“Clickety clack, clickety clack,” travelled with the wind and could be heard from beyond the next hill. There was no mistaking the sound of horses hooves striking the ground, either that or it was the making of the next Monty Python movie using coconuts. But alas, it was in fact, the majestic creatures that were moving steadily along, pulling a black, square-shaped carriage. Concealed within the primitive vehicle was a family dressed in plain black attire. These occupants were but a few of those pursuing a simpler life in the area and maintaining the true meaning of living off the land…the Mennonites.
The buggy wheels stirred dust into the air as they turned from the roadway into a farm- lane lined with golden and brown coloured cows. The farm set back in the fertile landscape, surrounded by rolling green fields was sectioned by willow trees, its branches gently waving in the wind. Clothes hung to dry on the line, a sight seldom seen anymore. If it weren’t for the pavement beneath my bicycle and my lycra reminding me of the current century, I would have been certain a hot tub time machine tossed me back hundred years.
The 6th O-cup road race took place in Hawkesville, Ontario, a quaint community within 10 kilometres of the beautiful, warm and welcoming, St. Jacobs, Ontario. The entire area is known for its incredible farmland, horse-drawn buggies, Mennonite communities, farm markets and roadways accommodating other users. It isn’t uncommon to see “Share The Road” signs and notifications to give space to horse-drawn buggies and slower moving vehicles.
This road race course appealed to me due to the location and the roads were unfamiliar. A previous Kitchener/Waterloo O-cup race years prior didn’t have the magical scenery or roadways and turned into a terrifying, crap my shorts and may never road race again experience. After a quick pre-ride a day earlier of the new route following the picturesque Conestoga River, there was no doubt it would be a worthy race.
Crusty eyed with a 4:30 a.m. wake up, the weather man said it would be a beauty day. Just over an hour drive on quiet roads (why else would anyone want to be up at that hour), it was low stress driving, parking and registration for the early start at 8:30 a.m.
Lining up at the start, the sun was shining brightly, the skies were clear and a crisp with a gentle breeze keeping the temperature perfect for racing. An ideal moment for people watching, it was evident some ladies were serious about this event, their faces devoid of emotion and eyes fixed straight ahead. Others smiled and spoke to friends and some hung their heads, x-raying the pavement while one leg sewing machine tapping the ground. Many of the racers were new to me but they looked fast…their beautiful legs told me so!
The start was neutral with a quick right turn shortly followed by a left one. These quick arriving corners are always a little nerve-wracking amongst strangers with the uncertainty if they can hold their proper position turning. It took only seconds to discover who to stay away from.
Following the turns is a steep downhill and the neutral pace was over. The race was on. The main beast of a climb was within seconds of the descent. Still trying to find a position in the group and “Bam!” the first attack came. The girls in the front, all young enough to be my daughters or granddaughters, shot up the hill like they had nitro in their legs. Trying to respond to their first attempt to kill those less worthy within less than five minutes of the race, I made an awful discovery…my legs and lungs were flat tires…empty and useless. It felt like the contents of them had deflated out at the start line and I was riding on the rim of my body. Fear of losing the pack so soon in the event sucked enough stamina from my pitiful skeleton to keep pace up the hill.
Knowledge is key and that is why pre-rides are essential. My quick pre-ride the day before provided enough info to keep me in the game for at least the first lap. Managing to stay with the oversized lungs leading out front, every one of my thoughts went into what could be wrong with me? There was no stomach bug, no overtraining, my muscles were in pretty good shape as far as pain etc., and I woke up feeling awesome! How was it that my best racing happens when I’m at my worst and my worst may happen when everything felt right.
Either way, it was apparent within ten minutes of racing that the competitors came to battle with cannons and my weapon was a BB gun.
A glimmer of hope came in the last few kilometres of the first lap. Fairly recovered from the hurt-fest earlier and holding my position on the left in the pack, it was clear Robyn Angeles was doing all the work again. The other racers were glued onto her like a swarm of killer African bees targeting their victim. Whichever way she moved, they moved behind her in smooth wave formation, staying locked on her wheel. Coming alongside her, I gestured to help. She nodded yes and it was the second time in my road racing career that I was out front of the peloton. Mary Afable Friesen joined along side me, willing to share in the suffering, in her first O-cup ever, and we lead out the pack to the end of the first lap, up a small hill, turning left and then we dropped back to let others do some work. I’m a slow learner but I’m discovering how to road race and staying out front on an empty tank is a guarantee to be trampled later.
