There will be mud

While the major rainstorm that was forecast held off, dozens of riders still got down and dirty at Saturday’s annual Donkey Cross cyclocross race in Port Coquitlam’s Castle Park.
The race was the first of seven that comprise the Lower Mainland Cyclocross series.
Cyclocross is like steeplechase racing on two wheels. Riders navigate a winding, undulating course for several laps that includes obstacles, a metres-long “beach” of soft sand, and even a stretch of snow from a local arena dumped into a corner. The sport originated as a form of off-season training for road cyclists in Northern Europe who would often challenge each other to get to the coffee shop in the next village the quickest. Often, that meant traversing farmers’ fields and hopping fences and hedges, elements that are still honoured in modern cyclocross racing.

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It they built it, will they climb?

A version of this article appeared in The Tri-City News.

It’s one thing to build a multi-use path, quite another to get walkers and cyclists to use it.

Port Moody accomplished the former with its $4.627-million upgrade of Gatensbury Avenue to make the steep, winding connector between it and the city and Coquitlam safer for motorists and add a $285,000 multi-use path (MUP) along its western flank for pedestrians and people on bikes.

The project was identified as an early priority in Port Moody’s master transportation plan, which was endorsed by council in March 2017. That plan will see the city invest more than $31 million over the next 20 years to make it easier to get around the city, and encourage more sustainable modes of transportation, like walking and cycling.

Ascending Gatensbury, though, remains a test of fortitude, leg strength and lung capacity.

Already the climb to the top has been dubbed the “Gatensbury Gasp” on social media by some pedestrians who have ascended its 12% average pitch over 1.1 kilometres since it reopened to traffic at the end of May.

But what does that mean for cyclists?

Always up for a good bike story, I set out to find out.

I’m not a climber. Descending is more my jam.

I ride up hills and mountains because I have to get to the top so I can turn around and speed back down.

For the most part, cyclists have avoided Gatensbury for years because of its narrow lanes that lacked a shoulder and its pocked pavement that made it unsafe at worst, uncomfortable at best.

Oh yeah, there’s also its perilous steepness, which ranges from 11.1% at the bottom to 18.3% in its final rise.

Gatensbury climb
The climb averages 12% over its 1.1 km total length, but there are sections that exceed 18%.

By comparison, Mont Ventoux, one of the iconic climbs of the Tour de France, peaks at 12% and the Muur van Geraardsbergen in Belgium, that has been a decisive climb in big-time professional bike races like the Tour of Flanders, rises an average of 9.3% over its 1,075 metres over bumpy, tire-eating cobbles that can rattle the fillings from your teeth.

The pavement on Gatensbury’s new MUP is smooth tarmac, not yet heaved by straying tree roots or ravaged by winter freezes and thaws.

The path is also wide — maybe not wide enough to allow teetering cyclists to weave their own switchbacks to stay upright, but certainly wide enough for pedestrians and riders going uphill to pass each other easily.

According to Strava, an online app that allows cyclists and runners to upload data from their GPS devices, 43 cyclists have completed the segment called “Todds Gatensbury climb,” which is .94 km from the base of the hill at Henry and Grant streets to Bartlett Avenue at the top, this year. The fastest was Matthew Cox, a Port Moody cyclist who made it to the top in four minutes, four seconds. That’s an average speed of 13.9 km/h and well off the all-time record of 17.7 km/h by Brett Wakefield back in 2015, when the road was in much worse shape and there was no MUP. Some notable athletes have also tackled Gatensbury, including Canadian Olympic triathlete Simon Whitfield — he did it in 3:49 in 2013.

At the start of the MUP, after a warmup pedal from The Tri-City News’ office in Port Coquitlam, I could only dream of such blinding uphill speed. In fact, I just wanted to survive without my knees, or heart, exploding.

The climbing starts at a modest 3.9% at Henry and Moody streets but by the time it hits its first switchback, it touches 17%. It’s about then I realize I’m still in second gear. I veer into a driveway to change gears because doing so under high torque in a difficult climb can blow apart a derailleur.

The second switchback is consistently around 15% but goes as steep as 18.2%.

But the nastiness is just getting started.

Looking ahead, the road straightens, the gradient moderates slightly and the end seems in sight. The bike computer says I’m doing 6.6 km/h but, gasping for breath and rocking side-to-side, it feels like I’m standing still.

Then, the road veers left to reveal its cruelest twist: more climbing, some of it is as steep as 17.3%.

I reach Bartlett Avenue 7:09 after I started the climb, the 25th-fastest — or 18th slowest — ascent of the segment recorded on Strava so far this year.

