How the Race was Won: Steaming Nostril 2017

04:06  – Consciousness regained, my mind immediately searches for a reason: why am I awake? The faint sensation of dry soreness on the left side of my throat must be the reason. F@$#. Tomorrow’s race from St. Jacobs, Ontario, the Steaming Nostril, wasn’t supposed to line up like this.

05:20 – Sitting in a folding chair in the basement, cleaning Wednesday’s mud from my bike, anticipating the packing I still have to do and the spin on the trainer I feel is vital before getting into the car to drive to Toronto, my diffuser is blasting essential oils into the air, blanketing the residue of counteless pedal strokes on bike, hours spend going nowhere, sometimes fast.

07:03 – Stepping off the trainer after an easy 1/2 hour, I have no idea whether it was a good idea. I tend to think maintaining the rhythm my system is used to is best. I have my doubts today.

09:30 – Pitstop at Whole Fools for coffee, treats and 4 packs of lozenges done, Marc Hunt and I are en route to Jim McGuire’s to swap into his van for the drive to Toronto. I’ll try to sleep in the back. Who am I kidding, I will not.

Hold on, do you love gravel events? Check out ours, May 28, the Ride of the Damned!

14:56 – It’s 12C and a bit windy, but hardly unpleasant as Jim, Marc and I roll out from the Ballantrae community centre parking lot north of Ajax on what feels like an abnormally quiet Saturday afternoon. After an hour of riding fairly nondescript farm roads we find ourselves on a few pieces of tarmac with some character, and finish off a couple easy hours feeling good about our decision to get a ride in before landing in downtown Toronto. I’ve felt the bug trying to catch hold, but kept my effort low and don’t feel worse now that we’re done. I keep telling myself I’ve been through this before, sick leading into a race, and I’ve been ok. I have to avoid stressing about it and let my immune system do its thing.

20:30 – We’re chasing down an outstanding meal at King’s Cafe (vegan asian fusion, Kensington Market) with Steve Bosworth, our remote club-mate and host for the night, with vegan ice-cream. It’s absolutely perfect. We’re still not sure about our tire selections for Sunday; it’s a topic that never gets old. We’ve not yet really talked tactics. I’m not in the headspace at this point; I just don’t know whether I will be in good enough shape to play the lead role for our team. It feels premature to plan….

Sunday, April 9, 2017 – Race Day

08:00 – In the van, heading north and on the hunt for a decent coffee; we race at 11:10. We’re reminded that Toronto sleeps in, none of the coffee shops in Steve’s hood are open. The Starbucks we’ve landed in seems to be fueling folks who are going to their office jobs today….this feels a bit sad. I’ve ordered a venti with caffeine; semi-desperate times call for semi-desperate measures. I’m not feeling at 100%, but sort of non-plussed about racing. My mental state is usually the best indicator of how I’m doing when fighting a virus. If I’m amped to ride, I’m probably ok. If I don’t really feel like riding, I probably shouldn’t.


09:30 – Mounting number plates, applying mellow Mad Alchemy embrocation, choosing base layers; we’re approaching go-time. The caffeine has kicked in and my perspective has turned around: I’m excited to take this thing on. I want to race! It’s really windy, I have my deep wheels mounted, I’m ready to go. Jim and Marc feel good, and we have a plan.

10:40 – We’ve ridden a decent recon of the start and finish of today’s route. The organizers have shifted the start/finish back, preceding the gravel path along a creek that was the last sector of the race in recent editions. Now, we’ll start on grass, do a little climb up to a parking lot, turn onto a paved road, then take that for 1.6k to the gravel trail. The finish will see us exit a series of farm lanes and kick back over that same parking lot, reversing down the grass to the finish. The gravel trails is in perfect condition, and the farm lanes are all dry and packed, save the last few turns, which are chunky, rutted, a little muddy, and exciting. With a tailwind heading into the series of these three final 90-degree turns, I’m feeling really good about my chances against whomever else should I come into this in a small group or close to anyone. I’ve chosen to run my 38mm tubeless Compass Stielacoom knobbies for today, expecting the ‘longest kilometre’ farm sector to be sloppy and require tread for me to pedal all of it. These tires rule on chunky dirt/sand/gravel, so I feel I’ve got a distinct edge here. Also, I am am 100% fine with hitting these at full pin if that’s what it takes to win.


