P to A – The Race to the Trees

Paris to Ancaster, one of the most fun races of the year. It’s always an adventure. A 70km course through rail trails, roads, mud, and farmers fields. With a race like this, anything can happen, which means there’s actually a tiny chance I could podium…. I suppose that’s why I do this race.

Right off the bat, Team OCTTO was off to a fantastic start. Even before the actual race started, we were making professional moves. I had grabbed Bozek’s race numbers the day before and planned to pass it off to him before the start. Somehow, I managed to show up really late and rushed to get him his numbers and then rushed to get my bike together. My other team-mate who was there had locked his keys in the car at a gas station on the drive up… but managed to get a locksmith, unlock his car and still show up earlier than me. I wont mention who it was who did such a foolish thing, but I will tell you that the only OCTTO guys in attendance were Bozek, Larbi and myself….. and, it wasn’t Bozek or me. I will also tell you it was Larbi who locked his keys in the car. No more hints.

When I  finally did show up, I did the ol’ squeeze of the tires to find my front tire was pretty flat. Not the one with the dental floss repair either… the good one. I had re-pumped it up and hoped I just hadn’t turned the valve nut tight enough and that it didn’t actually have a small puncture. I guess I would find out soon enough… I had brought a bottle of tire sealant with me just in case I did get a puncture on the course. This sealant just needs to be injected into the tire, which fills any holes and then in theory you can pump air into it again. With this thing, I was finishing this race one way or another. Because I’ve been working as a bike mechanic, I have developed a extraordinary ability to use random materials to makeshift ways to make things happen on bikes.

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You can see here how I cleverly used tape to fasten this bottle to the bike. I have taped both the front and middle of the bottle to make sure it doesn’t fall off my bike. A marvel of engineering. It’s a wonder I’m not working for NASA. I could tell by the look of confusion on people’s faces when they saw it that they were confused as to why they didn’t think of it themselves. Ah well, too late for them now, suckers.

Because I was late, it was straight to the starting gate for me to get a good spot in the crowd. A warm-up would have been ideal, especially given this race starts in a near sprint. But, a warm up is not a luxury I would be afforded. My punishment for being late. I did find however, while staring at my HR on the garmin (as I often do), that my heart rate was rather high – a side effect of caffeine pills and pre-race nerves no doubt. I found that if I really focused on the potential of my front tire being flat I could stress myself out enough that my heart rate would jump even higher. This is what I did for 10 minutes while waiting in the starting coral. Warm up – done.

One thing that needs to be known about this particular race to really understand it’s tactics is the first 10km of the course. It has a few little turns and then straight onto a gravel rail trail. Flat and fast for 10km, then the route takes a sharp turn uphill onto a farmers field. Typically what happens at this crucial turn is the first 15 or so riders RIDE up the hill and at some point after them somebody gets off their bike and plugs things up so that EVERYBODY behind them has to get off their bike and walk up the hill. Most years, the first few riders who got away, stayed away for the rest of the race. I’ve heard people say you can pretty much take the results right before this turn and they are accurate enough. So far, that’s been my experience. The result: if you want to do well at this race then you must do a few things. 1) Line up early at the start 2) Ride really hard off the start and 3) During that first 10km of the race (before the hill) you must try and get as close to the front as possible. The difficulty to #3 is that only 2 or 3 riders can fit side to side on the trail and it’s next to impossible to pass people and move up to the front. So the really ballsy riders dip in from the sides on the grass to try and get ahead. Inevitably, people always run out of space as the trail narrows and at some point riders get pushed off the road, crash, and there’s always tons of close calls. I’m both competitive enough that I want to stay in the pack, and not SO competitive and risky that I want to be one of ‘those’ people who make it sketchy. So, last year I just counted down the KM’s to that turn, flying down the rail trail, squeezed in with 50 people, hearing crashes behind me and seeing one beside me and hoping nobody crashed in FRONT of me. I promised myself last year I’d NEVER do this race again.

So, here I am. At the race…again. Gun goes off! My game plan was to absolutely hammer the first few KM and get into the front right off the bat. This way I could just stay up at the front and be safe from all the sketchiness behind. If I made it near the front then I might be able to finally ride up the hill and be in the breakaway group! An absolutely brilliant strategy. I suppose that along with having remarkable mechanical aptitude, I must also be some sort of strategic genius. So, the race had started and for the first 10 seconds it seems like everybody is going pretty much all out. I sure am. 20 seconds in and I’m still going mostly all out and I’m barely gaining any positions at all. It’s almost as if everybody has the exact same strategy as me. Shit.

