It is a good distance and a beautiful ride; it would introduce people to climbing a bigger hill than what they might otherwise encounter in and around Calgary (it’s the highest point that can be reached by paved road in Canada); and Kananaskis Village – or more specifically the tasty brunch at Kananaskis Village – is located convenient to the end of the ride. Most importantly, the road is closed to traffic in the winter, and until it opens each year on June 15, cyclists can enjoy it without worrying about vehicles.

I had driven over the Pass enough times to know that it is a long and sustained climb with some particularly steep sections. I was intrigued to get out there and try it on my bike, and it was comforting having seasoned riders in the group acting as guides.

We parked at the gates where the highway is closed each year at the north end. From there it is roughly 17 km to the summit, mostly uphill. We rode together for the first while, but eventually started to spread out. For the next few kilometres the lead group slowed intermittently to allow everyone to catch up, until the climb really started with about 5 kilometres to the top. With everyone focused on their own efforts, there would be no more regrouping until the summit.

Those last few kilometres felt really steep but I was able to stay within sight of the more experienced riders most of the way up, and arrived at the top just fashionably late. The actual summit was not reachable on skinny tires, because there was still snow on the road, but the sign could be seen a few hundred metres away.

I was elated having climbed the Highwood by bike for the first time, and pleased with how good I felt.  It was a nice affirmation of my potential as a recreational cyclist, and taught me my first lesson of the day: as hard as it is, climbing these mountain passes is entirely doable, not to mention immensely gratifying. I liked it.

We waited as the last few riders arrived, had a snack and put on some layers in anticipation of the cold descent ahead. A few of us took the opportunity to walk through the snow to get pictures, standing proudly beneath the sign proclaiming the elevation to be 2206 metres.

I have always enjoyed descending on my mountain bike but I am (to this day) rather petrified of maiming myself, so I do so slowly, and tend to be the last one down any given hill. The descent down the Highwood that day offered up lesson number two: things are different on a road bike.

The ride down is long on mostly good pavement, the corners are wide and sweeping, and without traffic you can ride in the middle of the lane where there is much less risk of loose gravel than on the shoulder. I got into the most aerodynamic position I could dream up, pedaled my way to the biggest gear, and descended with only a few quick pulses on my brake levers.

I arrived at the bottom chilled, eyes watering profusely, and ahead of the group. The elation I had felt climbing was now matched by the joy I felt descending. It was really a lot of fun, and a hell of a lot faster and less stressful than bombing down a rough trail on my mountain bike.

As the road levelled out I sat up and coasted, thinking I had a sizeable buffer between me and the next rider, but Darrel soon passed me by. I quickened my cadence to catch back up to him and as I pulled alongside him with a giddy smile on my face, he asked me a simple question, “Do you want to go?”

Darrel was a seasoned rider and the organiser of the spin classes and our RTCC team. I didn’t know him well, but apparently he had a competitive streak. I was intimidated, but buoyed by my experiences up and down the mountain. I accepted his invitation to race with plucky spirit, responding with a firm “yep” as I accelerated with all my might. The race was on.

Over the next minute or so I pedaled as hard and fast as I could in the biggest gear my knees could handle. I was bent over with my hands in the drops and riding on the smooth yellow line, trying to maximise my speed however possible. I was digging deep and quickly depleting my energy, but he was right on my tail. Despite my best efforts, I could not get a gap.

The burning in my legs was making a convincing case for me letting up. I gave in for just a moment’s reprieve and he was by me in a flash. I pursued in earnest for a few seconds and after that only half-heartedly. In an embarrassingly short distance I had exhausted my reserves, both physically and mentally. I let up and watched Darrel pedal away.

I spun lightly and slowly for the remaining kilometres, coasting where I could. As I wheeled up to Darrel, now standing beside his bike back at the gate, he smiled and asked “What happened to you?” I stopped, leaning heavily on my bars in the universal “I’m an exhausted cyclist” position. I looked up in defeat and described how I had blown up after throwing everything I had at him after his challenge to race.

With a grin spreading across his face, and the patient demeanour of an adult speaking to an impressively naïve child, he corrected me. Where I had distinctly heard “Let’s get it on, sucker!”, he had actually said something much more like “Let us ride together for the remainder of the distance and take turns drafting off each other so we can be as efficient as possible and still go relatively fast. You know, like cyclists do.”

As stirring and spirited as my efforts surely had been, it turned out I was the only one racing.

And therein lays lesson number three of the day: know how to identify when a friendly ride becomes a race. Or, more correctly, know how to identify when a friendly ride has, in fact, NOT become a race.

With only minor analysis of the evidence at hand, I also conclude that there is an inherent fourth lesson. In the future, even if I do, by some stroke of luck, manage to correctly identify that a ride has become a race, I should probably still just sit it out.

What treasures, all these lessons.

Please contact Darrel Hargreaves by email to DAHargreaves(at)cbe.ab.ca if you would like to find out more about the FREE Wednesday night spin classes held at Vincent Massey school through the winter. Bring your own bike and trainer.

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