Descending the first steep hill again and then “Whapang!” the girls were doing it again… hammering up the hill, they were surging forward like gazelles being chased by a lion.
The attack flooded me with weakness. My lungs dove underwater and were trying to extract oxygen from liquid. My lower appendages that are supposed to be strong and pedal quickly were in floating chaise lounge speed, dipping into a pool, super chill and ready for a margarita. As I bobbed from side to side, the “take this” racers were scattered across the hill, jostling for positions while trying to gain speed on a climb that seem to rotate and never end.
“Stay with the pack!!!! Stttaaaaay with the pack!!!! STAAAAYYYYY WITH THE PAAAACCCKKK!” I kept mumbling between gasps.
The hill rotating machine finally seized operation and was done for this lap. Some of us aged a few years from trying to catch the high-powered oxygen makers, but we did. There were a few slaughters from the vicious attack that dropped off the back never to catch up again. Some of the ladies fatigued from the explosiveness showed their inner squirrel manoeuvres. Their dangerous wobbling, erratic positioning, half-wheeling and excessive braking were becoming more normal and somewhat terrifying. This is the scary stuff being in a peloton and when crashes happen. Choosing to stay away from the frenzied behaviour, my spot was off to the left side near the back. Not the perfect place but there was ample room to zig if someone zagged.
With the second lap complete and three more to go, my limited math skills calculated the number of brain cells to die from oxygen deprivation up the heart attack hill. The math wasn’t in my favour and my legs had already signed up for retirement with a slim budget. My whole body began to feel hollow and the sound of the wind sailed through one ear and out the other.
Approaching the hill for the third time and now the speed machines launched their third slaughter. My response to their pummeling was a tortoise racing a hare. I’m about as wrinkly as a tortoise too and kinda crusty. I silently griped about having to race with younger people…ah, the excuses we search for when we are suffering or sucking.
Grumbling away provided short-term amusement for my bruised ego. Eventually, some of us, including the incredible up and coming Mary Afable Friesen, caught up with the pack. The process that followed was a mixture of surge, slow down, surge, slow down, hammer then chill and repeat. Then the sounds no racer wants to hear…the distinct “zzzzzzzzzzzz” of tires rubbing pierced the air, a scream and then bikes hitting the ground. Some ladies in the middle of the pack were crashing and it was a split second decision for me to jut to the left and avoid the carnage.
Slowing down and looking back, the Commissaire car was immediately there to tend to the injured cyclists. Sprinting to catch up to the group, most had no idea a crash had occurred and some thought I was a victim. Post sprint and everything on me was vibrating. The fear adrenaline rush was shooting through me like a keg size dose of caffeine.
The remaining part of the third lap was a process in stopping the out-of-balance spin cycle of nerves from bouncing me off my bike, all the while struggling to stay with everyone left.
Heading into the fourth lap and the steep, maddening pavement going up to the sky was the hill of death. The younger ones seem to get stronger and well Robyn is just always strong. If I could have summoned the energy to lift my hand, it would have been to wave good-bye as they sped up the hill.
Staring at the pavement, feeling the weight of a brick attached to each pedal stroke, drool poured out of my mouth as I mumbled, “holy sh*tballs, this is brutal!”
Over the hill they flew and disappeared. On the downhill, they could be seen and were getting smaller by the second. Everything inside of me was toast except for my stubbornness. That was the only part left of me that was certain that the pack could be caught.
The wind became an evil force riding alone. Every hard effort provided little reward and no recovery. But then, it appeared I was getting closer to the ladies or perhaps my eyes became zoom lenses and only my deceived vision was closer. Moments later confirmed I was, in fact, getting closer as the scent of dryer sheet wafting from one of the racers clothing reached me. I’m pretty sure the Mennonites don’t use dryers!
My suffering gauge was redlining but the gap was closing. Within country boy spitting distance and “vrooooommmmm” they took off. Perhaps they saw the cougar in me coming in for a kill or they just wanted to inflict greater suffering, either way, they left me sucking in their dust. This slam to my now fragile ego drew up my worst of dialogue. My eyes turned red, my nostrils flared wide and I mouthed the words, “You strong, little f…ers!” Not a proud moment for me but a real one, nevertheless.
