2014 Canadian National Road Championships - The Race to Finish

Event: Canadian National Road Championships - Elite Road Race
Date: June 28th, 2014
Start Time: 12:00pm
Location: Lac M├ęgantic, Qc
Report By: Bruce Bird

Returning to Lac Megantic to participate in my third Elite Road Nationals is a highlight of my cycling year. Being able to race with the nation’s top riders is far too precious an opportunity to let slip by. I don't know in what other sport amateurs get to compete against top level pros who are giving their all.

I am not certain how cycling contracts are structured for the select few who earn them but I am sure that there was no prize money on offer from Cycling Canada or the organizer to the winners. On offer were three medals (Gold, Silver, Bronze) and to the winner the honour of being able to wear the National Champions Maple Leaf on your chest for an entire year. Fortunately that was enough to get all our countries top pros except Ryder Hejadal (preparing for TDF?) to turn up.

It's been two years since my last visit to Lac Megantic for the 2012 Nationals and one year since the devastating train explosion that decimated the town's core. It is impossible not to be moved by the impact of the tragedy and the resiliency of the people. Riding around the countryside for 3-days I did not come across a single angry motorist, everyone I encountered was happy to see cyclists. A special thank you to Guy and his lovely family who run the Victorines du Lac Inn located just South of Town right on the Lake; as soon as the location for the Nationals was announced in January I booked a block of rooms. Les Victorines is located in a beautiful peaceful spot overlooking the Lake and Mont Megatic in the distance.

Gaelen enjoying a dip after a nice course recon ride.

The Sports Centre which is just to the East of the blast site was the start location for the race, where a small new main style street has been built. The sign-in was up on a stage at the start line; the numbers for the riders went as high as 160 but there were gaps in the numbering and 129 riders lined up to compete in the 179km race which included 9 laps around a 15km circuit that ascended Mont Morne.

This event is probably a highlight for most of the riders in the field and as such everyone seemed to be well prepared. Most riders had been sitting around in town for a few days and were full of energy and anticipation. There was a great deal of tension in the air as the odds of actually finishing the race and receiving a finish time instead of letters besides your name (OTL - Over Time Limit or DNF - Did Not Finish) are somewhere between 25-33%; based on historical results. Having the nation’s top riders in top form all around you and knowing that less than a third will finish is kind of scary and awesome at the same time. Our team of three riders (Gaelen Merritt, Derrek Ivey and I) were all prepared but nervous, our goal was to finish the race and receive a time and not letters.

There was no hiding from the heat of the midday sun which pushed the temperature up to 30 Celsius. One of my worst pre-race fears came true for one rider who had forgotten his cycling shoes back at his hotel and started the race in running shoes atop his pedals until his coach raced back and collected the shoes and handed them to him during the 5km neutral start. I was relieved when I saw that his coach made it back in time.

I rolled up to the back of the group in the start area and saw several riders with ice packs on their necks, which seemed like a good idea as there was no shade to be found. The announcer was speaking and I tuned in to hear her say that if you got lapped during the circuits your race is OVER. These haunting words would end up being a major concern and driver for 95% of the riders.

I was happy that the neutral start eliminated a bit of climbing but it hardly mattered as we still had over 3300 in front of us to climb. After 5kms of neutral rolling an elderly gentleman on the right side of the road was waving a yellow flag in front of a sign reading ‘Kilometre 0’. I am not sure why the flag was yellow instead of green because caution was nowhere to be seen as the pace shot up to 50kph.

We rounded the traffic circle without any incidents; thank goodness for dry roads. Heading north from the Lac Megantic the pace remained way-fast and I was strung out near the back hanging on to the wheel in front of me just like everyone else around me. Having pre ridden the course I knew that we were about to turn East, dip down and then hit a one km long 7% ascent. I rolled forwards on the descent and hit the climb near to the front before faded backwards on my way to the top. This fading backwards was not a strategic play; I was going all out, it’s just that most everyone else was climbing faster than me. As I crested the climb I was now amongst a group of stragglers in a long line, gapped of the back of the main group that was not slowing down. Derrek came up to me from behind and then surged forwards with an effort I could not follow, bridging up to the main group.

As the terrain flattened and descended I was able to close the gaps the best we could but the pace did not let up and I was still amongst stragglers off the back as we screamed around a corner turning north into a long false flat crosswind section. Just over 10km into the race and it was do or you are done time. I was guttered near the back and riders were popping off, sitting up, and race over. I yelled ahead to a rider (Travis Samuel – Jet Fuel I think) who was fighting hard but gapped, to move left so we had a chance of helping each other with the tiniest bit of reprieve from the crosswind, he complied.

A fortunate few of us were able to bridge up just before the right hand turn east for the tailwind section. When I look at pictures of our group at this point in the race I can't believe how many riders had been blown away by the relentless pace; maybe 40-50. Now that we had a tailwind and slight descent it was relatively easier for me to roll at race pace given that I must have been one of the heaviest riders left in the main group.

I steadily moved up to the front and saw that Svein Tuft (Orica Green Edge) and all the favourites were with this group, this was the front end of the race. The pace slowed for an instant, a Trek rider attacked up the right side and I just rolled off the front on the left and the joined him. I was 100 meters off the front in a mini two-man break doubtful that anything would come of it but you never know. Within a couple of minutes we were joined by Derrek; amazing a WOB break-away at the Nationals! It was too good to be true and the peloton caught us as we started onto the main loop.

