FRF @ QCX

The Fraser River Fuggitivi is a road cycling club. But as the weather turns cold and wet, the sleek carbon fibre road bikes are kept inside, out of the elements and off the slicked roads.

Instead, a hardy handful of riders saddles up their winter rides and head to the boggy tracks of the cyclocross circuit.

Sunday, the Vancouver Cyclocross Coalition alighted in New Westminster’s Queen’s Park. Essentially the home race for Fuggitivi.

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Man on a mission

“Ride,” she said, as the sun broke through the clouds. “You need to go for a ride.”

Of course, Princess of Pavement was right.

It’s been a dismal winter of ceaseless cold and snow and ice and rain. And it’s put me in a sullen state.

Last year at this time, I’d already put 1,300 kms into my legs. This year, it’s a third of that.

It hasn’t helped that the wintry weather also cost us nine weeks of road hockey.

There’s no doubt the lack of activity has softened my belly. And the diminished endorphins have soured my mood.

So when the morning rain turned to sunshine, Princess of Pavement prodded me. She knows the frustration of inactivity as injuries and school commitments have kept her from her beloved running for more than a year. She’s only just getting back to it, heading out for measured 5 kms when she has the opportunity; her smile lights her way.

But while the sun was out, an icy wind blasted up the river. We’re in the back half of March and we’ve ventured into double-digit temperatures maybe a half dozen times. Last year, the cherry trees were already in full pink bloom.

It was slow going into the stiff headwind. My ears chilled even under the flaps of my winter Castelli cap. I harboured no great ambition for the ride, other than 90 minutes of turning the pedals in fresh air; but it was so much warmer at home in the condo.

But at the turnaround, when the head wind became my booster, my mood lightened, my face warmed. My heavy legs suddenly became powerful pistons. I was a jet engine, rocketing along the flats at 35-40 kph with barely any effort.

It had taken an hour to get to the turnaround; it took only 30 minutes to get back home. Grinning from ear to ear. Mission accomplished.

This was originally published in my cycling blog, The Big Ring.

Stealing rides

Facebook is taunting me.

My feed is pocked with reminders of last winter, when the weather was mild, the roads clean and riding opportunities seemed endless; in the first two months I already had 1,000 km in my legs.

This year has been all about stealing rides.

Sure, there’s the whole job thing; earning a paycheque again does have a way of curtailing long midweek days in the saddle, turning the pedals.

But mostly it’s been the weather.

This has been a winter unlike most.

It’s snowed, a lot. So much in fact, even our weekly road hockey game was put on ice for two months.

It’s been cold. Thaws have been few and far between. And when they did happen, they were quickly followed by more snow and extended stretches of freezing temperatures, icing the roads and bike routes all over again.

So when the clouds do part, the temperatures moderate, and the roads are dry, it’s time to pull on the tights, layer up and steal a ride. Even if it’s just for 90 minutes or so. Before Environment Canada issues the next “weather advisory.”

Spring can’t come fast enough. The way things are going this year, it likely won’t…

A café where everyone knows your game

We all like to geek out from time to time.

For cyclists that can mean waking in the pre-dawn gloom to hunt down streaming feeds from bike races around the world because Eddy Merckx knows we don’t get those on mainstream TV. Or exchanging quips about the results from the latest World Cup cyclocross race.

Mario Bartel storyteller blogger communicator cyclist
There’s still lingering snow on the ground as the FRF prepares to head out for a special holiday Monday ride to The Musette Caffé.

Around here, some serious geek jones can be fulfilled by a ride to The Musette Caffé.

I’ve written about The Musette before. But that was when Vancouver’s favourite cyclists’ coffee shop was a hole-in-the-wall tucked into a back alley off a bike route.

In January, The Musette emerged from its secret spot to a highly-visible location on one of the main thoroughfares for bikes and cars into the downtown peninsula. It had been closed more than a year after the old site was bulldozed for a gleaming new condo tower, and the owners built out the new café. The wait was worth it.

The Musette has been a destination for Vancouver’s cycling community from the day it opened. The snacks are tasty and healthful, perfect fuel at mid-ride or as a post-ride treat. The walls are adorned with all manner of cycling bric-a-brac and memorabilia, from classic steel bikes to a collection of cloth musettes from various pro teams, to autographed pro team jerseys to route markers collected at the Tour de France and the Giro. There’s even bike racks inside the café so cyclists never have to be out of sight of their ride.

Mario Bartel storyteller blogger cyclist
The Musette Caffé has a shiny new home for its impressive collection of cycling memorabilia.

