Wednesday, December 23, 2009

To-Hell-And-Back 2009

A belated To-Hell-And-Back report - event was back in mid November.

I am precariously balanced on a thin berm of dirt, mud is more like it, leaning on my bike, axle deep in the water of a huge puddle to my left. To my right, is more swampy water. This is supposed to be a bike ride, but I feel like I am in some kind of weird circus act. You do these sorts of things, on the annual T0-Hell-And-Back ride.

I could have tried to ride this part, but falling head-first into all that water in the trail and then getting soaking wet in the middle of a 144K ride, when it's only about 7C out, would not have been a good thing. So I opted for the easier, but more conservative thing to do - the Cirque-de-Soleil like balancing act along the side of the trail. Onwards I go on foot.

The To-Hell-And-Back race/ride has an obscure and shady history in the Toronto area. Orginally it was a race, set up by Mike Barry Sr., Father to Michael Barry, Pro rider for Team Columbia/High-Road. It was set up to emulate the famous Paris Roubaix road race. It was run on some of the gravel and dirt roads north of Toronto, some old farmers tracks that connected some of the north-south concession roads, as well as a 9k section along an abandoned rail line running south from Sutton, up near Lake Simcoe, at about the mid point of the route. It was this last item that was referred to as "Hell", as it was/is particularly treacherous, due to it's soft gravel, sand and rocks that have to be ridden over. Hence the name - To-Hell . . . . And-Back!

Not sure what happened to the race. These days there are a couple of informal To-Hell-And-Back rides. The one that I have done in the fall, was resurrected by the folks at Cervelo about 10 years ago - for a few years Gerard Vroomen, one of the co-founders of Cervelo was a participant. You can read an account of one of Gerard's To-Hell-And-Back experiences here. This ride is now organized by Triathlon coach Nigel Grey. The traditional start, is in the small community of Box Grove just south and east of Markham, Ontario. The route runs more or less straight north, picking out some of the few remaining gravel roads, hitting some of the original farmers tracks, adds in some new trail sections in the area of the Oak Ridges Moraine, and then carry's on to the "Hell" section south of Sutton. This is the one spot on the course that support is sure to be found and, it's the traditional bail-out point if you don't want to ride the final 54km back to Box Grove.

This years event was scheduled a few weeks earlier than normal. This was a good as the last two years, have been "blessed" with snow and very cold temperatures( -15C at the start two years ago). The forecast for the day was a high of 10C some clouds, no rain and light winds - about as good as it gets at this time of the year.

Equipment choice is always key for this ride. Traditionally, the event was done on retro-fitted road bikes( wider tires and MTB Pedals) With the increased popularity and availability of good cross-bikes now, everyone, save me, was on a cross bike. I was riding my relatively new Cervelo R3 with some wider 28mm tires and MTB pedals.

Tradition has it that the "slow" group sets off at 7:00am and then the fast-group at 8:00. This year there was some talent in the slow group with a couple of sub-10 hr IM guys and some pretty good road riders. The un-spoken goal of the day of course is for the Fast group to catch the Slow and/or the Slow guys to hold off the Fast. So, at the first light of dawn, off we go at a not too bad clip to get things going. It would seem we are using the "Talk-Test" to keep the pace under-control with lots of chit-chat in the group as we hit the road. With-in the first 5km we come to the first off-road section - a roughly 2km farmers track connecting two concession roads, and it's a good indicator of how the day is going to go. The bike set-up feels good and I do as well. We get a bit strung out through the section, but then re-group back on the pavement and off we go.

It would seem that despite some detailed maps, course knowledge, and a GPS unit, we somehow got off the course, but after a bit of a back track we are back on the route. It's turning into a nice day as the sun is shining and the temperature is warming up. There are six of us in the group and we either work a double pace-line on or single pace line on the paved and gravel sections and then it's just have-at-it on the trail sections. We are all evenly matched and working well together and we start to cover a fair amount of ground.

A tough section south of Gun Club Hill( dead-end of Kennedy Rd.) sees all of us off the bikes on a particularly technical and slippy section that would have been best on a MTB bike. Then two downed trees have to be bush-whacked around. Then straight out of the bush with sandy and dirty tires slipping all over the place we have to tackle the Gun Club Hill - the steepest and hardest hill on the whole route. It's a lung and quad buster. Mercifully it's short, but I am still struggling to keep the bike up-right as we come to the top - with the sounds of gun-shots in the back-ground from the Club!!

