What do I call this state I’m in? I’m not really sure it qualifies as ‘scared,’ because it’s not really an emotional state I’m in; it’s more of an intellectual thing.
Perhaps it’s a form of anxiety….
Today’s race course is ‘easy,’ which means it will be somewhat dangerous. Imagine track riding with brakes. That’d be nuts, right? Well, today’s race will be somewhat similar. It’s windy, it’s hot, and the course has 13 turns on it. Lucky 13? Only time will tell. The pace is bound to be furious in the first hour as teams attempt to establish a breakaway, and riders will be biting their stems, following others too closely in order to hold on. After last weekend’s skin sacrifice to Critus, god of criteriums, I’m shy about another encounter with the tarmac. I don’t want to be unnerved… that will only make riding well harder, but I can’t help but think all these turns will make for crashes. I don’t want to be all shredded or worse in front of Ro, Sen, and Danielle – my family. I just want to race hard and go home with them unscathed.
How can I get out of this negative headspace? I’ve been here before; stop thinking about what might happen, and think about what needs to happen. I need to get ready, and once we’re rolling, stay in the front 20 or so wheels. The riding will take care of itself.
At the line, 1 P.M., the sun scorches Derek O’Farrel, Max Rubarth and me as we stand over our bikes. Where’s my umbrella? The day has been pretty fantastic thus-far. My 5 year-old son, Seneca, rode his first race ever in the morning. He was completely amped all week about it, and woke early to put on one of my jerseys and head out the door. His race was a 100m dash, contested by about 12 kids around his age. None crashed, all got a cookie medal (thanks to Todd Fairhead) and a chance to stand atop the podium. I feel like our day has already been a success; now I have to ensure I don’t sour things with a crash. I’m not worried about a result; I just want to ride as well as I can and feel good about my performance. I’m not going to win this thing.
Should I start with one or two bottles? I guess it comes down to whether I want to feed before the first hour is out, as I’ll surely be drinking more than a bottle an hour. My wife, Danielle, runs over to the Woven tent to grab another for me. Jean-Yves Guenette will feed us later on. His will be a vital job! A number of the riders have ice-socks jammed down their backs; better aerodynamics? I was just reading the other day how our attitude with regard to the temperature we perform exercise in directly influences our body’s ability to perform. If we think it’s, say, 22 degrees while performing a power test, while it’s actually, say 28 degrees, we’ll do better than when attempting the same test under the belief that it’s 28 degrees! Knowing how to prepare for and ride in the heat is going to be big today.
Lap one, this is going ok. I’d rather be further up; yeah, move up. Ok, better. There are 141 of us out here; when the pack stretches thing it’s long, perhaps 30 seconds from front to back. Don’t be in the back!
It’s early, the break has formed already. What did Neil Crawford say? “You’ve got one move, Matt, ONE. Make it good.” Only 15 minutes into this 180km race, it’s surely too early for me to go with a move. Whatever, I’m not there. Matteo Dal Cin is, suggesting it’s serious, and dangerous. Three Silbers, it appears, Garneau, H&R Block. Svein Tuft, Hugo Houle, and Ryan Anderson are all still in the pack, so we’re good. Right? Hope so.
Jean-Yves is covering bottles in the feed zone for us. My two are empty after two laps, so I need one now. Wait, is he holding a Gatorade bottle? He is; shit! I don’t want that! No choice, got to take it. This is going to be gross…. Ok, not as gross as expected, but pretty close. Better drain it asap and get back to water.
Guys, what the F@#$?!? That was the third time I’ve had to brake hard enough to lock up my back wheel to avoid a crash. The first two were from guys cutting across without looking, but the third was a full on body slam in front of me I had to lock up for to avoid the fallen rider – and we’re on a straight bit of road! – nearly missing clipping his head as I steer around. Friggin hell guys! Frankly, I’m super impressed by the guys around the crash, especially those behind me who don’t smash me! Clearly some are following too closely, so little decelerations are stacking us up like an accordian. You can’t look at the guy in front of you, you have to look at the guys three bikes in front of him and beyond to tell when decelerations are rippling through the peloton. Will my tire be missing rubber? Am I spazzing out locking it up? Is it grabbing more because it’s hot as hell out here? Not sure….
“Hey Svein, how’s it going?”
