Treebeard was wrong:
going South does NOT feel like going downhill.
(Well, except for the bits that actually were downhill. But some of those bits were really hard, too).
But let’s start at the beginning…
(BTW this is a really long post. And those of you who donated will have already received an abbreviated version by email, edited and sanitised for the sake of my parents and assorted other relatives. So feel free to skip to the video at the end).
My friends showed up at my house at 5:30 am on Saturday, put my bike on their bike rack, and drove me to the start of the ride in Surrey, just outside Vancouver. As we got closer we saw more and more cars with bikes on them, and by the time we reached the parking lot, there must have been several hundred thousand dollars worth of bike within sight. We loaded our bags onto a truck, ate a little food, covered ourselves in Chamois Butt’r, and tried to find constructive uses for all our nervous energy. In my case this mostly meant chattering like a monkey and checking that I had my passport about once every five minutes as we waited for the 7:00 am opening ceremonies. The crowds built up around us, and after the arrival of some Mounties carrying a Canadian flag and the singing of O Canada, we learned from the first speaker that there were more than 2,200 riders, and that between us we’d already raised more than 9.2 million dollars!*
The speeches were short and to the point (although a little bit too Bravehearty for my taste in parts – there was a bagpipe sound track and everything), and off we went! It was a slow and wobbly start as 2,200 riders tried to squeeze through the official start gate, but we were soon pedalling smoothly on the closed-off roads (with the exception of the poor soul I saw fixing a puncture within ten minutes of the start). As expected, I lost my faster, fitter, better-bike-owning friends (who were sprinting for the border to avoid the line-ups) within a couple of minutes, but I was happy enough to go at my own pace and enjoy the atmosphere as riders chatted to each other and supporters waved signs and cheered and rang cow bells and blew vuvuzelas from the side of the road.
The first 28 km to the border went by quickly, although the head wind that hit us on a nice long gentle down hill section was a bit of a bugger; I hate that disconnect where your eyes and brain go “wheeeeee! Down hill! Yay! Let’s go!”, but your legs go “whyyyyyyy is this sooooooo haaaaaaard????”. I also quickly realised that I had omitted something crucial from my training: steep downhill rides! I grew up in an extremely flat place and literally never went up or down a hill on a bike until I was 22. Steepness and speed are very scary things for me, especially when surrounded and being passed by so many other people (almost all of my training was done solo).
The border itself was the only organisational weak spot on the whole ride. People like my friends who got there early went straight through, but by the time I got there the official queue area was full, and people were forming a wide, ragged, and basically stationary line behind the official area. I stood in this line for over 15 minutes before the DJ announced that anyone not already in the official queue area was supposed to have been given a coloured sticker, and they’d call everyone up by colour so we didn’t have to stand in line for so long. It then took me 5 minutes to find someone giving out stickers (pink). As I was sitting down 15-20 minutes later, I saw someone else handing out red and orange stickers; those were the first colours called, with pink following quite a bit later. The DJ’s tune choices didn’t help much – as he played “Born in the USA”, people around me started singing “We’re not in the USA, not in the USA”, and the follow up (“Highway to the Danger Zone”) was an even worse choice. At least it was sunny, with lots of food and drink on offer! Once I was in the official line it moved quite quickly and I was through and into Washington State with a minimum of fuss. And waiting so long at the border left me with fresh legs for the remaining 101 km of the first day.
The next bit of the ride was gorgeous – so much nicer than blazing down the I5 like we usually do when we drive to Seattle. It turns out that Blaine is a really nice little town, and lots of the locals came out to cheer us on. We then went through a gorgeous State park by the ocean, and through some really pretty countryside, although the head wind came back with a vengeance at times. The first real hill of the day was in Bellingham, but it wasn’t any worse than any of my training hills, and there were lots of stops at red lights that offered short recovery periods. Once through the town there was a very gradual but very, very long hill up to the lake where we had lunch – again, that disconnect between your brain seeing a nice flat road and your legs dying a slow death on the hill! As I said to a fellow rider, “this hill sucks. If you’re going to be a hard hill to climb, you could at least have the decency to actually look like a hill. This hill is just mean“. (This may have been the beginning of the “incoherent ramblings” stage that lasted for most of the rest of the ride).
Sitting down at lunch time was niiiiice. The lakeside setting was lovely, and the lunch was tasty and full of carbs. There was another section of the long gradual hill immediately after lunch – not fun on a full stomach – but that was essentially the end of the climbing for the day.
