Training for a Granfondo Cycling Race

Tempted to try your first cycling race? Granfondos are popping up in cities across BC, and are a great way to combine fitness with a gorgeous getaway

Credit: Catherine Roscoe Barr

The author at the start line of the Valley First Granfondo Axel Merckx in Penticton

BC hosts a number of Granfondos, massive cycling events throughout the province that are perfect for those who like to combine fitness with travel

Road cycling is taking off in Canada, especially with the recent celebrity of athletes like Victoria’s Ryder Hesjedal – the first Canadian to win the Giro d’Italia and a competitor in the Tour de France and the London 2012 Olympic Games – and the availability of competitions for all ages and levels of riders.

BC’s Granfondos

Granfondo means “big ride,” and the popularity of these and other cycling events across Canada is growing. Several Granfondos took place in BC in 2012, including the Victoria Granfondo, the Valley First Granfondo Axel Merckx, the RBC Granfondo Kelowna, the Prospera Valley Granfondo, and the RBC Granfondo Whistler

My husband got into cycling last year when a friend gave him an old road bike, and it’s been an incredible journey to watch him find his sport and make truly impressive strides.

This year he gave me a bike for my birthday and I decided to sign up for the Valley First Granfondo Axel Merckx in Penticton along with him and two of his friends. The only way I was going to do a race was to combine it with a gorgeous, sunny Okanagan vacation!

The event had three different categories – Cortofondo (55km), Mediofondo (92km) and Granfondo (160km), so I chose the shortest length and the guys chose the longest.

It was such an incredible experience on all fronts, from our gorgeous accommodations and scenic race course to the event itself and the incredibly wonderful volunteers. If you’re contemplating your first race, here are a few tips for preparing for the big day.

Getting the Right Bike

If you’re going to be spending a lot of time on your bike, it’s essential to have a good fit, and everyone I’ve talked to says that getting fitted by a professional is a must.

West 4th Physio offers expert bike fitting services (pdf) with either clinic director Matt Powell (my husband’s physiotherapist) or Jennifer MacPherson, both registered Level 1 Bike Fitters.

La Bicicletta Pro Shop also offers expert bike fitting services with master fitter Tom Fairs and other staff.

Preparing for the Granfondo Course

Because we live in Vancouver, we couldn’t take regular rides on the Penticton race course. Instead, we looked at the course and found similar terrain near our home (plus we took our bikes on a two-week road trip down the west coast to Palm Springs in May).

Since I was only doing the 55 km category with one big hill, I did most of my rides around Stanley Park, which is an easily accessible ride from my home and has one big hill (but not quite as big as the one I had to climb on race day). Plus, five laps of the park is almost exactly 55 km – so I was confident ahead of time that I could actually finish the race.

The guys’ 160 km ride was another story and they did some pretty intense training to prepare for it, including regular rides up Cypress Mountain and along the Sea to Sky Highway as far as Whistler.

Incorporating both long, low-intensity rides and short, high-intensity rides is an important part of preparing for a race, too. I found going to spin classes at the gym a good high-intensity option because I was more likely to work harder with someone giving me direction.

Tapering down leading up to the race is also key, only engaging in very light activity in the days immediately before the race (hence our poolside lounging at the Watermark).

Safety on the Road

Because I’m a new rider, my primary concern was safety. Cycling in a large group adds more challenges than riding by yourself, and as a novice I took safety – for myself and fellow riders – very seriously.

Although my husband has some dangerous hobbies like road cycling and motorcycling (crashes in either pursuit are terrifying), his concern for safety is exemplary.

He drilled a number of points into my head, and every time I ride his words cycle through my brain like a mantra:

  • Be aware – scan the road ahead for obstacles, shoulder check to see what’s beside and behind you.
  • Be predictable – keep right, no sudden braking, look around before hand-signaling.
  • Look where you want to go – if you come across an obstacle or must turn a corner, look where you want to go, not where you don’t.

I also felt safe knowing that there were several aid and medical stations as well as mechanical support along the route.

Tips on Hydration and Nutrition During the Race

Staying properly hydrated can be a delicate balance – too much or too little water will negatively affect your performance.

An article on offers detailed hydration advice but the basic gist of it is that aiming for one big gulp every 15 minutes is a good goal.

Two hours before the race I had a bowl of oatmeal and half a banana while the guys had leftover pasta from the night before.

Shortly before the race we downed a glass of the lemon-lime Vega Sport Pre-Workout Energizer, developed by vegan and former Ironman Brendan Brazier (check out my interview with Brazier here).

It’s got “a unique blend of 13 synergistic plant-based performance-improving ingredients, like green tea, yerba mate, coconut oil and rhodiola, specifically selected to provide immediate and sustained energy, increase endurance, aerobic and anaerobic capacity, and enhance mental focus and recovery.”

It’s one of the only supplements I take, and I absolutely love it.

Experts suggest consuming calories while exercising if you’re doing more than one to two hours. The Granfondo Axel Merckx website (which has lots of great tips on training and nutrition in its monthly newsletters) suggests, “1 gram of carbs for every kilogram bodyweight per hour after the first hour of riding.”

I finished in just under 2 hours and 30 minutes, without eating anything during the race, and wish I would have had a small snack at the 90-minute mark. I really felt my energy levels drop during the last 30 minutes or so.

The guys finished at around 5 hours and 30 minutes and operated under the assumption that their bodies could process about 300 calories per hour. Cliff Bars were a favourite snack because they held up in the heat and were relatively easy to consume while riding.

Crossing the Finish Line

I was one of more than 2,500 riders who participated in the Granfondo on July 8, and 25th out of 140 riders who did the 55 km route.

It was such a thrill to cross the finish line after such a tough race, especially because I came in all alone so the announcer had plenty of time to call out my name, which was unexpected and made me beam from ear to ear.

Riders were ushered to the secure bike parking where we could leave our bikes and hang out in Gyro Park, and then to an amazing spread of water, chocolate milk, bananas, popsicles and other goodies, all doled out by a legion of incredible volunteers. And a short while later the beer tent opened, and riders received a complimentary beer and chicken burger.

Staying at the Watermark Beach Resort in Osoyoos

We stayed in Osoyoos, an hour south of Penticton, at the stunning Watermark Beach Resort on Lake Osoyoos. The pet-friendly hotel accommodated our entourage of four adults and one baby, two dogs, and all of the associated accoutrements.

Our spacious suite had two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a fully stocked kitchen, a dining room, living room, and spacious balcony where we savoured views of the lake and healthy, homemade meals, as well as stored our bikes.

We arrived at the Watermark two days before the Granfondo so we could rest up ahead of the big day, lounging by the pool or at the beach by day and enjoying lovely, deep slumbers at night.

Pre-race Nutrition: Recipes for the Day Before

Pre-race nutrition is an important part of preparing for a long-distance event and we chose the Watermark for its fully stocked kitchens (every suite has one) and communal BBQs on the pool deck, so we could prepare nutritious food packed with the vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates and fat we’d need to fuel our bodies.

Breakfast: Salsa Scramble


Serves 6

  • 6 free-range eggs
  • 1 tbsp milk or cream
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1 cup salsa
  • 6 oz cheese, grated
  • 1 avocado, cut into 6
  • 12 small corn tortillas


  1. Heat oil in frying pan over medium heat.
  2. In small bowl, beat eggs with milk or cream.
  3. Cook eggs to desired doneness, adding cheese during last minute of cooking.
  4. Divide eggs over tortillas and top with salsa.
  5. Serve immediately with avocado on the side.

Lunch: Steak Sandwiches and Salad


Serves 6

  • 3 steaks
  • 1 tsp seasoning salt
  • 2 small onions, thinly sliced
  • 6 mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 6 ciabatta buns
  • 2 sweet potatoes, cut into fries
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp seasoning salt
  • 6 cups green salad
  • 3 tomatoes, chopped
  • Salad dressing, to taste


  1. Season steaks and grill to desired doneness.
  2. Meanwhile, heat large frying pan over medium heat.
  3. Add oil, swirling to coat pan, and cook mushrooms in single layer, in batches if necessary.
  4. Remove mushrooms to separate bowl, add another glug of oil if necessary, and cook onions and garlic until onions are translucent and beginning to brown.
  5. Add mushrooms back to pan, stirring to combine.
  6. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400F.
  7. In large bowl, toss sweet potatoes with oil and seasoning salt.
  8. Place on baking sheet in single layer and cook for about 30 minutes.
  9. To assemble steak sandwiches, divide steak and mushroom mixture between buns, and serve with fries and salad.

Dinner: Lemon Pasta with Chicken and Vegetables


Serves 6

  • 3 boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • Seasoning salt to taste
  • 6 servings of spaghetti, cooked according to package instructions
  • 1 head broccoli, chopped
  • 1 red pepper, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 lemon, juiced and rind grated
  • 3 tbsp olive oil


  1. Season chicken breasts and cook on BBQ until no longer pink inside and juices run clear.
  2. Slice chicken into bite-sized pieces.
  3. Meanwhile, in large frying pan, heat 1 tsp oil over medium heat.
  4. Cook onion and garlic and remove to separate bowl.
  5. Add another tsp of oil to frying pan and cook broccoli, stirring often.
  6. After about 2 minutes, add 2 tbsp water to pan to steam broccoli.
  7. When water has evaporated, add red pepper and cook for one minute.
  8. When pasta is cooked, add lemon juice and rind to saucepan and stir well to combine.
  9. Add chicken, lemon pasta, onions and garlic to frying pan with broccoli and red pepper, stirring well to combine.
  10. Cook for about 1 or 2 minutes, or until all ingredients are hot.
  11. Serve immediately.

Cycling has been a great addition to my fitness routine and offers a different, challenging and low-impact alternative to running. I’m really looking forward to signing up for next year’s event on July 7, 2013 and keen to see how much I can improve my time!