A week ago Heath Cockburn, our sales manager and a former professional cyclist, told me he would race "To Hell and Back the Paris-Roubaix Challenge". I had heard about this local race, 90 brutal miles of which 16 miles are on dirt and 30 are on gravel roads. Add to that the typical November weather around Toronto and you know you're in for a lot of trouble.
But that's exactly its appeal, it's a back-to-the-basics no-nonsense event with minimal support and no excuses accepted. Or as race organizer Mike Barry, Sr., puts it: "Don't whine about the conditions, it's called to Hell and Back for a reason." The event is small with about 50 participants and a $1000 budget, which made me think it was probably similar to the turn-of-the-century bike races or the early Ironman triathlons.
I hadn't ridden my bike for about three months -- since Ironman Canada -- and was in no shape to ride to the corner store, let alone to Hell, but I can blame my decision to sign up entirely on Udo Bolts. I read in an interview that he decided to do Ironman Hawaii simply because "I know how it is to climb a 25-kilometer alp in the Tour de France, but I don't know how it is to cycle after a 3.8-kilometer swim, and run after it. Most are scared to try another sport, but it's good for your mind." That struck a chord with me, because although I am at the other end of the skills spectrum, I had struggled through an Ironman for that reason yet had no idea what it would be like to ride to Hell.
So I asked Nigel Gray, a professional triathlete with half a dozen Ironman starts, to come along and Heath convinced his friend Bill "Stafi" Stathoulopoulos to do the same. Two professional athletes, two tourists, four Cervelo road bikes with cross tires, zero off-road experience, 90 miles of misery and hundreds of questions. We studied the map, got some advice from Mike Barry, Sr., test-rode a dirt section on Saturday and on Sunday morning at 8AM we were ready to roll
Heath had his plan all worked out. He would attack from the gun, as the first bit was mostly gravel and asphalt, and then see how long he could stay ahead of the specialists. Bill and I would control the back of the field (in other words get dropped immediately) . Nigel was the dark horse. He can ride with the best of them, but his confidence off-road was about as low as the race day temperature, which, with the wind-chill, was 24°F. Plus he is not feeling very good after a stag party the night before.
The gun goes, the group takes off and after a mile I am happy to see that I'm still in the group. We turn right onto the first gravel section and instantly I am not longer a part of the group. This is something else, the pouring rain has made this gravel a lot tougher than I expected. We make another right turn and hit the first dirt section. It's tough but doable, and I am right behind Nigel. I look back, and there is only one rider behind us. I shout this encouraging information to Nigel, who just laughs in disbelief. It's going to be a long day. Nigel pulls away a bit, and we pass Bill. He says he can't see anything through his glasses, I am having the same trouble. I completely overlook a groove in the road, and now I literally hit the first dirt section. That hurts, but my bike is OK. Bill and I turn onto a paved section and after another turn we go by the start line again. We toss our sunglasses, look at each other and he says his legs are dead already. Only 85 more miles to go.
We enter the first long gravel section and start taking turns, or so I think. After I pull for a few minutes Bill is gone. I look back, and he is half a mile away, the first of many examples today of how quickly gaps occur when the terrain gets tough. I'm noticing a perfectly shaped burr on my right glove, I must have picked that up when I crashed. I resist the temptation to peel it off, and promote it to my official mascot for the day. Every twenty minutes when I shove some food into my mouth, the burr is right in front of my eyes and gives me some encouragement.
I decide to keep going until after the first really tough section, as Bill should be faster there. A guy on a Bike Friday catches me, we ride together for a few minutes while we fend off two aggressive dogs. This race has it all. He drops me, then I drop him, we're not really racing each other but these things simply "occur" without any intention. All of a sudden an arrow points to the left. Mr. Friday slows down and almost pulls into a muddy field. Since this course is so uncultivated in some areas, it's hard to always know where to go. At the last moment he sees that a bit further the mud actually has a name, it's Prouse Rd. I guess it was abbreviated to Rd. because this pile of mud, snow and puddles doesn't deserve the full four letter word. Yet plenty of other four letter words come to mind to accurately describe it.
A paved section provides enough relief to eat half a Powerbar, but then it's back into the dirt. This time there are some steep descents, and in my learn-as-you-go off-road lesson I notice I'm slipping out of control with both wheels blocked. So I let go of both brakes and now I'm speeding out of control. You just can't win in these situations. The bottom of the hill appears before I can hurt myself and another hurdle is taken.
