How the Race was Won: Paris-to-Ancaster 2015

Bang! “Ugh…. Is this grit in my mouth my teeth? I don’t think so. Good.”

Paris to Ancaster is a huge race. Running since 1993, the event has recently become a ‘must ride’ for American cyclocross professionals like Jeremy Powers, Jonathan Page, Anthony Clark, Gabby Durrin, and many more. In one year, perhaps 2013, I saw multiple American pros list P2A as their favourite event in North America. Until last weekend, I’d never done it. It was time.

Following on the heels of my best ‘spring campaign’ ever, I was excited to travel to Ancaster with fellow Teknē Cycle Club dirt road race lovers, Marc Hunt and Kris Gibbs. Joining us would be Chris Wood, Darren Cope, Maja Kostic, Nicola Coles, and Steve Chapman. Taken down by a vicious bronchial infection, my wingman, Iain Radford was stuck at home in bed. On Saturday we had the opportunity to recon the final kilometers of the course, riding the ‪#‎mudslide‬ chute, singletrack, and final climb. It was all I could do to keep from obsessing over multiple scenarios of how these sectors might play out, and what I might do while trying to sleep Saturday night.

Race day began as expected, with mostly clear skies and mild temps, about 5C as we lined up. The stack of bikes at the front of the Elite wave marked the presence of Clark, Jam fund racers, and Powers. How would we start? Ballistic? Semi-ballistic?

Thanks to the generous advice of friends like Ben Andrew and Jarrod Forrest (who emailed me at 2:18 A.M. to provide detailed intel!), I had a good sense of what to expect. “Matt, it’s all about the first turn into a loose climb, off the rail trail.”

It was.

The start is like a CX race. I’m less inclined to red-line it, so I’m not all the way up front, despite starting on the second row. We turn onto a loose gravel track from pavement, and proceed toward the back of some manner of industrial complex, gnarled dirt under our wheels, rutted but fast. Watch for the tractor thingy!

This is the rail trail, where the guys said things would calm down. Sort of true. I’m in the first 8 wheels, vigilant, but others clearly want to be up here too. We’re circulating more than expected, especially every time someone in high-vis is spotted up ahead. No, that’s not the turn. Mike Garrigan is always there; he knows what’s up.

There’s a surge – we’re getting close to THE TURN – and the Jam Fund guys are pushing ahead. Powers doesn’t react. Ok, that’s confirmation he is not here to race. Noted.

Damn, I’m 20 wheels back, and that’s clearly the turn up there! Room on the left, passing, passing, they are braking, I’m not. Wicked. Carrying speed, I’m heading up into the climb, two or three guys to navigate through, and it’s shorter than expected. Knowing this is place to break off, I dig in, keep the pressure on, pulling away and presenting Garrigan (Van Dessel/Shimano/POC), Clark (Squid Bikes), Nathan Chown (Team 905), and Jeremy Martin (Rocky Mountain) the opportunity to chase on and form a unit. Looking at the mix, I know this is good. We can make this stick. We ride hard to secure the break. Splendid.

Garrigan is clearly the dominant rider. I’ve never raced with him, but I like how he’s doing things. Classy. As we alternate between paved road and all manner of trail, farm track, grass crop boundary, and rail trail, the pattern emerges. Garrigan is accelerating into every offroad sector, and keeping the power down, and I am having a hard time. My back hurts. I’m not as good at this as him, Clark, and Martin. Chown is struggling a bit more than me. When we get back to pavement, the pain subsides, and I can ride back on, then work. The pattern is unfamiliar, disconcerting, somewhat mysterious, and painful. But it is my reality, and I accept it. I WILL NOT allow myself to come off, forsaken to purgatory, between the break and the chase. No.

Paris-Roubaix has trains, Paris-to-Ancaster has horses. Ponies, specifically. The pressure is on, full gas on a long shot of rail trail. We ride into the back of a group of 5 women on ponies. Garrigan dismounts, clearly understanding the danger. Clark and Martin remain on their bikes, perhaps less cautious. Chown isn’t here anymore. Garrigan informs the riders of the race coming through; can gallop on? Yes. Anxious over the chase we had at 2 minutes closing, we follow the horses at a reduced speed until they can pull onto an offshoot. Back on the gas, once again under pressure, Garrigan has flatted, bidding us luck as three. “You can win from here!” Pure class.

These two know I am strong on the road, but less so on the offroad. They try to take it out of me on both, driving it on the offroad sectors, now easier to follow than when Garrigan was on the front, and surging on the road. I indicate that I will not work with them if they try to work me over on the pavement. They are clever, they comply.

Heading into the first chute of two, Martin is in the pole position, Clark behind me. The first is easy. Nothing changes. We head into the second, now wetter than before, Martin surprises me by dismounting. He runs, I follow. Must pass as soon as possible!

There’s a window on the right, I push past. Pedaling to overcome the mud, it’s a total gong show: deflecting of roots, rocks, ruts, there is no ‘line,’ This is survival. I deflect of some unknown underthing and auger toward the bank on the right, unable to adjust course.

Bang! “Ugh…. Is this grit in my mouth my teeth? I don’t think so. Good.” I’ve smashed into a tree, the only tree for meters from side to side. Dazed, my shoulder hurts, but adrenaline is pumping through my body, and all I want to do it get back on and continue. I’m a drunk zombie, pathetically rolling down the final 200 meters of the chute, barely able to handle the bike.

I can see them. God, they are tantalizingly close, perhaps 45 seconds, but I am sorta mangled. I’m pedaling as hard as I can now, descending, braking steering, surviving. Trying not to be an idiot.

I’m looking back, even though I know nobody is close. I can’t help it. I feel I’ve lost my chance to win, so I can’t help but worry about losing my podium spot. Clark and Martin are ahead, racing for the ‘W’. I am in pain, but I am happy. I’m riding, my teeth are fine, my shoulder isn’t broken. I’m ok, I just can’t win.

The spectators preceding and all the way up the final climb are overflowing with enthusiasm and encouragement. “Almost there!” I keep the pressure on as much as I can justify, knowing I am where I am.

Martin has ridden away from Clark for the win. I don’t know exactly where, but I know how: power. Both are strong, but Martin is stronger on the day. I have opportunity to speak with the young rider at the finish, and learn he’s setting his sights on cyclocross for 2015. Excellent, another talent coming up to push CX forward in Canada. I look forward to seeing him develop, and suspect he’ll crush me whenever we wind up racing each other.

Marc and I have opportunity to speak with Jeremy afterwards, learning about the Gran Fundo he organizes with friends in Mass in July. We hope to make it down and sample the dirt roads Jeremy lives and rides on. I also have opportunity to speak with Mike Garrigan, confirming he is a gentleman, gracious about his bad luck. As the hours pass drawing into the podium ceremony, I have many more opportunities to speak with many passionate riders, from the CC Croix de fer crew from Montreal, to fellow riders like David Bilenkey from Ottawa, locals we met during recon, and of course, the rest of our own crew. Congrats to all for battling through a very demanding course, and finding the joy in the struggle.

I would like to thank those who took the time to offer advice on how to approach this race; I appreciate it, and it helped immensely. I would like to thank the organizers, and all the volunteers, police, fire, and ambulance personnel who ensured our safety during the race. I would like to thank all of my team-mates for both encouraging me to race P2A, and making the whole weekend fun, from end to end. And I would like to thank our partners, who once again were integral to making this result – the best of my ‘career,’ possible: Woven Precision Handbuilts, GiroSportDesign, Mad Alchemy Embrocation, Rebec & Kroes Cycle and Sport, Clement Cycling.