Ironman Canada Bike Course

It’s not harder. It’s just different.

EDIT: 2022 Update Different Course – Same Deal

From 2020 / 2021 / 2022 (Delete as applicable thanks to COVID) Ironman Canada moved back to Pencticton. Whilst this article references Whistler, it’s really the hills we are talking about. So the same applies in Penticton.

The new Ironman Canada Bike World Order

The new bike course details have been released. Race Director Christine Cogger has pulled yet another rabbit out of the hat, enabling a bunch of relatively well to do triathletes to haul themselves around the stunning Whistler countryside for a bunch of hours one Sunday in July.

Of course, this feat of political wrangling aside, there are some that remain unconvinced.

Hills. Who would have thought? And in Whistler too!

Hills seem to be a great cause of concern for athletes. By the end of this article, I hope that you will have a slightly different view on tackling the grades. Yes, the bike course is different from most. Yes, it may take slightly longer. But the course is simply not that difficult. In fact, it is arguably a little easier than the original Whistler course.

Elevation Chart

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Which Bike?

Let’s get one thing out of the way. If you have a bike made for triathlon and one made for road riding. Use the one made for a triathlon. Anyone who tells you otherwise, within the remit of a triathlon race where the goal is to finish faster, is categorically wrong. Here are some reasons to ride a road bike.

  1. You only have a road bike.
  2. Your triathlon bike is broken.
  3. Comfort is an issue because you hardly ever ride your tri bike or have not had a bike fit.
  4. You don’t care what anyone else says, you just want to ride a road bike for some reason.

If you have the right tri bike for you, a good bike fit, and have actually trained on your tri bike then you will be faster on your tri bike. If you do not care about time then great, use whatever you like. Seeing as there is a gun that goes off at the start and a time at the end and you all get placed in a list from fastest to slowest, time is an integral factor in why we do this. Even those who say “I just want to finish!” would love to be standing up on the podium having won the race, who wouldn’t. Time matters.


Use your Tri Bike

So. If you have a triathlon bike, have trained on a triathlon bike, paid to enter the Ironman Canada triathlon, started the triathlon that day, completed the triathlon swim, are about to grab your bike off a rack to do the bike portion of a triathlon and and suddenly have an urge to ride a bike designed for a sport other than a triathlon there has to be some serious questions asked about your build up to the race!

If you have a tri bike. Use the tri bike.

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Course Map

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Hills. Why the Concern?

Slogging up a hill is hard work. You slow down. Drop down the gears and that nice comfortable cadence starts to drop. The mental reward of speed diminishes too, you are putting in the same effort, maybe even more effort, but you are not getting as much for it. Short hills are not too bad, but the long ones are draining. Imagine a 180km course with lots of hills in it! Shocking. Who would want that?

There is a major clue in that last paragraph. “..that nice comfortable cadence starts to drop ..”


It’s not the pacing.

The idea of a triathlon, especially Ironman, is to somewhat spread your effort out over the course. This is simply called ‘pacing’. Most triathletes are pretty terrible at this. However, we all have a pretty good idea that we need to spread our total power output over the whole bike course. You have xx wats to spend, you have 180kms to ride. That’s the deal. This is basically the same for all races. This is not Ironman Canada dependant. Ironman Canada is no harder.


It’s not the time.

In most triathlons we have hills going up, on some courses like Whistler there is a lot of altitude gain. But, there are also a lot of downhills. Usually, the same amount because, guess what, we usually have to get back to the same place we started; or at least pretty close to it. So, we don’t slow down as much overall, because the descents are very fast which balances out the ascents quite a lot, which are slow. I did some digging into this, looking at data from various athletes. Hills do not cause as much slowdown for age groupers as you might think.

So, it may take a bit longer, which means we might marginally adjust our pacing; discussed previously. So, Ironman Canada is no harder.


Cadence is the real villain here.

The thought process behind Ironman Canada being harder is based on the premise that hills are harder. But if they don’t make you significantly slower (a little, but not enough to cause concern); and you can adjust your pace accordingly. What’s the issue?

