GRAN FONDO BAIE-SAINTE-MARIE
We leave home in a driving rain storm and roll along Highway 102, watching the weather turn for the better, hoping it will hold for the next day’s Gran Fondo, third in a row for Elva and I. The Annapolis Valley has had a hold on me since my first visit in 1978. The sight of ripening fruit in heavily-laden orchards is evidence of the bounty of nature and the hard work of those who farm the land. My genetic memory is triggered as we drive past Grand-Pré, home of the National Historic Site, and Port-Royal where my Gaudet ancestors first settled in the 1600s.The drive through North Weymouth and into the village proper offers picture-postcard views and we welcome the familiar sight of the Goodwin Hotel, our chosen lodging for the night. As always, Pat is there to greet us. “I’ve been doing this for forty-seven and a half years,” she tells us proudly. (Even the wifi remembered us!). She describes the recent terrible fire that destroyed a historic building just across the street, nearly taking the Goodwin with it. What a treat it is to stay in a hotel that’s remained essentially unchanged for 130 years, so different from the seen-one-seen-em-all accommodations that dot the modern landscape. “I gave you the same room as last year. The best one in the hotel,” Pat says. “See you for breakfast at 6:00 am then.”
Still dark when we sit in the dining room. Check out the tin ceiling.
Gran Fondo registration seems busier than last year’s. No wonder! Over 1,000 riders have pre-registered for the event. I look at the board listing where people are from: 400 or so from Halifax; 22 from Prince Edward Island; all 10 provinces represented; 11 states and the District of Columbia; and Australia, Great Britain, Germany and Austria. Word of the event has spread far beyond La Baie-Sainte-Marie.
Volunteers are everywhere! All of them offer you a smile and seem genuinely to enjoy what they’re doing. Pride in the event and the community shines through. Elva and I eat our fricot and talk to people sitting at our table. Two women are from Vancouver. Another is from Richmond, B.C. She introduces us to her friends from four U.S. states, high school buddies where they grew up in the Philippines. “I’m doing the Medio tomorrow, but we really came for the lobster,” she admits. The ambiance is joyful, made special by local musicians and step-dancers, and Acadian cuisine.The sun shines brightly as we make our way to the starting line the next morning. It’s a cool 7 degrees C but it’s dead calm. A cyclist’s dream. Dozens of volunteers are there to help you park and offer pre-ride refreshments. Vehicles pour into the parking area, some with high-end gear, others carrying Canadian Tire specials. One guy rides past on a fancy time-trial bike, dressed for Arctic conditions, right down to the face mask!
Elva insisted on getting her picture taken with mascot Al-Fondo.
The starting area is empty when we arrive but it soon fills to bursting. The excitement grows as 8:30 approaches. The 160-km riders are sent off and I say goodbye to Elva before lining up with the Gran Fondo group, ready to start my 117-km trek. I greet several fellow Islanders in the marshaling area, wishing them a safe ride. And then we’re off, a gaggle of cyclists funneling through the start-finish line and onto Highway 1.
I make my way up to a couple of Charlottetown acquaintances, Dwayne Doucette and Tom Crowell, and we ride together for a few kilometers, sorting ourselves into a group. An experienced paceline rider like me searches for allies willing to keep a civilized pace and take a turn on the front. I take mine and bridge across to a very strong rider, catching him before we pass the massive church of Pointe-de-l’Église. He leads us to the turnoff at Saint-Bernard and the three Islanders take turns as we roll along Highway 340 through Ohio and Weaver Settlement. Although the ride includes only 500 metres or so of climbing, the hills through Havelock and New Tusket prove a bit of a test. We’re joined by a group of ten or so riders doing the 160-km Super Gran Fondo; they stay with us to the turnoff at Corberrie Catholic Church.