The new location takes that cycling geek chic to a whole new level. The memorabilia is still plentiful, with new discoveries to be made every visit. But the café now offers a full immersion experience into cycling lore and legend. The outdoor patio is constructed of cobbles. The communal tables inside are made of wood reclaimed from an old velodrome track in Antwerp, Belgium. The banquette overlooking the main floor area is modeled after the open concrete showers at the Roubaix velodrome in France where the Paris-Roubaix spring classic race concludes every April; the race’s winners are commemorated on little brass plaques affixed to each “stall.”

Mario Bartel storyteller blogger cyclist
The banquette area at The Musette is an homage to the historic Roubaix velodrome with concrete shower “stalls” surrounding the seating area. The light fixtures are modeled after shower heads.

The attention to detail is stunning. Interior pillars are wrapped with ad banners from the roadside of the Tour de France. Order number stands are modeled after number plates affixed to bikes at the Tour and the Giro. The impressive espresso machine has been painted with World Champion stripes.

Stepping into The Musette is like walking into cycling, and everything that is great and colourful and historic about the sport. And yes, there’s still racks to park your bike inside. Although it was so busy on our holiday Monday FRF pilgrimage, we had to lean our bikes amongst the dozen or so already parked outside.

This post originally appeared on my cycling blog, The Big Ring.

Keeping your head down!

Keeping your head down on the bike is how you power through rough weather, or a bonk on the third mountain climb of the day.

This winter, it’s a matter of survival.

It’s been an extraordinary off-season. After a run of virtually snowless winters, we were hit hard in early December by three consecutive storms. The thaws that usually wash those snows away never really happened. Instead we descended into a weeks-long deep freeze that iced the land and roads and bike paths.

Now that temperatures have moderated, and most of the snow and ice has melted away, we’re finally able to safely get back on our bikes. But keep your head down and your eyes on the pavement ahead!

Mario Bartel storyteller blogger cyclist journalist
Blue skies and warmer temperatures have afforded some welcome opportunities to get back on the bike.

Because the consequence of our wintry weather is streets and bike lanes cratered with crumbling asphalt, gaping potholes, yawning sinkholes. A moment’s inattention can collapse a front wheel, pitch a daydreaming rider over the handlebars, destroy a season.

The work crews are out there, doing what they can to patch the pocked pavement. But they can’t keep up with the structural failings. The repeating cycle of freezes, brief thaws and subsequent deep-freezes expanded cracks into fissures, pocks into potholes. And with more cold temperatures forecast, it’s only going to get worse.

Still, a couple of weeks of warmer weather has afforded some chances to ride. The legs are still feeling the effects of the season’s sloth, so the routes have been conservatively flat, the pace languid. But the air filling the lungs feels good, the muscled fatigue is welcome. Because it means we’re actually out there, turning the pedals, keeping our heads down. Dodging divots.

A ride to remember

We ride because we love it.

Saturday, we rode in solidarity.

Mario Bartel storyteller blogger cyclist photojournalist
About 400 cyclists converged on Stanley Park Saturday to remember a fellow roadie who had been mowed down head on by a car two weeks ago along a popular riding route. Five of his companions, including the one of the left in black, were injured.

Two weeks ago, on my way home from road hockey, the radio traffic update reported River Road in Richmond was closed for a “police investigation.”

My blood ran cold, my heart sank.

River Road is a popular cycling route along the Fraser River, especially on weekends. It’s flat, there are few feeder streets, not many residents and no traffic lights or stop signs. It’s a major west-east conduit for group rides. It’s essentially a rural road on the edge of the big city.

That Sunday morning was dry and mild; after nearly a solid month of rainy days, groups and individual cyclists were sure to be out in force.

So when the traffic report said the road was closed, my immediate thought was “cyclist down.”

When I got home, I started checking on the Strava feeds of various FRFers. I knew they were out that day and likely would have traversed River Road at some point; they were all checked in safely.

A quick browse of local news sites reported the worst news possible; a car had plowed into a group of six cyclists. Two were badly hurt. One had been killed.

The rural character of River Road that attracts so many cyclists also makes it dangerous. The pavement is narrow with virtually no shoulder. One side is flanked by a water-filled ditch, the opposite by the Fraser River. Cars and trucks trying to avoid more congested routes often travel too fast.

As scant details about the tragedy trickled out on the internet through the afternoon and then on the evening TV news, its true horror gripped the cycling community; the riders had been hit head on, mowed down like bowling pins when an oncoming car drifted out of its lane for whatever reason.

That could have been any one of us.

Mario Bartel storyteller blogger cyclist photojournalist
The rain stopped but the roads were still wet when the FRF contingent departed for Saturday’s memorial ride in honour of a fallen cyclist

Whenever we throw one leg over the top tube and clip into our pedals, we know there’s a chance we may not make it home. Most of us try to do whatever we can to mitigate that risk: we follow the rules of the road; we stick to designated bike routes.

