How the Race was Won: The Steaming Nostril 2016

Matt Surch, Nick Friesen, Gaelen Merritt, Steaming Nostril 2016
The ‘Muur de Mud’ – Photo: Cycle Waterloo

Uhhhh….are any of these ruts going to work?


The winter was far from the hardest. The hardest was 2014/15…or was it 2013/14? Hard to call….. While it wasn’t a hard one, March didn’t really line up as hoped for outside riding. Yeah, we got some miles in, but not without lots of layers and embrocation most of the time. Spring wasn’t springing as energetically as we’d hoped, but as we say in the business, the show must go on. Bike racing season was to begin on April 3rd in St. Jacobs with the Steaming Nostril; the race of unfinished business (you can check out my preview here)

See, the 2015 edition was bitter, bitter sweet. Like, 88% cocoa face-pucker-style. I rode a great race to 2nd, Wheels of Bloor trying to Domo me, but Alex Michel crashed hard, then there was the whole  ‘my car’s engine blew out stranding me in the GTA’ part. It was a really stressful way to begin the race season. So after a winter consisting of thousands of kilometers ridden inside, a few Zwift races, and regular snirt road forays, I headed to Toronto on Saturday somewhat quiet and pensive as my team-mates and friends, Iain Radford and Marc Hunt conversed. Would my form be good? Would we be able to execute smart tactics? Would Wheels of Bloor control the race? Did I have the right tires on my bike? Who would win Flanders?

On top of these, the usual doubts, I was optimistic about me knee. Over the preceding week I’d been struggling with knee pain caused by some sort if IT band malfunction. After weekend rides with pain, it was the same during our Wednesday night throwdown on the Cascades loop. Worried I was. However, my colleague, who happens to play professional Ultimate, came to the rescue with a suggestion for treatment that could save the day. No, not drugs; muscle flossing. Long story somewhat shorter, I wrapped a latex inner tube around my leg really tight and did squats. It seemed to work, as I had no pain on Saturday for my opener at home, nor on Sunday during the race. Magic.

Saturday night saw Marc, Iain and me arrive at our man Steve Bosworth’s place in Toronto for the evening, one that would wind up capped with a wet and cold promenade around West Bloor in search of coffee and fresh fruit. We found both, and were happy to revisit a great spot on the strip Sunday morning en route to the race: The Common (which happens to be the commonest coffee shop name in North America, so one has to wonder: intentional irony?) had fantastic stuff and top-notch baked goods on offer that set us right for our hour-long drive up to St. Jacobs.

Snow. Sh#t, there’s new snow out here.  What’s that going to mean for the course? Iain Radford and I had marginal gains tires mounted: Compass Bon Jons, Extra Leger, 35mm. Mine were tubeless, Iain’s tubed. Meanwhile, Marc was on Continental Cyclocross Speeds, which would be a safe bet. I brought the same as spares, Iain had Clement LASs. Would we arrive at the venue early enough to check out the course’s toughest bits and change tires if needed?

Nope. We scope out the last sector of gravel trail, staircases, and grass, all within the final 2 kilometers of the course. For all this stuff, our tires will be fine. For the farm track from 2015; probably fine. We’re not changing tires.

On the line at 11 for send-off at 11:10, Osmond Bakker informs us there’s a new sector with a ‘crazy’ descent. Mmmm, ok, guess that’ll be exciting. It’s time to run what you brung. Begin.

It’s windy, but not excessively so. I wasn’t sure earlier whether a 55mm rim on the front would be a challenge in the cross-winds, but right now I’m certain it’s great. Marc’s rear derailleur cable is frozen, and he has to bounce his back wheel as he rides to get it to drop the chain down to smaller cogs. Ugh… I hope that works itself out. Iain seems fine as we mostly watch moves go off the front into the wind, only countering the dangerous looking ones. Anything involving Wheels of Bloor qualifies.

The roads are wet, having taken 4cm of snow overnight, while no longer being frozen. Saturated, with ample surface water, at least the potholes are obvious; they’re filled in with snow. The name of the game here is staying out of the wind while avoiding taking a face-full of spray. Now this is an art! I’m not exactly nailing it, but I can see out of my glasses after 20k, so I’m going ok.

