Canadian Road Nationals: An Education

I’ve raced mountain bike National Championships in both cross-country and downhill disciplines, and cyclocross nationals too. Only one discipline, however, did I race as an elite, and that was downhill. The PROs – Jake Watson, Andrew Shandro, etc., did their thing: ride crazy fast. It was in fact a Nationals weekend at Mont Tremblant that convinced me to stop chasing a top-10, because I simply didn’t want to take the risks those guys were taking. They were better, more talented, more motivated. I only raced downhill a few times after that, and was happy to do a few really good runs that felt like peak performances. Good enough for me.

Elite road nationals seemed like a good idea after a spring and early summer of good form and solid races. At ‘just’ about 6 hours from Ottawa in St. Georges de Beauce, QC, home of the Tour de Beauce, and Andrew Lees (9to5 Pro) lining up driving and accommodations for us (Charlie Gorman (9to5 Pro), Osmond Bakker (Wheels of Bloor) and me), why not?

After hours together during the drive to Sherbrooke, many war stories from the trenches of bike racing had been shared, and it seemed pretty certain how Saturday’s race would unfold: 1) as soon as the neutral flag dropped, riders would attack; 2) attacks would continue until a break was established through the 32k leg en route to the 15km-long circuit the race would cover 8 times (for a total of 185k); 3) riders would flat on the way to the circuit on/in the potholes riddling about 5km of the route; 4) there would likely be a crash; 5) the race would break into pieces; 6) someone better than us would win.

Unlike DH Nationals, where the only real mixing riders do occurs when they watch each other ride, we’d be mixing it up directly with the best Canadians who compete domestically and internationally. For Andrew, Charlie, and Osmond, this was nothing new. All had raced road nationals numerous times before. I, on the other hand, was going into the race never having had raced in a field so stacked, and not really grasping what it’d be like. This put me in an unusual position of ‘old neophyte’. I’d try to get into an early break and hopefully mute the difficulty of the course’s climbs, and failing that, try to hang onto the front pack. Normally I’d not consider ‘holding onto the pack’ a worthy objective, but with just shy of 150 riders on the start list, including the full Silber team, 5 Optum-Kelly Benefits riders (one of whom being Mike Woods, from Ottawa, of course), a few from Smartstop, the Louis Garneau team, Red Truck, Velo-Select, etc, not to mention the four present World Tour riders: Hugo Houle (AG2R la Mondiale), Antoine Duchesne (Team Europecar), Christian Meier (Orica GreenEdge), and Dominique Rollin (Cofidis), survival would likely be the order of the day.

Just how hard and fast do the best Canadian men attack? Not too hard when they start immediately after the neutral car says ‘GO’. I go with a move stacked with  riders better than me, get closed down, and do it again. Once that’s back, another break starts to form, and I see Matteo Dal Cin get into it. Nice. I’m just riding in the pack now, I can’t attack. Already feeling the efforts….ugh. As I hit the climbs heading to the circuit at pace, I realize my legs are crap. Circumstances saw me off the bike Thursday and Friday, the first consecutive days off in over six months (I rarely miss a day). My fear of having ‘vague’ legs is confirmed: mine suck. Coupled with the pace up these climbs, I’m already suffering. This is nuts. We’ve done like what, 10-15k? My arms feel like they are falling off. What the hell? Jeezuz, I’m getting dropped! The front pack is pulling away, and I feel like I’m going in reverse. Other riders are slowly passing; hey, those guys are good, wtf? Am I going to get ejected before we even hit the circuit?

I realize the stacked, large, field is a double-edged-sword (well, that term certainly didn’t come to mind, but you get the idea). Strong riders are ahead AND behind me. Coming over the top of the climb tormenting me, other zombies come up, and we form a second peloton, trailing the front pack by a few seconds. Matteo, having flatted out of the break, has made it up to us, and is moving forward to get up to the front group. By some stroke of luck, the lead pack – spread across the road – sits up, allowing our ‘chase’ to converge. Just a moment ago, I was thinking I’d completely screwed the race up, and would be done momentarily, and now I am back in the race. This is crazy.

I’m recovering. Ok, we’re approaching an hour into this, and I think my legs will come around after another 30 or 60 minutes. So I just need to stay in here, position well, and I might be able to get them going so I can do the second half ok. Ben Andrew (Universale-Sante – Marin) is on my right, and having done Beauce recently, knows the route. “Ben, are we almost on the circuit?” “Yeah, pretty close. We go through a little town, turn left, then head up a the climb.” “Ok, good.”

I’m going what I like to do, and what Osmond suggested: give a little extra room on the potholed section of road. He’d flatted there EVERY time he raced the route, and was using a 28mm rear tire for the first time. A rider ahead, to my left swerves for a big hole. Chaos. Slo-mo perception mode, bodies and bikes are flying, cascading outward from the epicenter of the crash. I brake medium-hard and steer right, narrowly avoiding an airborne bike, others behind me doing the same. We chase back on as I wonder whether this is the right thing to do. I think so.

A rider two ahead smashes into a long ruthole, then me. F@#&! That was a hard hit. Man, I love these wheels, they take those hits so well. Dude who hit the hole first – surely through no fault of his own – is flatting up front. Good thing I’m ok. Sssssssssssss. I’m not ok.

The team cars are streaming by, and I have already accepted my fate. I am one of the few in here without support, I am screwed. The neutral car is 500m back replacing the other guy’s wheel. Just stand here, the wheel’s off already, nothing I can do. Here he is, busy day already with the crash….”Don’t rush, it’s ok.”

It’s been 5 minutes since I pulled off the road, back on now, the race long gone. I’ve flatted countless times in bike races. I don’t get mad. Sometimes I wonder what would have been. Today I know I didn’t have when it took to really compete. I accept my reality.

I get behind the car to drill it up the road to a pack that went by, get on, move to thinking about the best thing to do now. Ride another 150k? Mmmm, no. Maybe a couple laps? Sounds like a good idea. Either Andrew or Charlie might have been in the crash….I have a nagging suspicion.

I ride with the guys comfortably, one of whom is missing the hook of his handlebar on the right from the crash. Chris Reid is feeding (thanks Chris!!!), it’s a sunny, clear day, the scenery is beautiful. One of the Silber guys is riding the course backwards; good idea! That way you get to see the race! Maybe I’ll do that later on.

Two laps done, I pull out at the feed zone and speak with Braydon Bourne, casualty of the crash, then Stephen Keeping, who also went down, hitting his head. He’ll have to go to the hospital. Chris Reid informs me that Andrew was in the crash, and went to the hospital with a suspected broken arm. Ugh. Horrible. My intuition is confirmed, and I’m glad I decided to drop out of my group ride when I did. Charlie comes out after 4 laps, and it looks like Osmond will be ok for the full distance, so Charlie and I will shift focus to collecting Andrew.

Following a 30k ride back to the start/finish and getting changed, Charlie heads to the hospital with Keeping, while I remain with the bikes and Osmond’s bag, which means I will be fortunate enough to see the race come to an end. Updates are coming through the race radio and being broadcast, revealing an exciting situation on the course. Derrick St. John (Silber) and Will Routley (Optum) are off the front of the small break, trying to hold on. As the minutes and kilometers count down, the crowd waits eagerly for each update over the speakers: the lead two riders now have45 seconds with less than ten kilometers to go. Many of us from Ottawa, not least Natasha Elliot, DSJ’s partner, are rooting for him to make it to the final with Routley. It is not to be. The break has become 12, chasing hard into the final two kilometers, scooping up Derrick and Will. The final is uphill, something like 300m long, evidently ideal for Guillaume Boivin, who takes the win alongside Ryan Anderson for an Optum 1/2, followed by Ryan Roth for Silber. Impressive.

After Osmond rolls in, 36th spot, we sit in the shade awaiting Charlie and Andrew’s return, the scene quickly emptying of riders, support staff, fans and organizers. Before long, we’re heading back to Sherbrooke to drop off Osmond, hitting a great Labanese joint, then fighting to stay alert as we plod home late into the night. My general avoidance of caffeine serves me well when the time comes to take take my turn driving; a medium Tim’s gets the old cervo alert. Andrew’s forearm broke his fall on bike’s top-tube, and it looks like he might be in decent shape in a week or so. We all hope so. It’s 2 A.M. as we roll up to my house. “Goodnight, gents; heal well, Andrew.”

It’s difficult to decide how I feel about my first road nats. On the one hand, I wish I’d done things differently on Friday to ensure my legs were ready on Saturday – trainer in the hotel room. I also immediately started thinking I need to lose more weight to be able to climb well enough. That’s really hard. On the other hand, I’m not sure how much I should care about whether I can hang with these guys. I have to keep my expectations in check, and in parallel, the demands I place on myself. Others are seeking constant improvement and ascension through the ranks, using each Nationals as a building block. I’m not hunting a PRO contract; I have a job. So next year, when Nationals come to Ottawa, I’ll have to make sure I’ve got my head on straight, my routine on point, and one simple objective in mind: ride well. At least there shouldn’t be any potholes to contend with….

Full coverage of the 2015 Global Relay Canadian Road Nationals can be found on Canadian Cyclist.