Ride Report – Fairmont 2008

by Willi Fast and John Devlin

During the week prior to the event, our eyes were glued to the various weather forecasts that we monitor: Environment Canada, Parks Canada, The Weather Network, Alberta Sustainable Resources. Despite our most urgent attempts at sending “good energy” to the heavens, the forecast remained steadfastly constant – and not optimistic. The prognosticators called for rain, cold, wind all weekend – exactly what a Randonneur does not want to hear. Because it was only two weeks before the qualification deadline for the Rocky Mountain 1200, we remained committed to our resolve to complete this last qualifier, thereby not risking everything on a last minute attempt the following weekend (which at any rate would have involved seeking special dispensation from event organizers to ride an unscheduled brevet just days before the qualification window closed).

So it was that John and I drove down to Calgary on Friday afternoon, after we both had a hectic week at work, and scrambling at the last minute to get everything together for the ride. You would think that after a full season of Ranonneuring, all the preparation would become second nature, but there always seems to be a last minute “flail,” together with the gnawing feeling of having forgotten something crucial.

On reaching Calgary, we checked in with Opa, went for dinner at an Irish Pub up on the hill in west Calgary (very loud, but last minute-ers cannot be choosers on a Friday night in Calgary), and then returned back to Opa’s condo for last minute packing and an early date with sleep. As usual, the last minute packing took longer than it should have, and it was close to 23:00 before I finally turned off the light and laid down to sleep.

The 03:00 alarm came much too soon. I scrambled to dress, made some coffee to take down to John, forced down some breakfast (good German Buns!), then dared to look outside for the first time: the forecast had been brutally accurate, and it was pouring and blowing outside. Not easily to be deterred, we packed up, and drove to north-west Calgary to the start, where we cowered beneath the canopy at the Co-Op gas station as we completed last minute preparations. Bill Bakke, ride organizer, met us there, and expressed regret at not being to provide better conditions for our ride. Bill saw us off, and away we went.

Not 60 meters down the road, John pulled over to play with his computer – he had no readings. Later, we were able to confirm that two of the wires had somehow been cut. He would go on to do the entire ride without a computer – just another challenge on top of everything else that would face us.

We began the westward trek towards Cochrane, and this turned out to be one of the low points in my ride. We had barely even begun, and already we were struggling to maintain a 15 km/hr pace. The headwind was brutal, and my mind was spinning with the mental math of how long it would take to complete the ride at this pace. All Checkpoint closing times are calculated assuming an overall average pace of 15 km/hr – at our pace, we would need to ride non-stop for 40 hours to finish within the prescribed time window. I was depressed, and simply began to crank the pedals one turn at a time, preferring not to think so much.

We finally got to the Cochrane checkpoint, after a harrowing descent down the Cochrane Hill. What should have been a fun descent was a hair-raising adventure, with swirling winds that dictated an almost constant hand on the brakes to maintain control. We checked in at the gas station to have our brevet cards signed, and only learned upon later inspection of our cards how close we had come to not meeting the very first control point time restriction. Time had never been an issue on previous brevets.

Heading west from Cochrane on the 1A, things went from bad to worse. The wind was incessant, we grew more and more tired, and both of my hips hurt. Hips? I had never had hip troubles before. What’s with that? John was riding very strongly, and it was all I could do to keep up with him, often having to let him go for fear of burning myself out at too brisk a pace.

When we finally got to Canmore, I was frozen, and found that I could not dismount my bike in a normal fashion. My hips were too sore to swing my leg over the top tube of the bike, and I had to almost lay my bike down before being able to step off it. I was so cold and shaky that I could not open my pack to remove my brevet card to have it signed. John, however, was thinking brilliantly, and insisted we find a laundromat to dry ourselves and our gear out. We did so, driving our bikes right into the laundromat. We stripped down, got two big dryers going, and ate some food. As we sat and shivered, someone said: “Look outside – it’s snowing!” Sure enough, there was a slushy sleet falling down. I scrounged the laundromat garbage cans for plastic bags to put over our newly dried socks. Despite having gortex booties, our feet had become soaked, and the inside of our cycling shoes were still saturated. So, dressed like little kids heading out to play in the neighborhood puddles, we started riding again.

It wasn’t until nearly Castle Junction that the weather gave us a break. The rain stopped for a while, and we were able to shed some clothes. We made the Castle checkpoint with some time to spare (30 minutes), and found the proprietress at the store there to be very friendly and helpful — and she actually knew what Randonneuring was all about — she had been signing cards for the Calgary riders all spring!

The climb up Storm Mountain and Vermilion Pass was hot, as the sun actually made an appearance on this stretch. It was shorter than I had expected, but nonetheless, I began thinking about how much fun it would be to come down that pass on the homeward leg. Heading south on Highway 93, we were actually blessed with a tail wind for a while, and when there was no tail wind, we must have been gaining advantage from a slightly favourable grade, because we were often cruising at 30 km/hr at what seemed much too easy an effort – my thoughts leapt ahead to what this stretch would be like on the way back – dark thoughts loomed in my mind ……………….

We stopped for food at Kootenay Park Lodge, and confirmed their opening times for the next day during our return. The owner invited us for the Breakfast Buffet starting at 08:00, but John assured her that we would be well beyond this point by that time tomorrow.

Along this stretch we saw two bears grazing in the ditches, but did not feel threatened – there were lots of tourists around taking pictures, and both bears were oblivious to the goings on, preferring to gorge on whatever was good in the ditch they happened to be grazing in at the time. Good old Parks Canada is showing signs of budget constraints, as this stretch of road had HUGE cracks that would easily swallow our wheels if we were not diligent to avoid them. Again – thoughts of what it would be like to ride this stretch in the dark …….

Soon we came to the climb up Sinclair Pass, an 11 km steady ascent before Radium. It was a tough, long climb, the majority of which I did out of the saddle. I was happy with the climb, not having to stop enroute. While waiting at the top for John, I saw another bear grazing up the road. A semi came upon the bear, loudly honking his air horn, causing Bruno to scamper off into the bush. John led the way over the top and down into Radium, and was flying. Almost immediately upon beginning my descent, I began to freeze up, and had to stop twice to bundle up and do up zippers. Again, the descent was not as much fun as it should have been. Treacherous swirling winds were buffetting me as I came out of the tunnel, and I was completely tense during the entire 11 km descent. I was glad to get back on level ground.

It was just after 20:00 when we reached Radium. We picked up some groceries, checked into our hotel, and I had a quick shower to warm up – again, I was freezing. John was nice enough to clean and lube my chain, causing me to feel like Lance Armstrong with his personal pit crew. We set out northbound for Edgewater, a pleasant ride, until we realized that we would have to descend almost a kilometer into town from the highway to have our cards signed. We came upon a local wedding party, the only sign of local life in town that night, and some of the local bachelor studs were more than willing and interested to sign our cards. We had an hour in the bank at this time – not a lot of buffer, and the prospect of no sleep began to loom larger for us.

We headed south again back to Radium, a quick stop at the hotel for clothes and lights, and then started the climb out of Radium to the south towards Fairmont. It was getting dark now, and John and I traded the lead off the front. I was very happy with my new hub- generator light system – lots of light on the road. Despite that, I nearly drove off the road once while crossing an intersection with a side road and seeing only at the last minute that my line was taking me straight for a steep ditch. A last second correction avoided a disastrous launch! Just outside Fairmont, an oncoming truck pulled across the highway to stop directly in front of us, to warn of a bear in the ditch up ahead on our side of the road. We crossed to the other side, and watched the opposing ditch for signs of Bruno, but to no avail. Good thing. In Fairmont, only one lone person on the patio of a bar that was closed was available to sign our cards. We had built up almost two hours of buffer – the trend was finally going in the right direction!

We headed south again back to Radium, and it was only later that John shared that it was on this stretch that he almost fell asleep on his bike. I had no trouble staying awake, but was growing tired, and also troubled at the rhythmic scraping sound coming from my back wheel – or was it the front? I couldn’t tell in the dark. I rode on, hoping it would go away, yet knowing it would not. Still, maybe my ignoring it would allow me to get to the hotel for some sleep??

