June 28, 2013 (St-Georges, QC) – There was a light rain all morning with little wind to blow the clouds away, but the clouds lifted as the wind picked up just before the race started at noon. The temperature was a pleasant 20 Celsius. There were 120 of the best riders from across Canada lined up; a few from the pro tour ranks, more former pro continental teams; and many others who have been on the podium at local elite races.
Leading up to the race I had received a lot of advice as what to do, and I appreciated that;
– Get in the break again
– Don’t do any work too soon
– Follow a strong rider (my choice was Rob Britton as he has been in the mix year after year and is super strong)
– Why not race Masters instead
As the start time approached I decided to just remain calm and stick with what has worked best for me; start out easy and look to get in a break. Naturally this meant lining up at the very end of the peloton; especially when there is a 6km neutral start. I was pleased to see that Ryan Roth, Dominique Rollin, Hugo Houle and several other seriously talented riders taking a similar approach.
The race organizer delayed the noon start slightly to honour last year’s winners and the pro team riders by calling them up to the front row – so much for my start studded company at the back. The start/finish line was located in an industrial area in Saint-Georges, Quebec adjacent to the Rocky Mountain bike warehouse.
After a bilingual count down the race began. I was a little surprised to see how many riders needed to stop almost immediately for a natural break; nerves do funny things to your system. The first 35km out of town heading up the 15km loop in Saint-Odilon was mostly uphill except for the 5km long descent right before the loop began. During the 6km neutral start the pace picked up a few times leaving riders at the back scrambling. I found Rollin pedalling cool as a cucumber with no concern whatsoever for the pace of the peloton that was 50 meters up the road so I tucked in behind him.
The pavement was wet from the morning rain and several riders flatted during the roll out having picked up loose gravel from the side of the road. Rollin and I barely avoided a pointless crash 5km in… fortunately it seemed like no one was hurt. We crossed over a 200-meter section of shale rock fresh gravel that unfortunately found its way onto the course a few days prior, despite the best efforts of the organizers. Being at the back of the peloton I counted only one rider who flatted on that section, but more would be impacted by the section soon thereafter.
About 500 meters past the nasty gravel section we came to a complete stop to regroup. Many more riders took the opportunity for a nature break while we waited for several flatted riders to rejoin the group. The delay took a few minutes and we all kept creeping forward in order to be best positioned for the furious racing that was just about to begin. Jovial Nic Hamilton (Jelly Belly) pulled out a bag of Jelly Beans and offered them around as we waited. Hamilton then realized that he had a slow leak and started making his way back towards the support vehicles through a jammed mob of riders. A few us called out to the commissaries out front to hold on but to no avail as the race started up again. Nic was able to rejoin the race a bit late.
During the delay I had moved up from the rear to almost mid pack. As we started up again I lost a few positions on the bumpy descent, preferring to spot my own path. We turned a corner and started climbing – the pace was impressive to say the least. The quality of my competitors was obvious. I lost considerable ground on the climbs especially when the gradient got steeper. I stayed out of the red zone, just barely, and paid the price of being detached from the main group. The up-side of staying out of the red was that I was able to get up to speed quickly when the gradient evened out a little and nip into the caravan on my way back to the group.
As I raced to rejoin the pack, I came up to riders who had also been detached – most were unable to get up to speed and chase back with me. One rider said F-this as he sat up calling it a day after less than 15 minutes of racing. Not having a chance to ride at this level, it is very difficult to train hard enough to prepare for the pace. I certainly could not handle it and thankfully was able to pace myself back on the few straight and downhill sections.
My teammate Gaelen Merritt was one of the numerous victims of the gravel section as he flatted not long after racing began. Ed Veal (Real Deal) also flatted on the ride out. Neither was able to rejoin despite their best efforts and they were eventually lapped after completing 6 of 8 loops, ending their day.