As I turn to  cross the road and collect my reward — a speedy descent on Gatensbury’s smooth, new pavement — a cyclist on an electric-assist bike with fat, cushy tires, cruises nonchalantly by on the uphill side. He’s smiling, with barely a bead of sweat on his brow.

Maybe he has the right idea.

Requiem for a friend, and mentor

We all have mentors. They’re the people who show us the way, whether they know it or not.
Mine was Ron Kuzyk. He was a steelworker and a hell of a photojournalist who worked the weekend shift we came to share for a stretch at the Burlington Post, where I started my career.
Ron passed away this week.

In 1984, I was just out of journalism school and determined to use a camera as my storytelling tool of choice. Circumstances that summer connected me to George Tansley, then the chief photographer at the Post. He said he could offer me some shifts to relieve his weekend guy who spent his weekdays working at Stelco and sometimes needed a break from the grind.

That guy was Ron.

We probably first met in the studio/darkroom one of those weekends; he was likely passing through to collect something, and I was probably trying to figure out how I too could get some of the great shots that were printed and hung on the walls of the studio and down the hall outside it. I particularly remember a colour wintry silhouette of a kid balancing on a fence, arms and leg splayed out; I loved that photo.

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My friend, and mentor, Ron Kuzyk, was the king of the silhouette. He loved shooting them, even as editors told him they needed to see faces in the newspaper. Of course, when Ron came back from an assignment with one of his beautiful silhouettes, it inevitably ran in the paper, usually on the front page.

Of course it, and many of the others, was shot by Ron.

Especially the sports.

I knew I wanted to be able to shoot sports like Ron.

He could capture peak action like nobody’s business, but he also had a keen eye for those quiet moments, like the kid stealing a glance back at his coach, the consoling hand on a player’s shoulder, the goofiness of 5 year-old t-ballers.

And, amazingly, he didn’t need big time pro athletes or glorious bright arena lighting to get his great sports photos. He made them in dark high school gyms, dusty sandlot baseball diamonds and pocked minor soccer pitches.

Over the course of that summer, as Ron and I crossed paths, we became buddies. He encouraged me, talked me through the frustrations of learning how to shoot with the Hasselblad because the big colour transparencies made for better front page colour reproduction. But mostly he showed me the way with his eye and his instincts.

Whenever I had the chance, I studied his contact sheets, checked out his prints, paid attention to his byline (although, by the second week I was already pretty good at spotting a Ron shot in the paper), and when my shooting shifts came, I distilled what I learned to get in the right position for a good baseball shot, look all around at a spot news scene to find that storytelling moment, seek out a fun juxtaposition at a community event.

When I happened to be in the darkroom and he popped by for a studio shot, I studied how he set up the lights and, more importantly, how he made his subjects feel at ease, joked with them, broke through their guard to find something that captured the story they were there to tell.

Ron was the most natural, instinctual photojournalist I ever met. More importantly, he was also the most fun. Because as much as we liked to bitch about shooting pet of the week or real estate features, as much as the repetitiveness of shooting the same cycle of community events year after year wore down your creativity, he really got a kick out of his job, and that joy came through in every one of his frames (well maybe not the photos of used cars for dealer ads).

The next summer, all the lessons I’d absorbed from Ron paid off when I landed a full-time gig at Oshawa This Week.

On the weekends I wasn’t working, I often came back to Burlington to visit my family and hang with Ron. Usually over beers, sometimes in the vicinity of naked women dancing on stages. We kibitzed and kvetched as professional colleagues. We also complained, because that’s what journalists do when we get together (oh, if only we knew then what was coming for our industry, for our profession…)

But when Ron finally made the decision to cut his ties — and the big paycheque — to Stelco, he was over the moon with delight, thrilled to be working full-time at his passion even if it meant keeping his heap blue car that smelled like an ashtray on the road a little longer.

There were often adventures on those weekends, usually involving Post sports reporters Kevin Nagel, Dave Rashford and Tim Whitnell as well; road hockey in the back parking lot on New Street, some ice hockey games, the annual Metroland slo-pitch tournament, a concert or two.

When a group of us bought a tournament package for the 1987 Canada Cup series, Ron somehow managed to get photo accreditation for the climactic final so when Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky and the rest of that amazing Canadian team were celebrating their victory on the ice at Copp’s Coliseum, we were peering through our binoculars from the upper deck at Ron sliding around working the scrums. Oh yeah, he scored an amazing photo of the two superstars celebrating, jumping into each other’s arms behind the net in his corner. Like I said, Ron had great instincts for timing.

190427Ron3
Ron Kuzyk and a great love, and eye, for shooting sports. He also had that innate instinct for being in the right place at the right time with the right lens. Oh yeah, and also for finagalling accreditation for bigtime events even though he worked for a community paper.

