Thursday, April 30, 2015

Mud, Sweat and thankfully No Tears: St. George to Ancaster 40km Race Report

There is no doubt that the Paris to Ancaster bike race has become a spring classic in Canada.  It usually brings out all the heavy hitters in the local clubs.  From a spectator's point of view, I could see why.  The race organizers have everything down to a science.  It's an incredibly well oiled machine.  The volunteers are also awesome and the post race food and facilities are also excellent.  When I was approached by the race organizers in February to be an Ambassador, I was a little surprised.  I'm not really a cyclist per se.  At least I don't think of myself that way.  I can hold my own on two wheels, especially if there is a swim and a run after it but a cyclist in the purest sense of the term, I am not.  Looking back, I suppose that was the reason.  You don't HAVE to be a cyclist to participate and enjoy the race.  You just need to have a bike and be willing to suffer. 

Including this year, G has ridden the 70km four times and I have been his sherpa for three of those four times, so I would definitely consider myself a seasoned spectator.  Since it's a point to point race, you need to get to the start with your bike.  The race offers a shuttle service for yourself and your bike when you register for a nominal fee.  They also offer a free shuttle service for riders that drove to the start AFTER the race so they can pick up their cars.  Every year I've been there, I've witnessed mud covered grimaces of agony as people have climbed that last insanely steep hill to the finish line.  I always said there was no way I'd do it.  But then I got a mountain bike.  I knew there were shorter distances as well so when the race organizers approached me, it didn't take me too long to make up my mind.  I was going to ride the 40km on my mountain bike. 

Leading up to this race, I had exactly 3 rides on my mountain bike.  And they were all last year.  This is what happens when you sign up for a 70.3 in JUNE.  You spend all your time on your tri bike.  I took Freewill out for a spin on the Saturday to test out my new tires and get a feel for the gearing again.  To say I was nervous would be an understatement.  I felt grossly unprepared.  Not because of lack of fitness.  More because I was stepping way outside my comfort zone.  You give me two wheels and an open paved road and I'm good.  I'll hammer away with the best of them until my legs can't take anymore.  But you put me on single track with mud and other people and that's a whole other ball of wax.  I wouldn't say that I'm terrified, just lacking serious amounts of confidence.  But we all have to start somewhere.  And there's nothing like a 40km off road race with wicked mud chutes to whet your whistle.  Kinda like when I did my first triathlon.  I didn't bother with a sprint or try a tri.  I went and did a long course - 2km swim, 55km bike, 15km run.  Why?  Because that's just what I do when I don't let my head get in the way.

I went into this race knowing I had good cycling fitness but you need more than that to be even remotely competitive.   You need to be fearless.  You need to have good bike handling skills and you need to be willing to plow through mud on two wheels vs. two feet.  I have none of those things.   At least not right now.  But those things will come the more I practice.   I figured I could probably average around 17-18 kph on my mountain bike with the mix of trails and road.  So my goal was around 2:15-2:20.

My friend David had signed up to do the 70km but dropped down to the 40km as his big race is next weekend and he didn't want to put too much stress on his legs.  Which was perfect for me as I figured I'd be lolly gagging through the trail sections anyway.   We killed time at the start listening to the radio and chatting away.  Of course we had to take the matching sock selfie.  The Pain Cave socks were out in full effect.


Eventually it was almost Go time so we got suited up and took the obligatory BEFORE photos.


Look how clean we are!!!
We then rode over to the start.  I looked around at the wide variety of bikes and people.  There were lots of people on mountain bikes, a few on cross bikes and a bunch of people on fat bikes as well.  Just like at a marathon, there were all shapes and sizes too.  Such an awesome thing to see.  Apparently this was a record year for registration and the race was close to capacity.

We were in Wave 2.  I had thought about going up to the front but I was so nervous I stayed towards the middle / back.  That was a mistake.  I actually managed to get a lot of speed going on my mountain bike, once I managed to get clipped in.  We were barreling through people until we hit some gravel and had to slow down a bit.  Then we hit the first grassy, spongy section and I panicked.  I slowed down a lot and remembered the advice that Rol and David had given me:  Brakes cause accidents.  Keep up the speed.  So I resisted the urge to stop and I kept pedaling.  I made it through the first muddy, spongy section unscathed (i.e no wipeouts).  Shortly thereafter we hit single track and that's where things got a bit hairy for me.  It was narrow and undulating with some turns and a bit of mud and there were people everywhere so I stopped and got off my bike and ran through here.  David waited patiently for me up ahead.  Of course unclipping meant I had to try to clip in again.  That proved to be the bane of my existence all day.  I'm not used to the egg beater pedal system yet and because it's such a small surface in comparison to my Look system, I have a hell of a time figuring out where to put my foot.  I gave up trying at this point and rode unclipped.  Thankfully G had put the eggbeaters with the platform on my bike so I at least had a somewhat flat place to rest my foot.  Not being clipped in was fine given that we had all of a sudden come to a dead stop.  I wasn't sure what the issue was but we weren't moving.   We finally started moving a few minutes later, only to stop again.  It went on like that for at least 10 minutes.  Start, stop, start, stop.  Eventually we discovered why - we had come to our first little mud chute.  Of course, I ran down it.  I hopped back on my bike and tried to clip in again.  Eventually I managed to get one foot in.  So I rode partially clipped in for the next little while until I finally got my other foot clipped in.

On the rail trail and open roads, David and I made up some good time.  We were moving fairly well.  The minute we got off road or off the rail trail, I'd slow down.   But as we went along, my comfort level increased.  I started handling the spongy, mildly muddy sections a bit better.  Even David commented on that.  I was still having pedal issues and at several points, David, being the most excellent friend that he is, actually took my foot and guided it into my clip.  We motored along through farmers fields, rail trail and back onto the roads.  At about 28km in, my back started to ache.  I wasn't used to sitting up like that.  I was worried it would spasm when I had to start climbing, it felt so tight. I knew I was going to have to climb one monster of a hill at the end so I hoped it wouldn't get any worse.