After 5 or so minutes of biking quite hard, I had negotiated the first few turns. Already a crash had happened and the sketch bags were creeping up on the sides and pushing me back. I had already seen one dude moving up the side of the pack who then got forced off almost into the woods. I was in the big pack and we were ripping along. Again, like last year, I wasn’t nearly close enough to the front of the pack for my liking. So, here I was… counting down the KM’s until that pivotal turn, praying nobody crashed in front of me, telling myself this was my last year at this race. As Larbi quite rightly said after the race “there’s only so many times I can do this race and have the same thing happen year after year”. Then again, if Larbi was so wise, why didn’t he take his keys out of his car before he locked it?

‘The’ turn comes up, the front bunch makes it up the hill and then everybody behind them are forced off their bikes. I had a deja vu at this moment. No, wait, this actually happened before… every single time I’d ever done this race!  I dismount off my bike. Good. I always like getting off my bike. I run up the side of the hill and pass a bunch of people who aren’t as quick at the ol’ jump of the bike and run technique. At the top, I jump back onto my bike and go balls out. I knew that this next few minutes will determine the race outcome for me. I rode as hard as I could through the farmers field and latched on to a small group by the time we hit the road.

Unlike last year, riders were strung out a bit more this time around. We could see the lead ahead but they were not that far ahead and by no means out of sight. At this point, I was in a small pack that seemed motivated to chase. I was nearly at my limit already and did what I could (quite little) to chase. I distinctly recall being grateful Mark Brouwer was ahead of me as he did a bunch of work early on closing gaps and moving us ahead. Within a few KM’s we had caught the lead group. Now, as a group of 30 or 40, we moved slowly as more from behind caught up and joined the group.

This large group made a few turns on some gravel roads and the paced wound back up. We went over some single track and then hit another crucial part in the course. This spot was a ditch with a steep bank on it with a little wooden bridge going over it. People always got off their bike here and things backed up. No different this year. Another bottle neck. I had totally forgotten about this spot and should have positioned myself closer to the front. I was positioned about mid-pack at this point and paid the price.

Once over the ditch I hopped back on the bike and pedalled like mad to stay connected to this now very splintered group. Again I saw Mark and together we picked our way through riders on single/double track through a few km of forest trail. We then hammered through some farmer fields and we continued to close the gap on a lead group that had formed. I again felt like I was at my limit and was having a tough time maintaining the high intensity. Then came the best moment of the race. One I will never forget because it proves I am a world class cyclist destined for greatness. We rode up alongside and PASSED Jeremy Powers, USA cyclocross champion! I could sense the million dollar contracts from team Sky landing back on the table. This thought spurred me on….

…..Jeremy Powers continued to slow pedal as he waited for his team-mate. Perhaps he even had his hand on the brake when I passed him – I will never tell. But by now, a small group of us chasers had formed and together we charged ahead, each taking some pulls on the front to close the gap ahead. We worked until the lead group was again insight and after a few KM’s and some more hard work, once again we caught and became part of the lead group – albeit a smaller version of a pack than it had been earlier. I made a note to myself to stay a little closer to the front to avoid this bridging nonsense….

We rode through more farmers fields, single track and rail trail. Things strung out on technical spots and then came back together. Strung out, and then back together. The intensity was quite high and people slowly slipped off the back, both because of mechanicals, fatigue, and poor technical choices. At one point we were again ripping down a rail trail and suddenly everybody stopped dead. I figured somebody had crashed up front. Nope. I peered to the side of the group and could see that trees were down on the course. Shit. People got off their bikes and had to walk single file under and over the tree. Then, another tree …and another..I figured the P to A organizers must have really wanted to spice things up this year by keeping these things over the trail. Only later did I find out that this was the work of a disgruntled anti-race individual who had chainsawed them down the night before to sabotage my chance of winning.

All this slow motion single file really turned out to be a curve ball. As far as I knew, the group was still together at this point, although it’s hard to know for sure as the race is a bit of a blur. Once I had made it through the trees the lead group was out of sight. I was in a small, small chase group that was working hard and moving fast but I don’t recall even seeing the lead group in the distance at this point. I never did. Serves me right for not staying near the front. I’d already “learned” that lesson 2 times that day and I still ended up stuck in the same situation. Usually I need to make a mistake 30 or 40 times before it really sinks in.

