How the Race was Won: Steaming Nostril 2018

Neither he nor I speak a word. There’s no need. This is bike racing, and a particular, peculiar strain at that: it’s a spring classic.

Classic, not because it’s ancient.

Or because it’s expensive.

Classic because it’s bike racing in its raw form, a basic template within which stories – the same stories, but different – are told and re-told each year:

I cramped.

Blew up.




I loved it.

As I crash I’m not surprised. This is the cost of doing business. I chose my lot, specifically, my tires, for the whole race, not the worst snow we might encounter today. I took the risk, accepted the risk; this is simply what is happening.

Imitating a turtle as I land on the ground, I feel

the rider behind me attempt to avoid collision. I’m wearing my favourite helmet, I don’t want it destroyed; I just got it.

It’s fine. He’s gone over top of me… mostly, and I didn’t hit my hip all that hard. Standing up, grabbing my bike, my left brake lever is turned in, easily re-aligned. On again, off again within a mere moment to cross a risky ditch, I’ve finally exited this trench, this expanse of rail trail that could only be ridden hard, in the wind, without the benefit of drafting….like the cobbles of Roubaix, except softer; much. For better or worse.

His remount does not remind me of cyclocross; mine does. Good, it would be annoying to break my saddle by botching that. On the gas, no hesitation, I don’t care whether he’s on my wheel, as I can clearly see the others riding flat-out to permanently exclude me from their little party of three; a crowd?

I have to make the most progress right off the bat as possible, regardless of what my crash-buddy does. It’s on: the chase.

Even the casual observer of bicycle racing knows that events can turn on a dime. In one moment we think we know what’s going on, and in the next instant everything changes: the veritable flippage of scrippage.

Repost: @christophergiesler // Nice sequence of me crashing on the last section of rail trail as our breakaway group was down to 5. I turtled to protect my head as I felt the next rider crash into me; neither of us uttered a word. This is bike racing. I chased hard to get back onto the three ahead as they tried to snap me off permanently,and man, did it feel sweet to catch them just as we turned into the tailwind back half of the route. #epic #steamingnostril #teknecc #teknecycling #surlaplaque #terrainlab #ovalthis #wovenprecision #compasstires #silca #madalchemy #brodie // . Tough break… • Spent a fun mid-day capturing a few shots @cyclewaterloo #steamingnostril2018. Congrats to all who battled the conditions! • More photos to come… • #cycling #gravel #gravelbike #gravelgrinder @ontariocycling

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

The initial pivot is behind me, the sliding front tire, the foot out, the crash. The vital pivot is now, in this moment, this expanse of moments in front of me, demarcated by time and space, to be navigated through toil: the chase.

It’s not about if. It’s about when.

Steaming Nostril Dirt Road Gravel Race
The top red line is the rail trail, and crash spot just before the blue line/road begins. We’d turn left on the bottom red line/road, with the wind. Here’s the Strava file.

A wise rider once said: “The chase is a matter of millimeters.” The operative question for me, now: how many millimetres do I need per second as that dastardly trio works together in this wind?

“It’s a cross-wind, right? Yes, right.” Just checking.

How many millimetres per second in order to make it across before simply doing too much?

I don’t really know, and frankly, making the calculation isn’t actually all that important. My task is to do one thing: ride as hard as I feel I can sustain until whenever I catch them. That could be in 5 minutes, or 10 or 30. I’d prefer 5. Power-meter? No. Heart-rate? I have one, but, no.


Ghost aero: yet another reason I stretch my hamstrings every night. Traversing dirt road, eyes bouncing from escapees to the jeep race-vehicle between us, back to the trio, allied as they are…for now. Are they as motivated to drop me as I am to catch them?

Swirling snow, sky draped in dark cloud, hard-packed, wind-ravaged dirt, just about as smooth as one can ask for, potholes of meager depth. This is good and nice, my forearms will not be bruised.

Measuring my distance to the jeep, and it to the riders, at regular intervals I feel I’m making slow progress. I’ve remembered to think positive words in my mind:

“You’re good.”

“You will get there.”

“You are getting there.” ”

“You’re good.”

Like that, mantra-style. Self-belief, within reason, not beyond; I’m definitely going to do this.