The probable shooting incident happened with about 35 km still to go. We’d just passed an interesting section of road, featuring a gun range and a huge speedway with hundreds of people camping by the side of the road, and I was essentially riding by myself** down a hill being a bit wussy and scared by the steepness and the speed. There were quite a few vehicles on the road, and many of them weren’t giving us much space (it was one of the few sections of road with no shoulder or bike lane at all), so I wasn’t entirely happy to hear another one approaching from behind. Then, just before the vehicle entered my field of vision, there was an almighty sharp BANG!!!!!!!. I was startled and jumped a bit, but didn’t lose control of my bike, and the vehicle (a gunmetal grey pickup with no license plate on the back) came blazing past me. I didn’t see the source of the noise, but my first thought was “OMG GUN!!!!”, because that’s totally what it sounded like. I was already thinking “or maybe his engine backfired, although that’s really unlikely when going down a big hill, or maybe he did it on purpose, although I don’t even know if that’s possible, or maybe…” when another cyclist came up alongside me from behind. She said “oh my god OH MY GOD, are you OK???!!!” I said that I was, and she said “that was REALLY. FUCKING. SCARY“, but then she rode off ahead of me before I could ask her what she’d seen that had freaked her out so much.
I still wasn’t sure what had happened, but then at camp that night a colleague told me that he’d seen someone at the gun range testing out a scope on a rifle by looking down it at a long line of riders in a really scary way. And then – the clincher – a volunteer who’d been riding one of the escort motorbikes told me the next morning that another rider had been hit with a pellet gun on the same stretch of road, and they’d had various reports of guns seen and shots fired (from vehicles and from the side of the road). So I think someone almost certainly fired a gun, either at me or into the air behind me. Either that or they launched a firework at me, although I didn’t smell a firework, and that’s hardly any better than being shot at, anyway. Several drivers on this section of road also apparently shouted “GO HOME!” (or ruder variations thereof) at riders and volunteers. Nice, eh?
Given that I wasn’t sure what had happened at the time, I actually wasn’t that traumatised. There was an incident towards the end of the next day that scared me much, much more – coming down a steep hill in the rain and needing to make a left turn off the main road halfway down the hill, I got totally freaked out by my speed and hit my brakes quite hard. I was freezing cold and exhausted at this point and not making terribly good decisions, so I didn’t think to look behind me before I braked, and the car behind me (that I hadn’t heard) almost hit me – there was a screeching of brakes and tyres and a swerve and a lingering smell of burning rubber. Mostly my fault (I’m really sorry, dude, whoever you are – I’m sure I scared the bejeezus out of you), although I’d say he/she was maybe a little too close behind me (again, no shoulder or bike lane). I had to pull off the road and wait a few minutes before I could calm down enough to continue.
Anyway, I’m still supposed to be describing day one. After surviving the putative shooting incident there were a couple more downhill sections and then the rest of the ride was flat. It was painful, though, and not helped by what I’m sure was some inaccurate distance marking. I seemed to get from the 110 km to the 120 km mark really quickly, but then the final (alleged) 9 km into camp took for-bloody-ever. I think the 120 km distance sign was accidentally put up at around the 115 km mark, and a few other riders I talked to agreed, because the last hour was just awful. The road was also quite rough in texture, which didn’t help the sore hands, wrists, and other parts, and the added friction made us pedal harder than if we were on a smooth road. This part of the ride was purely about survival, and I have to say that when I finally turned the last corner just before 4:00 pm and saw the Mount Vernon camp site and the welcoming committee of cheering volunteers, I almost cried with gratitude!
Camp was great! I grabbed my bag, set up my sleeping gear, had a lovely lovely hot shower, found my friends, ate some tasty if slightly lukewarm food, and drank some free beer. I ran into a few other people I know, and got one of my colleagues to do a bit to camera about how the money from the ride benefits his research (see video at the end of the post). I love how PIs can snap into this mode at a moment’s notice, and then snap straight back into “normal guy drinking beer and shooting the breeze” mode just as quickly. It was great to get everyone else’s perspective on the ride (and, if I’m honest, nice to see so many people arriving well after me. I’d been worried about being one of the slowest riders after seeing all the amazing bikes people had, and indeed most of my friends and colleagues finished 2-3 hours ahead of me on both days, but I passed loads of people on some really high-end bikes, while people on fat tyre mountain bikes passed me several times).
