Monday, April 13, 2009

The Hell of the North

Yesterday was the Toronto Paris-Roubaix Challenge, also known as "The Hell of the North." As I said to Noah's father yesterday, it was a lot tougher than I'd expected. As he said to me, "Well what did you expect of Hell?"

I began preparing for the race in earnest on Friday. Mostly this consisted of eating prodigiously—yes, even two days before the event. I also took Alan out for a ride in his final configuration to check for problems. (The water bottle clamps were loose and my seatpost clamp was cracked—good thing I caught them!) On Sunday I tensioned the spokes in my wheels (they were incredibly loose on the non-drive side of the rear wheel) and ate even more prodigiously. I also took the very important step of going to sleep early, and the even more important step of watching A Sunday in Hell right before doing so.

On Sunday I was up at 5am. I ate two bagels and a grapefruit, drank a litre of chocolate milk and a litre of water, and rode to Mike's house for my ride. (As marshal, he needed to be there early.) On the dark ride to Mike's, it was very clear that it was going to be cold. During the ride to the race, Mike made it clear it was also going to be muddy.

We got to Musselman Lake about an hour and a half early. I spent most of the time swapping my cracked American Classic seatpost for a Nuovo Record 2-bolt. I also swapped my Rolls saddle for a Flite — a certain amount of weight-weenieness is allowed in a race after all! I tried not to drink anything right before the start (I couldn't resist a tea...) and peed out all my excess morning fluids. I ate a few Fig Newtons and stuck about 15 in my back pocket.

At 8.30, we were off. Noah and I stuck together over the lengthy opening road section. The lead group was moving quickly but not overwhelmingly so, so we were able to keep up with them over the first 25km. When we came to Section 1, however—the misleadingly named Boag "Road"—things for me took a bit of a turn. Mike had told me it was "mostly submerged." I imagined riding over pavement covered in a foot or two of water. In fact it was about 4km of swamp. I roared in with the group at about 40km/h and ran straight into snow, ice, and mud. I decided to run along the edge with Alan over my shoulder for the whole 4km. This strategy got me to the end much quicker than the people who struggled to ride and fell into the frozen lakes of muck.

At the end of the section I discovered that one of my cantilevers had mysteriously gotten itself stuck under my rim. That took some fiddling with. Then there was the matter of trying to clip in after 4km of jogging through muck. But eventually I was back at it.

Then, about 4km from the end of the section, something extremely bizarre happened. I was riding along with 4-5 other people. We saw a woman on a horse up ahead. A car drove by us and honked in support. Then the horse got spooked, bolted up the road, and threw its rider off. This all happened about 20 feet in front of us. The rider was unconscious on the pavement. I called 911 and stayed on the phone until two police officers had showed up. I got got going again when I heard the ambulance sirens. (I hope she's okay—I guess I won't really ever know!) Another kilometre up the road I passed the horse.

It took me a while to get my head back into the race. I finally did when I entered the 14km-long "Trench." I still had a lot of energy in my legs and by this time was desperately far behind Noah and the pack, so I really let loose on this section. It was muddy but completely rideable, and unbelieavably fun. There was also a very strong tailwind. This was probably the most fun 14km I've ever ridden.

After that there was another long section on-road. I rode alone, pushing as hard as I could the whole way. I'd lost the use of my front derailleur in the Trench, but the 46x24 was fine for climbing the rolling hills. I passed a lot of despondent riders in the section, who hadn't had quite as good as time as me in the Trench.

The last two sections were insane. I rode the downhills when I could, but my 46x24 definitely couldn't get me uphill. So I jogged for another 8km or so. Then, quite perfectly, about 100m from the finish I came up behind Noah, and we finished together.

The ride certainly taught me my strengths and weaknesses. I'm definitely a better road rider than off-road. I can go hard for long periods, but am not much when it comes to bike-handling in muck. Slight mudiness and a few puddles like in the Trench are fine; but not the first and last sections.

It also taught me Alan's. There is something magical about his steering that kept me from falling down. I would be riding over snow or through muck and bracing myself for a fall when he would re-centre and balance me. I don't quite understand it, but it's nice. The Flite saddle was good too. I found it incredibly comfortable. I'm going to ride it on a 200km brevet and see if I like it as much as a Brooks. The front derailleur is a problem: a switch for a single-chainring setup seems like it would make sense.

And there was a problem with my seatpost binder. Alans have a narrowing in the seat tube to prevent the post from sliding all the way in, and thank God. My saddle slipped about 2cm during the ride, and the post embedded itself in this narrowing. I had to twist and twist to get the post out last night, and then the faulty binder won't come out of the seatlug. I'm going to have to ream it out from the inside I guess!

It was an incredibly good time, anyway. I'm sorry for not having photos of the ride, but I was more concerned with finishing than with documenting it! There were lots of people with cameras and video-cameras along the route, though, so I'm sure we'll see lots of images eventually...

A final note: having watched Paris-Roubaix 2009 in its entirely last evening, I can say with certitude that our "Challenge" is in many ways harder than theirs. Sure, theirs is over twice as long. But Sections 1, 4, and 5 — and even the Trench — make cobbles look like freshly paved asphalt.

ps: This is Section 1. And see me in all my glory here. There are many, many excellent photos there. We'll pardon the copyright signs and the confusion regarding the various departments of the Beyond.


Harry Quinn said...

Hey there,

Nice write up.

I was one of the riders in the group when the lady was tossed off the horse. Pretty crazy. I think her friend trying to administer first aid was also in shock!

The course was great. Chico and I also had a trying time getting our heads back into the race before the trench.

All I can remember from the first 15km in the lead group was commenting on the merits of the Alan as I sat on your wheel. I also noticed your giant overmitts! Did I see one of those on the side of the road 3hrs later?

AH said...

The Alan is a fine machine! I don't know if anyone else was watching the coverage of the Fl├Ęche Wallonne this morning, where the Alan's "flexiness" was specifically insulted. Of all things! And modern carbon fibre bikes "works of art"? I hardly think so!

My mittens survived, thank goodness. During a Hell n' Back a few years ago I did lose a precious mitten. But my green ones made it all the way to the finish, and saved my cold-prone hands...