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Hell of the North 2014 Race Reports, Full Results and Photos

reports by Grahame Rivers and Nathan Chown

April 21, 2014  (Musselman’s Lake, ON) – We received two race reports on the 6th annual Hell of the North held on Sunday, April 20th. Thanks to Grahame Rivers (RealDeal Gears p/b WASPcam), who finished 12th, and Nathan Chown (Team CF) who landed 2nd on the podium, for sharing their unique perspectives on this classic in the making.

Mike Mandel, co-organizer with Ed Veal (unable to be there as he’s racing in Europe), also contacted us with these comments – “When Ed and I altered the Hell of the North course and added Heck of the North we were really hoping to achieve two things. Firstly to make a hard spring race even harder – to make Hell of the North the toughest day on the calendar. This year we were gifted with great weather and a fast race based both on good course conditions and riders needing to get home for Easter dinner. With a busy weekend of racing in Ontario it was nice to see a crowd of 116 riders on the start line with a flood of race-day participants. We had plenty of enthusiastic volunteers and excellent support from the OCA. The tired, muddy faces of all the participants was enough to show us that we had achieved our goals including an additional goal of providing enjoyable opportunities for people to ride their bikes. We will be back next year to build on what we achieved this year and to hopefully increase the number of female riders in both events.

Grahame Rivers Report

How to describe the off-road sections at Hell of the North? Try to visualize trenches from the First World War: dark, filled with water, deep thick mud, pieces of sharp ice half-melted, deep ruts and broken trees – all packed with out-of-control cyclists desperately trying to cross terrain clearly never meant to see a tractor let alone a bike.

Hell of the North has been described as a bit of crap shoot.

I’ve come to the belief that to do well in this race: you’ve got to be strong. Riding a cyclocross bike for 130km in trenches from hell and over never ending hills requires great strength. You’ve got to be smart, this is a huge course which is marked by arrows nailed to telephone poles and sparsely staffed by volunteers – you’ve got to constantly pay attention to ensure you’re on course. And, most importantly, you’ve got to be lucky – so much can, and does, go wrong when you’re asking your bike and your body to take such a beating.

Hell started at a reasonable pace with very little excitement – although I will give a big thank you to my RealDeal teammate Jeff Moote for sheltering me from the wind up to Boag road. Paul Mackeever was also being a good teammate and Marco Li from the wind. Another move of note, and one I might try next year, was Nathan Poulton’s solo attack, just before Boag, ensuring he would be first into the Boag trench.

As we approached our first trench of the day, it was clear that “shit” was about to go down. The now charging peloton was forced to funnel through two gates just wide enough for a single bike at a time. I got into the trench in the top ten but was quickly passed by ten or more riders including Marco.

The scene in the Boag trench was absolute chaos: wet, dark, half ice, half water. Riders were crashing everywhere, getting stuck in a half foot of mud, some riding, some running – all desperate to get out in the lead group. In the last quarter of the trench it became extremely difficult to pedal – even more than the conditions dictated. I shouldered my bike and started to run. As I lifted my bike my rear wheel fell to the ground. My luck had run out. As I watched riders stream past me, and the top group ride away, I re-attached my wheel and was surprised to find the bike was still rideable.

I exited the trench with the chase group fading out of sight. I was able to work well with Tim Oliver and my teammate from the RealDeal women’s team, Jamie Gilgan, to bridge to the chase group which totaled about 20 riders. I had come into Hell determined to learn my lesson from Battenkill and do as little work as possible, save myself for the end, and have a big finish. Now, only 30km into the race I was working in the red just to get into the chase!

After an effort that cost me too much, we joined the chase. I could see Poulton was doing most of the work at the head of the pack which included Kevin Black and Jeremy Hatt. Even with the lead group in sight, there did not appear to be much motivation in the other riders. My teammate Colin Busby was in the breakaway and I was not going to pull these guys across with me.

Over the next series of trails – which seemed to go on forever and included downed trees which required you to throw your bike and then climb after it – I did my best to shatter the chase.  I burnt most of my matches but was eventually able to get the group down to down to five or six riders including Peter Morse, Jacques Cormier, and Eric Johnston. Morse wasn’t doing any work. Eric, Jacques, and I were able to get some rotation going but with Morse getting a free ride we were never able to sustain anything and were caught by the chase group.

Determined not to pull these guys across with me I attacked and was caught a number of times. It was starting to seem hopeless. The group wouldn’t let me go but they also refused to do any work. All the while we were still able to see the lead group just over two minutes up the road. As we climbed, what seemed like never ending hills, small attacks finally started to come. On one of the steeper assents as a rider attacked, I went with him, and was able to pass him going over the top.

Finally I was free! I put my head down, tuned out the pain in my screaming legs and focused on the lead group, which was now clearly coming into view. I was told by the support car that the gap was two minutes and thirty seconds. I suffered and suffered to get across but I made it. I couldn’t believe it! From broken wheel to lead group, my race and my King of the Spring campaign might be saved. Maybe luck was on my side after all!

The group consisted of Adam Morka, Osmond Bakker, Nick Friesen, Nathan Chown, Colin and Marco. Colin and Marco both looked cooked; not a surprise as they both raced Good Friday two days earlier. It didn’t take long before Morka started putting the gears to us, punching up the climbs, punching my already dead legs and dropping Marco. After repeating this exercise a number of times Nathan, Colin and I were also dropped.

I didn’t want to go into the final trench with Chown. If I beat him I would maintain my lead for King of the Spring. I tried to drop him on a number of climbs but was unable to do so. I was starting to fade and soon attacking ceased to be an option. I was also getting dumb. My awareness gone, even with a volunteer pointing the direction to us, I took a wrong turn – Nathan and Colin waited for me. I missed the next turn into the trench. This time they didn’t wait. I lost time. I fell on the ice. Lost time. Missed the exit from the trench and got lost. Lost tons of time. Luck wasn’t just not on my side – it had abandoned me.

