A new addition to the ABA racing calendar is always welcome in my books. Especially when it’s a bit different from a standard XC mountain bike, cyclocross, or road event, I’m typically keen to give it a try. Anyone that had the pain and pleasure to experience the Kettle Cross bicycle race will tell you what a unique and great event it was, and it also was able to attract a large number of cyclists not part of the regular licensed racer crowd. This is a win in my opinion, since it gets those who cannot be coaxed to line up to an ABA race to come out and see what it’s all about.
Sadly, the Kettle Cross is on hiatus this year, but the Deadgoats threw in a late edition to the calendar of a comparable flavour – the Ghost of the Gravel road race/fondo. Promising to be something completely different and targeted at racers and non-racers, and also an area I haven’t had a chance to cycle through, I signed up and put some 28mm slicks on my trusty Van Dessel FTB cyclocross bike as suggested by the race organizers to tackle the various types of road surfaces and 1500 m of climbing.
The 144km route was a challenging, yet enjoyable and very scenic mix of rolling pavement and gravel/dirt roads that looped through the foothills northwest of Cochrane via Water Valley and Waiparous Village (Strava route here). 28 mm slicks were perfect even along the wet dirt roads, and none of the climbs were too steep or long for my single ring cyclocross 40/11-32 set up to manage comfortably. Two neutral feedzones were provided at 70 and 94 kms, which were well stocked with basic cyclist-style energy products like Clif bars, bananas, and water or Gatorade. Weather was a mixed bag on the day, starting out on the meagre side with rain and strong winds and audible cursing by some, but there were eventually a few sunny moments in there and luckily some sweet tailwinds most of the way home. I started the day off with a rain jacket, which I was glad I packed, and it was shed and re-donned during the day with the variable weather conditions. I’ve left the rain jacket in the car one too many times, and now don’t mind dealing with the extra pocket bulk in exchange for the chance to stay a bit warmer when the rain hits. The roads were essentially quiet, with the exception of a few over-aggressive redneck Alberta land trains, appropriately named by Katy Curtis, who couldn’t get their ATVs and dirt bikes to the various trailheads along Highway 40 fast enough. I’m sure most of them had never witnessed that many spandex-clad men in all their lives and were concerned if they didn’t drive fast enough away it may affect their masculinity somehow.
Interestingly, although not really pushed heavily by organizers as a race, the event was part of the ABA Road Cup points series. Unfortunately for me, this made the start way too fast on a day that I was more interested in a pleasure cruise, and after a few kms of trying to sit in riding a tempo that clearly wasn’t sustainable for 144km and getting constantly sprayed with water and road grime on this particularly rainy and windy day, Katy and I settled into a much more enjoyable and civilized pace that allowed for conversation and to enjoy the magnificent views. We happened upon more than a few riders along the way who had cracked from starting too hard, and even witnessed one overly dramatic bike toss at a feed zone. There were a fair number of DNFs, which I will tentatively blame on the weather conditions and under-preparedness, but for those that stuck it out, finishing times ranged from 4:30 hours for the Cat 1/2 winner to around 7 hours for some. This made it hard to coordinate any of the podium presentations, and maybe next year it would be worthwhile to reverse the staging and start the slower groups first so the race ends more or less at the same time of the day for everyone.
For a first time event, it was well organized and attended, and I hope the Deadgoats bring it back next year so a few more Edmonton riders make the trip down and try something different out. It’s the kind of riding that we certainly don’t have around here, and an event like this makes it easy to get a flavour and taste for long and epic gravel grinds.
This past weekend Alberta CX racers congregated in the scenic town of Devon, aka Biketown, for races 10 and 11 of the ABA calendar. The racing promised to be fast and furious with only a handful of races left before the Provincial championships and the end of another Alberta CX season. Bicycle races in Devon have always ranked among my favourites – no matter what the discipline, racers and spectators can count on an enjoyable day and leave feeling inspired by a community in love with bicycles.
Sadly, The United Cycle race team was forced to move their race from the Devon Lions Campground (my personal favourite) due to some flooding and erosion issues, but luckily an equally cross-worthy backdrop exists just up the river at Voyageur Park. This venue was introduced last year, and from memory I knew it would provide plenty of variety and challenging terrain to make for a satisfying doubleheader. Special mention should be made of the town’s very impressive bike skills park at Voyageur Park. What was just a small park with some skinnies and teeter-totters last year, is now a fully developed park complete with jumps, a flow trail, and plenty of features to practice and build skills on. I know more than a few of us were wishing we had brought our mountain bikes along; however, the distraction of the bike park quickly faded as racers donned their skinsuits and focused on the task at hand.
