Tuesday, 2 September 2014


We’d trained hard for this ride; as hard as we could on the Island, given our relatively flat terrain.  Looking at the course profile for the Gaspé event was enough to scare even the best hill climbers in our group, the venerable Over the Hill Gang: Ira Birt, Richard Birt, Russ Melanson, John MacQuarrie and myself.  The 126 km route featured a total elevation gain of over 2,000 metres and several climbs in the 12% to 16% range.  Organizers billed it as the toughest Gran Fondo in Québec.
On August 16, we rode a course on the Island which took us over every hill in Queens County, including the toughest one, the ride past the Glasgow Hills Golf Course in New Glasgow.  After 130 km of that, we were cooked, but confident we had the endurance to make it to the end of the Gaspé event.  What we couldn’t have prepared for was the weather!
After driving ten hours to get to our luxurious accommodations in Cap-aux-Os, the Motel-Chalets Baie de Gaspé, we walked the short distance down the road to Le Baleinier, a nice little restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious meal.  We made arrangements with the owner to open a little early for us the morning of the Gran Fondo.  Then, we walked back to the motel through the sprinkles.  Shit!  The weather forecast was right.

Next morning, after hoeing into delicious French-style crêpes with maple syrup and scrambled eggs, we squeezed into our seven-passenger van for the short drive to Cap-Bon-Ami, start of the Gran Fondo Forillon.  Nearing the site, we climbed a dizzyingly steep hill, wondering how the hell we were going to get up and down it safely on slick pavement, and parked in a field across from the campground.  We walked from there down to the registration area, getting wetter as we went.  “At least it’s a dry rain”, some idiot remarked.

We dedicated our ride to a well-known member of the Island cycling fraternity, Randy Miles, who is fighting the toughest battle of his life.  I’m sure he’d have given anything to be on the bike with us.  Nothing we would face could compare to what he’s going through.  Besides, as our absent OTHG member, Kent Wood, is fond of saying: “Pain is just a sign of weakness leaving your body”.  I tried to get my head around that thought during the ride, but it didn’t seem to fit, for some reason…
The registration area was abuzz with activity, but there were very few riders around.  Less than 30 had registered for the Gran Fondo; others had opted for the Medio Fondo (82 km) or the Petit Fondo (63 km).  We picked up our kits and slogged back up the hill to get the bikes ready.

While we waited for ride to start, the weather actually cleared enough for us to get a glimpse of the sun and the beautiful surroundings.  The cliffs are magnificent and it’s common to see gannets and other seabirds as well as seals and whales nearby.  Cap-Bon-Ami is at the very tip of the Gaspé Peninsula.  Locals call it “Le bout du monde”, the “End of the World”.  The next land out in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence is Anticosti Island.
 Finally, at 10:00, we were off, climbing the first kilometre or so in the lowest gear we had, wondering what the hell we’d gotten ourselves into.  The faster riders were quickly off the front but, coming down the first steep hill, one of the them hit the curve at the bottom too fast and went down in a pile.  A few metres earlier, and one of the 6 x 6 pressure-treated posts guarding the road might have been the last thing he’d ever see.  When we passed by, he and another rider were on the deck.  We learned later that neither was hurt, but the first guy wrecked his $12,000 bike. 
We settled into a nice rhythm during the first 20 kilometres, riding through the villages of Cap-des-Rosiers and Anse-au-Griffon over fairly flat ground.  The weather seemed to be holding, but it wouldn’t last long.  It was the last dry pavement we’d see the whole day.  By the time we reached the first feeding station at Rivière-au-Renard, the quarter-way point, it was raining hard.  I could barely see through my rain-splattered glasses and had to take them off.  Not long after, we hit a 14% monster and got our first real taste of climbing.  Going down the other side, with wet brakes, slick pavement, and poor visibility made me age a couple of months!
Between there and the half-way point, we climbed another tough hill near l’Anse-à-Valleau in the pouring rain and white-knuckled it down the other side.  The last 15 kilometres before we reached the half-way feeding station at Grand-Étang were not that bad.  The rain had eased a bit and the terrain was flatter.  We met the fast riders about four kilometres from the half-way point, a clear indication that we were not in their league.  And then a young couple on a tandem zipped past us like we were standing still!  Another dose of reality.
The feeding station was located in a National Park picnic area, overlooking the broad expanse of the Saint Lawrence River.  Although the visibility was not the best, there was beauty in the fog, the rugged coastline, the smell of the ocean, and the abundant bird life. 

Fed and watered, we eased our way up a long, shallow climb, a nice break in the action before hitting the big hills in the middle part of the course.  And then the rain started again, not quite as bad as on the way out, but just enough to chill the leaner members of the group.  Me, I’m like the seals we saw lounging along the shore, well insulated thanks to my layer of blubber.

The worst climb on the way back is called La Madeleine, long and steep.  Fortunately, the heavy fog obscured the summit so that it didn’t look so bad from the bottom.  Flying down the other side, squinting to avoid the water and grit rooster-tailing off others’ back wheels, we climbed one more monster before the last feeding station at Rivière-au-Renard.  By this time, we knew we had ‘er beat!
Something out of the ordinary always happens on one of our out-of-province forays.  This time, it was the mysterious and colourful ‘foaming backside’ phenomenon.  Since I’ve been sworn to secrecy and can’t decipher the peculiar chemical properties of Tide cold-water detergent in any case, the reader will have to ask John MacQuarrie for a scientific explanation.

We wheeled along 15 km of false flats at a good pace before re-entering Forillon National Park.  Everything was going well until we hit the wall on the last hill, a short ramp with a 20% slope, followed by another half-kilometre of misery.  I tried to zig-zag up the last part of the ramp, but had to straighten the bike out because I was scared to fall over, my speed was down to a 7 km/hr crawl.  The photo below shows John and I suffering, while our encadreur-expert, Luc Beaudet, is lapping it up!

A park employee yelled that it was the toughest part of the course.  “Thanks, buddy”, as if I didn’t know!  The view from the top was of a perilous descent on wet pavement, followed by a ninety-degree left turn.  I squeezed the brakes as hard as I dared and hoped like hell I wouldn’t wrap myself around a tree on the last bend.  None of us did.  Everyone made it across the finish line safe and sound.
Soaked to the skin, we five drowned rats got our picture taken with Luc and followed our noses to the food.  After burning through 5,000 calories, I could’ve eaten the arsehole off a dead skunk.  We dined al fresco on tasty shrimp, potato salad, salmon mousse and sandwiches, washed down with a local craft beer, Pit Caribou, and a maple syrup-based concoction called Eau d’érable.

The Gran Fondo Forillon ranks as one of the toughest rides of my life.  As with all the others I’ve shared with members of the Over the Hill Gang, it was a triumph of endurance over adversity, rendered much more difficult by the conditions.  You can train for hills, but you can’t train for bad weather. 
Our wet ride was sandwiched between two blue-sky days when we saw the Baie-des-Chaleurs and the Baie-de-Gaspé at their finest.  Although the drive from Campbellton to Cap-aux-Os is a slow one through what seems like one long village, the road winds along beautiful coastline, crosses enticing rivers, and is framed by the rugged mountains of the interior. 

We’re damn lucky to be alive and well, and surrounded by good friends!  I’ll wear the Gran Fondo Forillon jersey with pride.

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