Ah, the long-awaited Paris to Ancaster race. An event full of mud, mayhem and magic. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the goal is to race 60 km from Paris, Ontario to Ancaster, Ontario. Known for its epic nature, there is a blend of rail trail, farm lanes, mud slides, gravel roads, soggy grass, horse poop and the occasional paved road. There is also the Canadian spring weather…anything can happen!
After this snowy winter, the spring thaw was leaving its mark…soggy, squishy everything. Weeks before the race there was a lot of talk flittering about that the conditions would be grim. Even in dry conditions in previous years, there was always mud…very deep mud! Mud powerful enough to stop your bike dead in its tracks and suck your shoes from your feet if you dared to step down. This year did not disappoint. The week leading up to the event, Mother Nature donated over 100 mm of rain. As Monday turned to Friday and the rains were still coming, the local chatter changed from enthusiasm to fear!
I’ve been really excited about doing this race since I now had a real cyclocross bike to use. An ultra-light stealth bomber that would help me fly on everything but the mud, I was certain I could give the Road Runner a run for his money! Last year, using my mountain bike I excelled in all the cyclocross bike eating mud and turned into a station wagon against porsches when it hit the pavement. There was no matching cyclocross speed even with delusions of grandeur. Not this year! This year I planned on ripping it on the roads and leaving flames for tracks.
My excitement came to a rapid halt when a bout of food poisoning or some sort of horrific stomach plague hammered me during a road ride on the Monday. In my efforts to make it home, I resembled Linda Blair from the Exorcist on several occasions. It wasn’t pretty but it was a testament to my resilience. The remaining part of the week lead to losing 7 lbs, no bike rides and uncertainty that racing was possible.
Race day came with blue skies, crisp temps and a hint of snow. Feeling a bit better, I decided I’d give the race a go. The registration was paid so I figured attempting to do it was at least a good start! If I had to bail I would and it would be the only time dropping out would be acceptable!
Steven prepped my new, cut through air machine, although not much had to be done. It had never experienced dirt before, only the dust from our neighbourhood street! That was clearly evident with the blinding rays shooting like laser beams from any metallic parts that caught the sun. It was being propelled from its factory-fresh, pristine appearance into a place where there was no return. The glowing, snowy white bar-tape and seat would become a permanent beige. The gears would go from being silent and buttery smooth to a vibrating, jaw-clenching sound of dry metal-on-metal mashing between 20 grit sand paper!
Sporting my new Erace Cancer Cycling Team kit, I felt decked out! I usually look like I got dressed in the dark so this was an improvement for me. To top off my well-dressed cyclist look, I added my Lady Bug helmet attire!
Another mass start with approximately 400 riders is not what I call a good time. Like a herd of cattle being shuffled through a narrow opening, it became just shy of a stampede when the horn sounded. Making it out of the gate and the gauntlet had begun. Riders were dodging wheel-size swallowing potholes, some unsuccessfully causing water bottles to eject from their cages threatening to take down other unsuspecting racers. Other riders were darting from side to side trying to achieve a better position up front. Some riders began fish-tailing on the gravel taking a turn, narrowly escaping crashing, some did crash! I backed off as I usually do in these starts…I don’t do chaos! My desire to crash in the first kilometre of the race was zero and survival was paramount.
Converging onto a rail trail was mayhem. The width of riders went from 10 across to 2 across. Put a bunch of Tasmanian devils into a group and try and make them move in an orderly fashion…not remotely possible. Interesting tactics resulted and ejection over their handlebars into the surrounding forest was evidence of failed strategies.
A steady pace was eventually achieved and the mass of racers I was with had incredible trail etiquette. Every hazard was yelled out. Quick deceleration was announced from riders further up. The rail trail was surprisingly dry and hard packed which allowed for smooth sailing. I soaked up the joy of speeding along on my aerodynamic machine. The return for my effort was huge. I felt the pain of the mountain bikers as they watched me fly past them. All I could think was “I’m sorry! I know your pain!”
We eventually came to our first hill filled with loose, fist-size rocks and dirt. Not sure how the new machine would handle the terrain, I elected to run up it along with the others. Running it felt wrong! I really didn’t like getting off my bike and I particularly don’t like not getting a hill. Oh well, all was said and done and I hopped back on the bike and carried on. The next climb came and I said, “screw it! Ride it until you tip over!” There were riders dismounting their bikes everywhere! Dodging them like pilons, one pedal stroke at a time, I made it to the top and gave myself a little, “F#!k yeah!”
The farm lane turned to hard packed gravel. The views were beautiful with endless farmland and green hints of spring. The other effects of spring became rapidly apparent during my moment of bliss…mud, lots and lots of it! A double-track lane filled with brownie cake mix coloured sludge as far as the eyes could see with no alternative path. Riders ahead slowed to a crawl, swerving from the suction of the unbaked goo. I thought about dismounting and running it but began to find hard packed, slightly frozen sections and riding a straight line was doable. It wasn’t long before the mud drama was over and smooth riding was possible again.
It was a repeat mode of gravel to grass to mud with hints of road as the kilometres ticked by. Nearing 30 km, it was clear that the life sucking muck was taking its toll on riders that passed me earlier on. The clincher was a farm lane filled with mud and lined with quicksand speed, waterlogged grass. It was the pit of despair and it was sucking in many souls. The physical demands were profanity inducers for many. Weaving about, searching for a firmer path, many blurted out choice words from having to dismount and walk! Their faces were drawn from fatigue and surely their waterlogged feet would be wrinkled for days! There wasn’t a chance I was dismounting unless I tipped over first. So I kept pedalling against the resistance of the drenched terrain, my eyes flitting about in search of good lines. It was somewhat exhilarating trying to succeed against the wrath of spring thaw and before I could really feel any suffering, I hit firm ground and left the poor, disheartened souls behind.
Forty kilometres in and my energy level was holding its ground. My bout of sickness left my legs with less than I wanted but overall, I was doing better than expected. The roads were rolling and I couldn’t stop smiling. My stealth bomber was an instrument of speed and I continued to pass riders who left me in their dust earlier..
Eventually it was time for the real mud…one of the two famous mudslides. The Indiana Jones mudslide kind of mud. Only there is no jungle, beautiful lagoons or fist size gems in the end.…just more gravel road! It’s a really long chute full of derailleur ripping, over the handlebars, shoe sucking sludge. If you have enough speed and luck, you’ll ride it. Otherwise it is a date with the “I’ll have to hose my clothes down outside then wash them three times to get the filth out!” I did a point and shoot at the top of the slide. Aim the bike straight and hope for the best. It worked until my bike came to a stop. I didn’t have enough speed and I was at a standstill, balancing against the forces inflicted by the sludge gods. My will was no match against the ever-sinking slop and dismount I did. Looking down, the mud was ankle deep. Lifting my bike from what felt like hardening cement, it was clear the leftovers on my, no longer glistening machine, weighed an extra twenty pounds. One step forward and my shoe almost got plucked from my foot. At that moment I saw the photographer snapping a picture of me and all I could do was laugh! I just kept laughing as I humped my bike down the latter half of the chute, listening to the shoe sucking sounds each step made. My thoughts went to the hundreds of racers still to come. The conditions would only get worse and would undoubtedly provide photographers with what they were looking for….face plants and head-to-toe mud covered riders.
Reaching the road, debris flung from every part of my bike as my speed increased. I have yet to learn to keep my mouth closed at such times and chunks of mud made perfect trajectory into my mouth. Chewing on grit, the sound of grit echoed from the crap stuck in between my brakes. It was a dam of twigs and other assorted things clumped together, clinging on and growing in size. It didn’t seem to interfere with my bike performance so I just kept riding.
Reaching another part of the rail trail, it was perfectly dry. I was relieved. This meant the finish wouldn’t be too far. It was a good time to start pushing a harder pace that was sustainable to the final climb. I felt turbo-charged and did what I had been training to do…time trial. Passing a bunch of riders in my quest for the finish, I’d been pushing for a while when I discovered a rider behind me. He’d been drafting and I didn’t know he was milking the draft. I never thought to look back. Quickly he pulled beside me and said, “nice pull. Now I’ll do some work!” He surged to get in front of me and the energy savings were a welcomed experience.