Steaming Nostril 2017
Photo: Lauren Daniells

11:10 – My call-up has put me in the middle of the front row, making the start easy, while Marc and Jim are pinned 4 rows back on the side. Up the start hill, a fat bike racer take the KOM and heads to his car for a beer (kidding). Someone volunteers to pull across the pavement into the fast descent that will transition us to the gravel trail. This is my cue to move to P1 and lead into the tight turn and take up the pace on the trail. My intention here is to ride fast enough to string things out, but not so fast as to drop Jim and Marc. 

Gaelen Merritt is on my wheel, clearly comfortable, which tips me off to ease up a little and ensure I don’t overdue my effort. The legs already feel some load, which is not normal; I’m a bit wary.

11:17 – We’re on pavement, passing the stairs previously used to run up to finish this race. Gaelen jumps on my right, attacking the climb I didn’t even remember was there. Frigg, didn’t factor that. Looking back to see where Marc and Jim are, I only see Jim off my left shoulder. He nods, I face forward and dig in to follow Gaelen. I hadn’t anticipated things going so early. Five of us separate and it’s clear that three of us are strong enough to pull this off. I’m less optimistic about a couple of the guys, who are clearly powerful, but not looking very comfortable. Truth is, neither am I, but my poker face is pretty good. We’re drilling it into the wind, Gaelen clearly extremely motivated to make this stick and exlude my team-mates from the proceedings. I recognize the Mariposa rider from last year’s cyclocross race in Almonte, where he put up a strong fight for the podium. I don’t know his name (we’d talk later, it’s Sjaan Gerth, who we are very fortunate to have racing with us; see this article), but looking at him ride, he seems to be today’s strongest man.

Click here if you’d like to check out the Strava FlyBy

11:40 – We’ve been driving hard in the wind for 30 minutes; it’s all about the echelons. Two riders from Ascent Cycling bridged up, burning off one on the effort for the sake of Mark Brouwer, who is now contributing well to the group’s progress. Nice teamwork! My legs hurt. I guess this sounds like something you’d expect to hear, but it’s not really normal. This sort of effort doesn’t tend to hurt me, dieseling along is what I do best. Mayme I’m wrong. Maybe today is just really hard. I settle on, ‘if I’m already feeling this way it means I’m definitely not on point today, so I’ll need to be conservative with my efforts and vigilant for attacks.’

12:00 – We’ve just come off a 16-minute long sector of windy, soft rail trail. It was a slog, and it looks like we’ve dropped our Midweek Cycling Club companion, Jacques Cormier. Nope, be’s back, that dude is tenacious!

Steaming Nosrtil 2017
Photo: Laurens Daniells

12:25 – There have been a few minor skirmishes to this point, but nothing terribly violent. My mind has been oscillating between negative thoughts associated with the attacking ability Gaelen and Sjaan Gerth (Mariposa) have demonstrated and confident affirmations about my ability to ride ‘the longest kilometre‘ and final dirt turns fastest. I’ve been skipping turns when possible to manage my effort, knowing that Gaelen will want to attack before the longest k in order to shake us and give himself a buffer. “How much further?” Sjaan asks Gaelen. “About 20k from here.” In the next instant, Gaelen attacks the grade we’re ascending, off like a burnt monkey. Sjaan and Mark take up chase, I follow. Snakes and ladders (credit to GCN for this metaphor) continue, the longest k sector looming at about 57k, Gaelen rather keen to get some separation before we arrive.


12:42 – Gaelen has broken away up Hawkesville Road, Mark, Sjaan and I scattered metres apart, each trying to claw back lost ground. We three combine as we turn off Hawkesville onto a somewhat rough farm track I didn’t expect; seems different than 2016. Gaelen is in our sights, and we’re drawing closer. I’m putting the power down, as this is where I am most comfortable and have the biggest tires, which I need to leverage! Catching Gaelen half-way up the track before it kicks right, I seem to be carrying speed well enough to justify staying on the gas and going for it. If I can open a decent gap here and keep it through the longest k, I should be good to hold off solo from there.

