challenge, speed, inclines, wind, and spirit. -- By Raymond Britt
I've finished Ironman Canada three times, and got to know the bike course quite well.
Below are verbatim notes from my second race on the Ironman Canada bike course.
Ironman Canada Bike Course: What to Expect
Prior to the race, I broke the course into five sections, and developed three different time and speed scenarios. Printed in size 8 font, these scenarios were taped to my handle bars so I would know how I was doing against plan throughout the day. But the most important guide of my race would be my heart rate, which I targeted at 150 beats per minute (bpm).
Part 1: Main Street to Base of Richter Pass -- 40 Miles
I had a great time on the first section, a 39.9 mile ride that declines from 1130 feet above sea level to 823 feet. Wearing my bright red Team RST jersey, I exited transition and we headed up Main Street out of town. I’m quite used to being trounced on the bike, as serious cyclists whoosh by me again and again. This time was different. Riding along Skaha Lake, I was passing much more than being passed, a new experience.
About nine miles into the course we encountered a brief steep climb at McLean Creek Road, and quickly began heading down the other side, where Bruce Grant, who would later finish his 10th Ironman Canada in great fashion, sprinted by me.
With the sun rising and beginning to warm us, the wind at our backs picked up as we rode on Route 97 toward Osoyoos. The relative silence on this beautiful morning was broken by the siren of an ambulance heading past us. Not a good sound on race day. It turns out that sheep had wandered onto the bike course, and two unfortunate riders crashed after encountering them.
With no such obstacles in my way, I reached the base of Richter Pass after riding for 1:51, a 21.4 mph pace, on track with my fast scenario. An average heart rate of 154 bpm, skewed by naturally higher rates in the minutes after the swim, was on what I expected.
Part 2: Richter Pass and The Rollers, Miles 40 to 58
I defined the second stage as the Richter Pass climb, descent and subsequent rolling hills covering 18.2 miles.
Richter Pass heads northwest with a spectacular view, climbing 1270 feet in elevation over a seven mile stretch. With uphill grades ranging from 5% to 9%, this is where riders are slowed to a crawl at times.
The experience of riding Richter the previous year taught me that breaking the climb into seven smaller segments makes it easier, mentally, to get through the next seven miles.
I took them one step at a time:
- first slight uphill;
- then flat for a short breather;
- a tough 2.2 mile climb;
- followed by another breather;
- steep, shorter climb;
- followed by a downhill and aid station;
- then the final climb
I also was catching people on the way up, and meeting other friends along the way. At the top, a group of spectators and Mike McCormack, 1991 Ironman Canada champion, called out: way to go. I agreed.
Finishing the Richter climb is a reward in itself, but the icing is the 515 foot elevation drop over the next 2.5 miles. Leaning forward on my aero handle bars, I glided downhill at over 40 mph while my heart got a rest, slowing to 124 bpm at one point.
But then the work began again; several choppy rollers tested my technical skills as I negotiated 100 to 200 foot elevation climbs and declines over the next ten miles. Along the way, I spotted Dad at the side of the road, camera ready, snapping away.
I reached the end of this second stage at mile 58 3:03 into my ride, still fairly fast against my plan, having averaged 155 bpm, reasonable given the climbing that took place.
Part 3: Windy Path to Yellow Lake Climb -- Miles 58 to 82
At 11:30am, temperatures were climbing fast, and we were facing a brisk wind as I headed onto the relatively flat, 24 mile, third section of the course.
It was here that I felt completely drained at last years’ race, and I had been eating and hydrating along the way to try to avoid a similar fate.
The wind on this section was especially stiff, similar to what I had experienced in Germany earlier in the year. My pace was slowed by about 15 percent compared to what I had hoped, but I wasn’t too discouraged, as I noticed others were feeling the same way.
At 68 miles, we entered Upper Bench Road, and headed south for seven miles with the wind at our backs toward a turnaround and special needs aid station.
For the first time we were on a road with riders going in both directions, and I got a sense of how some of the faster riders were doing. After a few minutes I saw a training partner cruising from the other direction, and calculated that he was about eight miles ahead of me at this stage, about what I had anticipated before the race.
I reached the Upper Bench Road turnaround at 12:15pm, and checkpoint report shows I was 75 spots ahead of where I ranked after the swim. Heading back north, a volunteer said: welcome to the wind. The wind taunted me, and everyone else, for the rest of the trip.
Battling the wind, I reached the mile 82 aid station 4:27 into my ride, meaning I was now working on my base case scenario. My heart rate averaged 150 bpm for this section, spot on. Not bad, given the conditions, which were approaching 100 degree temperatures.
But the extreme heat and wind were combining to tear up the plans of most athletes on the course at this time. Others were beginning to blow up, and the sight of ambulances coming to pick up exhausted riders became a more common sight.
Part 4: Climb to Yellow Lake -- Miles 82 to 98
The 16 mile climb to Yellow Lake (also Twin Lakes) is perhaps the most dreaded section of the bike course. You’ve been riding for more than 80 miles, and the course expects you to climb another 1050 feet of elevation.
Last year I struggled to hold on here; in the previous month, I rode this section on Computrainer to prepare myself so I wouldn’t be taken by surprise. This time, it wasn’t that bad.
My heart rate only reached 165 at the most difficult sections, and I had improved my pedaling form so I was spinning efficiently rather than mashing the pedals.
All combined to help me feel fresher, and I finished the climb on plan with an average 151 heart rate, but at a slow 12.5 mph pace.
You just have to put your head down, concentrate on riding efficiently, and be patient. It's a long ride, sometimes it seems like you'll never get there. Don't ask yourself 'am I there yet?' It will only be frustrating.
Again, just be patient. Keep spinning, concentrate on staying balanced in breathing, effort, attitude. You will be rewarded soon enough. At the top. Time to fly.
Part 5: Flying Back to Transiton -- Miles 98 to 112
The last 24 miles of the course are largely downhill and back into Penticton. I had eagerly anticipated the long downhills, and here they came, allowing me to clock 40+ mph speeds.
At the same time, however, the wind felt like it was really gusting, and my bike felt less stable going into the wind. Last year I had picked up some time on this section; this year, that wouldn’t happen.
Heading into town, I saw my bike time would be seven minutes slower than last year, but it really had felt like a better ride. I felt stronger, had kept my heart rate to 152 bpm on average, had been passing people, and was (or so I thought) fresher at the end.
Transition and Results
Arriving into transition after being on the bike for 6:22, I had moved up 166 places since the swim, significant because the bike is where I usually slip back in the pack.
Despite the slower time, my bike finish ranked more than 25% better than last year. It was clear that the heat and wind had trashed many athletes' expectations of finishing faster.
With further hindsight, it's clear what slowed me and most other athletes: searing heat. Temperatures were approaching 100 degrees, but it was hard to tell out on the bike course.
A self-generated breeze when you're riding can seem to make it cooler, but the sun continues to take a toll if hydration is not kept up. I had not been drinking enough fluid, and, looking back, I'd guess that's a major factor that sapped energy and speed later in my ride.
Nonetheless, I was thrilled to once again finish what is perhaps the most spectacular bike course on the Ironman circuit. And I would return again to ride even better, with these notes in hand.
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