We’ve been going back and forth with WoB and others launching and countering attacks. One strong independent rider sneaks off as he approaches a right-hand turn and Marc is close enough to follow: “Go Marc!” Marc goes, quickly connecting to the attacker and gaining on the rest of the pack. They work together to carve out perhaps 20 seconds, while we sit and wait for counter-attacks.

We’ve been countering attempts to bridge to the two escapees for 20km, most aggressively undertaken by Gaelen Merritt of WoB. I’ve learned from an OCTO rider that Bruce Bird crashed earlier, bending his saddle, and he’s made a number of attempts too. We’ve absorbed Marc and his co-conspirator with about 30km to go, and have formed a small group of perhaps 15. Cooperation seems to have only been on the table for five minutes or so, because now Gaelen is attacking, trying to get away with a couple riders to get a jump into the new section, which we’ll hit with about 15k to go.

Photos: Waterloo Cycling Club

Here comes the corner where I attacked last year, but wait, we don’t turn right, we go by….. Ok, we’re heading into the new section up there. I’ve been riding off the front with one other, Nick Friesen, for a few minutes, and Gaelen has just bridged to us. We’re three now, a string of riders chasing. But we’ll get into the gnarly-whatever-it-is first.

I overtake Gaelen as we turn from farm lane into the abyss. My brain isn’t ready for this….. The ground drops away, forming a tortuous, rutted, venous mess of foot-deep-wheel-swallowing mud. Choose your own adventure: I go right, Gaelen goes left. Halfway down a trench my wheel is eaten whole, sending me over the bars. I scramble, grab the bike, ‘run.’ Shook, splat; bellyflop. Ugh! Gaelen and Nick have pulled in front of me, opening meters. I scurry down, spotting a drier fringe I can use for better grip.

Gaelen Merritt, Steaming Nostril
Gaelen Merrit, 2015’s winner. scrambles up the Muur de Mud on his way to third place. Photo: Cycle Waterloo

My tires rule/suck, I can’t decide. Anything but smooth power sees them spin on the muddy track we’re slogging along. At the same time, they are not picking up mud and dumping it onto my bike. Run what you brung! I’m focusing on one thing: slowish cadence, smooth power, fast dismounts and remounts when grades are too steep (more than 1%) for me to ride. I’m barely avoiding falling as I scurry over the ladder bridges the kind Mennonite farmers have built for us on their property. Gaelen has faded, been passed by Nick, then me, and I’m trying to reel Nick in as he reaches the foot of a super steep hill with a fresh trail cut into it. He’s struggling to get footing as I draw up, graciously allowing me to pass. My bike is on my shoulder, and I’m not wearing shoe covers. Everyone else, except Iain, is. We opted for shoe grip over warm feet. Good call.

Nick Friesen, Gaelen Merritt, Steaming Nostril
Nick Friesen emerges from the Muur de Mud, Gaelen Merritt on his heels. Photo: Cycle Waterloo


I’m out of the trees and traversing, pulling out a few seconds on Nick as I get back onto the farm lane we entered on, perhaps 15 meters between us. There’s no question: SUR LA PLAQUE.

Smooth, low, don’t overdo the corners. The farm sector that was formerly the only one is now the second and last before we will hit pavement, then the gravel trail. I know the wind will be tough here, but I also know how to ride it. All I have to do is what I’m doing, nothing more. Careful on the corners, keep the rubber down. I’ve grown my gap to perhaps 30 seconds, so I know it’s all down to me. Is it hard? Yeah, it’s hard, but I believe I can keep this up, because I’ve been doing it all winter on the trainer in the basement. No stress, this is good.

My chain drops as I exited the farm sector. I’m rolling, reaching down to grab it and guide it back onto my 50t ring. I’m losing seconds, but that’s not cause for panic. Calm. Put it back on, pedal hard.