We hit another mud chute which I walked down.  I managed to get really muddy here and was thrilled to see two guys with power washers offering to hose people down.  I went and got my shoes cleaned out and my bike hosed off.  Then I spent about 3 minutes trying to get my feet into the clips.  David offered to help so he got my left one in.  He then offered to do my right but I said no.  I'm stubborn and figured the best way for me to learn it to keep practicing.  A few minutes later I got the right clip in.  Victory!  It was just in time for us to start climbing again, ha.

Motoring along before the last big mud chute.  I'm still relatively clean!
 We climbed a few more rollers and then we were back onto rail trail and then back into the woods.  We were heading towards the last big mud chute.  I saw the sign, rode up over the crest, looked down and immediately got off my bike.  Holy crap.  It was like a river of mud that went straight down.   David rode down for a bit and then got off his bike.  He eventually got back on further down and rode the rest.  Impressive.  I shoved myself and my bike through the mud.  I was wishing I had a lighter bike so I could pick it up, put it over my shoulder and carry it.  But alas, I'm not the incredible hulk, my bike weighs at least 30lbs so there was no way I was carrying it anywhere.  So through the muck I waded.  I passed a photographer who actually caught me laughing.  There were plenty of us wading through here wondering out loud why we were doing this.  I got to the bottom without losing a shoe or twisting an ankle.  I was very glad I wore my PRO level socks, ha ha.

Awesome shot courtesy of Apex Photography
 Once I got to the bottom, I found David who handed me a stick and I proceeded to clean off my wheels and my shoes, which were completely caked in mud.  I spent a good five minutes doing this.  What a mess.  We hopped back on our bikes and soldiered on.  David reassured me that was the last of the mud.  But we still had The Climb.

We made our way out of the last mud chute area onto paved road.  As soon as I hit the pavement, I was immediately reminded that I still had a lot of mud in my tires.  Mud was being flung everywhere.  A chunk of mud got flung into my mouth and I spent the next few minutes spitting it out off to the side.  I went to wipe my face but realized I had mud all over my gloves.  So I used my sleeve.  A guy rode by me who was also flinging mud everywhere with his tires - he apologized profusely and I just laughed and told him not to worry.  This paved section of road had a nice steep down hill with a few twists and turns.  Had I been on my road bike I probably would have been petrified but the wider tires of my mountain bike made me feel safer.  I went barreling down the hill and turned onto a gravel path where I could feel my back wheel going out but I saved it and motored on.  Not without my heart pounding in my chest though.

 We were heading back into the woods.  The trail was wide in some spots and then there were some narrower more technical bits.   I got off and walked wherever I felt like I couldn't get the momentum to move forward safely.  There were a couple of short steep climbs, one of which I started to hammer up - I got into a good groove.  I came up behind a guy and was going to try to get around him when all of a sudden he stopped.  I was right on his wheel so there was a stream of oh sh**t oh s**t oh s**t as I unclipped and grabbed my brakes.  I almost crashed into him and then fell over.  My heart was pounding.  I was half way up the hill so there was no way I was getting back on my bike and riding up.  I walked to the top and got back on.  Once again having to fuss with my pedals. 

We rode along a flatter section and I was able to clip back in, which was good because the next thing I knew David said here comes the hill.  He wasn't kidding.  I looked up and saw the trail snaking up this hill.   I saw lots of people walking everywhere.  Riding up was going to be a challenge because we'd be dodging people.  I cleared my throat, switched gears and started hauling ass.  The hill starts to get steep almost immediately.  David tucked in behind me as I led the charge.  I was trying to take the path of least resistance.  Passing on the left was not possible in some instances so I would yell cyclists coming through the middle!  I only had to do that once and I said thank you and sorry as I went through.  The further up the hill I went, the less energy I had for niceties.  That last climb is on serious bugger.  I came up around the bend to see a whole bunch of people lining each side of the climb and I knew I was close to the top.  The last bit of the climb jacks up to about 12% (so says Strava).   My lungs were burning and my legs were spinning like mad.  Thank GOODNESS for all the gears on my bike.  I caught a woman as I neared the top and I yelled on your left.  She then veered to her left.  I had to yell passing on your left twice before she realized that I was coming up on her left.  Had she run into me, I probably would have fallen over into the gully at the side of the climb.  I felt bad about yelling so loudly but I know what my brain does when it's oxygen deprived.  I don't hear anything and my judgement is not always 100%.  So I find it's always better to err on the side of caution and be as loud as possible for as long as you can.

I passed her without incident and crested the hill shortly there after.  My lungs and legs were burning.  I rode like crazy into the finishing chute.  As I whizzed by I saw G and the other David and I heard them yell Go Phaedra!  I finished 40km of mud and trails in 2:28.  Not even remotely close to my goal.  I got my butt handed to me that's for sure.

We met up with G and David and G asked me how it was - he said you're still smiling so I'm guessing you didn't hate it.  I paused before answering.   "I didn't hate it...but it's not my kind of racing".  I mentioned my pedal issues and said that if David wasn't with me the entire time, I don't think I would have had as much fun.  Which is true.  I also said that I didn't think I'd do it again.  Now that I've had a few days to reflect on it, I think I'd be willing to give the 40km another go sometime.  After I've had some quality time on the trails and really learned how to handle my bike. 

A huge thanks to the folks at Paris to Ancaster for giving me the opportunity to ride.  You guys put on an incredible event.  I can see why people come back year after year.

I didn't manage to get a post race selfie but I did get this shot.  Thank goodness for power washers.









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