Having caught the peloton on the descent into Saint Benjamin, I rested for just a moment and then rode off the front knowing that we were about to run smack into a 15%+ gradient ascent as we turned left onto #275. Naturally the group let me ride off the front as I was not a threat. I hit the climb and shifted into my 28 grandma ring keeping my pace hard but manageable hoping to make it up the steep part before the entire field rode by me. Francois Parisien (Argo-Shimano) was one of the first to speed by me followed by a dozen more before I was able to match the pace. It looked like half the peloton was split during that climb. During the next ten minutes there were a series of attacks that were beyond my ability respond to or even focus on, I was still in recovery hanging on.
While I was focused on staying with the main peloton, Parisien, Rollin and several others had their sights set on Britton, Zach Bell, Christian Meier and a few others who were almost two minutes up the road in what would turn out to be the winning break.
The large group of riders that were detached on the Saint Benjamin climb caught up to us as we started the long descent into Saint Odilon. I was pleased to see that Anton Varabei (Jet Fuel), a talented rider that I race and sometimes train with in Toronto, was amongst them. Anton and I are about the same size (20kg heavier than the average rider in the race) so we naturally rolled to the front of our group during the long descent.
The 15km loop began with a climb up the Saint Odilon wall which must have been close to 100 meters of vertical gain in a straight and unforgiving 15+% gradient. It was by far the best place to be a spectator. The top end of the loop headed south from Saint Odilon along the undulating hill top, where the views were remarkable. The back end of the loop was comprised of two speedy descents on smooth roads down to a valley and a flat straight section returning back to Saint Odilon and the wall. The feed zone was located on a slight incline right at the end of the loop.
Aside from the break, there were a few riders ahead. Prior to the wall there was a short 100-meter long descent which I used to gain a small and short-lived lead on the peloton, maximizing my momentum before gravity took control of the situation. I put out a steady 450-500 watts during the two minute climb and by the end of it not only had I been passed by the entire peloton but I had also lost contact with the group, allowing a 30-meter gap to open up. That gap would not have been a big deal except that I ran smack into a dead-head wind as I turned left at the summit and that 30-meter gap quickly grew to 50 and then more.
The caravan started passing me again, thank goodness for the caravan. I was able to catch up to the fourth vehicle and then pace my way back to the group after a few more nervous minutes. While I was chasing and then recovering at the back, there was plenty of drama unfolding at the front as a chase group broke free of the peloton powered by Rollin, Parisien, and a handful of strong riders from Garneau and several other talented riders. This spelled certain doom for anyone left in the main peloton as most of the strength was now up the road and there were no teams left to organize a chase.
Hugo Houle was the best rider remaining in the peloton which consisted of about 60 riders. Hugo wasted no time in driving the pace, fighting to keep the chasers within sight. I watched Hugo from about ten riders back and was thoroughly impressed by his strength. I waited for the slow riser up to the feed zone to move up to the front, taking the turn towards the wall first. I built up my speed and played the momentum game again hoping for a better result this time, but it was not to be.
Once again I seemed to be the last rider to crest the climb and watched the peloton move ahead into the head wind at the top. For the third time of the day I was saved by the caravan and I was only 50km into the event. I had done everything I could to keep pace and failed. I was not running out of energy, I just lacked the speed to keep pace on the climb. I wondered how much longer I could keep fighting my way back to the group.
When I rejoined the peloton and started breathing again, I looked over to see a friendly face in Brandon Spencer (Mt Borah) and shouted over to him “You Skinny F***ers!”. Brandon smiled.
Hugo continued to do all the work and I hit the climb first again, this time however, the result was different; I was not last up as a handful of riders were struggling behind me. I was thrilled to have made it up with the group… all it took was two hours of hard racing for these guys to slow down and come closer to my pace.
Somewhere along the way we caught a group of six riders or so that had been detached from the chase group including my teammate Chris Gruber and Derrick St. John (Stevens), both of whom contributed to the pace along with Houle.
