My favorite ride of the year.

I barely squeaked in my January road ride, finishing just hours before the end of my monthly window. In contrast, my February ride was safely tucked under my belt mid-way through the first eligible Saturday. And as luck would have it, it turned out to be my favorite ride of the year. I know, as only my second ride of the year, saying it’s my favorite seems extravagant and superfluous. But of the two, it really is my favorite, and by a mile. It could still hold the illustrious place after I finish my third road ride. Maybe it won’t even budge until summer.

The night before my favorite ride of the year the weather reports were calling for 12-degree Celsius temperatures. Not that uncommon in Calgary in February, considering our Chinooks, but the fanciful weather people also had the audacity to claim that these lovely temperatures would come without the expected and due winds. Skeptical though I was, I set my alarm clock for 7:00 and laid out all my gear.

My alarm sounded the next morning, my iPod playing “Sleeping In” by the Postal Service on cue (ironically, it’s my favorite song to wake to), and I rolled out of bed bushy-tailed, but not at all bright-eyed. It was still dark. I probably could have predicted that would be the case, but somehow I had missed it in my excited ride preparations.

Given the lack of light, and my lack of desire to ride in the lack of light, I took my time getting ready. As the sun finally started to rise around 8:00, I looked outside at the sky and trees to find the weather conditions seemingly as predicted: clear and still. Of course, it was early, and no amount of anticipation about the day’s high temperature would change that it was still below freezing for the moment, so I dressed in as many layers as I thought appropriate. Then, with due credence to past lessons learned, I added one more, a safety layer.

A ride leaving my house can start with a small gentle downhill, or a small but unsympathetic uphill. The uphill probably wouldn’t be that bad if I was ever warmed up, but tired and stiff with cold, it is unkind indeed; a characteristic apparently further amplified when it is my second outdoor ride of the year.

Within two minutes of mounting my bike my heart rate was at 180 bpm. Had I pedaled any slower up that hill my bike would have fallen over, so there was nothing I could do about it. I’m pretty sure that kind of warm-up is not encouraged by any medical professional anywhere.

It was early enough that the remainder of my ride out-of-town was pleasant and quiet, the lone exception being the gauntlet of Tim Horton’s drive thru-ers weaving through a very generously sized parking lot and still seeing the need to extend out onto the road. But after that it was smooth pedaling out into the country.

The sun was bright, and I followed my shadow, extended long before me. I find the rhythm of pedalling legs cast in shadows absolutely hypnotic, and I can get lost in it for kilometres.

Through the Bearspaw Golf Course, I popped out onto Highway 1 and headed towards Cochrane. I was grateful for the surprising lack of gravel on the shoulders, but the wind that was not supposed to be only the night before, was clearly coming to be. My heart rate stepped up as my speed dropped off.

I will take a hill over a heavy headwind any day. I started to get grumpy.

I’m not a competitive rider, but I still always want the year of riding ahead to be the best possible. And from what I’ve heard, it is wise to start the year with lots of low intensity riding to build a solid foundation for harder rides to come. Unfortunately, there was one very breezy problem with that plan. It was blowing so hard that I was struggling to maintain 18 kph, but my heart rate was still hovering around 180, only a few beats away from my maximum. I stopped to catch my breath and was reminded of the nice February weather, the quiet road and the scenery around me, thoughts of which had been buffeted from my mind.

A long morning shadow on a quiet road

Beautiful scenery when you remember to stop and appreciate it

The divided highway soon ended, and I was spit out onto the old two-laner, where traffic is a little more nervousing. The road shifted because of the construction of the two new lanes to the south, and the shoulder I was riding in became a shoulderless turning lane, necessitating a series of quick shoulder checks.

I looked longingly over at the new lanes only a few metres away. They were completely devoid of any traffic with construction apparently shut down for the winter. I was so busy wishing I could ride on that new blacktop, that it took me another couple of kilometres to clue in to the fact that I could. Forest for the trees.

