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.

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.

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.

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.

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.