The stretch of road from Corberrie to Concession is one of my favourites: tree-lined, smooth, gently-rolling. We take the sharp left turn at the rest stop in front of La Shoppe Verte and roll past Lac Innocent. After taking another sharp left onto the Saulnierville Road and a right onto the Bangor Road, we mingle with riders doing the 30-km Piccolo Fondo. Some walk their bikes up the steep hills. I admire them, knowing they’re working every bit as hard as I am. As we pass the old Bangor Sawmill, people line the road, ringing cowbells and waving Acadian flags. I see the sign for Saulnierville Station and sing Kenneth Saulnier’s song, M’en allant par Saulnierville Station, in my head for the rest of the ride.We ride in a group of six or so until we hit the Division Road. I look around and we’re down to two, myself and Rob Bonney from Bridgewater. We turn in to the rest stop at École-Stella-Maris and take on food and drink for the last 30-km stretch. I see a couple of riders speed by the rest stop and try to catch them. Rob and I ride at a steady pace and bridge across to Charles Leonard and François Gazzano, two riders we’d been with before, and the four of us take turns at the front. The pace is quite fast but my legs are feeling pretty good.
I climb the hill at Mavillette, my undoing last year, still with the group of four, and we turn onto the John Doucette Road, descending, the beautiful Mavillette Beach off to our left. Back onto Highway 1, Rob and I lose contact with the two stronger riders. With about 20 km to go, I get down on the aero bars and start emptying the tank. My back is killing me and the lower position helps. Aided by a slight three-quarter tailwind, I roll into Meteghan and onto flatter ground, tailor-made for an old time-trialer. People watch as I roll past but I’m focused only on the finish line. I can see Leonard and Gozzano but know I won’t catch them. I welcome the sight of Sacré-Cœur Church, knowing it’s all downhill from there. I pass one last Gran Fondo rider just before the finish line and breathe a sigh of relief as I hear my name on the loudspeaker: “Jean-Paul Arsenault de Charlottetown”.Elva is there to greet me and tell me she had a great ride. I wait for Rob Bonney to cross the line, followed shortly after by Dwayne Doucette and Tom Crowell. I thank them for sharing the load. Elva and I talk with Charles and Giselle Duguay from Charlottetown, remarking on how this place feels like everywhere else in l’Acadie, warm, welcoming, proud, and full of life. We load the bikes and the rest of our stuff and make our way to the lobster tent, tired but starving. It’s the best lobster we’ve had this year. And we earned it!
There are many Gran Fondos, but none quite like this one. My Prince Edward Island cycling companions and I rode the Marco Pantani Gran Fondo in Cesenatico, Italy, on September 2. It was a challenging ride featuring a couple of very tough climbs but it wasn’t nearly as much fun. The Italian cycling culture is almost too serious. And here’s one example of just how anxious the Gran Fondo Baie-Saint-Marie are to please. My size L cycling jersey was one size too small, so I asked to exchange it when we registered on Saturday. “Sorry, we have none left,” replied the woman behind the desk, “but I’ll take your number and phone you if we get one.” Sure enough, my phone rang that evening and I picked up my XL the morning of the ride. You can’t beat that for service!
Elva and I have struggled a bit with minor health issues this summer, but we still recorded pretty good results. She finished the 67-km Medio Fondo a good seven minutes faster than last year, 47th of 369 riders and second-fastest woman in her age group. I finished 12th of 294 riders in the Gran Fondo, first in my age group and about a minute slower than last year. Explanation: one more turn around the sun and not having Tabatha and Arend TeRaa to pace me like last year!In a few short weeks’ time, I won’t have to lie about my age to get the 65+ seniors’ discount. We’re inspired by others our age and older, and by all who make an effort to keep fit. My goals in life are very simple. One of them is to never have to buy snow tires again; in other words, to spend the winter months in warmer climes. I’ve ridden with a man in his early eighties in Florida. I asked him why he does it. “So that I can wipe myself when I’m 90!”, he replied. Think I’ll add that one to my list of life goals…
À la prochaine!