Last year I had the opportunity to race the Ironman Canada bike course, which was hosted for the first time in Whistler, BC. Leading up to the race, it being such a new course, there wasn’t a whole lot of information to go around on it, and it still seems that info is a little sparse on the route. So to help future years of riders and athletes, I thought it would be prudent to provide a thorough technical analysis of what athletes should expect on the course.
The route is just under the full 180km distance, and at least in 2013 anyways it was closer to about 178km. This isn’t a huge detail but its good to know as you approach the end of the route so you can start spinning your legs out a little more. The total elevation gain is a whopping 1972 meters according to the barometric altimeter on my Garmin Edge 500. Initial accounts of the course had the total ascent pegged closer to about 1300 meters, which was a pretty crazy understatement of the course’s difficulty. According to Strava, the course has a number of Cat 3 and 4 climbs.
I’ll say from the get go, one of the most valuable tools you can have in your quiver for a ride like this is a powermeter. I can’t stress enough how important energy management is on this type of a bike course, which many seasoned triathletes have already dubbed one of the most challenging bike courses in the entire Ironman series. While the climbing may be equal to other routes like Ironman Mont Tremblant, St. George, or Couer d’alene, its the layout of the route that will get you. The vast majority of the climbing is condensed into two long ascents, one early in the route, and one that’ll take you right into T2. The potential to burn matches on this route is pretty high and you really need to be careful.
Second thing that you won’t regret brining to this battle is the right set of gears. Even some of the strongest cyclists I know on this route opted to run 11-28 cassettes on their rigs. I ran an 11-28 with a standard crank (53/39) and found myself dipping into the 60 and 70rpm ranges to try and keep around my target power of 180-200 watts, which would be about the top 1/5th of the field and set me up for a very good marathon. Anyone riding longer than 6 hours should be considering a compact crank with an 11-28 cassette. That being said, there is also quite a bit of descending on the route and the many varying grades would make a pretty good case for an 11 speed component set. With my gearing I found myself spinning out a couple times and hitting about 76kph. The secret to this ride is being a smart cyclist, if you happen to be a very smart and a particularly strong cyclist, you’ll be laughing when you hit the marathon.
A course like this also probably presents a pretty good case for aero road bikes with tri bars, but I wouldn’t say that you absolutely need to go there unless a road bike is your only option and you can get into a good riding position for triathlon with it.
Here’s a link to my Garmin Connect file if you’d like to follow along as I go through the course.
If you prefer Trainingpeaks, here’s a link to that file/workout.
The ride begins in T1 at Rainbow Park, on the shores of Alta Lake, Whistler’s alpine swim venue. From km 0 to km 22 the route undulates and rolls a fair bit but ultimately descends about 160m. This is a great section to find your legs after the swim, settle your heart rate, and maybe start taking some calories in. It’s a fairly easy section and athletes basically have entire lane to themselves for each direction of travel. I’m not going to say much about this section though because it’s pretty straightfoward.
The Callaghan Climb
This is where the real fun begins, at around km 22, you take a sharp right, hit an aid station, and begin the long ascent up Callaghan Valley road. The climb is about 13km in total with 410m in elevation gain for an average 2.8% grade. The pitches along the climb vary from just over 0%, to a steep as about 10%. There are very few sections where it actually flattens out.
Here you’ll want to hit that first aid station at the beginning of the climb and settle back into a pretty easy gear and be ready to sit up and patiently make the climb. I’ll caution you here, when you’ve spent 6 months training for a 180km bike ride, you’re going to feel great 22km into a ride, especially after tapering for two weeks. But don’t be fooled, you’ve got a long road ahead. I played leap frog with A LOT of riders who I could tell weren’t as strong cyclists as me and I just wanted to just lean over and whisper to them that they should calm down. But its not my place, it’s their race and I’m not their coach. Just take note, at this point in this course you should be riding very conservative and you should at least begin this climb with almost no pressure on the pedals.
The beauty of having a power meter is that it allows you to basically flatten out the course by enabling you to keep your overall wattage pretty flat. Whether you’re riding uphill, downhill, or on flat, you can ride at XYZ watts and know that you’re riding within your means. It was the riders with powermeters who were often getting passed on this segment because they knew how to stay conservative.