Nothing else really stands out for me until later in the race. We dropped some riders, picked up some riders and people were clearly coming close to their limit. We moved through a few single track areas, hit more roads and farmers fields and rode on lots of rail trail. At one point with 20 or so KM to the finish, I had taken a pull and elbowed for somebody to take over. Nobody did. I kept riding and flapping my elbow impatiently for somebody to move in front, but nobody would. Mark, ‘tiny backpack man’ and 1 or 2 other riders had been doing most of the work up until this point but we weren’t going to do it all. I was worried if everybody didn’t chip in that we were going to be moving so slow that some larger, more motivated group would catch up to us from behind and then we’d have to re-fight to get away again. Just when things were getting frustrating, some bearded angel went to the front and put in an incredible 10 minute pull down a flat and fast section of rail trail. I was drafting him and could barley hang on! When he was done, Mr Power went to the front and pulled some more. 20 sum KM’s now and we were moving fast, I was certainly feeling the effort and was officially out of water and getting thirsty.We kept riding.

At about 10km left it was time for our first mud shoot. I made it down this one without issue but once on the road again found that the group had totally split up. I saw a few riders had made some distance on me so picked up the effort to try and close the gap. We had hit a gravel road and all the riders behind were forming tiny groups to try and stay with the leaders. I was out in the wind and losing the group again, but behind me I saw the beard with a halo, riding past me. Yes. I tucked back in for a minute or so as he dropped a few other leeches like myself. As we whipped down the road I recognized this spot from a pre-ride I did earlier that week. The long, muddy, technical mud shoot was coming up. Last year when I entered this section a dude crashed in front of me and I flipped over the bars avoiding him. So this year my game plan year was to be at the front this time around.

As I tried to attack to get closer to the front, it become apparent to me that others had this same genius plan. I made it close to being the first down the shoot but a few riders were able to shoot ahead of me and got first dibs on the mud. It was now time to ride down the most technical part of the race. So, I proceeded to do the most ungraceful technical descent of this section that I’m sure anybody had ever seen. I somehow managed to have one hand on the hood and the other in the drops. One leg unclipped early on as I hit a bump and I couldn’t connect it again with the pedal. My brakes were inadequate to actually stop me and so I flailed my scrawny bag of bones back and forth, slamming into mud holes and roots until I finally made it down. I’m sure there’s a video gone viral of this disgrace out there somewhere. Two dudes passed me on my ride down, but all in all, other than scoring a 1/10 for aesthetics, the end result of my descent wasn’t too shabby.

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The Sportszonephotography guys said they had to burn every picture of me until I got my hands on the hoods and my foot clipped in because they were so disgraceful.

At this  point I had long ago drained my bottles and would have killed for a drink. I thought about stealing somebodies bottle while they weren’t looking but didn’t think this was doable. I looked down at the bottle of sealant sloshing around in front of me….

5km left. A few riders were ahead and a few behind. Having been separated by the mud hill, there were now no groups left formed – everybody was on their own. I navigated the next few twisty downhill turns until I was at Martin Road. I knew this spot well. It was a steady climb to the finish, with the odd steep hill and muddy spot, but nothing overly technical. This moment in racing has always been my favourite. No attacks left, no moves to make, no strategy left to think about… just plain old hard work to the end. I pushed as hard as I could, momentarily looking back for the first few km’s. One dude seemed to be creeping up on me. After a good deal of grimacing, the final epic hill was at hand. I had passed one or two riders early on but was still losing ground to the dude behind me. The mass of spectators were lining the sides of the course, ringing their cowbells. This part was steep and my legs were fully maxed out. Although I knew I was already in my easiest gear, I still attempted another ‘up’ shift with the obvious results. I had passed one more guy while the dude from behind was starting to overtake me. What I wanted to do was throw a stick in his spokes but so many people were looking and I was wearing my OCTTO kit so I thought that might be a bad idea.  Despite giving it my all on the final part of the hill, this guy passed me. I’ll try the stick in the spokes technique next year. Finally, the finish line came up and the race was done. In the end, I finished 22nd place, 3.5 mins behind the winner. I didn’t drink the sealant until after the race.

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2 thoughts on “P to A – The Race to the Trees

  1. Bloody brilliant piece of writing. As before, you have a gift for this. It would be better to be a gifted cyclist…. But take what you can😃
    Proud papa

    Like

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