At the next opportunity I crossed the lanes of traffic, road through the barriers onto the new unopened road, and entered my own little cycling paradise. Brand new, unpainted, car-less, smooth, virgin, blacktop. All to myself. I took a picture and then rode right down the middle of the road with a little smile. What wind?

Two lanes all to myself. Beautiful.

Despite the headwind and my tiring legs, I enjoyed the rest of the ride to Cochrane immensely. I felt like a rebellious kid playing hookie from school; running wild and free through a giant playground while all the other kids were trapped in Social Studies and Math.

Reaching Cochrane, and the end of the construction, I got back on the open road and coasted down through GlenEagles. Turning around to climb back up I could not believe the effect the wind had on me. Although not terribly steep, that hill is still a grunt for me under normal circumstances, but that day I felt like I was on a T-bar at the ski hill, being pulled along with only minimal effort to keep myself upright and pointed in the right direction.

At the top of the climb I turned back onto the closed section of highway, pedaled lightly a few times, and then coasted for a full 600 metres on nearly flat ground, barely losing any speed along the way. I would have told you it was 2 kilometres, but I consulted my Garmin. Those are the facts, Jack!

When I did decide to pedal I was easily carrying speeds over 40 kph on the downward sloping false flat, topping out at over 60 kph. It was easy and smooth, fast and exhilarating. And not having cars whooshing by two feet away from me, I could really punch in. What a rush.

With the wind now at my back, the abandoned blacktop paradise became a veritable February cycling nirvana.

Naturally, I was sad when that section of the road came to an end, but the rest of the ride on the open roads was still pretty fast, at almost twice the speed as when I travelled in the opposite direction, and a whole lot more fun. Looking back, I’m glad I had my shadow to chase on the way out, because I certainly didn’t need it on the trip home.

Now, reflecting back on that ride, I realise that it was not just the glee of riding with the wind at my back that makes this my favorite ride of the year, but also the hard work it took to earn it. One rarely comes without the other, but it’s certainly best when they come in that order!

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.

A Man, his Mouse, and a Cyclist

Reader beware caveat: though the following may seem very much like a twisted fairy tale, it is actually a factual relating of one of the stranger things that has happened to me on a bike. I believe it is such an odd story that if, after reading it, you were to tell me that you were not left wondering “you mean this is not THE strangest thing that has happened to you on a bike?”, well then, I might accuse YOU of telling a tale.

On June 4, 2011, I set out from home for a training ride. I was getting into pretty decent cycling shape having trained for and ridden the Tour de Victoria, and was focused on the upcoming Highwood Pass Gran Fondo and my first solo attempt of the 24 Hours of Adrenalin mountain bike race. I was down in weight, I was feeling great, and I was even starting to enjoy the climbs.

I cycled west at a brisk (for me) 32 km/hr pace for the first hour and then hit Cochrane Hill, a nice local climb. I could have ridden straight home to Calgary from there, but I wanted to do 100 km, so I opted for an out and back side trip on Lochend Road, a quiet country road.

I was 40 km into my ride and my legs were starting to get tired from my first hours’ efforts, so I was impressed with how high my average speed was. I did not realise the full extent of the tail wind pushing me along as I continued north, and due to the rolling terrain I also failed to recognise the net elevation loss. I just rode along, enjoying the pace and the scenery, blissfully unaware of the events unfolding before me.

I was 65 km into my ride when I was stopped by a cattle drive blocking the road just beyond an intersection. As I dismounted my bike I realised my legs were quite fatigued, so I decided to make that my turnaround point. I watched bemused as the cattle drive turned at the intersection and headed off in another direction. It was a peaceful moment as I stood there, resting and appreciating the sun-bathed serenity of the mostly uninhabited farmland around me, and enjoying the small amount of food I had brought for the day.

First time I'd ever had to stop a ride for a cattle drive.

A pickup truck passed by on the other side of the road, heading the opposite way and slowing down, presumably to take the same turn the cattle drive did, towards a small town called Madden. The driver – an older fellow – brought the truck to a stop, backed up, then pulled across the road, stopping with this truck angled in front of me.