On the fourth approach to the climb I shot past Houle to get my functional running start on the hill only to hear him call out to me with an inappropriate label, which was pretty disappointing to me. Hugo was obviously frustrated and had been working hard for an hour with limited to no help.
I was amazed and encouraged when I reached the top of the climb at the front of the peloton. When we regrouped at the top Houle started attacking furiously to get away from our group to no avail. He seemed to be the only rider thinking about the big picture. I am sure that the rest of us for the most part were now focusing on the race within the race – that is beating the other riders back in the peloton.
On the long descent Anton and I rolled off the front not because we had designed it that way just because we weigh 85kg and know how to get into an aero tuck. Anton looked back and was amazed that we had established a 50-meter gap, so we decided to try and stretch it out. We pushed it up to 100 meters and then out of nowhere Houle suddenly joined us. If it was anyone other than Hugo we would have been gone, but everyone left in our group rode like they had a gun to their heads and despite our best efforts we were caught just before the feed zone.
The pace up the wall was sick and once again I was last man up, but this time fortunately there was no gap. I took stock of the group and counted just 25 riders – Gruber was gone. The pace had eliminated more than half of our group yet we were still losing ground to the break and chase group. Houle faded to the back of our group, his day was done and he rolled around with the remainder of the peloton until the finish line.
Laps 6 and 7
St. John was the next strongest rider in our group and tried to get away twice with impressive bursts of speed. The first time we watched him suffer out front alone until he gave up and regrouped in the shelter of the peloton. The second time St. John attacked he was joined by Anton who rolled off on the descent during lap seven. I was at the wrong end of the peloton when Varabei moved and decided to wait for someone else to give chase…it was a bad decision on my part. If I could go back in time I would have played it differently and raced up to the front and tried to join Anton, but no such time machine exists. The peloton shut down completely and I began to worry that we might all miss the time cut if things did not change.
I decided to go all in after climbing the wall. Miraculously I reached the summit first and just kept on going. I had 50km left to ride and was by myself. I was not really chasing Anton and Derrick so much as I was trying to ride away from the peloton and make the time cut. By the end of lap eight I was about one minute back of St. John and Varabei and probably 90 seconds up on the 20 or so riders that remained behind me.
The Trip Back
I hit the 5km climb out of St-Odilon with some energy left but not much. By the time I reached the summit I was only pretending. I knew that the majority of the remaining 30km was downhill, but now I was dealing with a headwind and an empty tank. I looked back and saw a single rider approaching and another single rider back behind him. All too soon the rider caught me and offered to work together but I was useless particularly when we hit the slightest climb and I watched him ride off ahead.
Time seemed to move slowly and I could not find a comfortable position on my machine over the next ten km. I was passed by four more single riders by the time I crossed the nasty gravel section and then did everything I could to keep my pace up. I was hoping that the remaining riders would attack each other and split up, but it did not happen. The group of 20 riders was no more than 50-100 meters behind me with 5km to go.
I just kept pedaling and counting down the final few km until I turned right to the final 200 meters up to the finish where I was passed by just about everyone remaining in the peloton during the final 50 meters while I pedaled in squares – that sucked! When I finally crossed the line I realized that I was in trouble and found the nearest patch of grass to lie down on. I could not even open my eyelids while I gasped for air. Fortunately I recovered in time to return my rental, pack my bike and catch my 8pm flight out of Quebec City, but I got no sleep that night as my feet, calves and hands were in spasms until the next day.
Congratulations to Zach Bell (Champion Systems) our winner who out-sprinted the break group. Congratulations to Christian Meier who put in a spirited attack during the final few kilometers.
I am super happy to have finished within the time limit, finishing 36th. The Nationals is such a great event where amateurs (including over-the-hill never-has-beens) get a once a year opportunity to race with, and against, the best riders in the country. I hope to be able to compete again next year.
For complete results click here.