But it just takes a moment of inattention or carelessness by a motorist or cyclist to tip that delicate balance of risk vs. reward against us.

The full story of what happened that Sunday morning have yet to be revealed; police are “still investigating.” But their official statement quoted in the media that day was quick to point out the motorist “remained at the scene and is cooperating” (Yay for him!), and the “cyclists were all wearing helmets (like that will make a difference when you’re smashed by 2,000 pounds of speeding metal). The police spokesman quoted at the scene also felt it necessary to remind cyclists to “ride in single file.”

It almost felt like he was blaming the victims, somehow implying they may not have been riding safely.

These kind of throwaway statements appear all too frequently in media reports of car vs. cyclist collisions. The police may think of them as necessary rejoinders that reassure the public the roads aren’t filled with crazed hit-and-run maniacs, but they just serve to reinforce the narrative that the roads are built for cars, and cyclists are just guests who should feel privileged to be allowed to share their space. It’s as if the onus is on us not to get hit.

That sentiment was further inflamed when a Richmond city councilor was quoted that one consideration to make River Road safer for cyclists would be to ban cyclists from using that road altogether. He happens to also own a trucking company.

On Saturday, about 400 cyclists gathered in Stanley Park to remember the fallen 33-year-old rider and his injured companions with a mass loop through the park; it’s one of their favourite routes. I didn’t know him. Likely many in the throng didn’t either. But we are all him.


The weather was supposed to be rainy, cold and windy. By the time our group of FRFers gathered to ride into the Stan, the rain had stopped. Along the way, the sun started to fight its way through the clouds. It was, it turned out, a good day to ride. It was a good day to be alive. RIP Brad Dean.

Mario Bartel storyteller blogger cyclist photojournalist
Cyclists do everything we can to ensure every ride can end as we ended Saturday’s memorial, enjoying a beer and good company at our favourite craft brewery.

Confidence and customer service

This story was first published on my cycling blog, The Big Ring.

Confidence is the cornerstone of athletic achievement.

Gold medals aren’t won by the timid or meek.

When an athlete steps up to the starting line, climbs on the block, straps into their seat, clips into their pedals, they have to believe in their ability to compete with their rivals, to win.

They also have to have confidence in their equipment, that it will perform as they’ve come to expect, that it will hold up to the most vigorous demands, that it will enable their best performance rather than disable it. In fact, their confidence in their equipment has to be so strong, they don’t even question its capability.

At the end of August, when a spoke on my rear wheel snapped during a speedy descent the damage went beyond the wobbly wheel and the carbon fibre stay that had been pierced by the flailing spoke. My confidence in my equipment had been compromised.

Mario Bartel cyclist storyteller photographer blogger communicator
Damage to carbon fibre like a crack or puncture can be fatal. Repairing it is specialized work.

The spoke was quickly replaced.

And thanks to the specialized craftsmanship of Robert Mulder of Roberts Composites in North Vancouver, the stay looks as good as new, even if it is missing a Lapierre decal.

Mario Bartel cyclist storyteller photographer blogger
If it wasn’t for the missing decal, it would be hard to discern the chain stay had ever been damaged.

Mulder guarantees his work. His reputation for excellence has been built on years of minor miracle repairs to shattered frames, broken seat posts and well as custom building handlebars, rudders for sailboats, oars for paddlers.

The wheel was a longer journey.

When I was researching the Easton EA70s as a possible replacement for my worn Fulcrum 5s, I came across a few posts in forums and reviews that detailed dismay about broken and popped spokes. But almost all of those were from four or five years ago. The current model, according to the shop where I bought them, and Easton’s website, is a new design.

I laid down my credit card. With confidence.

And frankly, until the spoke issue first presented itself , the wheels had performed admirably. They rolled smoothly. They were relatively light. They seemed strong.

But the spoke failure shook my faith. Perhaps the wheels had something to do with the frequent flats I endured this season? Would other spokes fail? Could I count on the wheels to hold up during speedy descents?

My ears listened for every tell-tale click or pop that might indicate another spoke exploding.

To its credit, Easton stood behind its product.

Shortly after I posted my story of the Fondon’t failure, and promoted it on social media, they reached out and offered a deal I’d be hard-pressed to refuse; send back my EA70s, plus a little money, and they’d upgrade me to their top aluminum wheelset, EA90SLs.

The new wheels are a revelation. They’re extremely quiet and beautifully smooth. Their lightness, 200 grams less than the 70s, was immediately apparent the first time I hoisted the Lapierre.  That seemed to translate to the road as well.

