Monday, September 28, 2009

Crank the Shield

After a long season of racing it all wound up this past weekend with my second attempt at Chico Racing's Crank the Shield event. This is a perfectly-executed three day stage race across some of the most rugged terrain I've ever ridden. The race courses consist of a giant loop each day mostly in and around the Haliburton Forest. Racers attack the route either solo or in two person teams.

Into the wild! Photo courtesy

Last year I finished 5th overall and was pretty proud. The top four solo racers that year were some of the fastest elites in the country so I was more than happy to be "best of the rest." This year the start list looked a little more interesting to me -- there were still a core group of four elites -- though these guys seemed a little closer to my own abilities and two of them were actually racing as a team. In addition, one of my O-Cup rivals Jason Everaert would be on the start line. Jason's usually faster than me but he is a fellow Masters racer and on a good day I can beat him. And so I lined up on Friday with the goal of hanging with the two solo elites (Stu Alp and Danny Souter), the elite team (Kyle Douglas and Haydn Boucher) for as long as possible and maybe even beating my masters class rival Jason.

Stage One

The first day of racing would take place on about 80km of mixed terrain: very technical rocky singletrack, gravel roads, rutted doubletrack, a bit of pavement... pretty much every surface I've ever ridden a bike on. The steep climbs and technical singletracks were the defining features to me though. It was going to be a hard day.

From the start I tried to be on the first few wheels heading into the singletrack (getting caught up behind 220 or so riders would not be a good way to start the race.) I had no problem getting in a good position and the pace was manageable. Jason apparently thought we were dogging it though and took the opportunity to build a lead of over 5 minutes in the first 1.5hrs of technical riding. I settled in with the four super pros and we decided that Jason would inevitably explode. I crossed my fingers.

Last year Day One of the race was remembered for swampy bogs. This year I'll remember the dry singletrack.

Photo stolen from

By about hour three we found Jason crawling up a long climb with severe leg cramps. Our group of five passed by and headed into a last long section of rocky hiking-style trails (think illegal Gatineau Park trails.) During the last hour of the race I fought off my own leg cramps but managed to hang on and even accelerate in the final kilometre to finish seconds behind the Super Pro Team of Kyle and Hadyn and race favourite Stu Alp. I even managed to put a minute or so into one of the other top elite guys.

It was a great day. I met all of my goals: I hung on to the elite group for the entire four hour race, put 5 minutes into Jason and enjoyed some awesome terrain with a great group of guys. You can always learn a lot riding with racers of a higher level. I was punching above my weight racing with Stu, Dan, Haydn and Kyle but it worked as I had moved into the lead in the over 30 category and second place in the overall solo race. My fear was that riding their pace was taking a lot out of me -- their tempo is my threshold pace!

One of the great things about this race is the fantastic support network assembled by Chico Racing: nightly lodging in cabins at kids' summer camps on pristine lakes, massage services, extensive mechanical support, Subway sandwiches at the finish line and an amazing buffet a couple hours later... even free beer! On the first night I got a chance to stand on top of the podium and went to sleep leading the over 30 solo race.

The view at our first evening's accommodations -- photo courtesy

Stage Two

Day two of the race was an 87km trip finishing in downtown Haliburton. The day had the potential to be the most rugged of the race -- 2-3hrs of nasty rocky trail, a few km of pavement through the town of Minden, an hour or so of hilly trail and finally an 18km stretch of rail trail into Haliburton. My fear for this day was losing contact with the lead group before the rail trail finish. Riding this flat road-like surface alone while my rivals worked together in a group ahead would mean big time losses.

The first two hours of nasty rocky trails went well. I was having no trouble riding near the front of a group of twelve or so. The trail had a lot of exposed rock with many short tricky ascents/descents. Being from Ottawa I'm comfortable on this sort of stuff and the pace was moderate. I did manage to damage a spoke in my rear wheel though. A stick had become lodged in the wheel and interestingly, ripped the spoke out of the nipple's threads. Weird, but only a minor setback. This kind of terrain is such an exhausting smash-fest that an out of true rear wheel is almost unnoticeable.

Following this initial trail slog we hit some asphalt and quickly pared the group down to eight riders. In Minden we were treated to a fabulously well-stocked aid station. It had been 57 hard km that day and we all stocked up on Hammer Gels, Clif Bars and lubed our chains. I had a bit of a lapse and left the station last. I was gapped a bit as the group headed into a series of steep trail climbs. I panicked a bit and went anaerobic. Before I could catch on the group hit a kilometre or so of asphalt. My over 30 rival Jason went to the front and drove the pace to distance me. He was looking to find the five minute I put into him the day before. My fear for the day was coming true! After the group left the pavement and navigated the last hilly hour of trail before the rail trail finale I pushed it with everything I had and regained contact. Close call. We were now a group of eight.

I was hanging on with just the last 18km of rail trail to contend with. Last year this section was dreadful - I was totally exhausted and the stone-dust surface just seemed to suck the life out of me. This year we started conservatively and then ramped up the speed until we were rotating in a double pace line. The pace was hard -- given the 3.5hrs we had just completed -- and two riders succumbed and drifted off the back. We were now down to the core group from the day before: me, Over 30 Jason, Pro Stu, Pro Dan, and the Uber Pro duo of Kyle and Haydn. Kyle was clearly the strongest and his pulls were putting us in the red. Many times I wanted to just stop pedalling and drift off their wheels and I could tell Jason was feeling the same way. We hung on though and did our share of the work.

Having done the race last year I was familiar with the finish in Haliburton. The town has a real RCAF fighter plane on a pole in a park downtown. I was looking for it through crossed eyes in our rail trail death line. When I saw it I knew we were very close to the finish so I made my way to the front of the group and prepared for the last big effort of the day. With 500m to go, on pavement, it looked like a sprint finish was a real possibility. Kyle jumped hard with his teammate glued to his wheel. I tried to latch on but could not. I had gapped the others though. With about 200m to go Stu came by at about 50kph and I was able to get his wheel. We crossed the finish line a couple of metres behind the winning duo and just in front of Jason and Dan.

After four and a quarter hours across every type of mountain bike terrain imagineable we threw down a wild sprint on a bike path... such a surreal day. But it went well -- I lost no time and even sprinted for the win with guys I consider beyond my abilities. It was definitely challenging and I had some close calls but managed to hang on. I didn't win (though I was first in my age category) but just being there at the end was extremely satisfying.

Day Two finish line -- photo

This type of racing is so full of drama. I've always been pretty cynical about people who claim transcendence and self-actualization through sport. I mean we're riding around the woods in tight shorts on multi-thousand-dollar bicycles -- how serious can we take it, really? Anyway, this kind of racing may be changing my outlook. We may not be changing the world but there's sure potential to find out who we really are. Or as the cliche goes, "what we're made of." Case in point: Justin and Gord. Two buddies and fast dudes. On day two Justin had to deal with a broken spoke and screwed up freehub. Once he was rolling again he came across Gord pushing his bike with a non-functioning drivetrain. He could coast but not pedal. Justin and Gord ride for the same team but were in this race as solo entrants. Nevertheless, Justin didn't want to leave his buddy walking for 18km on the rail trail so he started pushing him while riding at his side. When this became tedious they decided to rig up a towing system using a spare innertube. One of them would pedal the functioning bike towing the other on the crippled bike. Every two kilometres they would switch bikes to share the work all the way to the finish line nearly two hours later. Amazing.

That night we were put up in the cabins of Camp Whitepine. Beautiful place with great chefs and, oddly, the set of the 1970s John Belushi movie Meatballs. I made another trip to the top of the Over 30 podium and went to sleep leading that race and second in the overall solo race.

Stage Three

The big finish. This day began with a longish transfer ride of 15km to the start line. It was nice to spin out the legs and chat with other racers on the way to the start, but even this paved neutral ride seemed somewhat challenging -- a bad sign! The actual race course for the day was a 55km trip back to the Haliburton Forest where the weekend began. It would start with about 45 minutes of serious climbing on a rocky hydrocut and then cover quite a lot of very technical singletrack with some road bits thrown in for good measure.