There’s no question now that I will get onto the wheels. The perfect opportunity looms, the trio will soon turn left into a tailwind, marking the transition to the second half of the 65km parcours. Into the wind going out, with the wind coming back: my preference.

I know from experience that they’ll slow a bit as they approach the left turn, and I won’t have to. Staying on the gas, pedaling hard, I push through the turn and roll onto the last wheel as the tailwind kicks in. Oh. Hell. Yaaaaas.

We are four. We are four! I have a 1/4 chance to win this thing now. I just have to beat one of these guys to get onto the podium. This is good.

“You gotta pull.”

“I’m still recovering.”

Gaelen Merritt is a really strong rider with a really good psychological warfare game.

Earlier, before the interminable rail trail that was more about limiting mud accumulation and freezing on the bike than the slog of passing over soft dirt, we numbered 8.

The initial split of 20 contained all the strong riders in the field, including my team-mates, Jim McGuire and PY Gauthier, not to mention Bruce Bird (Wheels of Bloor). It was cleaved, creating a break of riders representing all the teams of note. Two Ascent riders, two Mariposa, the rest of us solos.

Rolling toward the rail trail, a couple of the guys were tail-gunning while the rest of us contributed to the pace. Noting this, Gaelen dropped back.

“Are you guys punching tickets back here? I’ll start attacking when Bruce gets here.”

Nice. It’s a clever statement to make. For one, it’s true. That’s Gaelen’s jam, he attacks…a lot. For two, it shifts the onus to others to keep the break clear of the group Bruce is driving. If the other guys in this group don’t have strong team-mates back there, they’ve got reason to worry, and thus, work.

I don’t care, however. Bruce can come up, my guys will come with him, and I’ll just go with Gaelen when he attacks. All good. But they take the bait and start working. Right on.

That was before. Now: “Ok, but you gotta work soon.”

Not really. I’ll work when I feel like it, but I don’t have to, again, because I don’t care whether anyone else makes it up here at this point. I have a plan for the ‘farm sector,’ and I’m confident in my plan. I’m going to get there as fresh as I can, and it if that means going with attacks, fine. Because they’re inevitable anyway. Because these guys don’t want to go head-to-head against me through the farm.

We came early yesterday, narrowly missing our opportunity to visit the St. Jacobs Farmer’s Market, which closes at 3:30. Next time we’ll prioritize making it there, it’s reputed to be great, and we’d love to spend money there, support the community that supports the race.

One objective: recon the ‘farm sector’ that covers the last 7-or-so kilometres of the race course. We change inside – thank the stars, it’s so cold and windy outside – and have a timely chat with the organizers, confirming permission to ride the course; one has to be careful about these things when races use private properties.

We ride in reverse-direction on the course, carefully observing the snow and ice conditions on the final turns, where I crashed four years prior. Inspection, that’s why we’re here.

So windy! It’s about -1 Celsius, and tomorrow is forecasted to be essentially the same as we race. It’ll perhaps snow a little overnight, but we can expect virtually the same conditions tomorrow as we’ve got now. This makes decision-making regarding tires simpler!

The dirt roads through the farm that’ll be our last sector before the finish are in great shape, hard-packed and soft, as one would expect from roads regularly used. Exiting onto pavement, we jog over to the entrance to the farm sector that will come first so we can ride it in the proper direction.

A straight shot on farm track will take us toward a more used dirt road, which will then carry us to the descent into the valley, dubbed ‘The Longest Mile.’ Good name, it’s gonna be long.

Soft dirt is flanked by a verge on the left that is lumpy but firm; the good line. My Compass Bon Jon tires have been tested today on packed snow and soft dirt, but it was all flat, so I didn’t need to ‘edge’ the tires. See, they don’t have knobs, but a fine ‘file tread’. We’re talking less than ‘bastard file‘ style here, which is also less grippy than a ‘double-cut flat file,‘ which is the sort of file pattern often used for cyclocross tires. So I have to be careful about how off-camber I get here, while trying to steer clear of the visibly soft dirt to the right.

Now I have to drop into the dirt, as the old barbed-wire fence that fell down years ago is covering the verge, placing the rusty wire in my path; DANGER ZONE!

It’s immediately apparent this is a bad move: ‘peanut butter mud’! It coats my tires immediately, accumulating, accumulating…accumulating. I fishtail in huge curves across the ‘road,’ hunting for terra firm(er) underneath, not finding it. I dismount on the right side to commence walking.