PedalPowerPhotography SN2017-1
Photo: Pedal Power Photography

12:50 – I’ve got at least 8 seconds gap as I exit the steep run-up. I’ve ridden the lumpy farm sector at maybe 85%, keen to avoid mistakes and save some energy for the run-up and solo effort in the wind. I rode one bridge, ran the other, judging it to be far too risky, which would later be confirmed by the numerous photos of riders taking headers. I hike up the steep embankment, passing a few riders from the shorter, Runny Nose race, who are gracious to let me pass unhindered. Attempting my cyclocross remount on lumpy grass, I slip my pedal as I put my foot down to drive the bike forward, landing heavily on my saddle, rotating the nose down. Oof! Back off, I run to the dirt road, jump on, and find myself totally gassed as I pedal at a recovery rate. I’m being pursued.

12:55 – FML. Sjaan has been chasing hard, Gaelen on his heels, and I am just not feeling it. Zig-zagging across open farmland on packed dirt, the winds are blazing and this is all taking way too long. Much longer than last year, much longer than I can pull off. Sjaan is close, I should recover a little, work to stay on him and keep Gaelen gapped.

12:56 – Sjaan passes on Reitzel Pl., not going so fast as to totally crush my dreams, fast enough to make it hard to get onto his wheel. It’s been a minute, Sjaan is asking for me to help to keep Gaelen away. I’m convinced that makes sense: pull, roll back, pull, Sjaan attacks. Duh, right, I did not play that right… I don’t have any pop to respond to Sjaan’s attack, can just keep doing what I’m doing: fight to stay ahead of Gaelen. He’s just a few seconds back, driven.

12:58 – Hitting the final chunky turns I’d hoped to use to my advantage, Sjaan is still too far ahead to catch, Gaelen too far back, unless I bungle these. Taking the edge off, nothing to gain from taking chances, the finale offers a fun launch into the grass descent to the line.

12:59 – Over the line, I haven’t felt this crushed in a while. It feels like I’ve gotten away with something today. The roughest sectors seemed to play into my hands particularly well; I’m thankful for them! Sjaan did a tonne of work rode to a courageous solo victory; chapeau!


Marc follows a few minutes later, then Jim, who’s suffered from some pretty acute lower back pain. They’ve ridden well today. My breakaway companions did a great job of making sure they didn’t factor at the front of the race; we averaged 35.3 kph!

Stoked to ride to 2nd at the #steamingnostril gravel race from St. Jacobs, Ontario today! I didn’t have great legs, and had to do a lot of damage control within the 5-man breakaway that kicked off about 4K into the race. The last 20k was an absolute throw-down, body-blows flying left and right; proper bike racing in strong winds. @duckhuntmarc and @bmxjim left it all on the road, finishing back from the front a bit, safe, sound, and happy with their rides. 🙌🏼Thank you to all those who helped me race well today, from my teammates to my wife and family – @hippieindisguise – and my/our fantastic sponsors: @brodiebikes @wovenprecision @girocycling @compasscycle @kogel_bearings @absoluteblack.cc @silca_velo @madalchemy @silca_velo @xactnutrition @vega_team // #springclassics #teknecc #cyclewaterloo #gravelgrinder #quadgoals #vegancyclist

A post shared by Matt Surch Ⓥ (@cyclosomatic) on

Lessons and observations

As I write this I’m fighting a much stronger manifestation of the virus than on the weekend, having gone far too deep in the race to allow my immune system to kill it off. I felt ok on the drive home to Ottawa, and most of Monday at work, but took a turn Monday night and have been pretty sick since. The lesson here, I think/hope, is that if you do a hard effort while fighting a bug, it’s probably best to take the next day as easy as possible, sleep extra, go to bed early. Instead, I got up early enough to do a ride outside. That felt fine, but there was a delayed response to the virus, and I was fooled into thinking I was ok. It can be hard to take a day off the bike, but maybe this is an example of a perfect occasion to stay off the pedals and take the day super mellow. Note that when it’s really windy out in the spring – as it was on Monday – a lot of nasty stuff gets blown up and into your eyes, which can put more stress on your system, especially if you have seasonal allergies. I knew this as I rode outside with my son after work, but put more weight on the value of being out with him than protecting my health. That wasn’t a mistake, it was a call, and I’d do it again in the same circumstances.

Specific to the race, hindsight is always 20:20, but I have a feeling I could have played the final few kilometres differently and had a better shot at the win. When Sjaan caught me and asked for help, I might have stuck with my original plan/thought that going into the last turns with others would favour me. I could have said, “I don’t care if he catches us.” and leave the decision to Sjaan whether to continue to pull or attack right then. The difficulty in this analysis lies in the impossibility of knowing whether Sjaan could have just separated from me right then, or if he’d continued to pull, whether Gaelen would have caught on and attacked well enough to drop both of us on the next and final little climb. The impossibility of knowing how things would or could have played out is a huge part of the fun of bike racing!