We were approaching the second and last, epically long mudslide and suddenly, my tank of energy fully drained. Realizing that my week long illness was finally catching up, my stomach sank at the thought of riding up the death march of a hill to the finish. My new bike didn’t have the perfect gearing for that kind of climbing. It was going to be pure pain and even walking it would suck. I popped out of my ‘woe is me’ fog to focus on the current slop adventure and aimed my bike straight. If I was stealth enough, perhaps I could make it. Spectators were screaming words of encouragement. I deeked, dodged then deeked obstacles and riders. Then, my bike came to a stop again. Not enough speed and I was cemented in the mud. I felt an ounce of Medusa coming out of me as I tried to yard my once ultra-light machine out of another pit of despair. In the hillside, I could hear friends yelling “Yawnee!!!! You’re a mountain biker…get on your bike!” All I could shout out was, “I don’t do skinny wheels!” Regardless of their observations of my current short comings, it was great to hear their laughter and it helped give me some extra drive for the finish.
The relief of gravel road came quickly along with a beautiful, male voice telling me there was only 5 kilometres left to go. I shouted out, “oh hell, ya!” Gravel quickly turned to a short section of mud, back to more gravel road and then the final stretch to the finish; the daunting climb of Martin’s Rd.
Scrambling over a downed tree, I recognized the area and knew it was about two kilometres of “I can’t believe they call this dirt crap a road,” hilly terrain. The last kilometre with a mix of loose and hard packed gravel, always slippery when wet, winds brutally steep uphill. Even those strong in spirit will whine with no visual of the finish until you round the last bend. It has broken many and it may just break me.
My legs were turning into stumps. The first signs of cramping for me…a warning of sorts! Heed the warning and I will avoid writhing in pain from my leg muscles trying to retreat to my upper body. Ignore the warning…let’s just say I was warned! Shifting to my easier gear, I tried to shift again hoping that one more easier gear would have magically appeared. There weren’t any! I had what I had and it was time to make it work or succumb to walking…an option I didn’t like. Suddenly I heard a very joyful scream which I recognized. Looking up briefly, I saw my friends Mary-Lin and Phil. ML was clapping and screaming words of encouragement. Phil was snapping shots with his phone and I’m pretty sure he said something positive but my focus for things other than suffering was dwindling. I drew some energy from their encouragement and kept grinding the pedals upwards.
The pitch of the hill began to steepen and my legs were becoming dried hardwood. Cramping was almost immanent. The last stretch of pure evil forced me to quickly search for strength from the deepest recesses of my soul. Without fail, I looked up and there stood my husband. He’d been waiting and planned to run the grade of death with me. I mumbled that my legs were toast and close to cramping. He just told me to keep pedalling….so I did.
One pedal stroke at a time, I began passing riders on my ascent. My rotations were slow and laboured. It was amazing that I was staying upright. Twinges of cramping were threatening to go full force. Nearing the last two steep switchbacks, I came upon two other riders (aka indecisive squirrels!). They were zigging and zagging out of sheer effort to summit. I tried to zag when they zigged. It wasn’t working. I kept getting blocked and trapped in their weaving. Reverting to track-standing at times, I paused my pedal strokes and stopped my motion to avoid collision with the riders. Soft pedal strokes kept me moving when I needed to and I managed to avoid tipping over. Steven kept telling me to stick with it. I certainly didn’t expect that the hardest effort was going to be dodging cyclists instead of the steepness. Finally an opening appeared when they zigged. I zagged, accelerated past them as the angle lessened and the finish line was in sight. Donning my raging bull sprinting face, I put what I had left into crossing the glorious line.
Ecstatic isn’t a good enough word to describe how I felt. Shaving a half hour off my time from last year thanks to my new stealth bomber was far beyond my expectations. Finishing 5th in my category and 18th in women overall was spectacular. With the fact that even racing was doubtful considering my pre-week Exorcist experience, these results were truly incredible. I gave it my all and any reserves I had were officially gone. Eating will now be my sport for the next week while I try and get back what I’ve lost. I may even get tired of chewing…but I’m OK with that!
I am so proud to be a part of the Erace Cancer Cycling Team and they certainly did shine at the race. Lori and Peter Kofman (creators of the Erace team) made it to the podium (no surprise there!) Also, Rob Sule shared the podium with Peter. There were many other Erace racers that participated, raced hard, did their best and showed what an incredible team Peter and Lori created.
What’s coming next…mountain bike racing! It’s what I have been waiting for and who I really am…a mountain biker! The rest is training!