A competitor appeared behind me…a racer from Sudbury. She was a little rocket with her eye on the group. Offering to help me out, she told me to grab on to her wheel. Drafting behind her was little comfort to my empty lungs, legs and ego. She was fast and strong and although her efforts got us closer to the pack, she rode ahead alone to reach them since breathing is necessary for me when riding.
The gap between me and the group was pure torture. Always close enough to see but not enough to draft from. A bend in the road and some rough surface for a large pack slowed them down. The group was painfully close and a few more seconds with perhaps one more surge from my shell of a body and my loneliness would be over. Within 15 feet of reaching the dryer sheet scented jersey, the group super-charged their Energizer batteries and they were gone. I used dollar store batteries and they weren’t rechargeable.
Heading into the finish of the 4th lap alone, with one more to go, the actual finish line banner just beyond the hill taunted me with the opportunity to bail. It was 500 metres to bail or 11.3 kilometres of solo riding. Perhaps the crowd standing in the middle of the road, blocking the finish line exit was their sign to me to plug it out. Turning left, it was one last lap of “why do I sign up for this sh*t!”
Somewhere in the start of the 5th lap, a male voice shouted, “JJ, you can catch the pack!”
If my legs could have answered, it would have been, “pfft…bahhhhaaaaa….dude, you need glasses!”
Battling up hell hill for the last time didn’t seem as bad, although it was getting hot out. Feeling the heat from the pavement below didn’t matter as I was making the rules. It was my pace, no one to chase, no one to dodge. A few clanging bells from spectators while passing a horse-drawn buggy and I was back to a simpler, less hellish time. It was me, the road, the wind and the stunning, winding Conestoga River.
Glancing back, there were no other racers in sight. Perhaps I was the last one, I thought, and that would be just fine by me. Catching an incredible view of the Conestoga, between breaths, a red-tailed hawk flew over the sapphire-coloured water lined on both sides by the vibrant, green grass. In my awe-struck moment of the bird, travelling the same direction, the sneaky fatigue hit me like a marathon runner “hitting the wall” so to speak.
It wasn’t far to go to the finish so my time in “La La land” was put to rest. Sucking some air out of the sky to inflate my wobbly legs and flattened spirit, whatever I had left went into making it up the hill to ride over the long-awaited white line.
Crossing the finish left me relieved to be done but provided no comfort to my concerns about my health and what happened during the race. The dread that my neurological stuff was surfacing in yet another devious way, unlike the usual suddenly painful and rickety symptoms that occur, brought on a feeling of incredible sadness. It has been a long time since my body operated well and pain-free for anything more than a few days to a week and this had been a really good run of pain-reduced times…besides the stomach flu. It was disheartening to think that my superhuman factor had run into another truck load of kryptonite. In my moment of self-pity, I was wanting to keep what had been and what everyone had on a regular basis, at least physically.
With my five-minute rule of “woe is me” done, sticking my sadness in my pocket for no one else to see for the time being, I checked the results and it was an incredible 4th place spot. No podium position but the best reward didn’t involve the podium…it came in different packages. First of all, I saw amazing racers grace the podium like Mary Friesen, Robyn Angeles and Katie Ozolins. I spent a precious couple of minutes riding out front with Mary in her first O-cup ever. It took me three years to get to that point! Then there is racing with Robyn and having the opportunity to help such a gifted athlete. Let’s not forget about the hawk, that I’m sure was taunting me with its speed of flight and whispering, “Come on, I dare you! Let’s see how fast you are!”
If that wasn’t enough, then there was the out-of-the blue surprise from Jeremy Allen (incredible photographer) after the race. His gift was a collection of photos of me from previous races. To top it off was having a beer and incredible conversation with Robyn Angeles in St. Jacobs.
Looking back, my sadness came from wanting more than I can have in some aspects of life. The reality is that I have more than I had ever imagined and flexibility with my limitations is a never-ending well of opportunity.
After all, just think, in between all my challenges, there were incredible times filled with lung exploding, puking, leg crushing, eye-popping, grumbling inducing racing. These are times of wonderful suffering and a privilege to have. We can’t get the time back in our lives or with others, so I’ll be looking forward to all the other opportunities to voluntarily induce suffering, make my body do more than I think it is capable of, be the best that I can be with what I have and never waste the chance to share joy in the accomplishments of others.
Every day is a privilege and in the fine, Austrian accent of Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back!”