Exquisite Agony

Good luck making sense of that graph. Red is heart rate. Blue is speed. Gray is the topographic profile.

A fantastic Sunday ride in the Gatineau hills captured by PolarFlow. Good luck making sense of that graph: red is heart rate, blue is speed, and the gray behind is topographic profile.

I was halfway up a long, slow grade when my grimace turned to a grin.

My hips were tight, my neck was tense, and the burning in my quads had already begun, though I was only about 1/8 of the way into the planned ride. But at that moment, despite the discomfort, I realized I was actually at my happiest.

This was exquisite agony. This was cycling personified.

I have just now returned from two weeks of vacation. While I let myself take it relatively easy the first week of vacation at a cottage near Tobermory, Ontario, I did ride and run to maintain my fitness. I was in need of a bit of rest and a break from the slightly obsessive training regimen, and that combined with the variety of cottage roads and new terrain gave me a great mental boost when it was so desperately required.

So for week two, I diligently returned to my training plan. I packed the bike and running gear along to Ottawa, which is one of my favourite training grounds – second only, I think, to Victoria, BC for its beauty and abundance of running and biking options.

With a race coming up next weekend, and still carrying the feeling that I haven’t had a solid running session in months, I knew that I needed to focus again last week in order to be ready to handle the Orillia’s duathlon’s long sprint format – a 2km run, 33km bike, capped with a final 7km run.

Having covered the roads around my region several dozens of times over and over already this year, I was looking forward to the variety offered up by our National Capital Region’s crown jewel, Gatineau Park. Managed by the National Capital Commission, Gatineau Park is an immense property in the Outaouais that seems built for cycling. Offering smooth pavement, gorgeous vistas, no commercial traffic, minimal cars (and vehicles that are there tend to show a lot of respect for cyclists!), and an abundance of other cyclists sharing the rides combine to make this a great destination. There are endless miles of roads to travel, all peppered with formidable climbing potential.

Upon arrival in Ottawa, I was feeling rested and relaxed. I had done a fun but windy 50km ride from Wiarton to Owen Sound upon leaving our rented cottage the Saturday before, followed with a day of rest Sunday, a light indoor recovery spin on Monday, and another day of rest Tuesday while we drove east to Ottawa. With a good run along the Ottawa river logged in on Wednesday afternoon, I was chomping at the bit to get out for a ride on Thursday.

Riding 40 km in Southwestern Ontario will usually involve some rolling hills, and maybe even a nice thigh-burning climb or two to give up to 300m of ascents over the span of an outing. But it doesn’t touch a comparable session road cycling in the Gatineaus, which will typically include 400 to 600m + of climbing.

After a 42km ride spanning 90 minutes in Gatineau Park on Thursday, I knew my planned brick session on Friday would be a leg-burner. I started with a short 2km trail run from the south gate parking lot, then transitioned at the back of my vehicle to the bike and did 34km of hills, before capping it off with another 3.5km run, this time on paved trails. The variety was refreshing in terms of both terrain and workout. Churning up the hills on this ride was hard – very hard – but the descents were sweeter for it. At one point, on a 1.5km descent where my speed was between 50 and 65km/hr, I actually exclaimed out loud in joy. Well, maybe also a bit of fear (at 65km/hr, you start to question whether you truly tightened your quick-release on that front wheel as well as you should have!).

Although I had come to Ottawa very much looking forward to training with my friend and inspiration, Carsten (aka The Gazelle), by Saturday, my legs were begging for a rest. The week had been front-loaded with rest, back-loaded with intense workouts. Definitely time for a rest day.

Carsten and his wife Alex were more than accommodating and agreed to swap workout plans for walking and playing tourist in downtown Ottawa. Weather reports were good, so we knew we could plan for Sunday workouts instead.

And so, on fresh legs late Sunday morning, it was back to the park one more time, this time with The Gazelle riding in formation. We had a couple of hours to spare, lots of water, and the kind of low humidity, gorgeous sunny no-wind day that cyclists dream of. Not to mention the promise of brunch with our ladies afterwards.

Cut to the climb in question, the tight hips and burning thighs, and the grimace changing to a smile – or perhaps more accurately, to a goofy grin.

Cycling is an exquisite agony, I caught myself thinking. It’s not easy, though it can certainly look like it is. It’s gruelling, grinding, and due to the long times spent in saddle for a good workout, can be arduous.

Inevitably, just when I am feeling good and fast, someone will pass me and show me how much faster a person can ride. For all the warm, sunny and windless rides, there are rides like the one from Wiarton to Owen Sound in headwind or crosswind hell, rides in sudden downpours, and cloudy day rides in cold autumn clippers. The challenge then is in getting on the bike to begin, as much as it is in keeping your legs churning, your core engaged, and your shoulders loose while you’re pedalling. Getting from start to finish requires pushing your body to power the bike over all the miles in between – as ugly or as beautiful as they might be.

But for all the ugly, there’s also the perfect. Two hours with a good fit friend covering 50km of smooth pavement, some 650m of climbs and descents, gorgeous views, and just the chirping of birds to compete with the whirr of other bikes whizzing down the hills you’re climbing?

Yes, that’s the kind of exquisite agony I can take over and over again. And with any luck, will do for years and years to come.

The Gazelle said to me at one point on our strolling around town Saturday afternoon that he can tell I love to cycle, because I seem intrinsically linked to my bike – that I’m clearly at one with my machine. And upon reflection, I would concur. Whether I’m grinding up a hill at 12km/hr or speeding back down it slightly over the posted speed limit, I feel like my bike and I are one. When my legs are burning and my lungs sucking air, I feel as if the bike and I become a singular machine of combined human power and cycling mechanics. The connection points – cleats/pedals, hands on brake hoods, tailbone perched on seat – are points of fusion.

Whatever the environment, the road, or the weather conditions, I love to ride. Even at the sore and stiff muscle, rain and cold moments, on steep climbs, mid-brick or mid-race, I can think of nowhere else I’d rather be than in that saddle.

Exquisite, with just the right dose of agony.

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