FREDERICTON GRAN FONDO
“Pain brings me closer to God…” That thought ran through my mind as I cranked over the pedals in the lowest gear I’ve got, listening to the sound of my own laboured breathing, hoping my legs would carry me to the top of ‘The Wall’. Every organized ride worth its salt has a tough climb or two, and the 2.5 km. wall features a vicious 17% section that starts steep and doesn’t let up.
The first 50 km. to that point had been a breeze: beautiful weather, good roads, and an experienced group of riders, most of whom took a turn at the front. But the Wall tested our climbing legs and separated the men from the boys.
The Over the Hill Gang (OTHG) opted for the Fredericton Gran Fondo several months ago. We trained for the flat course originally promised by event organizers. Due to road construction however, the route had to be modified to include a couple of tough climbs and lots of rolling terrain.
Five of us - Russ Melanson, Richard Birt, John MacQuarrie, Kent Wood and me - shoe-horned bikes, luggage, carcasses, and home-made cookies and muffins into a Dodge Grand Caravan and hit the road for Fredericton. We’d hoped to have all the gang with us, including Ira Birt, Ian MacIntyre and Mark Grimmett, but they were unable to come for a variety of reasons.
Arriving at the Crowne Plaza mid-afternoon, we checked in and strolled to the local cycle shop, Radical Edge, where we drooled over the bikes and other gear on display. Then it was on to McGinnis Landing for the mandatory evening-before pasta meal.
Back in our hotel rooms, we groused like a bunch of old women: “It’s gonna be cold in the morning. What are you gonna wear?” Too old to party (except for Kent, who’s too serious to party), we hit the sack early, each one hoping his roommate wouldn’t snore.
I couldn’t see the Saint John River, barely 50 metres from my room, when I looked out the window on Sunday morning. Fog so thick you could cut it with a knife. The temperature had dropped to near freezing overnight, promising to rise to a balmy 6 degrees by the time we were to leave at 10:00. After filling our faces with a nice buffet breakfast at the hotel, we made our way to the start line, hoping they’d hurry up and get the thing going.
The group started slowly, following a City Police cruiser across the Westmoreland Street Bridge toward Marysville. We followed the Nashwaak River upstream for 10 km. or so before crossing it a second time, then headed west on Route 105 through Nashwaaksis toward Douglas. Kent took a long pull, pacing the group at a leisurely rhythm. I even had a chance to glance at the Saint John River off to my left, when I wasn’t watching the backside in front of me. It brought back memories of my years at UNB.
At the 35-km. mark, we turned north onto Route 104, feeling none the worse for wear. One of the locals was on the front and doing all the work as we rode through Burtt’s Corner, a group of a dozen or so riders following close behind. We got to the first refreshment point, made the hairpin turn and started the climb up Keswick Ridge. The first part was just a teaser. Too soon, after a short downhill section, the monster loomed directly in front.
Our rule on a group ride is that everyone sticks together, except on a steep hill, when it’s “Every man for himself.” If anyone were to ask me: “How fast do you go up a hill like that?”, I’d answer: “Somewhere between falling over, like the old guy in Laugh-In, and burning out!”
We all climb at different rates, depending on the day and how we’re feeling. Except for Kent who, many years younger, is by far the strongest. He crested The Wall long before the rest of us and it was the last we’d see of him until we got to Fredericton. (More on that later.)
Two guys, Greg Masiuk from Oromocto and Elwyn DeMerchant from Saint John, joined us for the grunt up The Wall. OTHG reassembled at the top and white-knuckled it down the long, treacherous descent, trying to distinguish holes and cracks in the pavement from the shadows that danced across the road.
After a steady climb on the shoulder of Route 105, we stopped for the first time at the Mactaquac Dam refreshment point where, as John says, “We did like the Quebecers” in answering calls of nature. (I hope none of the cars that drove past was coming home from church!)
Across the dam, our group of six turned onto the old Trans-Canada Highway, going west toward the Mazerolle Settlement turnoff on a gradual 2.5-km. climb. The next stretch was over a series of ‘rollers’, short climbs and descents that kill your legs if you’re getting tired. Greg fell off the back, and we didn’t see him again until the finish line.
The three km. we rode along the Hanwell Road were heaven: easy grades, good pavement, and a wide shoulder. Too soon, at the 100-kilometre mark, we turned onto the rougher chip-seal surface of Deerwood Drive. Elwyn jumped us on one of the hills and was gone. Nine kilometres later, we hit the scary-steep Carriage Hill descent, hoping like hell our brakes would stop us before we went through the stop sign and out onto the highway.
From there, I knew the road back to the finish line was flat, so we got the big train rolling and made good time on the old Trans-Canada Highway, reeling in Elwyn and catching him just before we turned onto the Woodstock Road. I was on the front, not realizing we were supposed to turn onto the riverside trail, until someone said: “We missed a turn!”
Eventually, we picked up the trail after riding through the Delta Hotel parking lot. We pedaled on the gravel track a short distance until we reached a sign that directed us to take a 300-degree turn, through another parking lot and up to King Street. What the hell?
That’s where we found poor Kent, totally lost after riding around for ages and being told by course marshals to go here, there and everywhere. Confused, we decided to take the most direct route back to the Crowne Plaza and across the finish line. Poor Greg, as lost as we were, rode past the hotel and all the way to the Princess Margaret Bridge before turning around.
We completed the 120-km. ride in four hours, not a bad average speed for us considering the hilly terrain (over 1,000 metres of climbing). Event organizers recognized the confusion caused to all riders by the poor course marking. They gave Kent a more accurate time, making him, by far, the fastest rider on the 120 km. course.
After well-deserved showers and a refreshment break, we joined other riders and event volunteers for a nice meal at the hotel. We left Fredericton around 6:30, aiming for a 10:00 pm arrival in Charlottetown. Alas, it was not to be. Near Havelock, in the middle of nowhere, we came upon an accident scene and had to wait two hours or so before being allowed to pass. Oh well, we got to see the lunar eclipse along the way, and the moon still showed traces of rusty brown when I stood on my doorstep at 12:30.
I’ll be 62 in two weeks and trail Russ by 6 years! As a group, the four of us finished second to Kent in the 120-km. ride. We dropped many younger riders who couldn’t hack our pace. Several of them asked us afterwards how old we were. The looks on their faces were priceless!
The annual road trip is an occasion for us to get away together, suffer a little, and have a few laughs. We experience new courses and meet new people. We get a chance to promote our Island as a cycling destination and to invite others to come see for themselves.
I burned over 4,000 calories in four hours in the saddle, and so got to eat my face off for a couple of days. I conquered The Wall and got to spend quality time with my best buddies. What could be better?