There’s not much of a comparison to make, but there’s a clear contrast. Svein, Houle and Anderson are here to win this thing, many of us are here to finish, and a small number actually have a chance at winning. Tuft flatted on the first lap, but quickly rejoined the pack, already trailing the breakaway.
“Good thing you had a tube, man, that was a fast flat fix; good job!
“Hmpf.” Tuft is not amused. Wrong time for an infusion of humour? Maybe I’m not funny?
“Welcome to Ottawa!”
Tuft promptly steers into a gap to his right, and rides up to another spot in the pack 20 feet ahead. Hmm…. I guess he didn’t find me amusing.
Holy f@#$, what is happening!?! This split is HUGE, and I’m on the wrong end, big time! What are we, four laps in? The freaking peloton is cleaved, the smaller portion well up the road as I’m roll north, opposite the start/finish straight, tailwind. Moving up is hard, dudes are trying to close this down. Looks like it’s time to make my ONE move, or else I’m out of this thing! This isn’t a panic, I simply have to put myself up there.
There are guys floating in no-man’s land I can connect to, drilling it, attempting to bridge. Ok, we’re building up a group now, some strong guys in here, we gotta get there! We’re something like 9, and Tuft, Houle, and Anderson are drilling it at the head of the pack, five Silber dudes on their heels, followed by a variety of other teams’ riders. There are something like 20 of them. If we can get there, we can get back into this race.
Shit. Stalled. We’re not getting there. Shit. The big pack is coming close, we’re done. Shit.
WTF? Another group has formed off the front of the pack we were trying to catch. Great. Lovely.
And now the two packs are welded back together? That was stupid. I just blew my move, didn’t I? Ok, maybe not, it was probably a good idea. The ProTour guys are not in the move, but two more Silbers are. More attacks are going to come, right? This can’t be it, can it?
Tuft and Houle are going for it, I’m on Tuft’s wheel. Where he goes, I want to be. The move doesn’t work, no separation, no bridge.
Tuft: “Why are you chasing?”
“I don’t have anyone up there. I want to be up there.”
I’m dumbfounded by the question, truth be told. But is it a question at all? Or is it rhetorical? It’s gotta be rhetorical: “Why are you chasing, chump?” Maybe not, I don’t know Tuft. Maybe it’s more that Tuft is thinking we should allow a separation, see him and the other big boys get up the road, then the rest of the pack will be forced to work together to get back into the race. That’s the more charitable interpretation, but how would it serve him?
Attempts to bridge to the chase group have failed, and the peloton’s impetus has dissipated. We’re two hours in, and it’s now clear that the sheer monotony of the race is a big part of its difficulty level; I can’t be the only one so bored I’m considering calling it a day. But I won’t. I’ve been here before, and I know that when it’s boring you have a chance to do something. But what? The break is so far up the road, there’s no hope of bridging to them. Will we ride for 20th? Surely many of these guys won’t bother. That final turn seems dangerous at speed, so it’d hardly be worth it to go all-in for such a result.
I want to quit this race, it feels futile. That would be so lame, there’s no way I will bail. It’s normal to have these thoughts, I know this. I’m a bit apprehensive to start a conversation with Derrick St. John as we ride side-by-side, because I know he was really hoping to get a good result today, and that’s now virtually impossible now. I open one up anyhow; he’s actually in a pretty good mood. Yeah, it’s not going well, but he’s been sick since Beauce. He’s not himself.
Dudes are spraying themselves with bottles: faces, legs. My god, it feels so good getting hit by ricocheting droplets. More! Do it more, guys! Why isn’t there a sprinkler out here? That’d be so good! Ok, at least a mist machine thing.
Max and I are at the front, riding a decent pace. He takes the inside line to swing 180 degrees around as we approach Island Park Drive, while I take my preferred outside line around the concrete island separating two lanes. He slides his front wheel and crashes, seemingly hard, and onto his head! I’m so distracted I nearly auger into the curb as I exit my turn. Should I stop? Frigg. No, he’ll be taken care of. Poor guy crashed on his way to the race, and now again.
“All right!” exclaims Hugo Houle, shaking his fist in delight upon reading the whiteboard displayed from a race motorcycle:
“If you are lapped, you will be pulled.”
