Actif Epica: Words & Pictures

I can’t recall the exact moment I decided to do Actif Epica, a 130 kilometre winter bike race inspired by the even epic-er 135 mile Arrowhead. I do, however, recall thinking 130 kilometres wasn’t really that far. In the summer, that same distance could be done in about four hours on a road bike. I knew this wouldn’t be quite the same thing – that I would probably need to use my mountain bike, in cold and potentially hostile conditions. But I desperately needed a goal to save me from hellish boredom of winter. Preferably a goal that did not involve skiing. Actif Epica was my salvation.

I should mention at this point that before this year I had never really ridden my bike in the winter. At the time, this seemed like a technicality that could be overcome by some toddles through the park and the occasional commute. It didn’t take long for me to realize the flaws of this logic, and I soon discovered winter riding has some very unique characteristics and challenges – like unpredictable riding surfaces, obscene amounts of clothing, fogged glasses, frozen water supply and enough gear to choke a sherpa. Over the last few months, I have been schooled in every sense of the word.This weekend the time finally came to see if the trials and tribulations of my training and preparation could overcome some notable deficiencies in winter riding experience, proper outfitting, and common sense.

The Night Before the Morning After
Friday night was the pre-race gear check and dinner at the Belgian Club. Turns out the Belgies make pretty good spaghetti – but then anything tastes good washed down with a nice cold Leffe Blonde.There was a list of mandatory equipment that was required to start the race. It included such common household items as 60 square centimetres of reflective tape, an insulated jacket and pants, two red blinky lights and at least 3,000 calories. In case you were wondering, 3,000 calories looks something like this:

Our equipment was carefully checked and any deficiencies duly noted by chief commissaire Colin and his trusty sidekick Ian. Those items that were missing or did not pass muster would be inspected again in the morning.At the meeting, Ian Hall went over the route in great detail. We were given maps and cue sheets, and assured the route was well marked. There were some deviations from the Crow Wing Trail, our primary route, so we needed to pay attention, which is hard. There would also be five official check points where we would be required to sign in and out in order to successfully finish.

I am not known for my great navigation skills, and was a little concerned about that aspect of the race should I find myself alone. To make matters worse, Alex and Paul totally freaked me out with their fastidious note-taking throughout the meeting. I suddenly pictured myself at a check point somewhere in Nebraska.

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble
It was a very early morning start. Dylan shuttled a bunch of us in the MCA van to the start in St. Malo, a small French town about an hour drive from the city. Dylan was in a good mood, probably because he was all too aware of being the only sane person in the van.

We arrived about fifteen minutes before the start, which gave me just barely enough time to visit the loo and get ready to go.

It’s Go Time
And then in the blink of a ski-goggled eye we were sent off into the sunrise for the 1.5 kilometre neutral start through the park, which would bring us to the official start.

We rode for about three minutes into the trails before we got lost. Not a good start. Once we figured out where we were going, the next twenty minutes or so were spent trudging through snow that was unrideable, even for the fatties.This was exhausting, and I will openly admit to suffering my first of several internal mini-meltdowns. If the whole course was like this I would surely be out here until next Tuesday.

Thankfully we emerged from the snowy purgatory to an actual road and the hammer officially came down. Not mine, mind you. I quickly found myself smack dab in no man’s land and had to time trial my roadie ass to catch the tail end of the group in front. I managed to catch on to the wheel belonging to Alex O., a nice young dude from Minneapolis. But all too soon we were back to pushing our bikes through deep snowy trails and I was left once again in the proverbial and frozen dust.

These sections were hard and tedious, and I was soon soaked with sweat. Every so often, I would hop back on my bike to try and ride, only to be unceremoniously pitched off again. I briefly thought about removing half my clothes and burying them until spring. Given the cold and open road sections to come, this would have been a mistake of epic proportions.

And so the first leg went, alternating intervals of pushing my bike through snow, to hammering stretches of wide open road. I worked hard to try to keep someone in sight at all times to confirm I wasn’t already lost and on my way to the U.S. border.There was a small group of us that reached the first checkpoint at St. Pierre together. The stop was very short – just long enough to stuff some food in my mouth, refill my water and reflect on the fact I still had over 100km to go. I hightailed it out of there to catch my group, who had already packed up and left.

The shorter section between St. Pierre and the next checkpoint in Otterburne was much easier, with more sections of gravel and paved roads. It became apparent that Brad and I were riding about the same pace, so we decided in Otterburne that in the absence of any other real plan, sticking together would be our plan.Riding alone kind of sucks, and it’s not everyday you get to ride with the Butterbelt Champion of the World, so I was both honoured and relieved to have his company.

The Niverville checkpoint marked the halfway point. This was a relief and we used it as an opportunity to eat some hot soup and make equipment adjustments. By this point our clothing was completely soaked after a heinous two kilometre stretch across a farmer’s field, which was rideable – albeit in an excruciatingly slow and bone-rattling manner. I am happy to report that as per the instructions on the cue sheet, I did not cry.

