Bianca Hayes on Crossing Canada at Speed

WORDS BY
Pete Harrington
PHOTOS BY
Coconut Creative

Bianca Hayes didn’t set out to be an endurance cyclist, or even a regular one. Like most of us, she cycled as a kid, sure, but as an adult, she ran, at least until her knees gave out after a marathon too many. That all changed when her beloved sister Katrina passed away from ovarian cancer in 2018 after a year-long battle.

Except it wasn’t a battle; it was an attack. An unstoppable disease that medical science was powerless to resist. Cancer came, and Katrina went. And for the 300 people who will be diagnosed this year with ovarian cancer in BC alone, for 250 of them, it will be the same story. Passing without a hope of ever surviving their disease, most not knowing they’re sick until it’s too late, because symptoms are slight and easily overlooked by both patient and medical provider.

So Bianca cycles. She rides ridiculous distances to raise awareness and funds to help bring about change and hope for people and families like hers affected by ovarian cancer.

A few weeks after her recent attempt to become the fastest woman to cycle across Canada, we caught up with Bianca via video to talk about her journey to two wheels, fundraising, her sister, and the perils of 60kmh headwinds.

Hey Bianca! For someone fresh to cycling, you’re getting pretty good at it.

Hey Pete, thanks! Although I feel like a bit of an imposter because I always wanted to be a runner, but I could never properly recover from it. I’ve run a marathon, I’ve done a half marathon, and my body just hates it, unfortunately. After I lost my sister, I somehow found out about the Ride to Conquer Cancer event here in B.C – it’s about 100 kilometres each day for two days – and I signed up as something to direct my energy towards and it all snowballed from there.

That’s no small distance for a first ride.

That’s true, but I really enjoyed it. It was a great way to be out alone, to process things, and get out any… I don’t know, any additional frustrations, anger, grief, and all that. And yeah, I just sort of fell in love with it, and that’s where it started.

You first cycled across Canada in 2020 to purely raise awareness and funds for Ovarian Cancer research. After that ride, did you think you’d be doing it again, and trying for a speed record at the same time?

I guess it sort of just ate at me. I mean, I was never really into sports, or thought of myself as very athletic, or competitive at all. I never really thought I had that kind of thing in me. But cycling has shown me that I’m not only competitive, but ambitious, too. In fact, as soon as I got back in 2020, I felt empty. It’s just this big crash once you’ve spent so much time thinking about something, and dreaming about it, and you build up so much of how you think it’s going to make you feel, if that makes sense.

Having something that was a little ridiculous, and big, and crazy, and knowing I could do it to raise money gave me an idea that I would feel better about myself afterwards. Not that I expected everything to be perfect when I finally got home, but I hoped I’d at least feel better or be able to deal with my grief. But it wasn’t like that. So after a couple months of feeling directionless, I realised that I wasn’t done. I wanted to ride across Canada again, and this time, to set a new world record.

I also wanted to raise more money, and doing it during the pandemic was especially important for the awareness side of things. Cancer diagnosis rates went down a lot during the pandemic, but cancer rates don’t change that dramatically. So, it just means that there’s a whole swath of the population that’s going to end up finally going back to a doctor, and then finding out that they have cancer.

You’re now back from your ride, and without giving the game away, how did it go, and how much faster were you than 2020?

I improved a lot. For reference, I had a goal of riding 400 kilometres a day in 2020, and I never hit that. I never made 400 kilometres. It took until sort of the last day, when I did a nonstop ride for over 24 hours that was over about 500, but that was sort of a day and a half, I think.

I think even getting close to 400km a day once, let alone on successive days is incredibly impressive, for anyone.

Thanks Pete. I think my coach agrees with you. We had a follow up call after the ride, and he went, “You’re trying to become a professional level cyclist, and do something that is difficult even for someone who’s been cycling for a long time. Plus, athlete development usually starts at 12 years old, and you started at 27.” By which her meant, don’t be too hard on yourself for not getting this.

But you’re stubborn, so….

Right?! And I was so frustrated. I can do 100 kilometres. I’m warming up! I get to 200, and 200 feels okay. But much more than that and I start breaking. And very sagely, my coach reminded me that doing anything for over 10 to 12 hours is hard. Sit in a chair for 12 hours and you’re going to be uncomfortable. Lie in bed for 12 hours – sit on a beach! And he goes, “You were on a bicycle. Of course it’s going to be fucking difficult!” And I went, “Oh yeah, that’s right.” I definitely need that person, that kind of a personality in my head, because I just get so amped up, and so angry, and so fired up about stuff so quickly, that it took him just being like, “Yeah, no shit, Bianca, of course it’s hard.”

Jumping forward ot this year’s record attempt, and your Strava stats suggest you strung together a lot of big days.

It’s true. The first day I put in around 420 kilometres, I think. And then one of the other days, I mean, it was flat, it was in Alberta, and we had a kicking tail wind, but I got 500 kilometres. I’ll take it! But big kms or not, the ride was ultimately scuppered by a motorbike rider in Quebec.

“I can do 100 kilometres. I’m warming up! I get to 200, and 200 feels okay. But much more than that and I start breaking. And very sagely, my coach reminded me that doing anything for over 10 to 12 hours is hard”

What happened?

The usual cyclist thing. Someone wasn’t looking where they were going and I got knocked off my bike. It could have been worse though. I sprained my ankle, and I had a fairly bad concussion. There’s still some lingering back, and neck pain. Apparently your back doesn’t like it when you land on it quite hard! But, things have mostly sort of sorted themselves out, and I’m back out on a bike, and out there doing crazy stuff again. So, mostly good.