We got back to the hotel at 01:30 on Sunday morning, and after some calculations, decided that we could afford one hour of sleep. I wolfed down two apple turnovers and turned off the lights. It was 02:10.

Fifty minutes later, at precisely 03:00, the cell phone screamed at me to get out of bed. I stumbled up, feeling LOUSY, LOUSY, LOUSY, and headed straight for the shower. While trying to avoid the inevitable jolt of cold water that always greets the first person to open the shower head in the morning, I fell backwards, OUT of the tub, onto my back, like a beached whale. Luckily, I did not hurt myself, and I was able to crawl back into the tub for a much needed shower.

Quick preparations were made for a planned 04:00 start. When I decided that we better check out the sound that my bike had been making the previous night, John spotted the problem – a bulging sidewall on my rear tire was rubbing against the brake, and would surely have blown soon. Depressed, I decided to take the time to change the tire – luckily in our trip preparations, we had made the decision to carry a spare tire. The last minute mechanics meant that we now departed 30 minutes later than planned. Already we were behind!

After only 10 or 12 pedal strokes, a completely inadequate warm-up after the previous day, we immediately began the grueling climb out of Radium. At 04:30, there was no traffic, and we were able to ride switchbacks back and forth across the road, using this technique to advantage. Again, I was very happy with my climbing – non-stop to the top, 11 km. While waiting at the top for John, I began to get colder and colder. After 30 minutes of waiting, John appeared, complaining of quad cramps and general fatigue. Again, a quick strategizing session, to see what was required for us to make the next control point at Kootenay Park Lodge. We would have to average 25 km/hr to make it there in time. I told John I would pull the 60 km if he could try to stay on my wheel. We flew down the descent of Sinclair Pass, then began the long approach to Kootenay Park Lodge. At times, I pushed the pace up to 26 or 27, John didn’t know what our speed was because of his broken computer. When he fell off my wheel from time to time, I slowed down and waited for him to get back on, then we started again. Slowly we made ground, but our minds were spinning with calculations: Would we make it? What would we do if we did not? Was our ride over? How much farther? We were both getting very anxious, and I was pushing the pace, only to have to slow down to re-group again. Finally, we came upon the sign for the lodge, and sprinted for it. We arrived! ………… Six Minutes late! Crap!!!!

We were depressed. What to do? Randonneuring is based on the honour system. Cheating was not an option. I had one thought tucked away in my back pocket, that I now played to John: on Saturday morning, we had left the start 15 minutes late, Bill having wanted to chat and find out a little bit about us. I told John that maybe we could adjust all of our control point closing times by 15 minutes because of the delayed start. We agreed to go with that hope, and then also agreed to take some time to stop for breakfast at the Lodge, where the Buffet was just being laid out. The owner from the day before greeted us, saying: “You made it for breakfast after all !”

After breakfast, where I never did warm up, we climbed back aboard our bikes with hopes of making up time – and of getting warm! We rode together for some time, John constantly urging me to go on ahead on my own, not wanting to jeopardize my qualification. I insisted that we were in this together, and did not want to leave him to fend for himself. The next 10 km were filled with anguish, as I battled between wanting to ride together, and wanting to push on ahead to ensure my qualification. Finally I stopped and told John that we had to talk. I told him that I really, really did not want to leave him behind, but that I also really, really wanted to qualify, having planned this for over a year. To his immense credit, John never, ever waivered from his insistence that I go on ahead and let him ride by himself. With a heavy heart, we parted, and I headed up the climb to the top of Vermilion Pass, looking back at John getting smaller and smaller in the distance. Mixed feelings, to be sure ………………..

The descent down Vermilion Pass was another monumental disappointment, because of cold and wind. I pulled into Castle Junction, had quick drink, and started right off again, only to be greeted by John coming in! I was so happy, and told him that we could now ride together again. He said: “No – you ride your ride, I’ll ride mine.” Again, we parted.

All weekend, we had bet our success on a tail wind once we got back on the #1 highway east bound – surely the wind that had been our constant foe would now transform itself into an ally and assist us on the homeward leg to Calgary. Ha – fate is not so kind! In your face Willi! In your face John! You’re going to have to work for this ride, and none of it is going to be easy.

So it was that I headed back down the 1A, INTO the wind, battling what would otherwise have been a beautiful stretch of back road. I met many other cyclists, most of whom were flying west on light racing machines. They seemed to taunt me as I ploughed ever eastward aboard my over-loaded Marinoni.

I dreamed of a warm bowl of soup in Canmore, and when I got to the Tim Horton’s, was greeted by a long serpentine of 20 people in the line-up. I slipped over to the Wendy’s and ordered up a cup of Chai Tea, with cream! Hmmmm – small pleasure, yet soooo good. Some food, a good warm face wash, and I was on my way. As I was leaving Canmore, my cell phone rang, and it was John! He had just reached Canmore. Again I suggested that I would wait for him – again, he insisted on not “burdening” me.

The eastbound leg out of Canmore was very hilly, and I was crawling as I climbed, and then froze as I descended. The mentally grueling part of this leg for me was the lack of signage between Exshaw and Cochrane. How far is it still to go? Quick calculation from my odometer – oh no – could it really be that far?? More pedaling, more wind, more pedaling, more wind – my feet hurt!!! Stop! Rest! Go! They still hurt! Keep going, the clock is ticking …………….

The 1A was an awful stretch, in what should have been a beautiful setting. The cross cracks were bone jarring, the drivers rude and inconsiderate, and that wind ………….. How far? Where are you Cochrane? Where is that new stretch of fresh pavement that will feel so good after this rough pothole infested trail that calls itself a highway?

Fate does have a friendly side after all. Up ahead, I spotted new black-top – and – where was the wind? By the fact that I couldn’t feel it anymore, I knew that it had switched to be coming from behind!!! Ahhaaaa – finally, a tail wind, smoooooth road – here we go – 30, 33, 37, 39 km/hr – and so easy!! I was flying, could no longer feel my feet, and wouldn’t have cared even if I could have. I felt like a racer again, and Cochrane was on the horizon. I had known for some time already that I would be able to meet the finishing control time, but was now finally able to enjoy the last part of the ride!!

But – it wasn’t quite the last part just yet. Still the matter of that hill out of Cochrane …………….. I stopped at the gas station, had a Vanilla Milk (actually tasted GOOOOD!!), then started towards the climb. Again, I was cold, and it was raining, and raining hard, and the hill was coming, and I was tired. Again, I made a pact with myself to go slow, and to not stop until the top. The strategy, although mentally taxing, continued to work for me, and I made it to the top in good form.

The final stretch into Calgary was long, but finally I made it to the first traffic light on the western edge of the city. Downhill through a few more lights, and I was negotiating the construction zones that the previous morning had been the hellacious site of our pitiful start. I saw Nosehill Drive, climbed up the exit ramp, made eye contact with the woman driving the big Escalade, who graciously let me into the turning lane, and pulled into the Co-Op.

Mission Accomplished!

I was freezing, tired, and cold, and climbed into the van, blasted the heater on full, and changed into dry clothes. After 30 minutes, my phone rang again – oh no – John is in trouble – where is he??

No trouble – he missed the turn-off, and had ridden two kilometers too far to the east. Several minutes later, he pulled in, I took his bike, and he toddled off to get his card signed.

We quickly dispensed with the original plan to drive back to Edmonton that night. Way too exhausted to safely contemplate that undertaking. We stayed the night, ate pizza, went to bed early, and got up early the next morning to drive to Edmonton and to go to work.

When each of us got to work, we were greeted by e-mails from Bill Bakke. His message: he had noted that his chatting had made us 15 minutes late in departing on Saturday morning, and would we please adjust all our control point closing times by 15 minutes?? YYYYEEEESSSS!

Now it was official. We had qualified, and not only that – had survived doing it.

Willi – 38:35, John 39:05

What a thrill – and I could not have asked for a better partner with whom to ride: John, always enthusiastic, typically gracious, ever considerate, and forever unassuming. Thanks to John!

Now – there’s just that little matter of the next ride in July