We spent about thirty minutes in Niverville. I found out later the race leaders spent less than three – something to keep in mind for next year (yes, I said that out loud).

The volunteer army that came out was astonishing. We were greeted at every stop with smiles, encouragement and more food than we could possibly ever consume. Once my eyes adjusted to the indoor light it was great to see familiar faces like Kim, RJ from Mennonites in Tights, Scott and Deanna Wiebe, and even my pal Scottie, who drove all the way out from the city just to say hi. How awesome is that?

Speaking of friendly faces, at several points along the route we were greeted by the elusive Maniyeti, official (and very snuggly) press agent of Actif Epica.

Moving Right Along
The rest of the course included more sections of open road – sometimes pavement, sometime gravel, sometimes dirt. These sections were fast-ish, but often very bumpy. Brad was a total diesel on these stretches and powered along tirelessly as I tucked myself in behind him to take advantage of the hole he cut in the wind. If there’s anything we roadies loves it’s the sweet spot of a perfect draft.

The road sections were occasionally interrupted by more technical or just plain unrideable sections, like the brutal stretch just outside the floodway which boasted more hike-a-bike and a couple of frozen deer carcasses. For those of you out-of-towners, the floodway is a big ditch on the edge of Winnipeg that protects the city from spring flooding – a moat of sorts which most certainly deters invasion by the Americans.

As you can see, I was starting to fall behind, causing Brad to wait patiently for me at the end of these harder sections. He casually mentioned at one point that I was sweating a little, which given his amused expression was a considerable understatement.

Once we crossed the floodway, our intrepid medic Major Tom was waiting for us at the unofficial checkstop number 4.5 with coffee and Baileys. I’m pretty sure I can thank Major Tom with saving my life. Given my mood at that point, probably Brad’s too.Tom rode behind us for a spell through a particularly difficult field section and was thanked for his lifesaving efforts by a flurry of unladylike obscenities I don’t care to repeat.

The final checkpoint at the University of Manitoba put us in direct view of the proverbial barn door. Brad pulled out all the stops here, and in spite of some occasional navigational mishaps, hammered us through the city to the finish at Fort Gibraltar. The final 1.2 kilometers were on riverside monkey trails, which I attacked with unbridled joy and enthusiasm. Brad had pulled ahead and was waiting at the finish line with Ian, Maniyeti and our intrepid race officials and volunteers.

We quickly parked our bikes and had our portraits taken for posterity before heading to the beer tent for some well deserved post-race cocktails.Brad, I can’t thank you enough for your patience and your company. I’m quite sure if it wasn’t for you I’d still be out there somewhere.

The Final Words
It’s hard to know where to start when it comes to acknowledging all of the people who made this event the amazing success that it was. Whatever badassery I felt going into this race was left in the dust by many people who bring badassery to a whole new level. People like Pete, the self-taught engineer and bike builder who raced Actif Epica on a home made recumbent bike.Or Audrey (the only other female rider) and her partner Craig on their tandem. I don’t know what’s more amazing, how fast you could go on that thing, or the fact you didn’t kill each other.

Then of course there are the three winners of the race, J.P. Peters, Blair Saunders and Paul Lapointe, who decided to cross the finish line all together rather than sprinting for first place. Lucky for you I didn’t catch up – that 2.5 hour gap was closing fast.

And then there are the three crazy amazing guys who ran the course: Chris, Dallas (who did the Arrowhead 135 just last weekend), and Verne – who had planned to ride but was unable to because of a broken collarbone so decided to run instead. Chapeau to you guys for making me feel just a little less crazy.

Thanks to everyone who came up and said hello, like twitter peeps Colin and Cathy. And Steve, who was the inspiration behind the post about keeping The Boys warm. Nice to meet you and your sweet and very embarrassed family. Getting a hand shake of congratulations from Lindsay Gauld (my hero) was also pretty cool. He hinted this race was good training for the Arrowhead. Silly Lindsay.

And to race organizer Ian Hall, who even went so far as to lend me his bike. He and his wonderful wife Donna – who seemed to be everywhere that day – were absolutely tireless in their efforts and creativity. Speaking of creativity, co-organizer David Pensato created a media frenzy around this race that would put the freaking olympics to shame.You guys created a uniquely Manitoban event that is sure to become a must-do winter race for people from near and far, far and wide. The volunteers were absolutely incredible. I tried to hug them all, but they started to back away once I got really sweaty and gross.Kyle Thomas is the talented man responsible for capturing the spirit of Actif Epica in moving images and spectacular video. Many of the photos (the good ones) in this post are his. You can see the rest of them here. Major Tom also took some great shots here, and a video here.

Thanks to Colin and Ian for driving me back to my car after the race. That single kilometre I would have had to ride would have been the most painful of my entire life.

Actif Epica was one of the hardest physical challenges I’ve ever faced. Surprisingly, facing the fact that it’s all over is going to be pretty hard too.