When I headed west in 1991, our contact became more sporadic.

He came out once, riding shotgun in his brother’s big rig. I drove him around, showing him my new turf, including a bar or two that may or may not have had a brass pole. I think the motel in Port Coquitlam where he stayed burned down shortly after his visit.

Again with the timing.

When I was home for a visit, we’d go for beers or lunch and shoot the shit about old times, compare notes about our current situations.

But I’ve always felt Ron’s guiding hand, tried to follow his eye, even as I forged my own path as a community photojournalist.

I know the changes to our industry weren’t easy for Ron. He was old-school, driven to get the shot and to hell with all the bullshit of the business.

After he left the Post, we caught up a few times on my visits back to Ontario. I think one of those times I managed to tell him how much impact he’d had on my own career, how those early exchanges in the Post studio set me on my path.

We also tried connecting on social media, but Ron was never one for the Facebook, unless he was trading/peddling his vinyl records. I think he Tweetered about 12 times.

But even as our contact waned, Ron was often in my thoughts. He’s the reason I park myself about three metres back of first base at a baseball game so I can reach second base for a steal or double play, but also can grab a close play at first. He’s the reason I sit instead of stand at the touchline of a soccer match because that means a cleaner background. He’s the reason I keep my eye on the bench near the end of a big game as much as on the playing arena. He’s the reason I’m still trying to emulate that great wintry silhouette of a kid balancing on a fence.

Thanks Ron, my friend. RIP

Coquitlam’s Junior Firefighting program an adrenalin-pumping sampler

While their friends have been soaking up the sunshine and catching their breath for the final push to the end of the school year, a dozen students from SD43 high schools spent the first half of their spring break learning the challenges of being a firefighter.
The pulled heavy hoses and rolled them up. They compressed the chest of a dummy while practising CPR. They cut open a car with high-power tools. They dangled from the end of ropes, rappelling from the four-storey training tower at the main Coquitlam fire hall.
The students were participating in Coquitlam Fire and Rescue’s first Junior Firefighting program that wrapped up Friday with a showcase for parents and family members of the skills they learned through the eight days prior.
And those weren’t inconsiderable, said deputy fire chief Rod Gill, who helped organize the program.
“They’re packing about eight weeks of the recruit program into eight straight days,” he said, adding the participants weren’t given a weekend break so they wouldn’t forget some of the things they were taught.
Gill said the program is a bit of a sampler of everything a firefighter might be expected to do, from routine tasks to adrenalin-pumping high-angle rescues.
“It’s about giving the students a chance to see what it’s like to be a firefighter.”
Gill said the students invited to participate had to first pass a rigorous application process that included letters of reference, a transcript of their school marks and volunteer activities, as well as an interview.
“We want to see they’re motivated,” he said.
And while one of the goals of the program is to help attract a more diverse population to a firefighting career, Gill said only time will tell if this inaugural cohort that included several young women, will follow through.
“It’s kind of a jumping-off point,” he said. “This is a perfect opportunity to see if this is something they want to do.”

Canoe a symbol of reconciliation

I had the opportunity to cover a special traditional dedication ceremony for a canoe to be installed at the Kwikwetlem First Nation’s new Healing Spirit House on the Riverview Lands, a provincial mental health facility.

The Kwikwetlem First Nation, along with representatives from the provincial government, dedicated a canoe at the Healing Spirit House in Coquitlam’s Riverview lands on Tuesday. The hand-carved ocean-going canoe will be installed permanently in the facility’s gymnasium, as a symbol of reconciliation with the province.

“In our view, reconciliation goes two ways,” Kwikwetlem First Nations chief Ron Giesbrecht said. “The province has demonstrated a willingness to work with KFN to right the wrongs of the past and dedication of this KFN canoe for display at the Healing Spirit House is our way of showing appreciation for our new relationship with the province.”

The Healing Spirit House will have 38 beds available for First Nations’ youth experiencing mental health issues by providing a welcoming and positive environment to allow them to heal.

Game day

The local junior hockey team recently scheduled an afternoon game on a weekday to accommodate a promotion to attract school kids and seniors to the arena.

I could have gone and just shot a period of action and been done with it. But this presented a rare opportunity to do a little more storytelling. So I arranged for all-access about an hour before game time so I could tell the story of what goes on in that hour leading up to the opening face-off.

Requiem for a rematch

The local high school football season ended Saturday.

What was supposed to be a titanic rematch between opponents from last year’s provincial championship game, that was decided on the last play of the game, turned into a bit of a dud, as the defending champions earned the opportunity to defend their title by defeating their challengers, 33-0, in the semi-final.

Here’s how the game looked.

 

Ride for mud & glory

I love shooting cyclocross. Especially if the weather is bleak. That just makes the muck much more epic.

Leaden skies and rain might mean the end of summer. But for cyclocross racers, the fun is just beginning.
The Vancouver Cyclocross coalition kicked off its season of nine races in the Lower Mainland Saturday with the annual Donkey Cross at Castle Park in Port Coquitlam.
Cyclocross is where road riders go to wallow in the mud.
It was started in the early 1900s in northern Europe as a way for road racers to stay fit as their summer season wound down. The cyclists would challenge each other to race to the next town or village in Belgium, France or the Netherlands and they were allowed any route to achieve their destination. That often meant traversing muddy farmer’s fields, skittering along narrow dirt trails, hopping fences.
By 1924, cyclocross had become a recognized cycling discipline when the sport’s first international competition, Le Criterium International de Cross-Country Cyclo-Pédestre, was held in Paris. But the sport wasn’t officially sanctioned by cycling’s governing authority, the Union Cycliste Internationale until the 1940s and the first world championship was staged in Paris in 1950.
A cyclocross race is usually contested on a tight, twisty route that includes several obstacles and challenges that forces participants to carry their bikes, over a barrier or up a steep, slippery hill. Saturday’s event included races for kids, youth, novices, masters and elite men and women.

How cycling makes me a better journalist

I’ve been a journalist for more than 34 years, a cyclist a little longer.
At some level, the two pursuits have always intertwined.
It was during summer break after my first year of journalism school I bought my first real road bike, a Raleigh.
After graduating and landing a job, I upgraded to a beautiful Italian roadster with Campagnolo components.
When I headed west and got another gig, I rewarded myself with another road bike customized with components I selected myself.
Over the years, I’ve done many cycling stories, from ride-alongs with the bike squads of various police departments and an outreach worker for a homeless shelter, to training with a peloton of first responders preparing for a week-long fundraising ride. I rode the track at the Burnaby Velodrome after doing a story about its fight for survival.
I’ve written and photographed stories about cyclists using their passion to try to change the world, cyclists who commute, cyclists who pedal to seemingly impossible destinations like the far North in the middle of winter.
I’ve covered stories about local pros and some who want to get there. I’ve covered bike races and trike races and even — for a time — a local bike festival that’s since morphed to a community street party.

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I’d like to say i completely planned this photo from the PoCo Grand Prix, but the truth is it was a lucky frame I had no idea I had until I downloaded the memory card.

I’ve helped countless cyclists get the word out about their charitable efforts, riding to raise money for cancer research, Parkinson’s, a friend or group in need.

0901-Kidsport
A local group of volunteers getting used sports equipment, including bikes, ready to sell to raise money for KidSport.

One afternoon, I got a call about an elderly gentleman whose bike was stolen from his garage, a bike he’d possessed for years and had actually ridden across the country to visit his daughter. Of course I’ll tell his story and maybe help get his bike back. He did.
Even when I’m not telling stories about cyclists, I like to think my own passion for cycling has aided and abetted my storytelling.
Knowing local roads as a cyclist has gotten me closer to newsworthy scenes than some of my media colleagues.

Mario Bartel photojournalist storyteller
Knowing the local roads I’d ridden my bike on got me a parking spot closer to the scene of an anti-pipeline protest on Burnaby Mountain than most of my media colleagues.

And I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen something on a ride, like a new store, an unusual sign, or even a notice taped to light standard, that later became fodder for a story or a photo op, either by myself or passed on to a colleague.

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When I needed to get a shot to illustrate the poor quality of air, I immediately thought of this spot along a popular riverfront bike trail that usually offers an expansive view of a nearby mountain range now obscured by smoke and haze. I’ve ridden this very trail many times.

Cycling forces you to look at the world at a slower pace. Riding with your head up allows you to notice things you might not otherwise see speeding past in a car or loping nearby with your head down looking at your feet.
Cycling enables your curiosity, allows you the luxury of thought. Many a lede — and sometimes the arc of whole stories — have been written in my head while on a bike.
But there is one thing cycling has not facilitated in my career as a journalist; lugging camera gear and the need to get to breaking news scenes quickly, or assignments on the far side of town efficiently, means I need a car for work.

Night racers

BC Superweek is Canada’s largest, most prestigious series of pro bike races. Over the course of a week, riders from as far away as Germany and New Zealand converge in Metro Vancouver for nine races, most of them criteriums around tight, fast city courses.

This year’s PoCo Grand Prix was the first time the racers did their thing in the fading light of twilight and, for the men’s race, darkness.

The Friday-night party vibe around the course and the city’s central square was unrivaled, and the racers put on a great show, even if it was hard to see in the growing gloom.