It’s about riding smart, not strong.
Before my first Ironman, Jordan Rapp was telling us all about how to ride up Richter in Penticton, and he told us he’d often be making the climb and have other guys blasting by him. When that would happen everyone would wonder what was up with the pro that they just passed. Well, by the time they hit the rollers, their legs would be cooked and Jordan would breeze on by. It’s about riding smart, not strong.
After a little while, you hit the peak, cross the timing matt where all your friends will wonder what happened to your bike split, and begin your descent. I averaged about 20kph up this climb, and 44 kph down it. So you make up plenty of time on the descent.
Callaghan to Pemberton
From the bottom of the Callaghan descent at about km 45, to Pemberton at km 90ish, you’re mostly descending, but once again, its fairly undulating and rolling terrain. Unlike the rollers at Challenge Penticton, the climbs here are short and shallow and actually make it difficult to notice that its a net ascent until Whistler. After you pass through the crowds at Whistler and the area where you started, you begin the long descent down towards Pemberton. As you pass through Whistler the highway turns from the Sea to Sky highway into Highway 99, which athletes have entirely to themselves for the duration of the bike leg of the race. This is pretty awesome and one more reason to love the residents of Pemberton and Whistler, they’re basically allowing you to maroon them in their communities for the better part of 10 hours.
This section is almost entirely downhill and is punctuated by only the odd brief climb. I should say however that the single steepest sustained pitch on the entire route is on this section. It’s a 9% grade for almost half a km and will easily have you out of the saddle dancing your bike back and forth to keep your effort low. I kept my effort to about 210 watts here and did the climb just under 10kph, to give you an idea of just how abrupt this climb is. It seems to come out of no where, and there’s no understating how important it is to just take this hill slowly and methodically.
At a number of points on this section you’ll be taking advantage of whatever your biggest, baddest, and fastest gear is here. Going back to the whole powermeter thing here, if you can stick to a solid target wattage on the downhills in this section you should be able to make up a pretty decent amount of time through this section. And as you make the descents, just remember to keep your head up and descend with care.
I’ll also mention that this is a great time to take in some calories, stretch your legs and back from time to time, and look up and take in Whistler’s stunning natural beauty. You’re nestled in the mountains here and some of the views are truly stunning through this area.
The Pemberton Out and Back TT
At the bottom of the descent you’ll pass through Pemberton around the 92km mark and pick up your special needs if you have any. From Pemberton you head north-northwest on a long flat section. It’s a 50km stretch with just 4m of elevation gain through the whole thing, so its about as flat as you’ll ever see. This is the only area on the entire route where the pavement conditions left a little something to be desired. There are aid stations, porta-potties, and everything you need to recharge here.
If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to be in a time trial, this is it. It’s flat and straight and you can do this section with your eyes shut if you wanted to. Through here its ever important to dial in your aero position and get small in the wind. On a course with so much up and down you’re often spending a tonne of time going slowly uphill with no aero benefit, or too fast for you to care about your aero penalty. Through this section, relax your body, allow your skeleton to support you on your bars, and think small, like an arrow piercing through the wind.
My one gripe about this section this year was the amount of drafting that I saw on the course. The Ironman draft rules are explicit, you have to leave 7m (4 bike lengths) between you and the guy in front of you. Once you enter that 7m zone you’re in the draft box and have 20 seconds to make the pass. And once you’re in that box, you MUST make the pass. Once complete, the guy behind you is responsible for dropping out of your draft box. Since this is the only flat section where you reasonably could draft for any long period, there were a lot of athletes drafting and moving in packs. As a weak swimmer and a strong cyclist I passed about 700 riders on the 180km bike route, so I got to see a lot of riders. Through this section I was moving from one peloton to the next.
I know that everyone is supposed to race their own race and not care about the moral decisions of others, so the cheating part of this doesn’t really bother me, but the safety issues are what get me going here. Ten or twelve middle of the pack triathletes riding three abreast and 4 deep in aero bars with hands away from the brakes is a recipe for disaster and make it near to impossible for riders to safely get around them. I saw one guy go down hard, and a number of riders overlap and clip wheels and nearly take entire groups with them. Unsafe, it’s just unsafe, and I would hope that next year the marshalls are strict on this.
