How the Race was Won: Preston Street Criterium 2016 – Crash and Burn

It’s hot today, but far from unbearable at 11 A.M. as I roll up to the back straight of the Preston Street Criterium in Little Italy, central Ottawa. Last year was the first time I raced Preston, after years of avoiding crits. Crashes upon crashes on mountain bikes left me disinclined to take up a new racing discipline that seemed to be synonymous with road rash. It was sort of like my position on motorcycles: If I ride them, I’ll die on them.

My perspective changed as I became convinced that I could ride at the front of the local crits with the fastest guys in town. The first NRC race I did in 2015 confirmed this, and each subsequent race reinforced my confidence. But I remember well being somewhat apprehensive about Preston St. in 2015. As it turned out, I didn’t play my cards well in that race, but I didn’t crash either. I perceived it as a rather ruthless pack, and vowed not to race there in the rain.

Preston Street Criterium
Photo: Peter Sillins

Today it won’t rain, that’s for sure. Many of the best riders from the region and Quebec are at the Tour de Beauce, so the pack for the Senior 1/2/M1 race will be thinner than last year. I’m not really sure what that’ll mean for dynamics, but I know how I want to race: smarter. That means I’ll try to avoid going with a breakaway earlier than 30 minutes into the 80 minute race. If/when I do get into a break, I will do what I need to do to ensure it makes it to the finish, and if that doesn’t work out, Derek O’Farrel, Max Rubarth, and Mike Reeves will be in the pack to try to put together a good sprint. Max and Mike sprint well, and Derek is a good lead out man.

Max Rubarth prepares for the pack sprint for 8th. Photo - Robert Roaldi

Max Rubarth, known across the interwebs for #theweeklylegs. Photo – Robert Roaldi

Our M2 guys are out racing as I roll up – Jim McGuire, Nick Bundza, Richard Grieve, David Charles, and David Jones. Over at the finish line for the final sprint, Nick having been in a break of 5 for a while, I’m holding my breath in anticipation. Bill Hurley leads into the final straight and holds onto his lead for the win over Nick, dashing Nick’s hopes for a repeat. Nevertheless, he’s stoked; the guys have ridden a great race.

It’s getting hot for real as I make my final preparations for the final race of the day. I’ve forgotten my spray-on-cancer-inducing-glue for my numbers….damn. Dawn of Midi is playing from my phone, through Dom Fontaine’s portable speaker, irritating Pat Kelly’s daughter, Sarah: “Who’s music is that?” “Matt’s.” “Oh, yeah, of course.” I can’t help but laugh. I consider making a playlist specifically designed to offend Sarah’s pre-teen musical sensibilities. For cyclocross season, do it.

I couldn’t find both my good Giro gloves at home over the last week, so I pulled out an old pair of light full-fingered ones I had in the drawer, with a couple worn out digits cut off. There’s no way I am going to race this thing without gloves. After applying some chamois cream, I apply the remainder on my finger to the outside of my legs. “Better glide in case I crash.” It seems inevitable someone will.

One gel in my pocket, one big bottle with Vega electrolyte powder, another for downing before the start. Mike has brought our Silca Ultimate floorpump in his car so we can get out pressures exact. In heat like this tire pressure in your basement won’t be the same as outside. It’ll be higher. I want 80psi in my 26mm Compass tires, not more. I’ll need the grip.

Mike, Derek and I have done a short warm-up, which is all we need in the heat. Downing the remainder of my bottle as we stand in the grid, Max has joined us, and I’m conveying what I want to do. Max isn’t feeling like he’ll be able to do much more than hang on, so we accept his bid to focus on the sprint if it comes to that. Derek and Mike will do what they can to help me get into a break, and Max if it’s a sprint. I don’t want to go with a break until at least 30 minutes into the 80 minute race.

I’ve clearly thought about clipping my right foot in far too much as I fumble, fumble more, epicly fumble with clipping in while sliding from the front row to the back third of the pack as we roll toward turn one. The race is on….what a spazz, I’m thinking, as many others must be. Stay calm.