Skidding more than planned into the gravel trail sector I hear, “Where’s Gaelen.” I don’t answer, but I know. He’s chasing Nick, but the gap between them is holding. I’ve still got a solid 20 seconds, and all I have to do is pedal. The gravel trail is soggy and slow, providing the perception that I’m not working hard enough. But I’ve got enough sense to know I am, and that Nick will feel the same. Don’t worry, calm.

Out onto pavement, speed comes back up and I know with certainty the day is mine. I don’t have to run up the stairs; I just need to not take myself out by trying too hard. Done. Running and jumping back on, my shoes and pedals are no longer functional; clipping in will not happen again on this thing until I clean it at home. It doesn’t matter. I’ve done it. I’ve won.

Nick Friesen comes through with Gaelen Merritt another minute or so behind, then Iain in 7th, and Marc in 12th. Winning feels fantastic, but equally fantastic is seeing Iain and Marc’s reactions when I tell them we did it. High fives, knuckles, hugs.

Going into the race we all had our doubts. Marc wasn’t confident in his ability to ride in break-aways, yet came away having ridden one for 20k, and unequivocally shaping the race. Iain wasn’t sure his health and training would put him into a position to be as effective as he’d like, yet he was one of the most influential riders on the road. We train together, coach each other, race together, win together, lose together; this is the tekné way. In the end, we each wind up on the podium, Marc on the 30-39, Iain the 40+; what a pleasant surprise!

The long drive home provided ample time to replay the race’s events and marinate in the lessons. It’s easy to look at a win as a perfect performance, but they rarely are, in any sport. We’re thankful to have opportunity to ride outside in the winter and work out our clothing combinations so we don’t have to guess much while racing in tough conditions. I used our new Jampa jacket under my long-sleeved jersey and over one merino base layer, with regular shorts, leg warmers, and Mad Alchemy’s medium-hot non-greasy embrocation. This all worked perfectly. Down low, I opted for my Seal Skinz waterproof, insulated socks in my Giro VR90 shoes, foregoing booties in favour of off-the-bike traction. On my hands, it was my trusty, Giro Ambient gloves with merino liners inside, which worked well after the inevitable and necessary hand whipping I tend to have to do on cold days to get blood pumping into my hands. Up top, I confirmed my love for the new Giro Ambient hat under my Synthe helmet. This all added up to a light clothing set-up that was almost perfect, minus the club-foot at the end of the race, which I predicted but didn’t care about. All these little bits add up to marginal gains in the wind, just like the 55mm Woven wheels I ran. I have yet to ride my bike with 45 or 55mm Woven wheels and wish I had a shallower rim. The 55 seems to be every bit as stable up front in cross winds as the 45. They sure do fly in a cross-tailwind! Their tubeless profile has also proven to work fantastically with the new Compass 35mm tires Iain and I used, which roll extremely well. Alas, they’ll have to come off for this weekend’s OBC Paris-Roubaix race, but at least the next three races all call for the same tire: file tread.

Many thanks to Cycle Waterloo, the town of St Jacobs, the local police force, all the volunteers, and anyone I’ve not named, for making this event not only possible, but a big hit. Every aspect of the race was well organized and executed, right down to the wonderful beer provided by Highlander Brew Co for us lucky winners. We really appreciate everyone’s contribution, and look forward to returning in 2017 to kick-off our season.

My thanks go out to my fabulous sponsors and partners, who’s 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, Silca (check out the video on Silca’s incredible new pocket pump). I did an Instagram takeover over on Woven’s account over the weekend, so if you’d like to check that out and perhaps give them a follow, they’re here: @wovenprecision. The others have fantastic feeds on Instagram that will keep you stoked on riding: @girocycling, @madalchemy, @vega_team, and @silca_velo. My account can be found at @cyclosomatic, and our club’s is @teknecycling.

To read about this weekend’s race, and the rest of the events we’ll wrap into our spring classics season, check out this post.

After the race I did an in-depth interview with Jan Heine of Compass tires and Bicycle Quarterly over on Off the Beaten Path. Check it out: Gravel Racing on Compass Tires

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