Spring has finally arrived and I’ve been looking forward to dusting the cobwebs from my legs. You’d think that a winter of training indoors was enough to keep the spidery strings at bay but it doesn’t work that way for me. Sure, I have cardio fitness and even conditioned my legs but true racing fitness comes from racing and clearing the dust in my brain only happens when I am truly suffering out on the course. That being said, I signed up for the first race of the season called the Steaming Nostril in Elmira, Ontario.
Elmira is a beautiful location laden with pristine farmland, horse drawn carriages and endless dirt roads. This made it a perfect location for a race and the possibility to take a step back in time. This is the first year for the event and it appeared by the registration list online that there were a lot of racers looking forward to an early start in their race season. Reading the description, I knew it was a guarantee to be a sufferfest….at least for me. You see, it’s really a 68 km cyclocross race with a large amount of farm road, rail trail, an itty bitty amount of paved road….and absolutely no singletrack. I obviously didn’t learn from the Frozen Turkey Cross race about the price of bringing a mountain bike to a cyclocross event so I signed up.
My day started off with a beautiful drive to the race venue. The closer I got to Elmira, I noticed the trees were covered in fog frost (don’t know the technical term for it)! Needless to say, the spikey frost covered everything, giving the landscape a hint of blue and the scenery resembled an old-fashioned Christmas card.
The registration, parking and start/finish line were all very close in proximity which made for a fantastic set up to stay warm pre and post race. Glancing around the parking lot was a sea of cyclocross bikes. My voice in my head kept telling me I was screwed! So I hopped on my mountain bike in search of a glimmer of hope. Who else might have a mountain bike? It took a while but eventually I found a few other brave souls, otherwise known as souls that don’t own a cyclocross bike! It’s just training, I told myself…a race against myself. I’ll do what I’ve always done…ride to ride another day, finish and never surrender!
The start of the race was to be a neutral start led by two police officers on horseback! I’ve come to discover that there is my interpretation of what neutral start means which is far removed from others, even when there are horses in front! I am not skilled at being aggressive in a pack of riders and the feeling of being surrounded by a group darting around like spring-crazed squirrels made me retreat to the safer zone in the back. Within 1.5 kilometres from the start, there was an entry onto the rail trail that required a two rider at-a-time pattern and it was evident that’s where the real fun began.
Considering it’s spring and Elmira lies in a snow belt, this meant there was still a lot of the white stuff. The race organizers plowed the rail trail the day before but the 2 to 3 inches that were left made for some super sporty, fish-tailing, resistance-filled riding. My fatter tires travelled over the snow more easily than cyclocross bikes but my negligence to warm up meant my legs and lungs were exploding from the extra effort.
About 8 km in and it was paved road time. I was thankful for the break from the quicksand training, hoping the rail trail was done for a while. A quick jaunt down the paved road and we turned onto a dirt farm road. Again I felt the resistance of the softer earth underneath my wheels. It didn’t help my confidence that I could hear the whir of many cyclocross bikes buzzing past me. They were making up oodles of time on their speedy little road machines as I pushed my heavier, meant for singletrack in the forest beast. I dare not compare myself to others but I knew it was going to be a tough go trying to keep up with the speed of the incredible stealthy machines. A shrug of the shoulders, I shifted into a harder gear and decided it was time to try and find out how hard!
I began to push as hard as I could and watched my heart rate shoot to the stars. Trying to bridge the gap between me and the cross riders in front seemed endless. I needed more gears, a bigger set of lungs and well a whole lot of extra everything. Looking down at my cyclometer, I noticed I had hit the 20 km mark. “Crap,” I thought, 45 km more to go! I knew I couldn’t sustain the pace and backed off my pursuit if I wanted to finish. The other riders became spots in the distance and I was now on the road alone.
Taking in the scenery as I rode, I was trying to appreciate more than the sight of my maxed out heart rate on my Garmin. The landscape was breathtaking and would have been a tragedy to miss. Nearing an intersection, a police officer stood directing traffic for the race. Slowing down to observe his instructions, I noticed some horse drawn carriages waiting for permission to go. He ushered for me to carry on and I suddenly felt like I was entering a time warp and he was the gatekeeper to the entry back in time. Rounding the bend, I suddenly heard Rod Serling’s voice saying I had just entered the ‘twilight zone!’ It was officially the 1800’s and the only connection I had to 2013 was the fact I was riding a modern age mountain bike.
Approximately 20 horse-drawn carriages filled with Amish families were lined up on the left side of the road. They were all waiting to go through the intersection. As I continued to pedal, I could hear the clickety-clack of the horses hooves pulling the black wooden carriages that I began to pass, travelling my direction. Gazing out in the distance beyond the carriages were endless farm fields, frost covered trees and fields of untouched snow showing hints of last years crops. It was at that moment that I reminded myself how incredible these images were. The reason…I am alive and there were kids at Camp Oochigeas fighting for their lives and a hope that they will get to see adulthood. It was an emotional moment that burned these unique images into my mind. I comprehended how rare this time warp was and the fact that I had the privilege to see it….on my bicycle to boot! It was also at that moment that I knew that I was racing for more than myself and that it was important to see more than the finish line.
