The 2010 edition of Crank the Shield is in the books and I managed to finish my first multi-day mountain bike stage race, and for the first time this season, I met my main goal going into the race.
CTS has long been circled as my A-race this season, and I only had one goal – be faster than my sister. Everything else was secondary to this prime directive and as I trained over the summer, I would often visualize myself at the finish line, showered and changed, with my feet up as I relaxed in a Muskoka chair drinking a cold beer… positioned perfectly to watch Shari cross the finish line after me. In my visualization, I would call out words of encouragement to Shari, like: “you missed dinner” and “there is no more beer left”.
As the sun rose on Stage 1 and I lined up with the other 250-odd racers, I used the positive visualization I had practiced over the summer to keep calm and focused… “There is no race, there are no other racers” I told myself… “only Shari. Do not let her beat you too badly.”
The gun went and everyone was off rippin’ down about 3 km of double track. I was on Shari and Joe’s wheel, where I planned to sit until a moment of weakness provided an opportunity to attack. I was poised, I was confident, I was strategic, I was… shit, fiddling with my heart rate strap that had come undone… and then I was dropped. Shari and Joe disappeared ahead of me in the sea of riders as I pulled to the side of the road keep myself from losing the $100 piece of junk.
Now, some day you might run into some dude at your local bar who just so happens to have raced the 2010 CTS. If you do, you will probably hear a lot about swamps, and bogs, and hike-a-bike-up-to-your-waist-mud-pits and about the courage, strength, and determination it took to get through said swamps, bogs, and mud pits. Well, let me tell you, the effort to get through those swamps was nothing compared to the effort it took for me to pull myself up and out of the dark mental pit I had found myself cast into, less than 2 km from the start, as I visualized Shari at the finish line… beer in hand… mocking me as I finished well behind.
I put my head down and peddled… trying to block the nightmare out. I was forced to look up when the race turned onto a long stretch of relatively new single track and riders has to dismount and hike up the soft, muddy trail. It wasn’t long before I spotted Shari and Joe up ahead, and against all odds, I caught up to them at about the 15 km mark.
I followed them for what seemed like only a couple of minutes before the opportunity to attack presented itself: Shari was getting hungry and told Joe she needed to stop and eat. Joe said okay, lets stop and eat. Shari growled that Joe should just relax and keep marching. I couldn’t believe my fortune! Embroiled in bitter infighting, neither Shari or Joe would be able to respond to my brilliant attack! I hammered on my pedals (whenever I wasn’t stuck in the mud) for the rest of the stage. I never looked back, even when I found myself off-course… instead I blindly forged ahead and miraculously found myself spit back out on the trail a little further ahead (let that be a lesson to you kids… never admit a mistake and turn back… just go stubbornly onward and hope for the best). In the end, my effort was rewarded with a 5:36:40 finishing time — 29 minutes ahead of Shari and Joe.
Unfortunately, there were no Muskoka chairs at the finish…
After my brilliant attack on the first day, the strategy for Stage 2 changed slightly. The forecast for Stage 2 was not pretty – race organizers promised even more mud, swamps, and bogs over the first half or so of the course. The second half would include quiet a bit of road. I knew that working together, Shari and Joe would be fast on the roads, so I would need to attack early in the mud pits, and try and hold them off until the end.
The hype of the stage ended up being a little overblown in my books, and I found myself riding much more of the mud-pits than the day before. Although this also meant I ended up mud wrestling my bike a few more times too after getting thrown ass-over-teakettle by some immovable force hiding in the mud. After a long 40 km of muddy ATV trails; I found myself spit out on a paved road… now the real work of defending my lead would begin.
I time-trailed alone for what seemed like an eternity, desperately hoping that I would find some to help share the work. I blew through the last aid station, passing a number of riders, including a couple of 2-person team… and I hatched a plan. I would ease up and wait for one or two of these riders to catch me, and then I would latch on and share the work the rest of the stage. Good plan, but poorly executed… my lack of road skills showed as I slowed too much, and when groups caught me, they blew past and I couldn’t accelerate enough to grab a wheel. Again, I was on my own… now worried that the next duo to blow by would be Shari and Joe.
Finally, with about 5 km to go, I caught Robin Bouchard from St−Felicien, Quebec. Little did I know at the time, this would be my main rival in the solo 30-39 category general classification… but for the rest of the stage we worked together and crossed the line in the same time: 5:47:54 – this time only about 10 minutes ahead of Shari and Joe.
On the morning of the final day, I felt decent… but the legs were tired. I knew the day would be more about defending my lead, rather than increasing it… both against Shari & Joe and in the solo category. I had finished 20th in my category in both stage 1 and 2 and wanted to keep a top 20 finish. The course would be different today… a 12 km neutral road ride, followed by a short up & down and then another up & down at the local ski hill, followed by more road, before hitting the ATV trails and finishing on single track.
I was with Shari and Joe on the ski hill… but as expected, the left me eating their dust as soon as we hit the road. I could tell they were hungry to put in a strong stage today… and I didn’t expect to see them again. All I wanted to do was not implode before the finish, and defend my position.
I managed to ride with some good groups on the road, and I limited the damage Shari & Joe inflicted. Once we hit the ATV trail that relentlessly climbed up a rocky hydro-line cut, I was able to catch Shari & Joe and surge ahead. I was feeling pretty good at this point and was enjoying the relatively dry conditions.
Things changed once we were off the hydro cut, and dove back into the wet, muddy forest. Suddenly, and without warning, my legs emptied out and I was left with a couple of soggy noodles. I don’t think nutrition was a factor… I was eating and drinking well (relying on my secret weapon: chia fresca). My legs were just plain worn-out tired. I had trouble finding the short bursts of power necessary to navigate the single track… maybe my legs just didn’t want to switch from the more steady-state effort they had been putting in on the road and ATV trail? Whatever it was, my pace slowed to a crawl and I limped along… now the sections where I had been strongest beat me up and every minute I expected Shari & Joe to come cruising by.
Finally, the single track dumped out onto a sandy road and I heard a volunteer shout “the sign does not lie – 1 km to go”. I mustered a final effort towards the finish line… and crossed at 4:12:11 — this time only 4 minutes ahead of Shari & Joe. I also lost quite a bit of time in the solo 30-39 category, slipping to 21st overall. All the gruesome details can be found here.
The one question people keep asking my is whether or not I would do the race again. To be honest, I’m not sure. You definitely get a pretty satisfying sense of accomplishment riding your bike as fast as you can for roughly 200 km through some pretty rugged terrain. The race was superbly organized with awesome volunteers, and fellow racers were mostly cool and friendly.
But to be honest, the trails weren’t great – and this can’t just be blamed on the weather (the area did receive a good rainfall the night before the race, but despite what race organizers claimed, total rainfall in September was way below average compared to the last five years). Most of the race, when it isn’t on the road, is on ATV trails that have been ripped to crap by, well, ATVs. Makes you wonder whether or not it isn’t just better to just do trips to check out killer trails in places like here, or here, or even here… and save the racing for ‘cross.