I’d been wondering whether we’d get to this. It’s hot, my feet hurt, I’ve been looking forward to getting this race done. I’m tempted to feel good about the prospect of being pulled along with the rest of the pack, but it doesn’t sit right. I’ve not done anything in this contest, and I don’t feel right about leaving it at that. An Under-23 rider has indicated he will ride off the front and try to survive to 4 hours. As he dangles, he’s joined by a chaser, then one more. Ed Veal and a couple team-mates went up the road before we saw the message from the moto, which seemed at the time like a pointless move. But now it seems like it was the right thing; I should have followed…I was right there.
I leave the pack to pursue the three within sight. I’d much prefer riding for a top-20 rather than get pulled, because this is an opportunity to get some ‘race’ out of this day. Today is only my second Nationals, could be my last, and I flatted last year. A top-20 would be a respectable ride, and the longest race effort I’ll have done. It’s worth riding, I have good legs today.
He’s not looking so strong… I’m approaching the first U23 rider, and he appears to be flagging already. Going around, I keep the pace steady so he can get on. Looking good. Struggling…. Not ideal.
He’s dropped, but picked up by two others, now with us as I’ve made it to the two ahead coming into the 180 degree turn at the War Museum. Six. The breakaway is something like three minutes behind us.
“Make it count, Matt!” Andrew Lees offers encouragement from the feed zone. I like this advice.
This feels good….mostly. The wind through the feed zone is brutal. Three of our six are not pulling; I assume they are fried. I don’t really care. I’m trying to keep my pulls into the wind just hard enough to keep them connected, in case they recover enough to do the odd pull. On the tailwind and descending sections I’m going harder. If we can just work together, perhaps we can make it.
The two that are working with me are putting in a good effort, but we’re not going as fast as we need to. Heading into the feed-zone; where’s Jean-Yves? C’mon, man, where are you? He’s not there! Shit, I’m on empty! “Water!” “Water!” Almost at the end of the line, someone is willing to hand me a bottle; missed it! Fricking hell! I’ve got to do this next lap on no water; I’ve been doing a bottle each lap.
“I need water!” I’m yelling to anyone I know from the club I can see as we snake through Tunney’s pasture. I see Karl, then Danielle. They seem to have understood. Did they understand? I hope they understood!
Faster would be better. We’re down to one guy working with me. I pull long, he pulls shorter. It’s fine.
Yes, Karl’s there with a bottle! My god, do I need it! How much longer can we hold out?
That’s it, isn’t it? That’s definitely resignation on their faces; we’re done. Might as well ride hard enough to ensure we make it to the finish for a round 150k.
Yes, we get it, we’re going to be pulled. It’s not necessary to wave vigorously at us, moto guys, we know. We’ll pull through the finish and get off the road.
Stopping feels worse than riding. Physically. Friendly faces everywhere, congratulating me on a good ride. Yeah, I made if further than most, but it wasn’t a great day. Nevertheless, I feel good. No crash, I can continue to heal and race the criterium on Wednesday.
“Do you want a soda, Dad?”
“Do I ever!”
Ronan runs off to buy a couple sodas for me as I sit down in the shade of the Woven tent, eager to drink liquids colder than the temperature of fresh urine. With three laps to go, I’ve got time to settle a bit before catching the finish across the grass median from where I sit, amidst a juxtaposition of government buildings, pop-up tents, and food trucks.
Processing what has just transpired, I can apprehend the emotional roller coaster I’ve just stepped off. There was never a moment of: Yes, this is going great, I can do something here. Instead, it went from uncertainty to deflation to resigned purpose. Riding for survival was a way to salvage the day.
Watching the breakaway, whittled down to four, enter the final turn, Matteo Dal Cin at the fore, was in one instant exciting then heart-wrenching. Matteo slid out at 60kph as he attempted to lead out his Silber team-mate Ben Perry, trailing Will Routley (Rally Cycling). He slid across the pavement, bouncing up and over the curb, only to have Perry fly upside-down and land on him. Meanwhile, Routley’s rear tire separated from his rim as he executed an astounding evasive maneuver, barely avoiding hitting the ground as he augered into the curb. This opened the road for Bruno Langlois to ride through for a long-awaited Championships victory. But many were preoccupied with Matteo’s state, given he’s a well known local, and it was clear he hit the curb hard. He wound up coming away lucky, his helmet having kept his head off the ground and his face off the curb. No concussion, just a scrape on his forehead (that is now virtually imperceptible), and some road rash. What a relief….
Next up, Criterium Championships, an amazing night in Old Aylmer, QC.
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 tires, Silca, 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.