GRAN FONDO BAIE-SAINTE-MARIE
Through the night I could hear the wind outside our room at the former CFB Cornwallis gusting through the Digby Gut and across the Annapolis Basin, a steady northwester. I thought: “Oh shit! It’s going to be a tough day.”
Elva and I decided to stretch out our cycling season into the end of September and registered in July for the second annual Gran Fondo Baie-Sainte-Marie. Besides, a fall road trip down through the Annapolis Valley is always a treat. After my early August crash, I was feeling my legs again and she’d worked hard all year on technique and conditioning. Elva opted for the 67 km Medio Fondo and I registered for the 117 km Gran Fondo.
We branched off Highway 101 at Weymouth and drove through the pretty village along old Route 1. Soon, the massive granite Église Saint-Bernard greeted us, marking the entrance to La Baie-Sainte-Marie. We passed through the colourful villages of Anse-des-Belliveau, Grosses-Coques, Pointe-de-l’Église, Petit-Ruisseau, and Comeauville, their houses bedecked with Acadian flags welcoming us to Clare. Arriving at Gran Fondo headquarters in Saulnierville on Saturday afternoon we were impressed right away. There was a nice buzz in the registration hall: helpful volunteers everywhere; the familiar smell of chicken fricot; jigs and reels on the fiddle; and the fancy footwork of La Baie en joie. On our way back to Cornwallis, we took a detour into Digby to sample the scallops.
The morning of the ride, we got up bright and early, put on our kit and headed for breakfast, hoping the chef at the Annapolis Basin Conference Centre was an early bird. Turned out he was! We enjoyed a delicious hot buffet; all we could eat and more. Forty-five minutes later we drove into a field near the start line, surrounded by hundreds of anxious riders and dozens of volunteers. We said hello to Miguel Arsenault of Charlottetown, owner of Atlantic Chip Timing and the grandson of my Grade 5 teacher, Orella Arsenault. I tried not to feel too old…
At thirty minutes to start time we stood in the marshalling area in front of Vélo Baie-Sainte-Marie, the local bike store and a major event sponsor. My iPhone said it was 9 degrees C! With five minutes to go to start time, three important people said a few words few of us really listened to. Then they played the event theme song, a piece by a local rap group called Es-tu paré?, acadianese for “Are you ready?” Muted grumblings were heard as impatient frozen riders awaited the signal to get underway.
Then the mad scramble as we crossed the start line! Imagine 350 riders trying to squeeze through a narrow opening, all at the same time! Onto Route 1 we went, rolling west toward Anse-des-Belliveau. A stiff breeze on my left shoulder had me seeking shelter along the right edge of the group. While a Gran Fondo is not a race, it is a timed event and some people take it very seriously. I’m used to riding a pace line but was clearly the exception to the rule, judging by the poor etiquette and risky behaviour displayed by some riders. Three and four abreast in a 35 kph crosswind is a recipe for disaster!
Finally, after 10 km or so, the scramble was over and smaller groups started to form. I hooked onto one with about a dozen riders and we turned the corner together onto Route 340, aided by a strong tailwind. I fell off the back, not able to hack the insane pace, and linked up with another guy as we made our way through Weaver Settlement, eventually rejoining the lead group. It went that way for another 20 km as we chased one another up and down hills in rolling farm country through Havelock and New Tusket, me running over my tongue three or four times in the process. I backed off as we turned the corner at the church in Corberrie and rode alone for awhile to catch my breath. By that time, the sleeves were rolled up and the jersey zipper was as low as it could go. I whistled as I passed the graveyard…
Between Corberrie and Concession, I was passed by a group of six riders, hooked on the back and rode with them for a while as we wheeled past Saulnierville Station and Bangor. The group broke up after one guy went down (not seriously hurt, I don’t think) and I rode alone again until I hooked up with four others along Clare Lake. We rode together, each taking a turn at the front and I thought: “At last, some guys I can work with.”