I started this day pretty certain that the elite group would ride away from me on some of the steeper climbs. But what about Jason? I still had five minutes on him but I've faced him in many O-Cups and know that he's usually stronger on steep terrain.

Our group of six from the day before was formed again right from the start. The pace on the climbs got harder and harder and harder. I was above my threshold many times but managed to hang on for about an hour. The climbing was over for a while and I had survived the hardest efforts of the weekend. And then they just rode away. I was completely exhausted and as we hit a series of short rollers I just came off the rails. The gap grew and there was literally nothing I could do. My lungs just weren't communicating with my legs. Two or three others passed me as I drifted backward... They were solo riders but I had put enough time into them in the previous stages that I wasn't really worried. It was discouraging though. I was okay with watching the elite group ride away -- I had expected it at some point -- but it was hard to watch my rival Jason hang on while I lost it.

Minutes later Matt Klymson from Vancouver caught up and gave me a metaphorical kick in the ass. We worked well together and despite the beating from Jason and the nearly complete depletion of my energy stores I was starting to have fun again. An hour later Matt snapped his chain. Too bad because he was having a good ride and he was fun to ride with.

NO bogs! -- photo from

The last hour or so of the day was run on very challenging singletrack. Knowing I was slipping in the standings was discouraging but it was pretty hard not to smile at the beautiful surroundings, wicked trails and teams of volunteers encouraging us all to the finish. The sun was shining as I crossed the finish line knowing I had given it everything I had to give. Jason was the stronger rider and he hung with the elite group until the final kilometres of the day. He's a great guy who I enjoyed getting to know and he deserved to win our category. Stu took the overall solo race while The Super Team of Kyle and Hayden took the whole race. Well done boys.

Over the course of 250km I lost 10 minutes or so to a group of elite racers. I had expected to lose 10-20 minutes a day so I surpassed my own expectations. I rode at the front, in the action, and won my age group in two of three stages, coming surprisingly close to leading the whole race at various points. Second Over 30 rider, fourth overall solo rider, a pile of medals, a great trophy and it was all over.

While all this was going on with me, my girl Trish was killing it in the women's race. Last year she was second to a very strong rider from Fort Mcmurray named Kate Ardel. This year after two days Trish was keeping her within a few minutes. Then, on day three, while I was melting down Trish was coming alive and managed to pull even with Kate. She was still a few minutes down in the overall but Trish was excited to be riding at Kate's pace. Eventually Trish pulled away and was thrilled that a stage win was possible. Little did she know that after falling behind Kate began to experience a horrendous series of mechanicals -- including a snapped derailleur hanger and two chain breaks -- that would put her something like an hour behind. Trish took the overall with mixed emotions. She was happy to have passed Kate fair and square before the mechanicals began, but she was also reluctant to claim overall victory like this. But both riders know that this kind of thing is typical of bush-whack stage racing. Anything can happen.

And so it was over. One last buffet at the finish line and we were ready to hit the road satisfied. Oh I almost forgot: the awards ceremony ended with a tonne of draw prizes. The biggest prize, a $2000 entry to the BC Bike Race was awarded to none other than Justin "I'll tow you to the finish line buddy!" Winster. It was a fitting end to a fantastic event. I encourage everyone to give this thing a go. It's far and away the most challenging and best organized off road race in Ontario.


David said...

sha-zang! good riding my friend!

Rodd Heino said...

Awesome Rob!

Disco Stu said...

Booya! Congrats Rob.
Great race write up, too.

Matt Surch said...

What a race Rob! Your account makes it pretty tempting for next year.

Now its time for your favourite thing: 'cross!

madmountainmike said...

Nice report Rob - Now I wish I was there this year too !!

jay2179 said...

fantastic report Rob. congrats to you and Tricia both, well done! ps the white saddle looks AWESOME

Anonymous said...

Way to go Rob, Love your number one fan, Mom xxoo

Anonymous said...

Do BC bike race! Its a blast! Friggen fun single track...
Get a good partner though. That really counts.

Then do Transrockies. Its ok. Cold as hell though.

Top it off with La Ruta ( - killer.

And, transandes in Feb...

next year, Philly has a stage race.
Should be a goodie.