For those who’ve never attended the event, I’d like to give kudos to the Cycle Waterloo organizers who put on the race. Every element was very well done, from registration through course marking, marshalling, routing, post-race food (yes, vegan friendly), and awards. On behalf of the three of us, I’d like to thank everyone who made the race possible, and great! If you are looking for a reliable race to crack your 2018 season open, I recommend giving the Steaming Nostril or Runny Nose (40k) events a try.

Results can be found here.

Race Equipment

For those interested, here’s some info on the equipment I used for Sunday’s race.

Temp was about 12C when we started, but as I was fighting a bug, I went with a Giro sleeveless base layer and Craft windstopper full-sleeve base layer topped with my team full-sleeve jersey. I wore a Mad Alchemy cap under my Giro Synthe helmet. On the bottom, our standard bibs with DeFeet wool knee warmers were perfect, and I went with Mad Alchemy’s wool socks inside my Giro Empire VR90 shoes with toe spikes mounted for the run-up. I used Giro’s versatile DND gloves, a weight that is great from spring through fall. I was a little warmer than I needed to be in my core, but this wasn’t a problem.


Bike set-up was mostly as I’ll run if for all the spring classics, with the exception of tires, which I choose for each race based on conditions. My Brodie Romax rolled on 55mm Woven Precision Handbuilts carbon clinchers with an 11-32 cassette. I’d mounted the Compass Steilacoom tubeless cyclocross tire with sizeable lugs so that I’d be able to handle the crux of the course, the low-lying farm sector, with as little running as possible. These tires roll well, especially on deep rims, despite their very slow-looking tread pattern. Yes, there is no denying that a lugged tire will roll slower than an equally supple smoother treaded tire, but choosing tires is often about determining where the crux of a coures is and how you’ll need to handle it. On a normal day, I’d likely have been able to overcome the extra rolling resistance of these tires better, and if I were to do it again I’d mount the Compass Bon Jon slicks, which took me to the win in 2016. But again, hindsight…. The fact that I was able to ride to a good result on the Steilacooms is a testament to their speed on hard-packed surfaces. My 55mm rims felt 100% stable in the strong crosswinds, and I am convinced they helped me carry speed better than shallower rims would have. As always, we brought our Silca Ultimate floor pump to the race to ensure we had the exact pressure in our tires we wanted!

As usual, my Kogel ceramic-bearing bottom bracket was invisible, as it should be, as were their ceramic pulleys on my rear derailleur. Both remain perfect after Monday morning’s immesion in the flooded areas I rode through during my Monday morning ride.

I was happy to find that I’ve totally adapted to my oval Absolute Black chainrings now, and didn’t notice their shape whatsoever. There was very little shifting to do (I think one, from small to big after the uphill start), but lots of opportunity for the chain to bounce around; no issues.

My Specialized C-GR suspension seatpost (thank you, Benoit Simard, Espresso Sports!) allowed my saddle to rotate when I landed on it, which is sort of a mixed blessing. It was not good for the ensuing pedaling, but it might have also kept my saddle from bending or breaking…. I’m undecided whether I want to continue to use if for Rasputitsa in two weekends-time, but I feel certain I’ll use it for the very bumpy Paris-to-Ancaster at the end of the month. 

Finally, on nutrition, I went with my favourite pre-race meal before leaving Toronto: Vega Sport Performance Protein powder with 3 bananas, almond milk, and a variety of nuts, seeds, and dried fruit. This is my standard breakfast, and I’ve found it works great for me for all the riding I do. Blend the powder, bananas and milk, then add the other bits.

On the bike I brought 4 FRUIT2 bars and one BRIX maple syrup double shot. I was under pressure enough during the race to only down one bar, and left the rest untouched until after the finish. I really should  have brought more than one bottle along….it got warm out there.

I truly appreciate all the support my sponsors have given me and our club, all of whom help me strive for peak performances on my bike: GiroWoven Precision HandbuiltsCompass tiresAbsolute BlackKogel, BrodieSilcaMad AlchemyXact Nutrition, VegaRe:Form.

I encourage you to check out their fantastic Instagrammin’:

My Instagram account can be found at @cyclosomatic, and our club’s is @teknecycling.

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