There were speeches, clips of the day’s media coverage, and then two bands – the first one good, the second one fabulous. We went off to bed at 9:30 pm, looking forward to a really good sleep before the second day’s ride.
Some idiots decided that the best way to prepare for the second day was to get wasted and whoop and holler and run around. It went on for ages. The security guards were trying to make them go to bed, but they were unsuccessful, and the sounds of rowdiness carried all over the campsite. I hate that maybe 5 or 6 people got to decide that hundreds of other people shouldn’t get any sleep; this has happened at every music festival I’ve ever been to, but I really wasn’t expecting it on the ride. However, I love that some of them apparently ended up throwing up and passing out drunk – ride 120 km on THAT, mofos! (I’m assuming they were riders. If they were non-riding volunteers, I’m even more pissed off that they kept everyone up). They finally shut up at around midnight… just in time for a train to come by the camp site, blowing its horn for what seemed like full minutes at a time. At this point the only people getting any sleep at all were the loudest snorers in camp; my tent mate and I were awake almost all night, getting maybe an hour of sleep, two max, in short ten minute bursts, until another train came through at 4:45 am and everyone around us apparently said “screw it” and started talking and rustling their bags as they got up and started packing.
The early start had its benefits, though – we were pretty much first in line for the excellent cooked breakfast (although the coffee sucked and the tea was barely even yellow after steeping the bag for two minutes – hotter water next time, please, guys!). By the time we’d put our bags back on the truck and gone to retrieve our bikes, the line was huuuuge and hundreds of people were still waiting for breakfast when we were allowed to start riding shortly after 7:00 am.
Once again we started the day in a town, with the roads closed by the police and people riding four or more abreast. In contrast to the previous day’s sun and cloud mix, we started with a fine misty drizzle that didn’t even warrant a waterproof jacket and actually felt quite refreshing. I was amused to see a humongous queue of riders at the first coffee stand we passed – apparently lots of other people were unimpressed by the caffeinated options at camp!
The route was nicer this second day, with much of it on off-road bike trails through the woods. It was heavenly to be away from the traffic; this relief completely mitigated the increasingly heavy rain fall…
… at least for a while.
By the time I got to lunch I was soaked to the skin and freezing cold. I’d put on my waterproof jacket as soon as the drizzle turned to rain, but the elements defeated anything that I (or any of the other riders) could throw at them. There was some cover at the lunch site, but it was all taken up by other soaked riders, so I sat on a cold, wet, wooden bench and ate my cold lunch and drank my cold drinks out in the open, with my sandwich getting more and more soggy with rain. I was shivering at this point, and would have given anything for a hot (or even a warm) drink – but there was only water and Gatorade. I got out of there as fast as I could, only noticing as I left the lunch site that they were handing out those metallic emergency blankets you see at the end of marathons. Too late for me, I was on my way and didn’t want to stop moving!
Now, I’d been told at camp by several people (including someone who shall remain nameless but who one would expect to have accurate inside information) that there were “no hills after lunch!!! Downhill all the way!!!”. When I got onto the first hill after lunch I was so grateful for the (relative) warmth provided by the extra exertion that I didn’t think much of it…
…but then the hill just did.
It was hard. Really hard. Really, really, hard. We’d seen hardly any supporters that day, just one or two people honking horns or waving from cars, and the one group who did brave the rain to stand and wave signs and cheer us on literally had me in tears of gratitude. I was miserable. I kept thinking of why I was doing the ride, and reminding myself that whatever I was feeling was nowhere near as bad as the cancer treatments my friends and relatives have been through. This helped – quite a lot, actually – but I was still suffering.
This part is all a bit of a blur; long slogs up hills, occasionally steep enough to force me off my bike for a few hundred metres of walking, followed by short and terrifying downhill sections (this is where I made the aforementioned mistake and almost got hit by a car), followed by turning corners to see yet another massive climb ahead. My phone rang a couple of times during this stage, but I knew I couldn’t get to it in time to answer, and that I couldn’t pick up my voicemail or even see who was calling without turning on the prohibitively expensive data roaming option; this only served to piss me off more. I followed Mermaid’s advice of eating something if I started to feel pissed off, but it really didn’t help at all (and this was within an hour of eating lunch), and I started to think that exhaustion / hypothermia / near-death experiences / PMS were viable alternative hypotheses.