Decision time.

It’s clear that trying to ride this swath of mud will be pure folly on Sunday. Even if it is possible to tractor pull through it, the wheels will be coated and start to jam up, especially as the mud freezes. The smart move here will be to dismount, run to the cross-over point where I can access the verge on the left, then ride the narrow line, avoiding fallen barbed-wire. No problem, right? My bike will still roll, I’ll be able to hit the rest of the sector and final farm roads hard.

Now: Gaelen and Mark Brouwer are trading off attacking. I’ve chased, Sjaan has chased, separation hasn’t yet worked. They go again, I wait for Sjaan to follow, latching to his wheel. We’re not making progress; worrying. Coming around Sjaan: “Let’s go, get on!”

No go. Sjaan is not attached, so I’m bridging solo to the other two.

On the wheels, the guys are pulling hard, trying to 1) drop me if possible; 2) make sure Sjaan stays dropped. They’re pulling really hard as they take the wind, surging, from my perspective. I pull less hard. Gaelen is concerned, perhaps: “C’mon, we gotta work together.”

I agree, sort of. Sjaan just came off, so I’m not so worried if he comes back to us. And I don’t want to surge hard, I want to pull through smoothly. “You guys are surging.”

Gaelen gets where I’m coming from: “Let’s keep it smooth.”

Agree. Happy to. As they worry about Sjaan I look ahead to the farm sector and try to prime myself for a hard effort.

I enter the dirt road first, and pull left to ride my line. Mark Brouwer passes on my right, blasting through the mud at speed: impressive! He’s on pretty knobby tires, and he’s motivated. I follow my plan, dismounting at the pre-ordained spot, trudging along the right, Gaelen already lagging. Mark is making huge progress; frigg. Have I totally gotten this wrong? Have I just lost this thing?

It’s impossible to know, and I’m committed to my tactic, so there’s no way I’m going to change what I’m doing now. The urge to panic is strong. This is far from running; at best I’m ‘power-trudging.’ Mark is out of sight.

Riding along the verge, making mistakes I didn’t make yesterday, it’s impossible not to keep thinking I’ve blown it. But c’mon, there’s still a lot of road left to work with after we climb out of the valley. How much time would I need to claw him back? Maybe until the last couple turns? I guess we’ll see….

Back on my bike, I’m glad I kicked out the section of ice accumulated on the backside of my seat-tube before heading into the farm. I kick my feet against my chainstays to knock mud out; I don’t want that feeezing! Steady-hard, I have no idea how far Mark is ahead now, but my approach to the rutted descent can’t verge into risky territory. It’s not worth risking a time-consuming crash.

Safely down, the next segment is lumpy grass the weaves through forest, best ridden at what feels like about 85%, but is really closer to 95. It’s a full-body effort, the sort that can really catch up to you. Coming along the river on the left, Mark is in sight, and seems to be labouring. YES! Closer, closer, closer; this is working!

Sticking to the pace that I thought might work is working, few mistakes until the second and last bridge over the stream that winds through the valley. Perhaps a little too fast, perhaps through front wheel deflection, I hit the bridge a little off-kilter, very narrowly avoid sliding off. Man, that’d have been costly!

Rolling past the Mennonite kids who’s farm we’re traversing, whom we had a nice chat with yesterday, Mark is right there; right there! YASSSSSS! Literally directly behind him as he begins the ascent up the valley wall, bike on shoulder, footing is even worse than yesterday: soooooooft. Yesterday I was trotting up pretty well, today I’m just moving as fast as I need to in order to remain right behind Mark; there’s no advantage to trying to pass here. I’ve got Horst cross spikes in my shoes, which provide a little extra grip, which I appreciate.

Steaming Nosrtil
This and header photo: Lauren Daniells

Topping out, spectators kindly cheering us on, Mark is death-marching, suggesting I ought to run by and try to seal the deal right here.

Nope. Mark’s on my wheel, tenacious AF.

Pulling steady hard, but not toooo hard, Mark holds tight. Flicking my elbow after a few minutes prompts him to come through to pull, a welcome move. He goes hard, pulls off, flicking his elbow, his audible exhales signaling what I’m waiting for: attack!