Leaning out the window he commented how nice the day was, to which I agreed. He seemed pleasant and friendly. I wondered if he had stopped for directions, or perhaps to warn me about something up the road.

A smile spread across the man’s face as he explained how he had just come from a garage sale in the city. He was excited about the great stuff he had bought. I was intrigued about his treasures, but couldn’t help wondering why he had seen fit to stop in the middle of nowhere to tell a random cyclist about it. Maybe he was lonely and just wanted to talk.

As the meandering and mostly one-sided conversation continued, I started to get a weird vibe. It was clear from the way the man offered to show me his special purchases that he felt I would be as excited as he was. He pulled out two Mickey and Minnie Mouse dolls, each about twelve inches high, in full wedding regalia. It was hard to hide that I was, in fact, not as excited as him.

As I stood there alone in the middle of nowhere with this confounding stranger, my mind sought a rational explanation for what was going on. I would have assumed that a good old country boy like this might actually try very hard to avoid someone like me, clad as I was in Lycra from head to toe.  Exactly what about the lawfully wedded mice was so important that he was compelled to stop his vehicle and show it to a complete stranger on the side of the road?

I was able to come up with a few scenarios. It wasn’t even the scariest of those that ended with me locked in his barn, dressed in a wedding dress, and wearing one of those Disney mouse ear hats.

I looked around nervously, hoping a vehicle would come by.

None did, and the fun continued with my new friend “sharing” a random slew of very inappropriate and exceedingly racist jokes. I was growing steadily more uncomfortable. I laughed nervously after each punch line, buying time to plot a polite withdrawal that would hopefully not set any perverted or psychotic wheels in motion.

I went with the simple approach, and the man seemed to accept my assertion that I had to be getting back on the road. Looking back as I pedaled away, I saw that he had pulled back onto his side of the road, but had stopped on the shoulder and was just sitting there. I could only hope he was admiring his dolls and not looking in his rear view mirror.

I pedaled fast and hard, fuelled by adrenaline and the duelling banjos soundtrack looping through my mind. My legs burned. The headwind felt strong, and the gradient steep. I was trying to escape a seemingly crazy man, and I was pedaling into an unexpectedly strong wind up an equally unexpected steep gradient. Looking back at my Garmin data, I had averaged 45 km/hr for the last 6 km before running into the cattle drive, so I really should have had a better grasp on the terrain as I initiated my retreat, but it somehow came as a total surprise.

It was a very long ride home indeed. That first hill dragged on and on as I kept looking back over my shoulder, and then the rollers continued for another eternity.  For as long as I could look back and see that spot, the truck was still parked there.

I eventually got over the hills and out of sight and relaxed somewhat as the adrenaline surge subsided. I realised the toll the event had taken. My legs felt like wood, and it was so hard to pedal that it felt like my tires were flat. I was spent. I had no food left, limited water and the sun was beating down hard on my shaved head through the vents in my helmet. The wind hurt my ears and annoyed me to no end. In hindsight I was likely experiencing my first real bonk. I stopped several times to sit and rest in the ditch, always keeping my eyes open for the blue truck.

I could have called my wife or my sister to come pick me up; at one point I even had my phone in my hand and started to dial one of the numbers. In the end though, my pride won over, and I plodded ahead hungry, sweaty, tired, sunburned, and frazzled.

I finally turned back onto the main highway with 13 km left to go. I put my head down, mustered my remaining resolve, and pedaled as hard as I could in an effort to just get the heck home, but my best exertions were not getting me anywhere fast.

About half way home from there, my day finally took a turn for the better as two riders on sleek triathlon bikes slowly overtook me. The lead rider looked over, perched on his aero bars, and said just about the perfect thing considering my level of exhaustion and self-perceived lack of progress: “we’ve been trying to catch you for quite some time”. I was just thankful it was them who had caught me.

A summary of my ride.