Alas, it was not to be. We lost one on the Meteghan Connector. The four remaining turned west on Route 1 and headed toward Mavilette. But the two guys on the front were hammering a bit too hard for me, and for another rider as it turned out. Soon, I was alone again, making the best of a favourable wind as I rode the 10 km or so to the loop in Mavilette. As I rode past the last feeding station along the beach, the wind hit me square in the face: 35 kph gusting to 50! No shelter! It was like running into a wall.
The last 20 km was a lonely struggle, one only an experienced cyclist can truly appreciate. Every hill is tougher than the last one when you’re facing the wind alone. Even the little ones hurt, and the bigger ones feel like they’re never going to end. The traffic gets annoying, the pavement gets rougher; even the manholes look meaner! My body screamed: “You’ve got to stop this foolishness or at least slow down. You’re not 40 anymore, you know.” My mind replied: “Don’t listen. It’s a trick. You love the headwind. They don’t call you The Diesel back home for nothing.”
In my mind, I sang Kenneth Saulnier’s M’en allant par Saulnierville Station as I turned the crank, laid out on the aerobars as low as I could go, hoping my gas tank wouldn’t blow like it did in the song as they flew over the railroad tracks at a hundred miles an hour.
I was down to just around 25 kph as I rolled into Meteghan and saw two bundled-up girls holding a sign that said “only 8.2 kilometres to the finish”. That might not sound like much when you’ve already ridden almost 110, but I was a hurting machine. I gutted it out til the end, crossing the finish line at 3 hours, 53 minutes. Enfin la fin!
Elva was there to greet me, having finished her 67 km in a very good time. She rode most of the way alone, except for a short distance when she drafted with another rider. Her main concern - getting lost - turned out to be the least of her worries as volunteers at every corner told her which way to turn. Her time was a very respectable 2 hours and 58 minutes. Neither of us stopped during the ride at any of the feeding stations. Just wanted to get it over with, I guess. The temperature had risen to a balmy 11 degrees C.
We decided to take a breather before the post-ride meal and drive down to Tim Hortons in Meteghan for a hot beverage. There, we met a local fisherman, the captain of a fifty-foot longliner, who told us everything we needed to know about his trade. We learned that fishing is big business in Clare, and that business is good. His friendliness was so typical of what we experienced everywhere we went in Clare.
Back in Saulnierville, we picked up our salad and went into the lobster tent. Both of us starving, I don’t think we ever enjoyed a lobster meal more. Incredibly, 650 beautiful markets were donated by David Deveau of Riverside Lobster International Inc. Inside the hall, we ran into Roger Richard, Dwayne Doucette and Mark Bowlan from the Island and sat with a local couple, the Thibaults, while we listened to the music on stage and watched as category winners picked up their medals. M. and Mme. Thibault told us the whole community has bought into the event, so much so that organizers had to turn down volunteers.
I’ve ridden in organized events on Prince Edward Island, in Maine, in New Brunswick and in Nova Scotia, and in five Gran Fondos: three in Québec, one on Prince Edward Island, and one in Ontario. The Gran Fondo Baie-Sainte-Marie stands out because of its strong local flavour and the hospitality of the people. It’s in my top two; maybe the best! And where else can you get a Louis Garneau cycling jersey, a lobster meal, and the experience of a lifetime, all for 90$?
Even on a nice day, the course would be a challenge; enough hills to make it interesting. It was Elva’s first Gran Fondo and she was very impressed. Locals were out all along the route to watch and cheer us on.
Back in our room at Cornwallis, we checked the online results. Elva finished 33rd of 269 Medio Fondo riders, and 2nd among female riders in her 60-69 age group. I finished 22nd of 350 Gran Fondo riders, and 1st in the 60-69 age group. Not bad!
But to me, the most impressive rider there was Jim Hoyle of Dartmouth, a spry 82 years young. He rode the Medio Fondo and finished 180th, ahead of 89 others who rode the same distance. Collecting his medal, he remarked humbly: “I only did the Medio you know!”
Congratulations to organizers, volunteers and residents of La Baie. Elva and I may be back next year to hear the call to the post: Es-tu paré?