Finally back on the road, and minutes back, I tried to catch Nathan and Colin but it was no use. Demoralized and dead, they were nowhere in sight. Now I was the one who was cooked. I almost missed another turn – but three people yelling at me, including Barbie Hope, put me on the right track.

I was caught by the chase group for the third time. As quickly as they caught me, they dropped me. For all my effort, these guys who sat-in all race had beaten me. I had lost the King of the Spring, lost any hope of a high placement and was physically and mentally done.  I was on my own and wanted to quit. I had found the Hell in the Hell of the North.

Jacques came around me as I exited the final section of trail and I did my best to follow his wheel for the last couple kilometers to the finish. The moment I crossed the finish line I found a sunny patch, lay on my back with my eyes closed and ate a Powerbar.

As for the results, my belief that you have to be strong, lucky, and smart to win Hell of the North appears to be true. The lead group of Morca, Bakker and Friesen missed a turn and were no longer in the lead. Colin out-sprinted it for the win.

A crap shoot, true to form, and a happy finish to a hard day.

Nathan Chown Report

Well once again I headed up for the annual ‘what kilometer I am gonna explode’ race or as others call it the ‘Hell of the North’. Basically this is a race with four parts – the first part is 25km of easy road that leads up to a 1km fight for the first and worst section of the race. This section is a 6-meter wide 2km farmers access road and it is bottlenecked at the entrance to really one rider at a time. The road is a glorified ditch with some icy sections still intact this year. The key to riding this section fast seems to be getting your speed to a maximum when the grip is good, this way you have a shot to get though the super mud sections and not have to get off your bike and run through several parts.

My whole race plan was to get in here first and hammer it and then hopefully have a group of 4 or 5 to work with. One rider (Nathan Poulton) took off the front and had a 30-second gap going  into the section which was good as I was hoping he would survive and make to the end in good shape.

I attacked with 500 meters to the entrance and was happy to not have to fight anyone for my spot there. I ended up nailing the whole section and the only issue was the rider who got in first was off his bike running about half way into the section. I came up pretty fast on him and of course he was running the good line and I bailed right and hoped for the best and could barely keep the bike upright – got my bearings – then got it going again.

Once the section was over, I looked back and only saw two riders about 15-20 seconds back on the trail. I was pretty happy with the carnage and soft pedaled for a bit and Adam Morka and Osmond Baker came up to me. We got rolling and started onto the next section of the race – the 12km gravel rail trail at 40km or so into the race.

As we looked back we had another group of three chasing at maybe 30-40 seconds and another larger group behind them. We let off the gas prior to the rail trail to allow the chasers to get on and now we were six including Nick Friesen, Maro Li, and Colin Busby. As we got organized on the rail trail I kinda of noticed that only Nick was pulling with the three of us.  I wanted to keep up the pressure to make sure the larger group would either split up or at least have to work to get up to us.

We left this section with all six of us and now came the 3rd section of the race – 60km of road. As we got organized again Marco and Colin continued to sit on the four of us, with around 75km still to go in the race. They both stated they were cooked, but as all people who magically make the front group when cooked they always seemed to be okay on the climbs and had no issues hanging in.

Well after a few km of them sitting on the pace definitely was eased off as we did not want to kill ourselves only get attacked later on. At about 80km a solo rider impressively bridged up to us, and it was Grahame Rivers.  Well we keep rolling and at 90km I kinda knew I was not gonna be able to race hard until the end and had to start going into survival mode. Adam and Nick looked the strongest of the seven riders with Osmond pretty close behind them.

As we hit 95km we took a left and hit a mini wall that went for about 500 meters. The instant I saw the hill alarm bells went ringing as I knew it was a great launching pad and sure enough Adam went to the front and pinned it up the hill. I knew it was the move, but got gapped by 5 metres at the top and just could not make the bridge. The three strongest Adam, Osmond and Nick kept the pressure and were gone. I sat up and waited for the guys to come back to me and only Colin and Grahame were there as Marco got dropped.

The last 15km consists of three single track sections with each of getting a bit easier. I was now pretty much fried but felt if I could hit the first section well I would distance at least Grahame enough to only have one Real Deal rider to worry about. Well I can’t say I rode this section well as I had a solid crash but Grahame did get distanced by about 20 secs and Colin and I hit the road again. With Grahame behind I just went tempo and waited for him to come back to us as Colin was understandably waiting for him to get back on.

This is where the race got weird. With 10km to go a car comes up and tells us we are leading due to the leaders blowing through a course arrow, Grahame was nowhere in sight as he took a wrong turn in the single track. Finally I look at Colin and say it’s time to do some pulling which he does. I knew my chances of beating him were really low as at this point I was seeing black spots and was full into bonk mode, and he had spent much less energy up until this point.

I faked it as best I could but got dropped on the 2nd section of single track by about 5 seconds but then Colin did not know which way to go on the intersection as the arrow had been torn down and waited for me as I knew the course pretty good. Again this was pretty lucky on my part as I knew any gap that he could get was gonna be the end for me. We now had 3km to go and one last single track left. I just put the blinders on and barely held onto Colin’s attacks and it came down to a sprint which he took by a half bike.

So I was 2nd but only due to the course error of the leaders, and after last year I can definitely feel for those guys.

Again a great race but I think I liked it better when it was 90km, the added 35km of road they put in makes it just too far between the technical sections but I guess that’s another way of saying I am only good on crappy roads these days.

Full results here.


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