Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Axel Merckx Penticton Gran Fondo Report

Penticton from the Naramata Bench. Photo: Robert de Rot
MY GOOD LORD!! Penticton is absolutely BEAUTIFUL! I do not know why I have not spent more time there. The 2013 Axel Merckx Gran Fondo on July 7th, 2013 had to be one of the greatest organized events in one of the most beautiful settings in North America. Oh, and the ride? That was also spectacular: challenging, fast, and very, very fun!

Leading up to this ride, I had heap of kilometers in my legs due to an unhealthy obsession with my road bike. The day after the BMO Vancouver Marathon back on May 6th, I took my mountain bike for a spin to loosen up the legs. One ride became two, and before long I had turned a week of recovery into a full time addiction. I ditched my runners for my bike for May and June, and amassed a good amount of kilometers in my legs in preparation for the AMGF.

The elevation profile. I knew this like the back of my hand.

The route. Having completed a 181kms ride last month on the Ironman Whistler course, this distance was of little concern.
Heading into the weekend, I had no idea about the difficulty of the course, but thankfully, the AMGF website course profile was heat-branded on my brain, so I had some idea of what was to come. My brother Aaron, his much-prettier-than-he-better-half Jenna, Lori-Ann and me all left the old hometown of Kamloops, and busted it over the Okanagan connector on Saturday. After our package pick-up at the impressive AMGF Expo located at the Pentiction Convention Center, we hit Naramata bench immediately on arrival to try out some of the best wines Penticton had to offer. (Package pickup was a snap as the vollies were super friendly and had their stuff together-- they had to with 2700 cyclist descending on the city for the weekend!).

Fruit wines go down quickly.
Aaron doesn't like wine, so he gets pissy. Especially when he sees elephants riding on bikes. 
I must say that there is no better pre-ride fueling than local wines from Elephant Island (they specialize in fruit wines--unique and surprisingly tasty. We bough a bottle each of cherry and blackberry), and Lake Breeze (a solid choice--I quite liked their whites, and I am not a white fan) wineries--two places that you must hit when in Penticton.

Post wine tasting, we hit the beach for some sun and sand. This is where I began to question my vacation choices over the last few years: Why have we opted to hit the Caribbean when really, on the hottest of days, Penticton could double for a tropical destination. Lake Okanagan and Skaha offer some gorgeous beaches and walks--beautiful soft flowing sand, warm water for swimming, and terrific scenery and sun. The riding on the Naramata bench North of the city, and other routes in and around the lakes make for some of the best road riding on quiet roads.

The Ride:

A 5am wake-up to hit the Denny's (blech! but that was all we had) for our pre-ride meal meant Aaron and I had to be organized the night before with our gear all laid out, timing chips in place, nutrition set out, an bikes ready to rock. This left us with a 5 hour sleep from midnight to wake-up call. Out the door, we were done breakfast by 5:45, having nailed back a veggie omelette and cup of tea. A quick pump of the tires and to the start line we went.

Lining up Aaron and I met up with Sheldon Orr, Ken Leggatt, and we spied Matt Drown off in the distance close to the start line. I also met my teaching colleague's husband Mark Ormesher of the South Delta Riders club. A CBC commissioned version of Oh Canada played, and we were off. A blistering pace was set by the front group as many riders who were out of their league quickly fell backwards on Vancouver Hill.

The organizers had not taken out the traffic barriers which bottle-necked the front groups a bit, creating a bit of a dangerous situation for all riders who came up quickly on the intersections. I stayed with Ken, Aaron and Sheldon on the hill, trying to keep out of trouble. Coming down Vancouver Hill, many riders around me were taking serious chances, screaming by me on the right and left as we came back into downtown. The smell of burning automobile brakes was in the air, as the lead vehicle must have had to fly around the corners to stay in front of the Fondo. I hooked up with Trevor Linden, and managed to follow then pass him on the way back down the hill. He was staying close to the wheel of his TNA team members.

The start of these things is always chaotic: riders full of charge take to the front, risk silly maneuvers, which uses up important energy that would be better saved for later in the race. Although I must admit, there is something empowering about racing up the hills with thousands of people in tow. The Fondo gives a rider wings in those opening moments.

Heading out on the 97 towards Summerland was a gong-show. Road cones created dangerous situations near the front as riders could not see them as they were blocked out by riders taking more dangerous chances with them. It seemed as though everyone wanted to be at the front of the ride. I spotted Ken Leggatt, Aaron, Eric Harvey, and Matt Drown on the right side of the lane, while I was with Sheldon Orr and Frank Amirati on the left side of the road. I did not risk traveling across the speeding pack through the inside of the race in order to ride with my brother, although I really wanted too. It just seemed too dangerous as we were flying with a tailwind at 55kms an hour.