I let about 15 riders roll, past me and then held my position near the front of a strung out peloton two riders wide. We turned left and started the Mont Morne climb for the first time. The gradient wasn't too steep for the first kilometer and I was able to continue to hold my position during this stretch of road, but as soon as it started getting steeper riders were coming by me on both sides. I spotted a rider struggling (not as much as i was) just in front of me and I focused on his wheel and closed the gap to him; it was Nic Hamilton of Team Jelly Belly. I followed him all the way to the top and as we descended with a group of about six to ten of us including Derrek and started working together to try and join a bigger group up ahead of us.

What we could not know at this point given our position on the road is that about ten to fifteen riders including most of the favourites had broken away, followed by a group of about twenty-five riders ahead of us. Half of the starters were already out of the race and we had completed just 30kms. From this point onwards I was competing in the race to finish.

Our chase group grew to about 15 as more riders joined from behind. We worked well together as we closed in on the peloton ahead of us. A few riders from our group launched furious bridge attempts while the rest of us worked steadily. We almost caught the peloton for the start of the second climb but not quite. I was looking for Hamilton’s wheel again but he seemed to have no trouble riding off the front of our chase group, which I could not do.

I am sure that I was the last rider to crest the climb from our group as I caught up to Ed Veal (Real Deal) who had faded back from the peloton during the second ascent. I gave Ed a push and then tucked in behind as he sped down the descent. The peloton and all of us chasers came together at the feed zone and then the pace slowed way down as we spread across the road wondering what to do next. I was happy to see Gaelen in this group. All I could think was that there was no time for this foolishness if we had any hopes of not getting lapped, we had better start pedaling again pronto. I just kept my pace up and just rode right off the front. I was joined by five other riders including Derrek, Kevin Masicotte (Jet Fuel) and a few riders from The Trek team.

After several laps working well together we added few to our group and then riders began to skip turns. Derrek launched a strong attack up the right side of the road and gained 50 meters on us before the three Trek riders started working to pull Derrek back in; the effort took close to ten minutes and I was thankful for the rest.

After the sixth time up Mont Morne a small group of riders bridged up to us in the feed zone including Jorden Cheyne who was none too happy when our group lost all coordination after coming together. I rode off the front again just not wanting to waste any valuable time and was joined by a positive young rider from team Lacombe/Davinci; Leandre Bouchard. We worked super hard together and I gained great respect for this talented young rider who we will all be seeing great things from in the future.

Leandre led me up the climb the 8th time up as we caught and passed three riders who were struggling at this point in the race. I was at my limit trying to follow the super lean Leandre and nearly lost him. I quickly caught up on the descent and we were joined by Kris Dahl who was with the group of three we had ridden past.

The three of us pushed on but Dahl was gassed. I was relieved when we started the ninth and final lap because there was no way we were getting lapped as the lead riders would now be heading back from the circuit towards Megantic. I started my final ascent up Morne with some doubts given my struggle on the previous ascent, but kept pace with Leandre and Dahl for the first half. I lost Dahl's wheel as the gradient changed but kept going at my best pace. I must have been 20 seconds behind when I finally crested the summit and received a lot of verbal support from Leandre's team car before the following cars all sped past me.

I dragged myself back up to the cars and then back up to the two riders just after the first feed zone. During each lap more and more riders were joining the ranks of the people helping out in the feed zones and cheering on those of us remaining. Mike Mandel and Jessica Puddifant (Real Deal) deserve huge thanks for the amazing feed support that they provided our team, thank you.

I was starting to be limited in my efforts by cramping in the legs but it seemed like Kris and Leandre were no better off. When I rode passed the 20km to go sign I began to doubt if I could keep pace as we pushed on into a headwind towards a lone rider ahead of us. Just as we caught the solo rider a group of seven riders caught us making us eleven riders. Leandre, Kris and myself quickly faded to the back of the group not caring what happened next just happy for a reprieve from the effort against the wind.

Someone mustered up the energy for an attack which did little more than increase our speed temporarily. On a small descent before a climb I again rolled off the front, this time to avoid getting dropped on the following ascent. The group just let me go and then did not catch me on the climb or the next descent or the next longer climb which I was sure would happen and it nearly did.

I then turned South onto the main road back to Megantic where it was mostly descent with a crosswind and my leg cramps subsided enough to allow a steady harder effort. I increased my lead to 30 seconds as the riders behind were more concerned with the 2nd and 3rd podium spots for the U23 podium.

Having been passed by ten riders in the final 100 meters at the Nationals last year, I looked back several times during the final 500 meters but was able to hold on to most of the gains I built up in the final 10kms.

I was happy to see that both Gaelen and Derrek were not at the finish already which would have signified that they had pulled out of the race. In the end 38 of us managed to finish the race including all three of us from Wheels of a Bloor. We were all winners in the race to finish; dehydrated, sore, exhausted but happy. Later we would learn about how the actual race played out with Svein Tuft manufacturing a legendary 120km solo breakaway victory. Ryan Roth (Team Silber) and Christian Meier (Orica Green Edge) claimed 2nd and 3rd place.

All smiles after finishing!

WOB Results:
Bruce Bird - 9th
Derrek Ivey - 27th
Gaelen Merritt - 32nd

Full results here: http://www.cyclingcanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/CanRoadChamps_Results_RR_MenElite.pdf

Time for some well deserved R&R!