Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fast Times at Willow Beach

It was a cold, wet, mucky affair with a beach on top of all that. The beach was on Lake Ontario. The day was Sunday in November, a cool four degrees Celcius after 20mm of rain the day before.

It was a day for a cyclo-cross race.

We arrived with mere minutes to spare off the highway, I scrambled to take a practice lap on the winding, mostly flat and lightly forested course and forgot my helmet in the car, which preceded to leave altogether. A baker's dozen had made the drive to Port Hope in my event. Half a dozen more readied themselves for the staggered start: Beginner Men. An appeal filtered through to my competitors and suddenly a man was motioning me to follow him. "Bring your bike", he said and off we went to his house 400 metres away, smack in the middle of this circuit in the middle of nowhere.

A helmet was given over, we returned and the commissaires started the race. I let the small field sprint ahead of me towards the beach section - best to make a slower start after the chaos of the previous minutes, I thought. Eric Sanders (Wheels of Bloor) and I rode together at the back, and for the rest of the race. He was coming off a fourth and third place on successive days at the big UCI races in Toronto the week previous; in my case an 11th and a exploded chain off the hot start on the Sunday past.

I never let me get past me, occasionally pulling ahead, passing a Beginner, and marvelling at the sheer exhausting effect of this authentic 'cross grass-and-muck fest. Yet I was the nimbler, figuring to give it my best no matter how far back we were. In the end I got second place, Eric third. That's the strange thing about 'cross. A twisty course, all the concentration you can muster, and somehow you're at or near the front of it with no idea why. My best result so far.

In the midst of pre-start chaos, I'd neglected to even take my chocolate energy gel, but was able to hang in there nonetheless. When you race 'cross, you enter a tunnel of exaggerated experiences. Perceptions distort. Time seems out of whack, indiscernible, as though being held contained in a bag somewhere. The visual field is reduced to a narrow spectrum of the metres in front; the air temperature has no effect. Even the wetness of water splash is minimized in the stress of the task at hand. The key is to focus on the details of the course.

When it is over, relief is palpable and the ensuing minutes bring a continual endorphin rush. You feel excited, sometimes ecstatic, briefly immune to the cold, the dirt, the wet. Jokes and congratulations. A bike to be washed off by the waves.

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