The gate closed to my time warp as I caught the visual of other riders ahead of me ascending another series of long, rolling hills. I felt recharged from my twilight zone experience and I was ready to try and bridge another gap. Standing up, I began to push….then push some more. I was getting closer, then the road began to bend. In came a new element….the evil headwind. It wasn’t a gentle breeze that delicately tosses your hair like a shampoo commercial, it was the kind of wind that makes you feel like someone just turned on the wind machines for the remake of the movie Twister and added ice cube temps to give it a little extra flavour!
I wasn’t psyched facing the headwind alone. Suffering is best when shared! It’s amazing how the universe can hear your desires. It didn’t take long for a group of cyclocross riders to come up behind me. The lead rider looked over at me and made a quick observation of my fashionable Lady Bug helmet cover! Without missing a beat he said, “Nice helmet cover! Hop on!” Hop on I did. I soaked up every minute of hanging at the back feeling the draft from the group. The burning in my legs and lungs began to dissipate and I was hoping the universe heard my pleas of this lasting until the end of the race. Well, apparently the universe decided to listen to the pleas for extra strength from others and the pace picked up. I pedalled as hard as I could to keep up but fell back and was again on my own.
Instead of griping about the situation that I signed up for, I embraced it. Putting in as much effort as I could without forgetting to enjoy the scenery, I did what I’ve trained myself to do…try hard and take the pain. It didn’t take long before I could hear the whir of mountain bike tires behind me. Rapidly approaching was an Amish gentleman, maybe 20 years of age. In his Amish cap and cultural attire, he flew past me on an old mountain bike. He gave me a joyous hello and seemed to instantly become a spot in the distance. I did see him fly past the riders that were further ahead of me. I can only imagine they had the same face of confusion and humility as I did. I tried to reason out his great speed by figuring he had just left a farm and was completely fresh. He definitely didn’t have the skunk streak up his back like most of us having ridden the slop of rail trail beforehand so I wasn’t totally disheartened by the speed I was only able to sustain.
The kilometres slowly accumulated and off in the distance I recognized the building we had passed when we exited the rail trail. I was hoping that it meant the finish was getting closer. Not knowing the course beforehand, I had a sneaking suspicion that we would be finishing back on the rail trail. Well my suspicion was right!
Now if you can imagine 230+ riders riding over slushy snow and silty, sloppy, squishy sand at the beginning of the ride…guess what happens when you give it a few hours to warm up. It became a life sucking, swishy swerving, soaking, grit spraying, where is the paved road, can’t find the right gear adventure. My mountain bike tire width seemed to fair better over much of the terrain and I had to bust out a few mountain biking skills…like how to ride a skinny for a really long way but the cursing that came from the mouths of those I passed are “R” rated and were specifically directed at the rail trail.
I was feeling the exhilaration of being near the finish. Recognizing the markers from the way out, I knew pavement was near and the finish would only be 1.5 km. Getting to the road, I screamed out, “Hell ya!” to the spectators and a whole lotta “yee haw’s” as I approached the finish line. Bells were clanging and the crowd was clapping and I gave it a good sprint over the finish line. All I could come out with was, “holy shit that was hard!” A quick turn to the left and I was at my car!
Looking down at my bike at the car….it was covered in dirt and ice. The snow had solidified to many parts of my bike and it took about ten minutes to remove it all before I could load it into the van. All the while, racers walked by and the consistent dialogue was about the finishing rail trail and how brutal it was! I kinda liked it so I kept my thoughts to myself!
I went into the Lions Hall to grab a bite of the free lunch the venue was providing. Not all the results were posted and I was certain a podium finish was not in the cards for me. I didn’t care about the results, I just needed to eat. Sitting down, I was a few spoons into my soup when I heard the announcer say something that resembled my name. He said it again and all I could come out with was “Uhhh, that’s me! I’m confused!” The people around me began to laugh and they ushered me to go up. On the podium I stood, in shock, but I was not speechless. I expressed my sheer excitement with the results and screamed out what I always have, a very distinct, “Hell Ya!” to the crowd of racers who also gave it everything they had, in dream of having the same opportunity of a podium finish.
It was an incredible day at an amazing event with a completely unexpected result. I surrendered my ego, took in captivating scenery, made a visit to the twilight zone, got smoked by an Amish rider and found more ways to dig deep. I fought hard to survive cancer….these experiences are some of the reasons why!
Next adventure….Good Friday Road Race! It is on my bucket list of races to do…this is the year to do it. Update to come!