I'm starting to get tired, and with the fatigue the questions start entering my mind. "Why am I doing this?", "How far into the race am I?", "Is there anybody to ride with?" I drop Mr. Friday again and in the distance I hear a train. I see its tracks 200m ahead and think about how great it would be to be stopped by the train. A forced rest stop that you can deduct from your finish time when you brag with your friends, and no matter what I'll claim that it took the train at least 10 minutes. I near the tracks, hear the train, but don't see it yet. When I finally see it, it becomes obvious that I will beat it to the crossing. My thoughts immediately change to the excitement of being able to shake off everybody behind me with the help of my locomotive friend. As soon as I cross the tracks the warning signals start ringing, but I'm safe.
300m ahead of me are two riders, I would like to catch them but I'm not getting any closer. I recognize the gravel road I'm on, and know that it will end with a sharp turn onto a paved road and a very steep hill. We drove this part yesterday and Heath mentioned how one of his teammates turned that corner last year in his big ring, was unable to shift down in time and had to walk up the hill. That's something professional cyclists don't like to do! When I near the turn I check my gears, but there's no reason for action. The rain is making this gravel section so hard that not only have I been in the small ring for the past half hour, I'm in my smallest gear period. I turn the corner and see the two I couldn't catch walking up the hill. This is my chance, I can catch them simply by riding up this hill. But I can't, this thing is too steep. (Heath will later admit that even he walked up this hill, something he has never done in his 20 years of cycling).
I catch the two anyway, because they stop to stretch at the top of the hill. I chat for a few seconds, and when I leave one of them pads me on the shoulder and wishes me luck. It exemplifies everything I like about this event, it's a race but we're all in it together. They catch me again a bit further and together we turn into the next dirt section. This is the part I tried yesterday, and it was responsible for my first three cycle cross crashes. This road has very deep tracks, which are filled with water and covered with ice. The ice is then covered with snow. I wasn't fully aware of the "mechanical properties" of this sandwich construction yesterday, and while riding on the side of the road my front wheel suddenly broke through the ice. Half of the wheel disappeared, the bike came to an immediate stop while my body carried on for a few more meters and landed in a foot deep puddle.
Today it's a different story, as all the ice has been cracked by the riders ahead of me, and it's now clearer than yesterday that the middle of the road is where you want to be. Determined not to get any wetter than the rain and front wheel spray has already made me I stay safely on the center wall of the road, until that part disappears under water as well. Now the only solution is to walk at the edge of the road through the brush. Or you can try to ride there, which the eventual winner did until he fell onto the road and completely submerged his head in one of the puddles. After 10min of walking we come out to a paved section, and I notice both of my tires have developed slow leaks. I blow a CO2 cartridge on getting them back on pressure and continue. Thanks to my pit stop I am by myself again. A group catches and drops me, I am not enjoying this any more. I am tired and look forward to the feed station at the halfway point so I can withdraw from the race. Someone passes me and I hang on to his wheel. He pulls me back to the group, I thank him and do a few pulls myself. Now I'm dropping the group, this race is weird.
Somebody else catches me, we chat a bit and he asks me what bike I ride. I explain it's a Cervelo without decals (I just had it primered the week before) and it turns out he has a Cervelo time trial bike. Smartly enough he isn't riding it today. He suggests we share pulls for a kilometer at the time, but I have to tell him that my tank is empty. So I offer him one long pull, and then I tell him to go on. I could probably hang on to his wheel, but I don't want to hang on if I can't share in the work.
A sharp right turn, and I enter the "Hell of the North", a nine mile stretch of track. It's an old railroad bed and 2-inch rocks fly around my ears like a WTO protest turned violent. Yesterday a rock ricocheted off my front wheel onto my chin, today I am dodging the bullets coming off Mr. Friday's rear wheel. So we meet again. Since this road isn't big enough for the two of us, I pass him and take off. When I look back three minutes later, he is out of sight.
I am now 3-and-a-half hours into this race and I am wondering why I'm not at the halfway point yet. I am so ready to give up, yet there's no place to do it. When the Hell crosses a paved road I ask the marshal where the halfway point is, which he explains is behind me. Now I'm starting to think I have missed my opportunity to quit, could I have missed the feeding zone? So when I see the next marshal I ask where the feeding zone is, which he says is still ahead. It now dawns on me that the halfway point is not halfway, it later turns out to be at 56 miles. I cross a bridge made up of random pieces of slippery wood, I feel a few of them slamming all the way to my rims. This is where we turned around yesterday, and I was told it was close to the end of Hell. But this stretch keeps on going and going, although it changes from pebbles to very deep gravel to rollers covered in slush and back to pebbles again. Variety is the spice of suffering.