As you come back from the 50km out and back you’ll pass through Pemberton again, hopefully having made back some time for what awaits you. When you go through here, be sure to give the residents and spectators a wave and a thank you. It’s by their grace that we have the entire road to ourselves, and they’re stranded in Pemberton until about 6pm because of it.
The Pemberton Climb
Around the 145km mark you’ll begin the climb. There’s so much anticipation and hype to it I really can’t think of a whole lot to say around this part. It’s about a 25km ascent, often into the wind which comes out of the south. It’s really the part of the ride that keeps the athlete honest. From Pemberton until T2 you’ll cover about 30 kilometers and climb over 750m. In and of itself this isn’t an earth shattering climb, but it’s the fact that you’ve just ridden 150km and are about to run a marathon that makes it sort of a beast.
If you do your homework, and spend time in the hills during your training rides, and mix that with a strong dose of patience on race day, you’ll have no problem
All I can say here is have patience. About three quarters of the total climb is spent at a 0-2% grade, but the other quarter varies between 5 and 8%. That’s enough of a chunk that it’ll shut you down for the run if you aren’t careful. Be methodical in how you apply your efforts through this section. Let the tough guys go and be content with catching them on the run. If they blast past you and you never see them again, then they’re a stronger rider than you anyways.
Like I said, this section just keeps athletes honest. There’s no secret to being a good cyclist and triathlete and a strong climber other than hard work. If you do your homework, and spend time in the hills during your training rides, and mix that with a strong dose of patience on race day, you’ll have no problem with this section.
This is the approach that I took and I was very happy with my bike split overall. Honestly, you can make up enough time on the downhill and flat sections that if you ride smart then on a net basis the final climb will maybe take about 20 minutes off of what your bike split would be on another course. I ended up riding 5:50 on the bike leg of the race on a normalized average power of 180 watts. For the record, when I raced Whistler my ftp was about 280 watts. Based on these numbers I nailed my goal of doing the ride at about 68-70% of my threshold and with a TSS score of about 280.
The conservative approach on this course allowed my to run a sub-4 (barely) marathon and pass 188 other athletes in the process. In my humble opinion, Iron distance triathlon racing is all about the bike. You spend more than half of your race in the saddle, and when you get out of the saddle those legs have to keep you going for another 42.2km. So you’re best served to spend a lot of your training hours getting strong and smart on the bike and make that Ironman ride the easiest ride of your entire season.
The Whistler bike course is one of the most beautiful and challenging routes I’ve ever ridden. The residents of Whistler were simply amazing at providing support through their volunteers and their cheers on race day and they deserve a huge thanks for this. I had an amazing time racing this course and look forward to riding it again one day.
For the record, when I posted this on Slowtwitch, a number of riders responded and we had/have a good discussion going on the bike route. One of the most interesting responses was asking what our average power was for the course, and what our times and weights are. Here’s what we got back;
- 5:18 at 204w and 170lbs (1.11)- rhet0ric (Cervelo P2, Hed Tri Spoke, Disc rear, torpedo bottle and two bentos)
- 5:25 at 214w and 172lbs (1.25) – Jctriguy
- 5:30 at 202w and 165lbs (1.22) – Coopdog (2009 Cervelo P2, FC 404 front, FC 808 rear with aero helmet)
- 5:38 at 186w and 170lbs (1.09 w/lb) – Owen
- 5:41 at 176w and 150lbs (1.17) – TriZag
- 5:44 at 189w and 165lbs (1.15) – GMAN
- 5:47 at 189w and 169lbs (1.12) – Greg66
- 5:50 at 176w and 157lbs (1.12) – Raf (2013 Trek Speed Concept 9 series, Zipp 404 front and rear, Rudy Project Wingspan helmet)
According to some of the guys who pre-road the course, we were pretty lucky that day with regards to the wind and the route wasn’t as windy as it could have been. We didn’t have a whole lot of wind in the morning, and generally the winds do pick up in the afternoon. Usually the winds in the area are out of the south later in the day, so as you’re making the final climb, it does start to push you a little.
If you have any questions at all, please feel free to post them below in the comments section.