"Yeah, too late for anything to kick in now."
Its lunchtime on Friday, April 26th, 2013. Iain Radford and I sip kombucha in the spring sun. Winter has flicked its tail for the last time, and we've arrived on the doorstep of the race. THE race, that which we most desire to win: the Almonte Roubaix. There is no other word for what we've been up to. Training. But we've had fun doing it, going out on Tuesday nights with the guys, streaking green across the landscape like a burnt eastern green mamba. Doing the right things, the little things, to be ready. Dreaming of winning...finally.....
My gut sinks at 2pm when I realize I am sick. To any other person in the office, the signs would go unobserved. I observe. Sub-optimal. No, sub-sub-optimal.
In years past it would be over. I'd stress so much about illness I'd be sure to work it deep into my body. Two kids later, I'm more composed. I have moves. I have potions. I have hope.
On the way home, I hit the store and restock. Vitamin C, North American Ginseng, more kombucha. Lentil dahl from the 'Oat. Relax. Mega-dose. Sleep.
Its Saturday, and I feel well enough to trek downtown with the fam. Energy wanes, and I'm back home mid-day, quality nutrition in hand, ready to lie down. My bike can wait, I'm sticking with my fatties: Clement LAS on the front, and Stan's Raven (custom shaved) in the back, both tubeless. Ready for anything. More mega-dosing of potions. Tune the bike, lay everything out for an early morning, and sleep.
Awake. Checking in: how am I? Mmmm, not sure. Wait, I have a rule for that: if not sure whether you are sick, you are not sick. Ok, good; I'm not sick. I'm fine. Lets move on. Todd arrives on time, we're off, and I'm eating my buckwheat breakfast of champions while we talk about resolve.
The air is buoyant. Seldom do we find ourselves preparing for the Almonte Roubaix in comfortable conditions. Pushed to the end of April, and falling on the the most beautiful day of the year, its all rainbows and unicorns. No hurry, everyone's here from our spring classics team - save Alex - and seemingly at ease. Are all the big guns present? Derrick: check. Osmond: check. Doug: check. Warren: check. Aaron: not sure...is he here? Guess we'll find out.
Unlike in 2012, my legs don't hurt as we roll the neutral start. Excellent. It feels easy, the pace is slower. We pause for two minutes before being set off. I feel jittery. Must be adrenaline. Better put that to use.
Warren goes hard out of the blocks. He's on 28s and I'm pretty certain he wants to see where he's going. I follow, pass, and drive the pace. I'm on big tires, I'm not going to make it easy for anyone on skinnies. String it out, be disruptive. Keep them on their toes.
Not intending to ride away solo, we come together, and roll on. The first sector will be CRUCIAL. It is a crux, which means we go all-in and make the split. Because there will be a split, and we will be part of making it happen. I push off into the dirt road I think transitions to trail. But it keeps going. And going. And going. Iain has come up and is with me, but why is it still going? Did Ian Austen actually change the course? I'm confused. I don't want to go on and on off the front. Have I already botched this thing?
I swear, and Neil thinks I'm pissed at him for some reason. Just confused. We turn and there it is, the entry to the woods. I was wrong, just wrong. Idiot. Wasted energy. Don't squander it, go in on the front and hold it.
Iain's in front of me, Osmond ahead, Neil's right there. Marc Boudreau, Derrick St. John, Doug Van den Ham. I have no idea who else is where; I'm looking forward. Iain's on slick 32s, and slides off the narrow ledge alongside the puddle. He's off the bike, runs a few steps, back on, barely slows. I dab, dab, push, still moving, fine. We both launch our sole bottles off the same bump. Shit.
This trail is awesome. I love this stuff. Its so FUN. I wish the whole race was like this. Ok, not the whole race; that'd be a mtb race. Just enough to require a CX bike. Yeah, I'd like that. Pa-paa-pa-pa-paa. This rocks.
We're out and its playing out as planned. The split is solidifying, we are peeling away as 7, just the right number. Osmond Bakker (OCCTO - Cervelo), Doug Van den Ham (Nine2FivePro.com), Derrick St. John (Stevens Racing p/b The Cyclery), Marc Boudreau (Stevens Racing p/b The Cyclery), Neil Schiemann (Tall Tree Cycles / Steelwool), Iain Radford (Tall Tree Cycles / Steelwool), and yours truly, Matt Surch (Tall Tree Cycles / Steelwool). Osmond and Derrick are the strongest, then Doug, according to our experience. All of our opponents are wily.
Collaboration is the best approach. We will work together to lock in our gap, and sort things out down the road. The priority is to stay away for the first hour. These guys are smooth and smart. We function as a well-oiled machine, pulling through like clockwork as we tick off the kilometers. 70k to go with the pack chasing; we can do this as long as we work.
There is little to think about. Its simple: ride as smoothly as possible, waste as little energy as possible. Don't work more than required, focus on the rhythm. This is like tunnel vision: focus is narrow and determined. There is no, 'Is that guy gonna go?' 'Can that stick?' 'Why are we braking?' 'Is that Dave?' Internal dialogue is quiet. There is no need to waste energy with mind-words. Iain, Neil and I barely exchange any, except communicating our lost bottles. Neil wasn't taking chances, he brought two. He unselfishly gives me one. I share with Iain. With so little water, we don't dare eat. Shouldn't be a problem, I'm fat enough to ride 2.2hrs without bonking.
"They are coming! Lets work!"
"He's getting close! Lets make him work for it!"
The chase group, containing our guys, Dave Stachon and Rob Parniak, has been putting up quite a fight. Aaron Fillion, a man who can time trial with the PROs, is driving it. Aaron (Ride with Rendal), has no team-mate up the road. Warren MacDonald does, Doug. He won't help Aaron chase. Likewise, our guys won't contribute to the chase, but they will remain poised to attack if the catch is made. That leaves The Cyclery and Euro-sports in the chase group to do the work. Aaron has broken off, desperately trying to bridge the gap. He won't. Its too much.