Preston Street Criterium

Photo: Robert Roaldi

I read a really good article this morning. Written by Patrick Brady of Red Kite Prayer, the piece delved deep into flow states and the science behind them. I’ve been really interested in flow states for some time, dating back to when I raced downhill. I struggled a lot with my focus and breathing back then, but I also experienced fleeting moments of ‘flow.’ Those experiences were part of the reason I got into philosophy at school, and why I took an interest in neurology (not to mention my experience with concussions). So as I read Brady’s article this morning, a lot of connections were fortified. The one that stood out, in part because it was new to me, was about adrenaline.

The theory of flow suggests that extreme sports athletes like Tony Hawk, Brandon Semenuk, and Danny MacAskill, who typically are described by the media as adrenaline junkies, are more accurately flow junkies—the fix they’re looking for is not adrenaline, but actually that cocktail of norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin. In fact, too much adrenaline is counterproductive. “It causes anxiety,” says Sherlin. As we near flow, the adrenal system starts pumping, raising levels of stress hormones like cortisol. “We are on high alert. But if we work ourselves up too much, we overwhelm our system,” he says. “Adrenaline fills the receptors so that the body can’t absorb these other neurochemicals [like dopamine and anandamide].” Once you get a big shot of adrenaline, you go from I got this to I need to get outta this! This is why it’s important for a situation to be challenging, but not too challenging.

So on top of the fact that riding on adrenaline lets you go too hard early in a race, ‘burning matches’ you’ll need later, it also sets you up for a negative mind state! I’ve had way too much experience racing like that, so I’m going to make this my focus for today: don’t get jacked up at the start! Let things happen, and bridge if necessary. Calm. Chill. Relax. Don’t go ballistic.

I’m reminding myself to stay cool as I spazz out with my pedal. I don’t need to get myself to the front right away. It’s fine. Move up steadily and see what’s going on.

Preston Street Criterium
Photo – Robert Roaldi

I’ve used each straight to move up over the first laps, and am now where I want to be, in the first 15 wheels. I’m not going to be the one to chase moves, the teams can do that. Keep it mellow, no adrenaline.

Next lap, prime of $75. I’m well positioned to contest this, and I think it’s still a bit early for a break to go out; go for it. Second wheel into turn four, I’m behind Anton Varabei of Real Deal/D’Ornellas p/b Garneau, but it doesn’t feel like I’m going to get him. Nope. Ok, ok, so that wasn’t ideal, but whatever, I can recover from it. Anton and I are off the front, but not inclined to keep driving it from here, so we allow the pack to reabsorb us.

About 20 minutes has passed now, and the Aussi Garneau Québecor rider, Darcy Woolley, has attacked solo. I’m sticking with my plan, let others chase. Two go off in an attempt to bridge, and fail after a few laps. Three go next, including Anton. I don’t want to be the one to chase it, still.

F-it, I’m going across. This isn’t a ‘plan.’ It’s instinct. I see opportunity, I go. Oddly, I’d later realize I initiated the move at 30 minutes into the race.

I’ve got one collaborator, and he’s motivated. We have about 30 seconds to close on the three riders who are chasing the Aussi. I’ve done this before, so I know I can do it, but it’s going to feel horrible. No panic, just keep the power down, that’s what I have to focus on. The back straight is bumpy, so I can’t ride ghost-aero there; stay as low as possible in the drops. I hunker into ghost-aero for the front straight, which is windier, then into my drops for turn one. It’s a rhythm, I’m focusing on the rhythm. My ally is strong, and he’s riding really smooth and fast through the corners. When I’m gassed he urges me to push a bit more. I do. The temperature is now over 30 degrees Celcius, and I can feel it on my legs as we roll south on the front straight. My lips are caked with that weird residue, and my drink resembles hot Neo-Citron. It’s unpleasant, but I don’t really care. We have to get up there.

My breakaway collaborator

The Bridge to Terabithia / Photo – Robert Roaldi

How long has it been? 20 minutes? 10? 30? I have no idea. The leaders are now 4, and we’ve gained enough for this to feel at once possible and terrible. I hear friends and family on the sidelines urging me on, “You can get there, Matt!” I believe them. The four seem to be easing up, as we draw tantalyzingly close, now finally close. From here it should feel better; for a while.

Life is better now. My family is on the side of the back straight cheering me on, and I feel good. I’ve recovered from the chase, which took 8 minutes at an average of 170BPM (my max heart rate is 185BPM), averaging just under 46kph, and the six of us are now rolling like  well oiled machine. Two of the guys are big: Anton and Darcy. I am doing well at staying on their wheels, which is where I need to be as the third biggest guy. Maybe I’m as big, actually, it’s hard to really know…. Primes are called, Darcy and Anton seem to be most inclined to go for them, while I play the long game. I need to stay in contact through these sprints in order to avoid prolonged chases back onto the group, but I want to keep my power spikes as shallow as possible. I like how it’s going, I feel like the break is taking less out of me than the typical break on a Tuesday night.

Ed Veal is chasing. He’s Anton’s team leader, and a reputed sprinter. At 30 seconds behind us, he’s dangerous. If he gets here they’ll have a couple cards to play, and none of us are keen on that, barring Anton. At the same time, we’re closing on the pack. So there’s a delicate balance to maintain: don’t catch the pack, don’t be caught by Ed.

The break of 6. Photo - Robert Roaldi

The break of 6. Photo – Robert Roaldi

“Are you trying to catch the pack?” Valid question. I’ve pulled a bit too hard on the front straight, drawing us closer to the back of the peloton than desired. Truth is, I’m concerned about Ed. But still, I should be more careful.

Prime lap, Anton takes it and keeps trucking into the back of the peloton. Shit. I follow, making my way through the bodies, following him, while Darcy does the same. A couple laps into this melee we’re at the pointy end, Anton’s two team-mates in the front, Anton 3rd wheel, then Darcy, then me. The official on the PA has been telling riders in the lapped pack not to interfere with the 6 of us. This is odd, as normally, lapped riders would be able to work with their team-mates in cases like this. Darcy is not happy about the Real Deal riders towing Anton around, which is essentially making a move by the rest of us 5 futile. Derek rolls up to me, and I’m not really certain what should be going on here. I tell him to get in front of me – he’s big, a great blocker – but Darcy repeats that others are not to be helping us. I think the high road is the best approach here, so I tell Derek not to work for me, and resume tailing the others. I’ll rely on my own devices.

One lap to go. Anton has told his guys to come off, and we’ll contest this thing as 6, the pack slightly trailing, Veal still chasing. I’m holding third wheel, exactly where I want to be. My legs have been feeling good for the last 20 minutes or so, I’m not gassed at all; I’m ready to unleash whatever I’ve got.

I’m snapped out of my flow state as my tires lose traction mid turn four, the final turn, and begin to slide across the pavement. I’m down, on my left side, sliding at 50kph. I hope I slow down a lot before hitting the curb. Are these guys going to smash me? I’m still attached to my bike for a good part of my slide. Hitting the curb with my heels I register that it’s not a bad impact. My glasses have flown from my head, I’m turtling as a rider lands on me. Nothing really hurts. I’m onto my feet, a spectator is holding my bike up for me. The chain is off, dropped inside the small ring, I reach over and place it back on, calmly. Pedaling it forward, it seems fine. I assume the rest of it is fine. Why? Because I want it to be. Cyclocross mount, I accelerate as hard as I can to the line in an attempt to secure 3rd, 4th, 5th, whatever.

Straight to the Cyclery tent, they’ll have water to rinse me wounds. Vince Caceres and Sean Wright couldn’t be more kind and helpful as they rinse and scrub my multiple patches of road rash along my left side: shoulder, forearm, knuckles, hip, lower leg, ankle-bone. The icing on the cake is that my shoe is literally burned through in two spots, right to my skin even. Ugh.

Preston Street Criterium
Photo: Rodd Heino

My family finds me within a couple minutes and commences fetching water to drink and offering their emotional support. I’m happy to be happy in this moment. When I raced downhill I was ofter very stressed out and grumpy at the races, and Danielle took the brunt of a lot of that. That was one of the reasons I quit. Today I’ve done a really good race. I put myself in the position to win. I screwed up, I crashed. I try to understand what I should have done differently, and decide I likely needed to straighten up a a bit when I crossed the crown of the road, then lean in again. I’ll know more when I see the footage later on. I suspect I’ll be apprehensive about that turn next time I race Preston, but I’ll know that I have to handle it a little differently at top speed.

