My first Gran Fondo ride

I had no idea what I was signing up for when I registered for the 160km ride at the Noosa Sports Festival. I hadn’t ridden anywhere near that far before and my training regime over the last few months certainly didn’t warrant any special recognition, so my expectations for yesterday’s race ranged anywhere from collapsing in a puddle of sweat and Gatorade at the 3h mark to barely teetering over the finish line before collapsing in a puddle of sweat and Gatorade. In the end there was no collapsing, just a 5 hour battle with leg cramps, insane motorists and dehydration, and I can’t wait to do it again.

The group started off extremely fast, which is a sign that either it’s an inexperienced group or everyone’s nervous (something I picked up from listening to hours and hours of Eurosport cycling commentators). In our case it was a combination of both as I could see there were a lot of group riders who, like me, didn’t have the experience of riding such distances and in such a large group and were anxious to see what the day would bring. One of the riders showed his newbie-ness in the first 5-10km when the peloton split into two groups and I heard him yell “the peloton’s getting away, we’d better go and catch them!”. Even with my own complete inexperience I shook my head, knowing we had a good 5-6 hours and many mountains to cross before this race was over, and a 20m gap between opening up in the first 20mins wasn’t going to mean squat.

There was also the obligatory crash not long into the ride as we flew along the straight flat roads. It happened just in front of me and to the left. Luckily the guy got back up straight away unscathed, and because he was on the far left everyone avoided him pretty easily. Looked like it was either a touch of wheels or he might have caught the edge of the bitumen. It was at that point I thought we were definitely going too fast as everyone seemed obsessed with jockeying towards the front of the group rather than just letting everything naturally find its form. As everyone tried to get ahead the speed steadily ratcheted up to around 45km/h and caused an accordion effect of fast-pedalling-braking-slowing-fast-pedalling-braking-slowing. Much like the effect you get on highways in heavy traffic.

The middle kilometres were mostly up mountains and through undulating hills as we trekked across the Noosa hinterland. From what I could catch a glimpse of the view was incredible, although soured somewhat by my own huffing and puffing and trying to keep pace with the better climbers (which seemed to be everyone) so that I could remain within the small groups. The first mountain climb had completely split the peloton up into groups of eight or so riders. My legs were starting to tire from the ups and downs and before too long I was getting routinely dropped on every hill, having to pace myself back to the group on the descent and flats where I seemed to be stronger than most others. I even found myself doing most of the pulls (riding out front as wind-breaker) for our group along the flats at around 35-40km/h, only to be slowly but surely overtaken by them as soon as the gradient went up. More hill training for me I guess.

There was one pretty scary crash that happened about half way as we were heading through the hinterland. I was just coming up on the crest of a small ridge when I saw riders in front of me signalling to slow down. This was weird because, although I wasn’t far enough up the hill to see what was ahead, I knew we were in the middle of nowhere and there were no intersections or traffic lights around. Just at that moment I heard the roar of a car engine and screeching tyres behind me, moments later seeing a guy in a white commodore weaving between the groups of riders, accelerating and braking like a maniac before screaming past us in the right hand lane, obviously frustrated at the number of cyclists on the road (during a cycling race… who would have thought right?!). No sooner had I cursed at him I realised what the riders in front were signalling for — a woman had crashed just over the rise and was laying on the road. The driver didn’t see her until he got over the ridge, by which stage he had accelerated to a dangerous pace and was hurtling along in the right lane. He saw the woman on the road and slammed on his brakes, swerving to the right and careering off the road onto the dirt where he came to a stop, almost sending himself down the side of the mountain.

I approached the woman who had crashed but luckily she was mobile enough to get up and move herself off the road and everyone avoided what could have been a pretty messy situation. It was really disappointing to see this type of impatient driving. Especially considering all of the other motorists were nothing but courteous throughout the whole race, and everyone I rode with was making a conscious effort to signal every movement and wave “thank-yous” to drivers as they waited for us or moved to give us room. There were also dozens of signs all along the track in the lead-up to the day stating that there was a cycling even on Sunday and to watch out for riders, so it can’t have been a surprise to anyone that there were bikes on the road that morning. More than anything it was infuriating to see that this one driver’s intolerance very nearly caused severe injuries or worse to a group of people who were just trying to get fit and improve their well-being.

Coming back into Marcoola I was relieved to see the end of the hills as I could feel multiple cramps starting to flicker in my left hamstring and right quad muscles. But there was now a new enemy out in full force — the sun. We were out of the protection of the hinterland forestry and exposed to the sun’s full force on the exposed coastal roads. It was coming at an angle directly at our foreheads and forearms which meant we were bearing it’s full rays on our skin. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing except for the fact that I know the sun exacerbates sweating and quickens the onset of cramping. By this stage I also had a belly full of sugar and electrolyte salts and the slight nausea I was feeling indicated I was probably dehydrating faster than I could hydrate.

Fortunately the next 50km was directly north along the coastline with a merciful tailwind, so I decided it would simply be a mental battle to keep circling the pedals over, find a group and shroud myself from the wind until the finish. By the time I got to Perigean (about 20 k’s to go) all of the 2-3 person groups that remained had taken off ahead of me and I was ambling along at around 28km/h, just sticking it out until the final straight.

Coming up to the finish line I didn’t get the adrenaline rush I expected. I think I was more comfortable to gradually pace myself down on the approach to the line. I used the last bit of energy to bunny-hop over each of the timing strips as I went under the banner. Hopefully one of the photographers caught a shot of that golden moment.

According to Strava I averaged just under 31km/h which was faster than I predicted and only 1km/h slower than last year when I did the 85km race. I wanted this ride to really challenge me, and it certainly did. The farthest I’d ridden before yesterday was around 120km so I knew it was going to be a stretch for me to keep both my body and mind in-check for the 5-odd hours I’d be in the saddle.

Reading this it might sound like it wasn’t enjoyable, but to the contrary it was exactly what I needed — a ride that would challenge me and expose my weaknesses. The 85km ride last year was really fun but it was too far within my comfort zone and as a result I didn’t have to ask any more of myself than I would on any other weekend ride. This year I absolutely had to push myself and there were new battles for me to learn from. I know I need to do more training on the hills and I’m keen to sign up to a club so that I can hone these skills and learn properly. I’ll also be able to do more competitive races which I really enjoy. I like the pace of riding in a big group where your senses have to be super-heightened.

As for next year, I’m already looking forward to it as I’ll be armed with more experience and a time to beat.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *