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An Evening Out with Team Ontario at Abitibi

September 28, 2007 (Val d’Or, QC) – The 39th edition of the Tour de l’Abitibi had several changes from the past few years. A record number of participants (156) comprised of riders from National teams from New Zealand, Uzbekistan, Holland and the US. The stalwarts also showed up with a Predictor-Lotto team from Belgium, Epole Espoirs from France, two Japanese teams and several US regional teams. Some of the courses were enhanced from last year notably eliminating the 180 downhill turn during the TTT and incorporating a circuit race in the southern part of Val d’Or, the city that has hosted the race for many years.

One thing that remains constant is the accommodation in the high school complete with cafeteria food that becomes legendary among the lore of what is “˜Abitibi’. It is a major feat to feed riders and staff during the week long event. Mystery meat shows up in many of the dishes, stacks of bread accompany every meal and when the vegetables crunch it is a cause for celebration. The soup is usually quite good and different palates are treated to a spectrum of satisfaction. There is never a lack of calories. When Team Ontario was offered a meal out on Pedal Magazine – a respite from the long lines, plastic cutlery, and purple drink – the overriding sentiment was exaltation. The hunt was on for a suitable restaurant.

The array of restaurants in Val d’Or consists of mostly “˜Mom and Pop’ establishments featuring poutine in any assortment you could imagine, at least one quaint bistro, a gourmet pizza shop and your basic family restaurant. The original choice was Mikes, a family restaurant that must have enjoyed a prosperous year as the location had changed to a larger venue on the other side of the Tigre Geant. While out on a reconnaissance ride, our intrepid manager, Sophie Radecki, spied an Italian restaurant on Main Street. With a name like Pacini’s we couldn’t go wrong.

“˜Abitibi’ has late stage starts and later finishes so by the time we were seated in the restaurant it was close to 9:30 pm. The nine of us were the sole patrons — Logan Cornel, Marco Cote, Kyle Fry, Evan Mundy, Devon Novakowski and Jamie Riggs along with our mechano Scott Kelly, Sophie and I. We were all famished so luckily our server was as interested in getting us our food as quickly as we were to eat it.

It was a perfect night for a team dinner out. The riders had worked extremely well to position Novakowski to take over the King of the Mountain jersey that day on the romp back from Preissac. He sealed the deal and Ontario was on the top step of the podium. With the pressure off, the team reveled in having someone wait on them rather than stand in line on wrecked legs from the previous six days of racing. The fact that there was a menu of selections was in itself a cause for celebration.

The celebratory drink was chocolate milk (smooth, cool, satisfying) all around except for the staff who shared a bottle of RH Phillips Chardonnay (smooth with a hint of pear and a buttery finish). The boys were careful not to overindulge as the finale for the Tour was a crit with the famous Levis climb — eighteen times. Cote mentioned that someone had posted a blog called “˜Feed Rasmussen’ that day (this was prior to his exit from the Tour) and we mused how he would fare with the food being served up in the high school at the moment.

While the Caesar salads and bruschetta arrived, along with Scott’s Piatto Maxximo (lots of stuff a starved vegetarian could eat), talk turned to the incredible speeds that characterize the racing. Mundy mentioned that going over 55 kph it was impossible to do anything other than be sucked along. He chose a garden salad perhaps to assist his leg speed for the crit the next day. The thought of eighteen times up Levis didn’t dampen the team enthusiasm for the real butter that was served with the crispy bread, though. Scott recounted the amazing teamwork the US team displayed on the first stage when Taylor Phinney had crashed with ten kilometers to go. His teammate, Daniel Summerhill, actually doubled back and showed off his amazing bike-handling skills by doing a u-turn in the gravel. I maintained that he misjudged the turn while Scott insisted the 2007 Junior World Cyclocross silver medalist was all finesse. (He paced Phinney back to the pack who finished fourth on the day.) We barely had time to sort out the details before the main meals arrived.

Ooohs and ahhhs accompanied the placing of the plates – Lasagna Bolognese for Fry (a solid portion), Linguine Delizioso (pasta in a rose sauce) for the King of the Mountain (the uphill work being completed), Spaghetti Napolitana for Scott (“A small portion”¦Why’s that, Scott? He was a small guy. Huh? Napolean. Ugh”), Pizza Americana for Cote (even though the Uzbeks were his favourite — “Yeah this one kid told me to stop bobbing. Did he speak English? No, no he just gestured. Sick.”), Pizza Marguarita for Cornel (simple yet delicious) and Spaghetti Robusto for Mundy (with lotsa meatballs to make up for the garden salad). Then the seafood side kicked in with Sophie enjoying Linguine and shrimps and Riggs and myself having the “˜Fruits de Mer’.

And just as the racing is fast with the team, the food was consumed with equal speed. The server was going to get to her party earlier than she thought. There was a little bit of confusion while ordering dessert in French, sorbets and ice cream all around in various concoctions except for Riggs “let them eat cheesecake and break legs”. I decided to take a page from my father’s book at Sunday night dinners. While growing up, when my family happened to be all together, we would equal the same number as our table in Pacini’s. It was something we didn’t truly appreciate as teenagers but have since grown to see the value in the exercise – recounting highlights from the week, the month, the year.

With appetites sufficiently sated, we began with the famous cafeteria food highlights — a single egg for breakfast, hamburger, the meal served in Amos after the brutal crit, pate chinois which translates to Sheppard’s pie (who knew?), French toast and bread, chicken stewish thing”¦actually edible stuff. Scott’s highlight meal was eating Tim Horton’s off a dumpster while washing bikes. Mmmmm”¦ moving on to the race/week itself, riders became a bit more introspective as they relayed their highlights.

Fry chose the bus ride home from Amos at 10:30 p.m. after the crit. There were several snickers around the table but the staff was a bit out of the loop on that one. Novakowski’s highlight was winning the $200 Mayor’s sprint into Val d’Or on the stage from Senneterre. This was huge as he had flatted and lost twenty-six minutes on the first road stage. Making the 12-rider break that day was great compensation and winning the prime was icing on the cake. The team had already decided to spend it on dinner out the next night. Now that they had experienced the sweet taste of freedom from the cafeteria, there was no going back!

Riggs thought the unique two-up sprint prologue was cool with the crowds banging on the barriers as the riders sprinted for 400 metres of glory. Running the show in the King of the Mountain competition was Cote’s highlight as he was instrumental in being the decoy after launching off Mundy’s wheel. When he got swallowed by the charging pack, he maintained a great position. Cornel was pumped about being off the front with Team Ontario, showing off the fast skinsuits. Mundy’s highlight was coming out of the mine in the famous time trial. He had the unofficial fourth fastest time, a race within a race whose results are relayed over the race radios.

The espresso machiato and cappuccino were served up as the staff pondered their highlights which ranged from the “˜Circle of Awesome’, an arrangement of sleeping pads in the riders’ classroom, to the ease with which the project ran to hearing Ontario numbers called out in the breaks over the race radio. And of course the coach gets the last word saying that this truly was one of the best teams she had worked with. The relatively inexperienced group showed grit and determination during this International race, supporting each other both on and off the bike. The “˜never, ever give up’ rule was followed with aplomb. Abitibi will be even better next year.

Leaving the restaurant with very full stomachs, the team proceeded to drive the kilometer back to the deluxe sleeping quarters. The thought of one or two more meals left to consume in the cafeteria was overshadowed by the memories of a fantastic meal in downtown Val d’Or.

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