Remember that previous sentence “..that nice comfortable cadence starts to drop ..”. That, right there, is the issue.

For a rider, the ONLY difference between a hill and flat road is that, on a hill, you are forced to reduce your cadence. Often to a level that you have not trained to ride and are not comfortable riding.

Think about that for a moment. There is you, the road and your bike. It’s the same you, the same road and the same bike that you were on when it was flat. You can push out the same number of watts. The only differences are that you are going slower, which has no effect on your effort levels, and you can no longer maintain your nice comfortable cadence. A steeper hill simply means even less cadence.

If you had trained to ride at 50, 55, 60, 65, 70 rpm cadence and you are pacing yourself appropriately up a hill. Where’s is the difficulty? A long hill is simply a long road at the same effort and a lower cadence.


Train Low Cadence

Our athletes will have done plenty of low cadence training over the winter. Not only is it a quick and effective way to gain strength but we are changing where they are comfortable riding. No longer are they only happy riding at 85-90rpm. Now they are happy riding 60 – 100. Because that’s where they have trained to be. And guess what, there is plenty of low cadence riding at Ironman Canada.


The Takeaway

We all train longer for Ironman. Because Ironman is a long race. We all should be training low cadence for Ironman Canada. Because Ironman Canada is a race with lots of low cadence.

Ironman Canada is not a really hard course. It is simply a course that most people may not have trained to succeed on. You are effectively showing up with a knife to a gun fight.

If you can move your comfortable cadence bandwidth to include lower cadence then you will find the hills become far less of an issue. Low cadence training over the winter months will be a huge advantage and there is still plenty of time to gain these benefits. This low cadence training will allow you to be far more comfortable on hills, reduce muscle fatigue and should form a reasonable part of winter training for all triathletes, even those not planning on riding a hilly race course.

PB+J Coach, Claire Young, has provided an example of a low cadence workout below. Enjoy!


This workout mixes up some solid low cadence work in Z3. Enough to build up some intensity in the legs but not tax the cardio or respiratory too much. This is definitely a ‘leg building’ workout, dropping all the way down to 40rpm cadence. A great way to prepare yourself for the Ironman Canada bike course hills.

WARM UP (10 mins)
– 10 min spin

BUILD SET (20 mins)
One continuous 20 minute set
– 2 x 3 min
– 2 x 2.5 min
– 2 x 2 min
– 2 x 1.5 min
– 2 x 1 min
Each pair to be done as:
– Odds: Z2 – Ramp rpm from choice to 100+
– Evens: Choice RPM – build fr. Z2 to Z3/4

MAIN (40-60 mins)
Time to bring out the thighs with some big gear work. We start at 55rpm and go LOWER from there! All at Z3 effort. For those with power meters focus on feel, the very low cadence may not quite gel with your power zones. No high intensity intervals, just a focus on strength and a smooth pedal stroke. Keep your body relaxed, make the legs do the work. The seven minute interval is a reverse ladder, dropping from 55 to 40rpm and then back up again, followed immediately by a 3 min zone 1 shakeout at 95rpm+ (go ‘high’ on the cadence but no bouncing on the saddle).

This set is 40, 50 or 60 minutes long, depending on whether you run through 4, 5 or 6 times
4 to 6 x
– 7 min @ Z3 with each minute at a different cadence – 55 / 50 / 45 / 40 / 45 / 50 / 55 rpm
– 3 min ZONE 1 at over 95 rpm
– 1 min spin Z1 choice rpm easy as a rest,

RECOVERY (5-10 mins)
5-10 min easy spin

Happy training!


Doing a 140.6 or 70.3?

This is the Facebook group for you.

We created a group specifically for full and half distance athletes interested in learning more about racing and training. Along with the usual group discussions we'll also be posting tips and advice on key aspects of long course triathlon, alongside some swim, bike and run workouts. A great learning opportunity with pro coach advice from PB+J. So ... dive in, join the group, and we look forward to having you on board.

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