We all know where the next crux will fall: the switchback. Why doesn't it have a cooler name? I'll propose one: The Axe. One mistake, a lapse of power, and your life-line is severed. We won't know unti later how Neil comes to grief, attacking the inside of the turn, losing traction, and scrambling on foot. Chopped. Cut. He is gone. We are two against.
Derrick and Osmond attack, trading punches, feeling each other out for weakness. Iain follows closely, while I see them pull away. This energy-sapping double-track is both aged and undulating, ravaged by years of cart traffic and weather. Power is the only answer to the sandy surface that sucks wheels like a plecostamus. Doug comes up and I latch on. From here its all about smooth lines and power transmission. We regain contact and I've recovered enough to be able to meet any more accelerations. All good, except Neil is gone....what happened?
Now its down to one final gauntlet, the final wooded sector. It always comes down to this one, the third crux. We roll fast on pavement, and we all know. The woods. Go in gassed and its over. Severed, there will be no getting back on. Falter and its over. There is no room for mistakes.
I've been thinking I don't care, and this is exactly where I want to be. This is fun. We are 6. We've executed the tactic we wanted to, and it has worked almost perfectly thus far. I have no idea how we can win, but that doesn't bother me. Could we realistically have hoped for a better scenario? No. We're where we want to be, and that fact has to be respected. Negative thoughts have no place. I don't know how, but we've still got a chance. Just hang on through the woods and see.
I'm on the front and the others want to keep me there. I'm confident we have enough of a gap on the chase to soft-pedal and try to recover before we turn off into the Sugarbush sector. I turn in and I know its coming, just not when. Right at the entrance to the trail is when. Osmond goes, followed by Derrick and Iain. I go, and its a gong show. Bouncing off rocks, its frantic, desperate. I am forced to the right and launch off a rock, boosting what has to be 3 feet into the air. My bike holds, I'm fine. I know how to do this, I can be there, just focus. Nothing else matters; later doesn't matter. Now matters. Get there.
I have closed the gap to Osmond, and I am second wheel coming out of the woods. He takes the turn fast and pins it. I'm not sure whether to go or wait. I don't want to go with him alone; I don't think I can survive that. Derrick is coming, and he suckers me into pulling. I get low and claw us up to Osmond. Osmond has every interest in going hard from there, but I only wanted to neutralize him. I won't work. I want Iain to come up.
Doug and Iain struggle to get to us, Marc in tow. They are gassed. Less than three kilometers to go, it will be over soon. Switching across the road, Osmond is itchy, but knows he can't just ride away. Nor can Derrick. Chess.
Frigg. Osmond and Derrick look primed. They are masters of acceleration, and they are cunning. We crest the final slight ascending grade, and I know it will come to the sprint now for sure. The final 2.5 or whatever kilometers are slightly downhill, turning 90 degrees into the final straight, which is uphill. Uphill sprint...not good for us. What do I do?
Ok, hang back and be the last wheel. Hope that nobody is in the way when the sprint winds up, and try to get a good wheel. Back. Everyone is looking at each other, not wanting to make the first move, as we approach the turn. Iain is saying, 'C'mon guys, lets do something!'
It hits me. Yes! That's how, I CAN WIN!
I brake to drop further back, now 10 meters off the pack. Dropping to a higher hear, I explode from behind, aiming for the outside of the group, where there is room, setting me up for the right hand turn. I blow by without looking across and I know I have taken them by surprise. This is my chance, all in.
I am going fast enough to be wary of the turn and brake slightly, but don't scrub too much speed. This is 100% effort now, and I self-believe beyond reason. This is THE move, I see the line, I CAN. I go to a higher gear to try to change the effort up, but I am fading. The cones are coming, I'm veering, head down, looking between my legs.
Now I am close, but I can't go faster. This is it. This is me, everything I have. I hear them. Every muscle, every sinew I can control is in on this. It doesn't hurt, I just can't go harder. The line approaches, so close, and there it is: Derrick. He is passing. He got me. I stop pedalling as Osmond follows on his wheel, coming by as we cross.
Its over. Iain couldn't see, but he was hoping....nope. He's 5th, Doug ahead, Marc behind.
I am happy. I didn't win, but it feels like I kinda did. Why?
This is why I race. Not to win; its not about that. Its about the trying to win part. Just pedal harder? If it were that simple, we'd have been bored years ago. Its chess, gambling, psychologizing, meditating, thrashing, and striving, all wrapped up into one ball. A ball that, from the outside, looks like a caricature.
WE, our team, did what we set out to do. We had a plan, and we made it happen. Neil, Iain, and I were committed to being up front, and we did it. Rob and Dave were where they had to be to cover us. Jim, Andy, Jamie, and Todd wanted to step closer to the front, and they did. Marcel flatted. taking the bad mojo for the team. From my perspective, we succeeded. Heck, we got 6 guys in the top 15, and four in the top 10. Solid.
My personal satisfaction comes from making the best decision I could, at precisely the right time, under pressure. I can't ask more from myself, nor can I magically make myself into a rider with the ability of Derrick, Osmond, or Doug. All I can do is try. If stronger riders beat me despite my best efforts, as did Derrick and Osmond, chapeau, respect. No victory will taste sweeter than one that comes from besting my betters. I'm going to keep on trying, and I have a feeling my team-mates will too. We live for this stuff, it is the glue that binds.
Full results: http://cyclocross.org/page5/files/PR2013GC.pdf
I'll leave you with the song that I had pumping in my head for about 60k: