Riding the 4km back to the hall in Bruxelles, I am behind Young Luc, a racer in his early twenties on a single speed; and Lindsay Gauld, an Olympian road racer in his 60’s. They are chatting about the race, how hard it was, how fun. I listen, happy to be done, and happy to have kept the rubber side down.
After a moment of quiet, Luc says “Vitamin G”. They both nod, knowingly.
“What’s vitamin G?”, I ask.
“Gravel” he says. Ah, of course it is.
I started my day reading about how Karlee Gendron puked all over her jersey at the Ronde Van Drenthe World Cup race in the Netherlands. Karlee is a young Winnipegger who has earned her place in the big show, racing for team Trek Red Truck. She had never ridden cobbles before and rode so hard and strong she actually puked. Twice. And she never stopped riding.
I read her account of the race in the warmth of my kitchen with a cup of steaming coffee beside me, and thought, now that – that is hard core. It made me proud, it inspired me to forget my reservations about today’s race and just HTFU.
Two anxiety-filled hours later I was en route to Bruxelles. It was about -2 degrees celsius, and there was snow on the ground. Thankfully I had arranged a ride with Jamie, someone who is as fast as he is nice. He suggested a stop at Starbucks on the way out, and I knew we were going to get along just fine.
Bruxelles (inexplicably pronounced “Bruck-sells” by pretty much everybody) is a small town settled in the late 1800’s by Belgian immigrants. It seems the perfect location for our very own Spring Classic. The course is 95% gravel, 4% dirt and 1% pavement. There are hills, and plenty of them. With the snow that fell yesterday, I am told the course will be “epic”. Which I have discovered, in cycling terms means “really fucking hard”.
Unlike triathlons, bike races tend to start at a civilized time. We arrived for sign-in at 11am, in plenty of time for the 12 o’clock start. It was nice to see so many familiar faces – the Portage contingency, Jayson and the Kids, plenty of ‘crossers and a strong representation from the Dark Side (FGBC). The conditions in the parking lot were encouragingly dreadful.
There was a 4-point-something kilometer neutral start, which would be followed by laps of an approximately 10km course. In Cat 4 I would be doing three laps. Jamie and the other Cat 1,2 and 3 racers would do five laps.
Note Jamie’s nice new kit with nice white bits. They won’t stay that way. Also note my classic wool jersey, selected specifically for the occasion. Don’t we look sharp!
It was near disaster when I went to do a warmup and discovered something was wrong with my front brake (which had been perfectly fine in the neurotic pre-race inspection last night). Thankfully Nettie’s husband Phil and Jason C. were close at hand. A quick fiddle confirmed they were not fixable in the 10 minutes remaining before the race start. Phil was kind enough to remind me that it was a race and I shouldn’t be braking anyway.
The start line is always fun, with people talking and joking around like at a cocktail party, but without the cocktails. It helps dispel the nerve-induced nausea I feel. I am standing beside Johnny G., who is horrified when I interrupt his pre-race ritual of counting backwards from infinity to help me re-pin my race number, which had come loose.
The neutral start was terrifying – the roads were mucky and slippery. Back wheels were sliding out all over the place and I am still amazed nobody went down. The course itself was better, with only certain areas making me wish I had a working front brake. Of course the best thing to do in conditions like that is to keep moving, stay loose, and NOT brake.
The race was played out on two tracks, the areas flattened by vehicle traffic. The middle area between the tracks was treacherous – soft, muddy and often snow-covered gumbo. We all started together and quickly started to separate into smaller groups. I was in a group of about 5 or 6, not working together per se, mostly because of the conditions – it was every man (or woman) for themselves. I rode with Nettie for as long as I could, about half the race, before getting dropped like a baby giraffe.
The last half of the race was spent on my own, racing not to get caught, then with two other riders, who took turns passing and being passed, until we separated. I had brought two water bottles, and only emptied half of one of them, mostly because the road conditions required a death grip on the handlebars at all times. It is gruelling work, like a time trial on a greasy dirt road. I push myself, never thinking for a moment I could go harder. But I do not puke. Not today.
Reaching the finish line was glorious.
Coincidentally, you can see Jamie in the background here, just finishing his fourth of five laps at the same time I had finished three. He had been involved in a crash early in the race, and still managed to almost lap me!
Nettie and her posse were already relaxing back at the team car, and Nettie was trying to convince one of her cohorts to give her a massage. There was some confusion about what body part she was offering up, causing said cohort to turn a most becoming shade of pink.
Back in town, I ran into Hal and told him how awesome his race was, in spite of telling him (in between heaving gasps for oxygen) how much it sucked moments after I crossed the finish line. I meant both statements equally passionately when I said them. Racing is funny that way.
Post-race is the best part. I love to hear the war stories – the victories, the failures, the mechanicals, the crashes. The Bruxelles community came out in full force and served a hot lunch of soup and sandwiches, at the time possibly the best food EVER. While Belgian frites and beer were not on the menu, I did manage to score a bootleg bottle of Belgian beer. But I cannot reveal my (adorable) source.
Of course there is no such thing as Vitamin G. But the sentiment is true – today’s bike race made me feel better. In fact, all races do that, and the hard ones even more so. They make every breath sweeter, food taste better, my bed feel softer. If the pharmaceutical companies could bottle that, they would make a fortune.
Thanks to Ian and Hal for a bang-up job on a truly epic race!