Halfway out to Summerland, on my right side, a major pileup happened. I suppose that some wheels were crossed as many riders were taken down. This wreck spurred the peloton on even faster. We were only 15k into the ride, and the first major crash had taken place--the first of many. Even my own leg clipped a road pylon, as I saw many other near misses. It was at this point that I began to take note of the sketchy pilots around me: the riders whose technique seemed to be rather erratic, scary, and unpredictable. This all in the opening 20kms of the 160km ride.

The only actual competition within the ride started in Summerland on Rosedale Avenue: the King of the Mountain. I hammered up the hill, which proved to be where the first real separation happened. I made it to the top in 5:33.00, but that was too slow! My brother danced to the top in 4:43, keeping him with the lead group. When I got to the top, I took a small amount of time to recover. That proved to be my undoing for riding with Aaron, and the lead group. The split happened, I was left leading the chase group with a majority of the fast riders. Not fast enough, as we would never see the head of the race again, only to swallow up the poor souls who would be dropped from the head of the ride.

Looking as stressed as ever. Photo Credit: C.J. Gordon
Riding back through Penticton was still fast, but some sense of caution took hold. No longer were riders charging around like idiots. It seemed like we could begin to take in the beauty of the landscape. Hitting Lakeside Drive, the lead group had already gained a two kilometer lead. They were quite visible down the road. along the lake. McLean Creek Road was where much of the next drama would begin. Again, I took note of the riders who look uncomfortable on the bike, or that seemed to be experiencing some discomfort or cramping 60km into the ride. We were still travelling at a quick pace. This would not subside until we hit the hills on the backside of the route, nearly another 50k away.

By 63kms, I met up with Jake, my Daryl Evans team member. Relieved to see him, we managed to chat and keep each other within sight. Also, I was called out by Trevor Linden for not giving him some space on the left side of the road. I was not out of line, but apologized to him then and there, and then decided to mark him for the next few KMs. His TNA crew had to be hockey players, because they created a monster air pocket to draft from.

By 68km we had hit the Skaha rollers. These were some little kickers to liven up the ride, as well as sap energy. On Oliver Ranch road, just past the Okanagan Falls, the second group was going up a fast false flat/slight climb, when Scary Clown jersey guy must have crossed wheels with another rider right in front of me, taking out close to 5 other riders. It is a frightening scene when a person is JRA (just riding along) and suddenly they are sideways and airborne. It was a shit-storm, as I had to hit the brakes hard, running over another rider's wheel before I came to a stop. I avoided crashing, but Scary Clown jersey was on the floor holding his shoulder. He had definitely separated it (as I know from personal experience), or at least broke his clavicle.

People again were taking unnecessary kamikaze risks on the downhills here, trying to gain some placing for...what? A charge to ride into no mans land, to be then swallowed up by the group you were trying to get away from? I really hope all involved in the crash were okay. Many riders stretching on the bike while rolling at 40kph only an hour and a half in showed that many of the riders did not have the fitness to maintain that level of performance for the whole route. To add to the stress, a bit of rain wet the roads and riders up nicely, but that quickly subsided as we passed through Oliver.

On Black Sage Road, I was into a descent when I was blasted with a SNOT ROCKET! Dude in front of me launched one on his right side, creating a snot mist cloud which I rode right through. The offending booger landed on my right leg and shoe. I sprinted up to him and let him know of his indiscretion. He apologized, and I told him that I would gladly return the favor in the coming miles ahead with a laugh.

Just past the 100 km marker, we made our way back onto Hwy 97, and then? Cue the headwind. Averaging over 40k per hour for 100kms, (with segments of that where we spun between 55-58km/h) made me feel like a rockstar, but reality set in when the wind forced us to a feeble 31km/h on the highway. This too is impressive, but that is pack riding. Riding in the pack of 60 or so riders helps to save 30% of one's own energy. That was my goal anyways. I was tucked into the group for the first 100k or so, ready to unload on the impending climbs.

Turning off to go towards Fairview, the roads headed upwards. The last third of the course was where a majority of climbing was to take place. I knew this and was ready for it. Surprisingly, without much effort, I went to the front and began to lead up the climbs. In fact, 110kms into the ride, I was having many good sensations in my legs. As riders began to go backwards up the hills, I was weaving my way through the pack to the head of the group. As we were now out of contention with the lead group, those guys being way up the road, I was content to go to the front and drill the pace. This seemed to work well, as riders began to get strung out on the road heading up the hills. Fairview-Whitelake road was a great ride for me: any time the road pitched upwards, I kept the pace with a handful of other riders. This help keep me out of danger, and, I got to the descents first, which also, kept me out of danger.

This was the case for the next 50kms or so: me at the front with a few guys, doing the work for the group, feeling pretty secure in my riding. To this point, I had only consumed 2 bottles of Skratch, 3 gels, and a pack of Honeystinger gummies. That seemed to be all that I needed for this ride, my third bottle on the ready for the last few kms.

The twisting, high speed descent to the 97 was something out of the Tour de France, or at least I pretended it to be. At the front, I just followed wheels until we got to the last short climb onto the 97. Then, it was pack riding downhill at 60-70 km/h on the highway as the Gran Fondo met up with the Medio Fondo. This was a bit unnerving as slower riders finish up the Medio were leisurely riding at two and three across as a swarm of our fast moving pack buzzed by them. Again, the road pylons made and appearance. We were fewer in numbers, and I was still at the front. The pylons did not play into my stress at this point.

Coming into Penticton was pretty cool: Skaha Lake on the right, the town on the left, I was ready to give it a hard push to the line, but I had no sweet clue of the distance to the finish. Jake told me to wait until I saw the banner to sprint, but I was waiting for a sign of 1k to go. I did not see anything of the sort. As we got close, the speeds ramped up. Bearing down on the finish down Main Street, slower riders were riding and taking up space on the road, again, with a fast moving pack racing towards the line. With less than a K to go, I sat up, and rolled it in. It was not worth sprinting for 70th place, risking a crash and broken bones or bikes in the final 300m. What I did see at the last second was a Marathonfoto photographer, on a stool, in the middle of the road, just in front of the finish line, as many riders swerved to miss him. That had to be one of the most stressful jobs of the day for him. I swear he must have gotten run over at least once.

Speed Profile versus Elevation.
Crossing the line I was fresh. I had finished the course in 4 hours and 11 minutes even, which was good enough for 98th place across the line, for what that is worth. I am pretty happy to have kept the bike upright, and made it to the finish after 50k of work at the front feeling great. My nutrition for the ride was solid, I was not in any state of cramping, and I was super stoked to just have ridden a supposed 160kms the fastest I had ever. Just past the finish line I saw Lor and gave her a hug and kiss, delighted that I had not gotten into a wreck. Conditions for the ride this year were absolutely perfect at 26 degrees for the midday with just a touch of showers, and sun all around.

Some body metrics for y'all.
Me, Trevor, and AW. The icing on the cake!!
Aaron came over and we had our pics taken with Trevor Linden. I chatted with him about the ride, apologized for cutting him off, and shook his hand. Mr. Linden is a very classy guy, modest enough to downplay the label of "Icon" that my brother bestowed upon him in our conversation. He is my all time favorite Canuck!

Me and Captain Canuck chatting about the ride!
I also bumped into Snot Rocketeer, who turned out to be Jason Poon, a guy that I rode with at UBC in 1998-2000. He apologized, but I said that was alright. His wife had set a new course record for female finishers on the route, as she finished with our group.

Trevor Pearson killing it on the KOM, winning his age class. Way to go Trevor!
Just before my massage, I also met up with Tim and Agnes Abercrombie, and little Hugo. It was great talking to him. As it turns out, he managed to take the KOM challenge for my age cat, with a time of 4 minutes, 31 seconds. Aaron was second with a time of 4 minutes 43 seconds, a few seconds that Aaron says he could have gotten had he not been caught up in traffic at the base of the climb. But, it is Tim Abercrombie. The guy is a very accomplished roadie--Tour de White Rock winner, Provincial Road Champion, Tour of Rwanda finisher. The guys is very solid. Maybe next year AW! (I rolled over the top in 5 minutes 30 seconds, gassed and in need of some recovery).
Riding hard and finishing happy!

Our crew at the finish. A fantastic group of people!!

After a weak massage, I headed to the hotel for a shower, to check out, and to make it back for our team picture and to hang out with the boys and share stories, each member telling their tale of the day over beer and burgers, complimentary of the AMGF!

All in all, this day was one of the best days I have had on the bike. I loved it! Everything from the Expo, to the city of Pentiction, to the wineries, beach, and ride--the AMGF was a world class event in a picturesque town. I really hope to be back next year, as it was a perfect kick off to the summer.

Thanks must go out to the Daryl Evans Racing Team for the support on this ride--I am very proud to represent this team. Daryl is a great owner, and the team members are top notch--a fun group of guys and gals.
Turns out that my missing the break on the KOM hill cost us a couple of places. We may have challenged for top spot. 
Also, to thanks Sugoi for making such a darn comfortable kit--no saddle sores, no overheating, no chafing. 160k in the saddle had me smiling the whole time.

Thank you to Axel Merckx, and the whole organizing crew, volunteers, and sponsors of this event. If you are thinking about doing this ride--just do it. Next year will be better than ever, and I am hopeful to come back again and ride the beautiful roads of the South Okanagan. This is a world class event, one that would even be worth paying the extra money for the Class Speciale, and all the little perks that come with it.

Finally, the biggest thank you to my lovely wife for supporting me in my perceived crazy cycling and running endeavors. I don't think they are crazy, and I can't promise that I will stop, but it means so much to me that she is very understanding.

I loved this day, this event. I will be back. AMGF is one of the best around!

Jeff looking like a huge salt lick after flatting, chasing, and crashing. 
That is hideous. And hard work/
AMGF done and dusted!
Results are here.
Now on to the Knee Knacker! Unfortunately my last run was two weeks ago. Let's consider this an extra long taper. This Saturday will be a 50k ultra for a bit of fun and training, rather than for competing.

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