Had it not been for that, were you on track to beat the record? Did you feel good about your progress?

I was close. I think I would probably have come in a little bit over the 15-day cutoff. But right before I was hit, I looked at my crew and I said, “Whatever you have to do, you push me as hard as you can, and let’s go for it, because I want this.” In truth, we caught some terrible weather, too. After a great start we ended up hitting 60 kmh headwinds.

The worst!

On top of everything else, the RV was breaking down around that time, as well, and so we had to rent a back RV from somebody else. On the road, my support crew had to switch everything over, and the guy who we rented from owns a trucking company, and he goes, “Oh yeah, I had to pull my trucks off the road that day, because the winds were so high.” And he goes, “I can’t believe you were on a bicycle.” And I was like, “Yep, neither can I.”

Anyway, I still managed to ride 237 on headwind day, but later we ran into a dirt storm – because Manitoba is awful – and then we hit a heat wave, which was tonnes of fun. Apparently the organizers of the Winnipeg marathon canceled the race that day because it hit over 40 celsius. Long story short, I’m going to try for the record in 2024, not next year.

What’s the plan for 2023?

I’m going to adjust my training, as well as explore unsupported bikepacking as a way of having some fun while gaining more experience and miles, and also toughening up a bit for 2024. Those ultra endurance, unsupported riders put me to shame with the deprivations they’re willing to endure.

You also have a film coming out next year I believe, that documents your record attempt?

Yep, that’s correct. The plan is to build on the momentum we’ve built so far. So, I’m going to continue doing the fundraising, and use the film as my main vehicle for building awareness.

You’re also an advocate for getting people out to ride 24 hours, even if they’ve never ridden seriously before. Can you talk about that a bit?

It’s funny, because after hearing about my ride, lots of people say, “Oh I wish I could do something like that.” And my usual reply is, “Okay, then do it for 24 hours.” 24 hours is doable. It sounds insane, but you can cover quite some distance on a bike without having to really overexert, or push yourself. All you have to do is stay in the zone two sort of range, keep your heart rate nice and steady, and as long as you’re eating, you can ride for 24 hours.

“Symptoms are very vague, which is why ovarian cancer almost always gets caught so late. Symptoms include lower back pain, bloating, frequent urination – the sort of things that can easily be dismissed as PMS, or some kind of other period symptom.”

Did you have a favourite or go-to piece on the ride?

I loved the WK3 Cargo Bib Shorts! I had a few nasty bug bites, and the jersey zipper was rubbing on them, so I had a couple of days where I swapped a tank top for the jersey and having the shorts take over stash duties was perfect. The back pocket fits a phone, and I used the thigh pockets to stash garbage from my snacks. I hate littering, and it’s so hard to put trash into a jersey pocket when you’re a few days into a ride and losing dexterity and some feeling in your fingers – when pulling out another snack tends to send overboard the garbage already in the pocket!

Any comments on any of the thermal pieces? Or thoughts about layering and your experience of riding through different conditions?

Trans Canada is a beast of a ride. You go through so many different conditions, so it’s tough to know how to dress appropriately. The Hollyburn tights were LIFESAVERS. I layered them over my bib shorts in the mornings when it was damp or chilly and I needed a little extra warmth. Those paired with arm warmers came in extremely handy.

On a ride like this, temperature swings are huge. It regularly climbed from 10°C (50°F) to 25°C (77°F) over the course of the day, so having so many options was amazing.

I used my Oro jacket a ton as well. It was a perfect shell to wear just over my jersey as I rode at night and kept wind and rain away while I stayed nice and warm. And the vest! I love a vest for those slightly chilly mid-temperature times when you need a little more warmth, and the Cypress Vest got a ton of use (so much so that I messed up the zipper when I got a little too aggressive).

To finish off, can you talk a bit about Ovarian Cancer survival rates, and why they are so awful?

The first thing to realise about ovarian cancer is that it’s actually a bunch of different cancers that all affect the ovaries. So when someone gets ovarian cancer, they get a certain type. Solve for one, and there will still be women getting the other types.

The second thing to take home is that the symptoms are very vague, which is why ovarian cancer almost always gets caught so late. Symptoms include lower back pain, bloating, frequent urination – the sort of things that can easily be dismissed as PMS, or some kind of other period symptom. And women are stoic, right? They’re taking care of things and others, and don’t tend to make a big deal of things. It also doesn’t help that when they do go to the doctors, their symptoms might be misdiagnosed as IBS. Ovarian cancer isn’t on anyone’s top of mind. And it’s still rare. Thankfully, it’s not as common as breast cancer, but because it’s not an everyday cancer, a lot of doctors have never even seen a single case of it.

The final thing I’ll say is that a lot of the time, when you talk about cancer, people talk about cures. But with a lot of cancers, you’re not going for a cure. It’s sort a nice package to put on things, but generally what you want is effective treatment that helps people to live past the five or ten year mark. If you can keep it so that it’s more of an immune disorder, and keep it low grade, and keep things under control, people can live a very long, and very happy life, and be under a very watchful eye of a doctor, and make sure that it’s not spreading, and recurring. A cure isn’t always possible, but living with a cancer and living well, is.

Thank you so much for your time today Bianca, and for sharing your story. We can’t wait to see the film and what you get up to next. 7mesh will be there every mile of the way!

Thanks Pete! And thank you 7mesh!

 


To learn more about Bianca and to follow her progress, head over to her site:

https://theovariangang.com