I stop to stretch my back, but I don't want to wait too long as Chantal, Nigel's wife, is supposed to be at the feeding zone and I really want her to take me back to the finish line. I am afraid that if I get there too late she'll presume I've quit and leave, and I can't blame here for wanting to be back at the finish line when Nigel arrives. When I get back on my bike a group passes me which includes of course Mr. Friday. I am content to follow his lead, and it is amazing to see how that wheel slips all over the trail. I wonder if my wheel is doing the same, but I can't really look down without crashing.
Then I see light at the end of the tree-lined tunnel, then a van, a car, and Chantal. I respond to her "Hi Gerard, you are doing awesome," with a sincere "It's been fun, but it's enough, do you have room in your car for me and my bike?" In fact, I'm willing to leave the bike behind if I have to. She tells me Nigel and Heath are together in the top-10, and they are only 30 minutes ahead. Half an hour in 56 miles, that's not nearly as bad as I had thought.
In an attempt to clean me up she pulls the burr off my glove. I cringe, explain to her it's my mascot and put it back on the glove. A minute later somebody else walks by, and she too removes the burr. Why is it that while I'm covered in mud from head to toe, this tiny burr really gets to people? I look at the burr lying helplessly on the ground, look at Chantal and we just laugh. She tells me to continue, as there are only 34 miles left and only 3 miles of dirt. She forgets to tell me that most of the rest is gravel, and my brain is so fried that I actually believe her and get back on my bike. While a lot of riders have a complete change of clothes here, I just put on dry gloves. I'm only wearing two layers, a base layer and RNH White Jacket, but it has created a perfect microcosm for my body. It's my saving grace, as I wouldn't be able to cope with being cold on top of all these other tribulations.
Off I go again, without the burr but surrounded by a fog that has been rolling in stronger and stronger. It takes all of five minutes before I regret my decision to continue, but I'm hoping that Chantal will drive by and I will be able to flag her down. Ten minutes later she passes me, but all I can do is wave. I'm such a wuss, too weak to quit. But I am finding my rhythm, and while "enjoying" would be slightly overstated I am feeling better. Every now and then I pass somebody, it's strange to see that this far into the race the differences in speed are so big. You pass, and you disappear out of sight.
I'm on Concession #3 now, and recognize it. Nigel trains here a lot and once sent me out in this direction by myself. I got lost, bonked and had the greatest troubles getting home. A bad case of history repeating itself. This road is a never-ending series of small but steep hills, and on the steepest one I convince myself that walking must be easier than riding. On my right is a golf course, and I make a note-to-self that golf is really my sport, not cycling. Strolling along whacking at a ball every once in a while, now that's entertaining. Pushing a bike up a hill, that's just stupid and not as easy as it seemed while I was still riding it. So I hop back on and summit this 80-foot giant.
A marshal waves a flag to indicate I should cross the road. She warns me of a drop-off into the ditch, but I can't see anything until I'm a few feet away. I make the 15-foot drop without a problem, and start crawling through the mud and snow once again. There are two riders just ahead, but whenever they dismount and I think I can catch them, I have to dismount as well.
When we get back on the paved road, they are 100m ahead of me. I give it my all and close the gap. The luxury of sitting on somebody's wheel and eating a bit is indescribable, and I decide to stay with them and share the work. One of them asks me if I am getting my $25 worth, I just ask what mud is going for per pound these days. We're all covered head-to-toe, I've been eating mud with every Powerbar, drinking it with every sip of water, that's gotta be worth something.
Then a sound, a crack, and a rubbing noise. My bike comes to a complete stop, my rear wheel is busted. I've covered 75miles, there's only one dirt section left, and I'm stranded. The other two continue, and I have to try and call the race office for tech support. It takes me half an hour to find a living being that has the technology to make the call for help. I'm surprised at how unaffected I am by this mishap, I had just warmed-up to the thought that I would finish this race and now I'm standing here in the freezing cold in anticipation of the broom van. There is no talk of repairing my bike, it's simply thrown into the van and I huddle inside to warm up.
When I get to the finish, Chantal, Nigel, Heath and Bill are all waiting for me. It turns out Nigel has been riding like a champ on the way back, mastering all the dirt sections without dismounting and making up some ground on the roads where he trains regularly. He finished sixth, only 26min behind the winner. Heath had to walk the last dirt section and let Nigel go, he came in tenth.
But in the end, it all matters little. We all have a feeling we have experienced sports the way it is supposed to be, the way it was before million dollar contracts and $350 entry fees. The spirit of the sport, any sport, is alive and it can be found in hundreds of little events around the world.
About the author: Gérard Vroomen is the co-owner of Cervélo Cycles, a leading manufacturer of triathlon, time trial and road bicycles. He is also an extremely untalented cyclist and triathlete [says he], although he has participated in two national championships. Unfortunately those were for bridge and fencing.