Mario Bartel cyclist storyteller photographer communicator blogger
New wheels and renewed confidence in my equipment.

As for their durability; only time will tell. For now my confidence in my equipment has been fully restored.

Of course now that Easton customer service has whetted my appetite for $1200 wheels, my upgrade path just got a whole lot more complicated. And expensive. First World problems…

Of mud and glory

What happens when you cross a bike race with a mud bog?

Queens Cross.

Saturday’s driving rainstorm may have deterred all but the hardiest spectators, but dozens of riders from beginners to elite men and women relished the chance to battle each other and the elements at New Westminster’s Queen’s Park in the fifth race of the eight-race Vancouver Cyclocross Coalition’s series.

Cyclocross is an off-road version of a road cycling criterium race in which riders lap a number of circuits on a two or three kilometre course comprised of dirt trails, grassy meadows, over barriers and across creeks or gullies. It evolved in Belgium and Northern France in the early 1900s as a way for road cyclists to stay fit during the fall and winter off-season. Sometimes getting to the warmth and shelter of the nearest café or brasserie meant cutting across farmer’s fields and through forests; cyclocross replicates that experience.

Saturday’s cold torrential downpour was worthy of the worst weather of the Ardennes and turned most of the course at the west end of Queen’s Park into a track of thick, viscous muck. At the end of each event, the line at the hose station was 20-30 muddy cyclists deep. Even through their exhaustion, many managed a smile. After all, there’s often a rainbow at the end of a rainstorm.

Full results

Following the gravelly road

For three years, the FR Fuggitivi has pulled the curtain down on its summer riding season with a climactic, epic ride. We call it the Fondon’t.

It has all the perks of a Fondo – camaraderie, timed intervals, snacks, beer, big mileage – but none of the expense.

The first Fondon’t was the Tour de Huit Ponts.

Last year we climbed Mt. Baker, the biggest rideable mountain in the Pacific Northwest.

This year our ride patron took us on some familiar roads but with fresh and fun new twists, not the least of which was a gravel climb that forced more than a few riders to unclip and portage the loose stones and rocks.

Since last year’s smokey ride up Baker, the Fuggitivi has evolved into a proper, official group. We’re registered, we have directors, sponsors and pro kit. We have numbers; 17 riders took the start although one quickly abandoned because of a recurred leg injury.

Of course, big numbers bring bigger aspirations; we can no longer just slap the Fondon’t label on a long year-end ride and call it an epic day. Sunday, the epic bar reached a new level.

The day started with a national anthem singer and only got better.

The 140 km route traversed seven gravel sectors, including the 800 metre 11 per cent gravel climb.

It included three fast and flowing descents, one of which had never been ridden by most of the FRF, two sprint and four tough King of the Mountain competitions marked by signs, a lunch stop with reservations, a close encounter with a family of deer and even a champagne surprise.

It also included one total tire blowout, a couple of flats, and a shower of rain.

Most cyclists know what to expect on a long ride. It’s the unexpected that can turn a familiar route into an epic day out.

Setting goals

It’s good to have goals; even better to achieve them.

For the past 12 years, my July’s have been defined by my goal to ride 1,000 kilometres in the month.

I came up short in 2009, a sweltering July, and in 2014, for some unknown reason.

But otherwise, it’s been pretty achievable.

Especially as I tend to take two weeks off to get up early to watch the Tour de France then, suitably inspired, spend the rest of the day riding my own bike.

In 2008  I must have been particularly inspired, as I achieved 1,600 km, including 608 in one incredible week!

Eight days ago, my beloved 1,000 seemed out of reach.

The demise of my newspaper meant I’d seen the last of my six weeks’ annual vacation that I’d toiled 20 years to attain. In fact, the beginning of a new job meant no vacation at all.

But two unexpected gift rides last week, and a favourable calendar with a long weekend to close the month, opened the door to the possibility of reaching that 1,000. Good legs, recovered from the gruelling Triple Crown, put me over the top.

To ride those 1,095 km took me 44 hours and 53 minutes; that’s like a full work week plus half a day of overtime!

Of course in the Strava universe, 1,000 km in a month is but a molehill. The month’s distance champion was a woman from Florida, who clocked more than 11,000 km! That means she rode more than 370 km a day, 12 hours of every day of the month!

My legs wilt just at the thought.

As does my brain. Because she did her rides covering laps of the same 20 km circuit, over and over and over again. I can only imagine the mental fatigue and boredom of watching the same countryside roll past hour after hour, day after day, week after week.

Her Strava profile says she has a goal to set a new record for ultra marathon cycling. To achieve that, she’ll have to ride more than 122,432 km by next July 1. Because this was the first month of her challenge.

I am humbled.

We all are.