Mark peels off right, I peel left, driving hard on the pedals to create as much gap as fast as I can, then turn to look. Success….for the moment. Mark is tenacious AF, recall, so I’m going to have to stay on the gas.

Low, mostly with the wind, this is an amazing feeling. There are a  few turns to navigate ahead, snow and ice-covered, but I have enough time and space to dial those back to avoid calamity. If anyone is tempted to take risks, it’ll be Marc.

The final straight, stay focused, but also enjoy the moment. Finish strong, don’t f-up the last hundred metres. Win.

Even if it wasn’t cold and windy there wouldn’t be much more fanfare. It doesn’t matter, that’s not why we’re out here. Mark arrives, then Sjaan, having overtaken Gaelen. We discuss our experiences from the final kilometres before retreating to our cars to change into warm(ish), dry clothes. Then, chilli, cookies, coffee, and the podium. A good day.

As I sit and eat I’m joined my David Marchesseault, friend and fellow Ottawa-Gatineau rider who’s racing with Sjaan for Mariposa Cycles. Turns out Dave misunderstood the application of Sjaan’s eucalyptus essential oil pre-race, which is normally used for opening up nasal passages via application to cotton swabs stuffed up nostrils. It’s not for ingestion. Dave didn’t realize that. I can’t remember the last time I sat beside someone so utterly detached from reality as Dave was; poor guy! I’d later learn it took another three days to recover, and my wife, Danielle, claims you can die from drinking the stuff! Folks, treat your essential oils with care! (As an aside, I always travel with my DoTerra essential oil diffuser these days, and it is fantastic. I bring along some Deep Blue, On Guard and Lavender oils from the same company to diffuse overnight. Works a charm, and my room-mates seem to dig it too.)

Kudos to everyone who braved the elements, suffered and endured crashes, and stayed afterwards to hang out and eat together.

Results are found here, and you can find Cycle Waterloo here if you’d like to check out the other events they organize.

Thank you, on behalf of our club, to everyone who made the event possible and fantastic, from the organizers and volunteers to the local landowners, police force, and fellow road users (of whom we say perhaps one). Each year I repeat how well run the event is, notably how the police control each intersection, ensuring every participant crosses safely. I can’t stress enough how important this is for races on open roads, and how much we appreciate it. If you’ve not been to the event, I certainly highly recommend it, perhaps as a first taste of a gravel event, perhaps as a kick-start to your spring. Hey, when the weather is foul, there’s nothing like a bike race to get you out of the house!

What’s Next?

On April 20 we head down to East Burke, Vermont, for the annual Rasputitsa Spring Classic, an incredible dirt road race that pulls well over 600 riders together to enjoy a Friday night party and all-day race extravaganza on Saturday. It’s going to be a total mud-fest after a week of fresh snow, but I’ve got four sets of wheels ready to go, and I’ll be getting some data for the gravel tire test I’ll be working on over spring and summer: Compass, Kenda, Panaracer, Terrene, Terravail, and Schwabe. Tune in starting Friday morning on Instagram to see how recon goes, , then the race on Saturday, and a ‘recovery ride’ on some of the areas best dirt roads on Sunday. Then it’s Paris-to-Ancaster the following weekend! I’m pretty amped for this edition!

And then….May, but more importantly, June 3, THE RIDE OF THE DAMNED! We’re working double-time to line up all sorts of fantastic stuff for this 10th anniversary of the event, including new routes: 120k and 180k! They are both fantastic, and we’re extra excited about the 180k, as it flows really, really well, and has a dep stop that makes awesome raisin bread! Yasss! We’re also working up all sorts of outstanding merchandise, which will be revealed soon! Registration will be live shortly, all the wheels are in motion! Get amped, get your team lined up!


I’d like to thank all the fantastic people and brands that support my racing aspirations and efforts: Woven Precision HandbuiltsCompass tiresAbsolute BlackKogelBrodie, HandskeSilcaMad AlchemyXact NutritionVegaRe:Form. Thanks to Horst Engineering for the cross spikes they provided last fall for review; they were ace for the run-up!

I encourage you to check out their fantastic Instagrammin’:

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How the Race was Won: Steaming Nostril 2017

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Training for the Spring Classics: Whatever it Takes