Thoreau said "We do not ride upon the railroad, it rides upon us", and by the time we were back in the car heading home from the 13th annual Paris-Ancaster mtn bike race, I had had a sharp reminder of what that meant.
My last chance to do a bike race and I leapt at it before I even had one to race with. P-A is a mix of road and gravel and as it turned out, pure muck. And it was the pure muck that did me in around kilometre 54 of 60.
It was a bright Sunday, warming nicely for an Ontario day in early April, with little wind. I had borrowed my good buddy Dr No's new bike, a rigid flat black hybridy thing that I'd transformed into an off-roadish bike by throwing some knobby tires at it. It seemed to be just the thing for the job, once I'd warmed to the task (having elected to go without the tights when it was 7 celcius at 10am, plus some shinguards from my freestyle bike days. Maybe it was those Jinx pads combined with the 13th edition of the race... or maybe it was the shit-stupid organizers who let 1600+ bikes churn through kilos of six inch deep mud wrecking many a citizen racer's day (and the trail)in the process.
These massive for-profit races definitely have drawbacks. Paris-Ancaster drew more racers than ever before and the organizers didn't keep infrastructure up to capacity, so dozens of us started late in a 'third wave' of racers. (The race is big enough that you drive to finish, park, then wait for school buses that herd everyone to the start point, and inevitably there weren't enough of them.)
My raceday cohort J.L. and I finally got off the start gate in a small escape group, a cyclocrosser leading. It was way too high a pace for my cold muscles and I cracked inside the first km, then tried to find a pace of my own against the heartburn in my chest. As a mtn biker bridged up to me and we got into a rhythm I suddenly saw the long-gone J.L. headed in the OPPOSITE DIRECTION, sucking on his Camelbak stoically. Had he packed it in already? Dropped something crucial? Bad leg acting up? It was a mystery that bothered me as we sped away. Hours later I spotted J.L. in the parking lot changed back into street clothes. Turned out he'd grabbed his Camelbak for a drink and ripped the nozzlehead right off, the contents of its bladder emptying all over him as he rode. Eventually he gave up trying to find it on the trail and committed to a 59km excursion with nothing to drink. By the end both legs were cramping hideously. Such is bike racing.
I had a different yet worse fortune, after passing the hundreds of slow people who started god knows when before me, getting a decent rhythm going on my oh-so-effecient rigid frame with its much narrower 700c knobbies that even cut through the mud better than the fat tire gang could, mechanical disaster struck just five or six km from the finish: coming out of a few hundred metres of walking-only mud I jumped back on all ready to drop some more slowpokes, not even looking at the state of my drivetrain. If I had, I might have seen the deraillieur upside down and backwards, the chain mangled up along with it. I actually got on and pushed it skateboard style after walking it awhile, but ran out of pavement and opted for a ride to the parking lot from a local race marshall with a huge 4X4 truck. End of race, DNF.
Bike racing is a stark enterprise, where much pain and privation often meets with little or no reward and often punishment, and it left me wondering what exactly I was doing shelling out $48 for the privilege of such muck-strewn crap.
I took some consolation in the fate of George Hincapie on the same day at the inspiration for my race, the 104th Paris-Roubaix in north east France. The American pro star recovered from a scary fall on the cobbles mid-race and found himself in the lead group with 40-plus km to go in the 260km, seven hour marathon 'L'enfer du Nord" race with its fifty or so cobbled sections. Then his steerer tube cracked as he roared along at 50km/h, suddenly with neither steering nor brakes he crashed again brutally, at the side of the road. This time he broke his collarbone and had no support car to throw him another bike anyway. End of race. There's a picture of him sitting on the roadside next to his bike crying.
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