Well, I have to admit — it is getting kinda lonely out here in Ottawa being a member of the Fiera Race Team. First, around 40% of the Ottawa team (Michael and Simone) decided to defect and move back to Calgary at the end of April. This is good news for the ever growing team out in Alberta… but leaves us a little thin on the ground here. Then, reading about Fiera’s brilliant team tactics at the Northern Spring Series races, where the team’s strength in numbers resulted in… well… kinda the normal result for Joe, but with some excitement along the way at least – reinforced how isolated I feel in the peloton. I don’t have teammates to bring me fresh water bottles when I am thirsty, or to give me their last power bar so I don’t bonk; or stop and fix my chain for me so my hands don’t get dirty, or give me their wheel if I get a flat, or totally turn themselves inside out to pace me back to the group after I stop to go pee in the ditch – you guys totally do that for each other, right?
Anyway, it was without teammates that I lined up Sunday morning for the 2012 edition of the Almonte “Paris-Roubaix”, put on each spring by the Ottawa Bicycle Club. As I have mentioned on the blog before, this race is awesome and is the highlight of the season. The race takes roughly 150 hardy souls out into the backroads of eastern Ontario, throwing in an equal mix of pavement, gravel, and – instead of cobbles – rough forest trails. This year, a new forest sector was added. Coming at around the 9 km mark of the 80 km course, the 2 km of “rocky, sandy, muddy and flooded sections as well as some modest climbing” promised to shake things up early. The preview picture posted by race organizers did more than spur the regular pre-race debate about tire selection. I was trying to figure out if I could attach some cleats to my rubber boots.
The sunny, clear blue sky at the start was misleading. The near freezing temperatures and steady wind promised to add to the misery. I wished I had a teammate who would carry some extra clothes for me.
After doing this race a couple of times, I have learned that there is no slow wind-up – no playful attacks at the start that are leisurely brought back by a mellow peloton. The pace is high right from the start, immediately reaching speeds in excess of 50 km/hr over the first 2 km of downhill gravel. When you are starting with 150 other riders, this requires some good bike handling skills, some nerves, and a mouth guard (flying rocks).
Sunday was no exception, and with everyone trying to be near the front for the first forest sector, the pace averaged north of 35 km/hr for the first 9.5 km of gravel.
Needless to say, I was not at the front of the race as we turned off the gravel and onto the dirt. In fact, a couple of hundred metres down the trail, it would be more accurate to say I was underneath the race, with two other guys on top of me. Wheels touched, and that was it. Where were my teammates to protect me?!?
It took a couple of minutes to untangle before I was off again. I soon realized the crash was maybe actually a bit lucky – a couple of hundred metres later and I would have been swimming.
The video below gives a full appreciation of the whole sector.
Anyway, after that, things seemed to calm down a bit. I was with an unorganized group of about 6 until the next forest sector, where things broke up again. After that, I caught up to three other guys who were going a good pace for me. After a bit, a decent sized group of riders seemed to coalesce around us, and we rode smoothly until the third forest sector at about the 55 km mark. This 4 km stretch features a stiff swithback climb at the start that again forces a selection.
At the top of the climb, there was an attack by one of the stronger riders in our group, and I decided to make chase. I caught him just as we exited the sector and hit some pavement. It wasn’t long before we were joined by 5 or 6 other guys… I would say about half the group was shed.
From this point, the race follows pavement until about 5 km to go, where the final forest sector waits. It is the shortest at just 1 km, but also the most technical – rolling through a grove of sugar maples and over big chunks of Canadian Shield granite. I followed another rider into the forest, where we swept up two riders ahead of us. As we were spit out the other side, I was in a group of 4 that had a bit of a gap on the chasers.
As the four of us worked together with about 4 km to go, I started to strategize. I was pretty cooked – an attack was out of the question, especially given the wind. And I can probably crawl faster than I can sprint. Where was a teammate to attack and force the others to chase, while I could sit-in and conserve energy? Or to lead me out in the final sprint? Or to ride beside me with a gentle hand on my ass to push me along and keep me from falling into the ditch? It was hopeless.
With about 3km to go I took my turn on the front of the group. There is a small hill there with about a 2% grade that feels like 20%. After a minute I flicked an elbow and eased up. No one came through. I looked back. There was maybe a 10 metre gap to the next rider. Surprised and extremely disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to draft off anyone, I went into the drops and pushed for the finish.
In the end, I improved on previous efforts, collecting a top 10 finish in the Master A category.