Task number one for me was to get in solid warm ups this weekend. As I get older and older, it takes me longer and longer to get warmed up. Despite knowing this, I’ve been rather lacksidasical with regards to warming up all season, and you really pay the price for this in cross. So, as opposed to just squeaking in one lap before my race, I arrived early enough to get in a pre-ride a full race before my own and then concentrated on pedaling to keep the legs warm and on staying hydrated until my race.
The pre-ride helped to highlight the technical nature of the course – lots of corners, loose soil, bumpy grass sections, a sandpit with a challenging entry, and a super steep run/ride up – all features that gave me hope I could finally bag my first win of the season. I tried to remain positive but realistic, since anything can happen during a race, especially on a course such as this one.
The promise of a holeshot prize made for a fast and furious start, and without even knowing what prize I was racing for I went for it and made it to the woods first to score a ginormous 750g Toblerone. Podi-yum! I maintained the lead until the first time through the sand pit, where what I had cleared without too much difficulty during pre-ride punished me for not choosing the proper line. I stalled out magnificently, getting caught up in my bike in the process, and watched Andrea sprint past me in what has become a sort of first lap Groundhog Day pattern for me: lead it out, screw it up, spend rest of race trying to make it back up. Only difference was that in this race I was actually able to make back up enough time in the corners and on the climb, and by the last lap I was back with Andrea and pretty confident I could make a dig for the win when the timing was right. Unfortunately though, I was a bit too hesitant and sat back too long, and when we got to the final time up the steep climb, Andrea stalled out just as she got to the top. She was able to foot push over the top, but positioned right behind her I was forced to stop and hop off my bike and scramble up. The gap was made, and Andrea earned the win. Drat. The sting didn’t last though, as deep down I knew I had the steam to win, and it only made me more hungry for a win the next day.
I stayed smart about warming up again on Sunday, and once again the pre-ride revealed a course well-suited to donkeys. Essentially the previous day run in reverse, the Devon Bicycle Association had strategically rerouted a couple sections to include the full length of the sandpit, a riverside beach section, and a stair run up out of the beach section. These alterations also allowed the reinsertion of the previous day’s steep climb, although now much trickier to ride since you approached it from an awkward angle. I had a feeling this was the feature that was going to make or break the race.
Race started fast again, and not wanting to ruin my streak, I led it out and proceeded to screw up the steep climb magnificently, taking the opportunity to step on my bike and rear wheel in the process, and just like so many times before watched Andrea run by and get a gap. I shrugged it off and focused on keeping her in sight, but my attention on her was quickly replaced by what was happening behind me – wonder kid and wonder lady cyclocross phenoms Sidney McGill and Marg Fedyna were just behind me and chasing at a furious pace. I knew I couldn’t afford to make a mistake, for they were both there ready to capitalize on any seconds I was willing to give up. Luckily, this initiative from behind inspired me to go a little faster, and as the race wore on I was able to latch back on to Andrea about halfway through the second last lap. I hesitated here for a bit, but knew I couldn’t play it safe if I really wanted the win and made a dig so I could lead going into the last lap. We stayed together, and as we approached the steep climb I knew this was the deal maker/breaker. Clean it and I would have a gap and an essentially clear run to the finish, or dab and likely have to settle for second yet again. No dab. Made it up and over and headed for home as fast as I could muster, finally earning a spot on the top step of the podium.
I wasn’t the only one scoring a personal victory. Mighty mite Sydney came in 3rd, and barely in her teens she will surely prove to be a force to be reckoned with in the next couple of years. It was an excellent showing by new racers also, including a group of local ladies who looked like pros using all the skills cross champ Pepper Harlton had taught them in the weeks leading up to the race. I bet they’re as excited for next year as I am!
I’m really loving how the smaller Alberta communities are embracing cyclocross. Everybody wins – we get awesome courses and can visit new communities, and the communities get to experience the excitement of our sport and hopefully also get caught up with a healthy dose of cycling fever. For some great video action from the weekend, check out Sheldon’s video here: