The Tour of Bronte is a road race…yes, I said it…a road race. And yes, I did it! You would think that after my Good Friday Race experience, one was enough. If you know me, you know I like to back up my suffering experiences, just to ensure that it wasn’t just a fluke the first time around. It wasn’t a fluke! Road racing is mental torture, makes me grind my teeth and is truly terrifying! When you throw in gravel, it goes to proportions beyond sadistic.
I’d been hearing things about the Tour of Bronte, some good and some sketchy. The good parts; it was flat, a closed course (meaning no cars), 8 km loop done multiple times and it was basically local being situated just in Oakville. The sketch parts; 50% gravel, lots of twists and turns, a gauntlet of massive potholes and it was a mass group start…women went out with the men leading to approximately 100 riders blasting out of the start in what I now know is never neutral!
In my semi-comatose state of Saturday morning, after three days of hard riding already, I decided what the hell, I’ll try the race regardless of its pitfalls. The only way I can learn is by trying. So I packed up my bike, my lady bug helmet cover and off I went to the race.
The temps were cold, the wind was blowing enough to create a bad hair day and it became clear that it was gravel galore when I drove into the park. Trying to warm up was beyond uncomfortable. Sporting all things warm including my down jacket, it was amazing how my lady bug helmet cover was still not met with approval from some clad in ultra-lycra apparel. Accustomed to the disdain from not conforming…I warmed up with the comfort of goose down and bunny-hopped potholes to remind myself I’m a mountain biker.
Lining up at the start…well I lined up at the back of the start. Fully aware of the skills of those that do this thing often, I was not about to interfere in their performance. I happily placed myself, almost in sweep mode, embracing the human free space.
The horn sounded and the start felt like a slingshot. Everyone propelled forward at breakneck speed and I was still stuck to the slingshot. Catching up, it wasn’t long before the group scrunched up like a squished pop can as an entire lane of riders, 10 abreast, tried to squeeze to two riders wide onto gravel. Dust was flying everywhere as the racers entered the world of all things not paved and far from smooth. Hanging on the back, I sucked in their dust leftovers and could barely see the mass of experienced riders getting further and further away.
It didn’t take long before the ‘swarm’ of lycra was long gone and a bunch of us struggling bugs were hap-hazardly placed on the course. Each turn on the marble rolling, loose gravel was pure terror for me and best done alone. I felt my back tire slide out taking a corner too quickly and my eyes flew open wide. “Nah uh, hell no,” flew through my head. Instant pictures of me lying bloodied in the shape of a pretzel from crashing on a corner filled my brain. The imagination is very cruel and quick to serve that cruelty in times of unrealistic fear! Checking my speed, I knew that the gravel had to be a place of calm and control. No evasive actions, no bravado. If I had to slow down so a change of shorts wasn’t necessary…best to do so!
It wasn’t long before I came upon two other women. They were working together and pace-lining in order to make it easier on both of them. They offered for me to join in and I was more than happy to try it out. I’ve never pace-lined before and I was impressed at the amount of energy saved by such a quick rotation.
The race turned out to be more like 70% gravel and 30% road! I discovered that cornering on gravel with others made me grind my teeth and my spatial awareness was super magnified. The universe works amazing things when terror is the first feeling and somehow I managed to be at the back of the pack for most of my least favourite sections.
We continued to pace-line for four laps and I was incredibly appreciative of their willingness to tolerate me. Our work together quickly came to a halt when I slowed down ever so slightly to have a nibble…I don’t do nibble and gravel well, so I waited for the road portion. A couple of more laps to go, I knew if I didn’t consume some sustenance, my stomach would start eating into my back and only bad things come from that! The women kept their groove on and I was quickly dropped from the group and on my own.
Missing the energy savings from the dynamic duo, I tried to bridge the gap. I pushed, grunted, drooled and pushed some more. I couldn’t get back to them although they seemed like they were spitting distance away. I was the turtle chasing the hares. Racing alone, against the wind, eventually the gap grew larger and larger. I then lost sight of them in the dust-laden abyss. Being alone was becoming a familiar theme for me in road racing. Accepting my solitary place in the world, I did what I do best; put my head down and took the suffering like a trooper.
Going into the last lap, ahead of me, an ambulance was leaving the course. With no sirens sounding or lights flashing, I wasn’t sure if they were transporting some poor soul that lost it on the gravel deathtraps or it just happen to be cruising in the area for fun! Just the visual of the vehicle was a quick reminder, I didn’t want to be one of the gurney users (I’ve been there, done that, under different circumstances). With one lap left, I was going to play a good hand and play it smart. Following the lines I learned to get through the pothole gauntlet, I reached the comfort of the final stretch of concrete bliss.
Hollywood must have brought their wind machines and were doing a remake on the movie ‘Twister’! At least that is what it felt like riding solo. I tried to stand up and pedal to use some different muscles…what a bad idea! I felt like a flag whipping in the wind! The high-powered, no this is not a breeze, was relentless and was going in one direction…straight at me. Positioning into my drops was as aerodynamic as I could get. Even though it helped, ever so slightly, it still felt like I was pulling a sled of people on pavement.
Nearing the finish, a group of riders were quickly approaching from behind…I was being lapped by the pros. They had done one full lap more than me and we were about to cross the finish line together. Suddenly, there was a sound that was so very wrong. It was either a tire blowing out or a tire rubbing another tire. A seriously loud, ‘bbbbzzzzzzzz” happened somewhere behind me. It was followed with the sound of ‘things’ hitting the ground. I didn’t know what the ‘other things’ were but I was certain that it didn’t end well. There was no ability to stop and see what had happened since drastic manoeuvres could create more carnage. My brain has enough ability to create visuals without the actual visuals! Crossing the finish line, I had no idea how many riders went down, or how badly they were hurt. There was definitely skin loss and bike donations and I was sure to find out soon enough.
Within minutes of being at the car, the news was travelling….two riders had crashed sprinting to the end. Fortunately the DNA donations to the pavement gods had been minimal as they were launched into the grassy island. The bike donations were, however, great! Cracked frames led to broken smiles.
This wasn’t the only crash during the race. The ambulance I mentioned earlier did have a gurney visitor. A group of riders became a mangled mess on a gravel turn. One rider was making a trip to an emergency room while the others involved in the crash, although not needing hospital care had raspberry-red evidence of skin-meeting-gravel consequences. There was also the grim reality that their aerodynamic, carbon sweetness was now a cracked mess. Bank accounts were going to suffer to replace these prized and broken possessions.
I had survived the Tour of Bronte gravelfest finishing 13th overall in the women. Completely satisfied with my result, I was ecstatic that I had evaded being carnage for another one. I left the race venue having learned a lot more about road racing and who I am as a racer and a person. I love to race…mountain bikes! I love to try hard! I have no problem being a workhorse. I do not like when the risks outweigh the benefits. I am also happy that I am secure enough within myself to let go of my ego and ‘ride to ride another day!’
Another new race done! Another lesson learned! Do I have any regrets…NONE! Will I do another one…I’ve learned to never say never!