At one point, turning yet another bloody corner to see yet another bloody hill, I said loudly “OH FUCK. RIGHT. OFF, you bastard hill”, and the rider ahead of me started giggling. This really seemed to lift my mood, and everything after that point seemed easier to deal with, even though the long climbs and steep terrifying descents and pouring rain were much the same as before.
At the final pit stop, I called Mr E Man and my good friend from high school who lives close to the end of the ride. Hearing their voices was an amazing boost to my spirits, even though my friend said she wouldn’t be able to see me cross the line because her baby was just starting his nap. I learned that my friends had finished the ride and that one of them was waiting for me with his wife and baby Morgan, and that there was beer and hot food and dry clothes, with only 15 km of very pleasant, flat, smooth, off-road riverside bike trail standing in my way. At this point it stopped raining and I jumped on my bike for the final time, still soaked, still freezing, but no longer miserable!
The last section was a pure pleasure. Everyone was so excited to be near the end, and there was much chatter and laughter and discussion of whether we should have a beer first or a hot drink first. And then, at about 2:45 pm, I saw a sign for Marymoor park – the end of the ride – 1.5 miles away! The joy! The euphoria! The hooting and hollering among the riders!
There were people lining the whole of the rest of the route, cheering and yelling and waving signs. Coming into the park, I could hear the music and the announcer… getting louder and louder… and then I turned the final corner and saw a field full of people… and then I was in a muddy field and crossing the line and people on my right were yelling “CATH! CATH! CATH!”
I have honestly never been so happy in my life to see my husband and friends. I’ll spare you the over-emotional details, but there were hugs and tears aplenty, and not just from me.
The beer was so delicious. The food was so yummy. And the atmosphere was so amazing. But we were soooo cold (you’ll see me moving from side to side in the video below – I didn’t need the loo, I was just trying to generate some warmth and also stretch my muscles out a bit). When we got to our nearby hotel I had a long hot shower, but as soon as I got out, I started shivering again. So I got in the hot tub, but when I got out after 5 minutes to go and grab my camera, I started shivering again. I didn’t feel properly warm for about another half hour, but by that time I’d had a couple of beers and was incredibly happy, so it didn’t really seem to matter all that much any more. And then I got to have dinner with my hubby, my Vancouver friends, and my high school friend! And then fall asleep about ten minutes after we got back to our room!
Muscle-wise, I felt better than I’d expected. Much better, actually. My quads were pretty tight, but I was fine as long as I kept moving. Stopping was bad, though – I could barely get out of my chair after dinner on Sunday, and the next day was rather painful, especially when I first got up and then again when I got out of the car after the drive home. (It was depressing how quickly we blasted through all the landmarks from the ride – the lunch site, the campsite, the first day’s lunch site, the border. It’s really not far at all in a car!). Back home, I woke up at about 4 am on Tuesday with all kinds of weird back spasms going on, but that problem fixed itself with an almighty CLICK during a meeting later that day, and on Thursday morning I was back on my bike. My regular commute felt so short, and I stormed up the hills like they weren’t even there – but where were all the people cheering me on, and welcoming me into the bike room with signs and pom poms and vuvuzelas?!
My arse still hurts a bit, but that’ll pass soon enough.
Overall, it was an amazingly positive experience. I’m immensely glad I did it***, and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who donated and/or supported me in any other way.
I maded you guys a video! (With some beer in it!)
And then I drinked it! (The beer, not the video!)
THANK YOU, EVERYONE!
Video: Part I (I sure wish YouTube would have told me the original all-in-one version was too long before it spent 21 minutes saying “uploading”):
*I got some more donations after the ride started, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one, so the total will be higher by now!
**having just passed one group of cyclists, and on my way to catching up with the next one (yes, I passed people! Quite a lot of people! Although lots of groups were passing me, too). This was my pattern for most of the ride. I think my speed fell somewhere between the average for the recreational riders and the average for the actual good cyclists. Or something
***I’m also immensely glad it’s over! It’s been hanging over me for months, and the training combined with 7 weeks of hosting friends and family over the last 2.5 months means that I feel like I’ve had no time to myself, literally since the Olympics. I haven’t had time to get a hair cut, or buy new clothes to replace the ones that are literally falling apart on me – I’m a shaggy-headed, scruffy-clothed ragamuffin! But this weekend I get to do whatever I want! Like, watch every single World Cup game! COME ON ENGLAND!!!