On the ski hills, on the bike trails, and thru life in general

Gran Fondo Highwood Pass

I have been investing with Alberta Treasury Branch (ATB) for about 10 years now. My investment advisor, besides making me money, also shares my recreational interests – namely cycling and downhill skiing. Whenever we get together, we generally talk as much or more about these as we do about my portfolio. It came as a surprise, however, this April when he called me up and asked if I would be interested in going for a couple of bike rides courtesy of ATB.

“Umm, sure” I responded, wondering what the catch was and where the rides were. As it happened, there was no catch and the “rides” were the Gran Fondo Highwood Pass in early July and the Banff Gran Fondo in mid-August. No trifling rides these – the GF Highwood is 135 km long with 1700 metres of climbing. The Banff GF is a little longer, at 150 km, but with a little less climb. ATB would pay for everything – entry fee, full ATB kit (jersey, bib shorts, arm skins, thermal jacket), weekly training rides with coaches (followed by complimentary snacks and beers), even hotel room the night before the rides! All I had to do was suffer.

As it happens, I was not able to do the GF Banff due to the fact that I had already purchased tickets for the Edmonton Blues Festival which was being held the same weekend. I have been going to this fest every year since it started, 1999, and have been taking my daughter for the past 10 years so I was not about to miss it. My schedule was wide open for the Highwood though.

The unusually warm and dry May and June enabled me to get about 2700 km of riding in beforehand to get my legs and lungs in some sort of shape. Moreover, our ski club biking group had its annual trip to Canmore scheduled for late June and one of the rides would be close to the base of the main Highwood climb in Kananaskis Country. I had done this climb in 2010 with a few friends when we biked from Peter Lougheed park, at the base of the climb, to Longview. I remembered the climb as being long and exhausting.

Aug 2010 - Highwood Pass. Me on far right.

Aug 2010 – Highwood Pass. Me on far right.

The difference with the GF would be that I would be riding from the casino at the intersection of Hwys 1 and 40, 50 kms from the start of the main climb. I say “main climb” because, although the road is a continuous series of ever rising rolling hills, the last 17 km to the summit is an unrelenting, leg searing, category 2 bitch that just goes UP. No coasting, no chance to rest – just pedal until you run out of gears and then KEEP PEDALING.

By coincidence, one of my friends (Archie) with the ski club was also invited by ATB to ride the Fondos so we did a lot of training together. He, I and another friend (Gary) decided to do a pre-ride of the 17 km climb while the rest of the club rode the trails in Peter Lougheed park. Somehow, Archie got our meeting location muddled and arrived after Gary and I started our climb. It was as bad as I remembered.

The climb. That's Gary way, way back at the curve of the road. I liked waiting for him.

The climb. That’s Gary way, way back at the curve of the road. I liked waiting for him.

Gary, usually a very strong rider, had taken a month or so off and fell far behind. This was a good thing because, being the gentleman that I am, I felt that I should wait for him to catch up periodically. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. Eventually we made it to the summit.

Mike and Gary at the top.

June 24, 2015 – Mike and Gary at the top. Hmm – I’m wearing the same shirt as in 2010.

The ride down was much easier, although I limited it to 50-60 kph because of all the grit on the shoulder. Luckily there wasn’t too much traffic so we could ride on the road for much of the time. We flew past Archie, still on his way up. “Where’s the top?” was his plaintive cry.

A few weeks later, Archie and I made our way back to Calgary, where we spent the night before the GF. Up at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m., we found a McD’s, had a nutritious breakfast (not!) and drove the hour to the Stoney Nakoda casino, the start/finish of the ride.

Start line. Early morning.

Start line. Early morning.

Thankfully, it was sunny though, at 8:15 a.m, not particularly warm. I got into a good paceline group and made good time to the first check point rest stop at the 36 km mark. This was my first mistake. I felt good but spent too long at the rest stop, about 15 minutes. Unfortunately, I had to pee and there was a lineup for the few cans. I should have just wandered into the bush.

Check stop 1 at 34 km.

First check stop at 36 km.

The 14 km from the check stop to the base of the climb was fairly easy, but then came the 17 km of climbing pain. I am usually pretty strong on hills but there is nothing like that in Edmonton to practice on! I started out with 3 other riders, dropped one after the first km then was dropped myself after a few more. After that, I was all on my own. I passed some slower riders, the faster ones passed me. I tried the Jens Voight strategy – “shut up legs” – but they wouldn’t listen. I passed one of my fellow ATB riders, who I always passed on the hills in training. “Damn you, Mike. Again”. I told him he would likely pass me further on when I stopped for a rest. I passed another ATB rider. “I’m out of bullets!” he gasped, already in his smallest gear with 4 km left to go. I planned to stop at a particular point, the Rock Glacier turnout, about 2 kms from the top, and forced myself to keep going until there. However, the organizers picked that precise spot to put up a sign that read “Pain is temporary”. How the hell could I stop there, in front of that sign! Reluctantly, I kept going until I spied another rider stopped about 1 km from the top. I thanked him profusely for setting a good example and chatted for a few minutes. Stew passed me, as I predicted, so I took off again, passed him again and made it to the top, legs cramping. The last km is the steepest, between 6 and 12%, and I don’t think my legs would have done it without the rest, brief as it was.

I took Stew’s picture at the sign but never thought of asking him to take mine😦 I lingered longer than I needed to – time wasting mistake number 2 – then set off on the fast downhill. The second check stop was at 76 km and, again, I lingered longer than I needed. I replenished my water bottle and headed off, only to flat at the 80 km mark. I changed the rear tube with no trouble but it still took me almost 10 minutes. And now it was starting to get hot! The rest of the ride was fairly easy, mostly downhill, except for a 1 km stretch at the 122 km mark with a 6% grade – a Strava segment that someone had appropriately named “L’il nasty”. That was almost the last straw but I persevered and managed to make it back to the finish. Total time 6 hrs 11 minutes, riding time 5 hrs 15 minutes. The Highwood route. Not great but I made it. I wasn’t fast but I wasn’t last. I was also the second oldest person on the ride (only Archie was older), so I can take some satisfaction out of that. Maybe next year I’ll do it faster!

Such an accomplishment called for a celebration so Lucille rewarded Archie and me with my favourite beer once we got back to Edmonton!

Lucille giving me and Archie a celebratory beer.

Lucille giving me and Archie a celebratory beer.

Comments on: "Gran Fondo Highwood Pass" (3)

  1. Well done, next time light road bike, very light gears?

  2. Whoops, meant very low gears!

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