Happy Father’s Day! Wee bit of carnage at the Preston Street Criterium…. All went well in the break of 6 of us until we got through the lapped pack and lined out for the sprint. 3rd wheel into the final turn, feeling ready to give’r, two wheel slide….ooooohhhhh, that curb is gonna hurt! Then, who’s gonna hit me? Well, the curb wasn’t too bad, and only one rider hit me, but my shoe, ankle, lower leg, elbow, hip and shoulder are all considerably lighter now! Burned right through the shoe to my skin!! Thankfully I was able to get back on my bike and salvage 5th, which takes a bit of the sting out. In fact, with so many brain chemicals flowing, I wasn’t really down at all. My family was there, and so many folks cheered me on all race, then helped me post-crash, I feel good about today. Time to tape up my shoe, dress my wounds, and get ready for Nationals next weekend! #prestonstreetcrit #criterium #bikerace #growcycling #gogiro #surlaplaque #sockdoping #madalchemy #fueledbyvega

A photo posted by Matt Surch Ⓥ (@cyclosomatic) on

I am living the after-effects of the chemical medley Brady describes in his article. I feel good, despite it all. I’m happy to be ‘fine,’ that my family is with me and they are not terrified, that no other riders were seriously injured because of me. As it turns out, Derek was the one who landed on me, and he took a knock to his kidney, but he’s ok. Max finished 12th. I salvaged 5th place, Ed Veal having passed me as I was picking myself up, and one of our 6 in the break having survived the crash behind Anton and Darcy. Anton took the win for the big cash prize and all the beer.

I feel I have a better understanding of how crit racers keep going back after crashes. It’s the flow and the positive emotions that come about in these races that hooks riders and brings them back. It’s a form of addiction, I am convinced of that, but I don’t consider it a bad thing. How could I, I’m an addict myself! While this week has been tough, dealing with dressings that want to fall off, racing the Bill Patterson Memorial crit on Tuesday night and narrowly missing the podium, trying to sleep and failing, all while trying to get myself prepared for this weekend’s national championships road race, I’ve learned a thing or two I will carry forward.

Foremost is the insight about adrenaline and psychological states. I will really need to keep this in mind as I start the 180km race on Sunday with the best Canadian racers, some of whom race on the World Tour. The race course is virtually flat, but technical, given it has many turns each of its 18 laps. I will need to realize a peak performance in order to have a shot at surviving, let alone pulling off a top-15 result, so I will focus on taking the steps necessary to enter a flow state and keep thoughts of crashing or failing out of my mind. It will be all about executing small steps and skills that will give me a shot at finishing well. Derek and Max will be racing as well, and our mantra will be ‘positive vibes.’

Many thanks to Doug Corner and the Bike Race Ottawa team for organizing another outstanding edition of the Preston Street Criterium. The event was a big success, drawing fantastic crowds and hundreds of racers. Thank you to the Preston Street BIA for their continued support of the event, without which it would be impossible to run. And thank you to everyone who shouted words of encouragement at us as we raced. Until the last lap, I hear every one of you, and your words really do help, especially when I start to get desperate about how things are going. I appreciate all your support immensely.

Thank you to Robert Roaldi for allowing me to use his fantastic photos in this post. You can find each of Robert’s galleries from the races here, available for purchase. We are very fortunate to have photographers like Robert take the time to photograph the races.


I’d like to thank my sponsors for their continued support! I love everything these folks do; their outstanding products instil me with confidence required to perform to my potential every time I ride and race: Giro, Woven Precision Handbuilts, Mad Alchemy, Vega, Compass tiresSilca, Re:Form. Their fantastic feeds on Instagram will keep you stoked on riding: @girocycling, @wovenprecision, @madalchemy@vega_team@compasscycle, and @silca_velo. My account can be found at@cyclosomatic, and our club’s is@teknecycling.

I hope to see many of you this weekend and next week at the Championship races!