'Praxis'

How the Race was Won: Paris-to-Ancaster 2017

The crushed gravel under my tires replaced hardened steel and creosote-marinated wood years ago. Today’s remnant of an artery once vital to eastern Canada’s transportation network recedes into the horizon ahead, cool, yet infernal wind pushing against every leeward, straining square millimeter of my body. This is bike racing. This is why I’m here. This hurts. I want to stop.

It’s been a spring of rain and cold, hardly the early start to the cycling season we’ve all hoped for. Training camp in South Carolina was a joy, now a fading memory of sun, beautiful climbs, long days that didn’t feel too long, and surprisingly good cafe stops. It seems every weekend since I’ve been back has involved complicated layering schemes to ward away the ills of inclement weather. This is the season of racing that keeps me motivated all winter; this is the season of racing that one must truly be motivated to enjoy.

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Adam Myerson leads a very long pack comprising the Elite wave. PHOTO: Rob Jones, Canadiancyclist.com
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The first rail trail sector is about 6k long, and is just wide enough for 3 riders across. PHOTO: Rob Jones, Canadiancyclist.com

I’m not particularly happy with how this race from Paris to Ancaster is going so far. The first sector, a long, smooth double-track, went well, no issues there. Kicking up to the right and onto the farm that plateaus above the trail can be problematic, but wasn’t. But the wind. It was just too much. Saturday’s gravel criterium took the edge out of all the contenders’ legs equally, I imagine, and Mike Garrigan is here, but not in the form he used to bring to this race; he’s playing things more conservatively than he used to. This wind, 35 kilometres per hour, blasts directly into us as we crest the hill, daring, mocking us to attack. I’m powerless to cause a split. Damn.

It’s just downright hard today. It’s cold. Rain has made the offroad sectors all sorts of challenging, from greasy to churned up to narrow goat-track-tightwire. The forecast calls for 40% probability of rain. If it rains, a lot of riders are going to be in trouble. I’ve dressed for it, I’ll be totally fine if it comes down. Like I said, I’ve been practising dressing for terrible weather all ‘spring.’

There’s plenty of depth at the front of the race, numerous strong riders to attack in all the usual spots to ensure they are positioned well through the tough sectors. If they get separated in the wind, well….the struggle will be very real.

Today, more than the first or second year I raced Paris-to-Ancaster, feels like a true enduro cyclocross race. The course is throwing everything at us, every surface one can imagine. The sector that has us cutting across a swath grass separating farm fields is about as ‘euro cyclocross’ as I’ve ever experienced: two parallel ruts, stacked up on a slope that descends from left to right, an intestinal tract stretched out before us, wind in our faces.

Hold the wheel!

Never before have I had to focus so intently to hold the wheel in front of mine, Anthony Clark’s, lest I separate and the wind set me back into oblivion. This is super hard, but at the same time, totally awesome. We need more stuff like this.

The rail trail that was sabotaged two years ago is a flurry of flying pebbles and deciduous detritus as our front group, sizable at about 20, drives forward. Adam Myerson is here, along with Clark, Garrigan, Aaron Schooler, Michael Van den Ham, Gunnar Holmgren, Ian Field, and Iain Radford, my team-mate, to name a few. Many strong riders, some of whom will surely school me on the final climb if I arrive there with them. Namely, all the guys who are lighter than me. I’m not super keen on this future, but the wind is making a breakaway seem rather suicidal. I was just listening to a VeloNews podcast about the art and science of the breakaway yesterday, it’s still fresh in my mind. The key message, one that I was happy to be reminded of, was that when you make a move in a breakaway, solo or with others, you’ll inevitably get to a point where you have to decide whether to go all in, commit fully and accept that if the attempt fails you will have no hope at a result, or just give up and let yourself get caught.

Michael Van den Ham has separated himself coming out of a sector and has been bridged to by a young rider from a Toronto-area team. Van den Ham is dangerous, a talented cyclocross pro, while I have no idea about the his companion. The pack hasn’t been moving as though anyone is interested in closing or bridging to them for a while now. As we roll into the wind on pavement, I feel the impulse to jump. It’s as simple as that, no plan, merely an instinct, I don’t question it. I just go.

Don’t look back until you’ve gone for a while. It’s been less than a minute; looking back, the pack is 3-4 riders across at the front, which clearly indicates they are not chasing. I’m good with that. A turn is approaching to the right, where I’ll head into a sector; I’ll need to go hard but smooth through there.

Pine-needle forest floor rushes under my tires as I dial my effort just a little back from full gas, my prey out of sight for the moment, but surely getting closer. Glancing back, something akin to shock registers at the sight of Gunnar Holmgren pursuing me. He’s team-mates with Van den Ham, which makes this a bold move on his part. He’s broken clear of the pack, and aims to connect with me and jump to the other two ahead. I’ll need to be smart in working with him if I’m to make this work.

Connected as we roll across pavement once more, Holmgren is riding strong, and our gap is looking pretty good to the pack. Reeling in the two ahead will take time, we’ll need to chip away at this for a while, taking turns in the wind. I do my share, motivated to make this work.

Now 4, it feels like we’re crawling along on another extended stretch of rail trail, wind again at our faces. The young rider is small and unable to contribute to the pace-making, while Van den Ham and Holmgren are strong. It’s a slog, but it also seems pretty clear that I’m in the running for third here, if not better. I just have to keep doing what I’m doing.

O.M.F.G!

Hands down, this is the nastiest, most energy sucking sector I’ve ever ridden a bike across. Picture a furrowed farm field, 4″ deep trenches cut into the soil. Now picture a ‘track’ cutting diagonally across 800m of these bastards. Add 35kph headwind.

Insane.

Sure, I’m being figurative here, but even in a ‘just riding along’ scenario, these things would suck real bad to ride over. In the context of a bike race? Well, it depends on perspective, doesn’t it? For Van den Ham and Holmgren, it’s pretty rad: they’ve snapped off the young guy, and I’m getting gapped. For me, it’s bad, just BAD. A few lines don’t work out, I get bogged down – did I mention it’s soggy? – a couple metres to Holmgren’s wheel opens, I fight to regain contact, fail. Not panicking – maybe I should have…. – I figure I will ‘just need to time trial back to them once we’re out of this.’

Uhhhhh, guess I should have factored that they would go apeshit-ballistic once they hit pavement to consolidate their gap and build on it. Definitely should have factored that.

10 metres. That’s how far they are ahead. I’m churning away, working at it, finger nails in the dirt, clawing at every veritable nook and cranny, pebble and root fibre in the stratum to inch my way closer. But f@#%, it’s not working! And I’m sandwiched between these two basterds ahead and the other 15 basterds behind!

I have to get there!

I’m not getting there!

I’m not going to get there.

I’m failing, the effort requires every modicum of motivation and will I have to maintain. The wind is hard on me, but it’s hard on them behind too. Nobody will want to do more than the bare minimum at the front, that that’s helping me. If I keep doing this I might be able to hold them off if I can get to the last sector with a decent gap.

The crushed gravel under my tires replaced hardened steel and creosote-marinated wood years ago. Today’s remnant of an artery once vital to eastern Canada’s transportation network recedes into the horizon ahead, cool, yet infernal wind pushing against every leeward, straining square millimeter of my body. This is bike racing. This is why I’m here. This hurts. I want to stop.

Should I just give up, recover, reshuffle the deck?

Like I said, you have to make a decision. The ‘you’ is me. I have to decide: all in or not? If I’m caught I’ll be blown out the back, hopefully Iain will salvage something. If I focus and work at this I have a shot at holding them off and stepping onto the podium.

F@#% it, I’m in.

The wind is so brutally forceful it feels like my speed is a joke. In full ghost aero mode, my computer reads a ‘pathetic’ speed I simply have to accept as ‘fast enough.’ They’re not gaining, I’m not gaining. It is how it is. Breathe, focus on smooth power delivery, keeping my head low, cadence. “I can do this. I will do this.”

They are turning.

YES! THEY ARE TURNING!

Left, they leave the rail trail to climb a shallow grade up a dirt road, cross-wind from the right. I’ve been looking back, seeing Ian Field, distinctive in his yellow and red Hargroves-Ridley RT team kit, trying to bridge to me with an accomplice, Gaelen Merritt. As I turn left I can see I’ve grown my gap just now; I feel emboldened! The wind is absolutely blasting my side, raising the thought: can I tack from right to left with my deep wheels? Let’s try.

It works! Instead of fighting the wind I roll with it, cutting from the far right to the far left of the road a couple times as it rolls east, narrowing in on the final kilometres of the race. Looking back, ‘relief’ hardly describes the sensation of seeing nobody in pursuit. I’ve done it, gotten out of sight, the vital element to a successful flight!

The infamous mud chute is reported to have been smoothed out and made simple recently. What a load of bull-shit!

 

This isn’t what I was expecting. Thankfully, it’s possible to avoid gathering too much speed as I descent, conservative mode. Ruts come up without warning; video captures Van den Ham crashing and separating from Holmgren here. The crash, well ahead of me, leads to Van den Ham messing with his rear derailleur, sucking enough time to bring him into view ahead as I find myself on the final trail sector. Surprise! I didn’t expect to see either of them again, now 2nd place is in sight! Has he flatted? In an instant, my frame of mind has shifted. Formerly in defensive mode, focused on riding conservatively and avoiding mistakes, I’ve flipped back to race mode:

Chase!!!

Going as hard as I can, I fear the final climb. I’m incapable of riding Old Martin Road (trail) as fast as I have in the past after my efforts in the wind. But I have to try! I see Van den Ham ahead, impossibly far to reasonably expect to catch, but it doesn’t matter. Anything could happen.

Rolling into the Martin Road climb, the finale of the course, I’m seriously worried about my legs. Am I gonna have to get off and walk?!? The pain and fatigue is all I can register as I churn the pedals, feeling pathetically slow. The cheers from the crowd urge me on, keep me believing I won’t have to get off the bike, some of the spectators calling my by name; I can’t tell who they are, I’m too gassed. But it seems like I’ll make it up! This is paranoia. My time is only 15 seconds slower than my PB (which is not very fast, BTW), but it feels like an eternity.

This is success. 3rd is my best possible outcome today, and I’m proud. My form is my form, that’s not what I feel good about. I feel good about committing to the hard way. I feel good about not giving up through the expanse of time I battled self-doubt and paranoia. I feel good about having wrestled my mind into a positive state and allowing myself to ride to my potential. Holmgren and Van den Ham were always going to be virtually certain to crush me on the final climb. If I’d hung on all the way to the base I’d have had a much easier ride, but I’d have missed the opportunity to notch the hardest solo effort of my cycling life. I can build on that, it’s mine to keep.

Hamilton, April 30, 2017 - Winner of the men's 70k Gunnar Holmgren crosses the finish line in 2h 08' 17". The 24th annual Paris to Ancaster bicycle race (FILE NO. _DSC7893) PHOTO BY: Gary Yokoyama, The Hamilton Spectator. FOR STORY BY:
Winner of the men’s 70k, Gunnar Holmgren crosses the finish line in 2h 08′ 17″ PHOTO BY: Gary Yokoyama, The Hamilton Spectator.
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On his way to second overall, Michael Van den Ham. PHOTO: Rob Jones, Canadiancyclist.com
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Suffering up the final climb. My face does not express how I feel…. PHOTO: Rob Jones, Canadiancyclist.com

 

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As you can see, I took no chances with my attire! I’m wearing a Biemme Jampa jacket under my jersey, Jampa leg warmers, and Glacier neoprene gloves. I was totally comfortable, if a little warm. PHOTO: Rob Jones, Canadiancyclist.com

As always, I’d like to thank all my sponsors for supporting my racing aspirations and efforts: GiroWoven Precision HandbuiltsCompass tiresAbsolute BlackKogelBrodieSilcaMad AlchemyXact NutritionVegaRe:Form.

I encourage you to check out their fantastic Instagrammin’:

If you’re reading as part of your P2A 2018 preparation, please don’t hesitate to say hi at the race in April. I’ll be there, I love this race! As many know, I’m a tire nerd, so if you have questions about that or whatever else you might think I can help with, fire away!

For a couple other interesting perspectives on the race, check out Rebecca Fahringer and the Gravel Cyclist’s posts:

Concord to Paris to Ancaster Paris to Concord

Race Report: 2017 Paris to Ancaster – Paris, County of Brant, Ontario, Canada

Results and lots more links to photos and videos can be found on the P2A site.

As soon as I can put it together, I’ll cover the Paris-to-Ancaster Gravel Criterium, which was a super fun, exciting event. It’s been a very busy spring and early summer, between organizing the Ride of the Damned, family commitments, my desk job, wheelbuilding for Woven, and writing for the Global Guardian Project, I’m doing my best to chip away at the content I want to share; there simply aren’t enough hours in the day!

As you read this, we’ll likely have completed our second annual El Camino all-terrain team time trial. I’ll post asap on that. Coming up later in July is the JAM Fund’s Grand FUNdo on the 22nd.  It’s an awesome dirt road party ride like no other! Read about last year here, and consider checking it out if you have the weekend open. The riding around Southampton, Mass, truly is beautiful.

If you’re on Instagram and want to follow along, I can be found at @cyclosomatic, and our club’s is @teknecycling.

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