Heading north on Kennedy we see the support Van. They pull along side as we roll along, and tell us that they'll see us after the notorious Boag Road section. It's pronounced Bo - aag, but we just call it Bog Road. No matter how dry it's been, this section is always a swamp. It's the part I started talking about at the beginning. Actually, really cold weather, with the ground and water, frozen often makes this section easier. I survive the Bog and am feeling good. A quick stop to re-fuel and get some of the mud out of my brakes.

Then it is onto Sutton and the the off-road section that defines this ride - the dreaded abandoned rail line south of the town of Sutton. Just before entering the section we are alerted by the support Van of two things. The Fast Group is closing in on us, and there is a bridge out on the Hell Section and we'll have to take a bit of a detour. Onto the rough gravel we go and it's going not too bad. Of my three times over this section, it's in the best shape that I have ever seen it. The trick is finding the firmer less rough gravel and sand/dirt parts and following that groove along. Problem is, this may only last 100m and then you have to find the smoother surface again, so you tend to shift from side to side of the trail trying to find the best combination of smooth surface, traction and dryness. After a few Kilometers on the rail line a quick glance back and our worst fears are realized - the Fast Group is going to catch us. They have made great time.

We merge with them and for a time all 12 of us ride together, however the fast guys are going really fast over this rougher stuff - 30km/h at least. I am barely able to hang on. I dig in as I know the support van will be waiting at the end of the Rail Section and I can get a bit of a break. The faster pace does split the group and soon we are all strung out in two's and ones along the trail. This is when the pounding of 4 hours of riding on lousy surfaces starts to add up. My hands are getting sore, and so is my back. However, I must say that the R3 is an amazing machine and is the most comfortable road set-up for riding in this sort of stuff.

Not soon enough we swing back towards the road and off the Rail Section and there is the welcome sight of the support Van. We all take a bit of a break here to re-group, refuel and check the bikes over. The Fast Group does set off just about the time that I roll in. The reality about these sorts of stops on rides like this, is that you don't want to stop for too long otherwise you start to get chilled, stiff, and perhaps start to have some second thoughts about going on. The comfort and warmth of the support van is tempting. 90K done and 54 to go. Can I do it? I'm feeling OK. The good news is the worst of the rough stuff is over, we now have a slight tail wind and it's warmed up a bit. The bad news is that . . well . . . there is still 54K to go and it's reasonably hilly. After no more than 5 minutes off the bike, we are back in the saddle and heading south. Unfortunately, the group starts to break-up - some faster some slower. On rides like this I find rhythm is key - going slower than what feels like a good rhythm can actually feel worse. I forge on with one other rider and we work well together taking equal good pulls as we press-on.

Yes, the worst of the off road sections was over, but there were still two short, but tricky ones to go. One, in one of the York Region Forest Tracts that is almost all sand. This had me doing a fair amount of walk/running with the bike for nearly a kilometer and then another section further south from there that was only about 200m long but was a total quagmire. It looked like something out of a WWI in Europe - water and that sticky light brown battle-field mud everywhere. We make it through here, and then it's only about 10K to the finish from there - most of it on gravel roads.

I am really starting to hurt about now. Energy wise I am good. I have fueled myself well - but 6 hours on the bike is about 3 hours longer than I have been on the bike in a very long time. My riding partner and I continue to work well together over the final few K with good rotating pulls on the front. Honestly, I could not have ridden this final 50K this well without him. He admits to me the same. This is one of the things I really like about road riding - these ad-libbed partnerships that are formed out on the road in races or on training rides. You depend on each other to get to the finish.

And then we swing left onto the final stretch of road in Box Grove and into the parking lot where 6 hours earlier we had left at the first light of dawn. I am done and can barely get off the bike(Pic at top). A few whoop, whoops and it's pack things up and head home. I am bagged.

Many thanks to Rhys Spencer and Cary Moretti for driving the support van. We could not have done this with out you.

The R3 fared well. There were only a couple of places that the road bike with slightly wider tires(28 mm) was a bit of a liability. Check out the pic below. It would appear that I had some clearance issues but the front wheel was still turning freely despite the mud in there. If it had been wetter and more muddy, I might have had some problems and a true cross-bike would have been the better option. It is amazing how far you can push a regular road bike.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

An Open Letter To Lance Armstrong

Dear Lance,

Congratulations on the comeback this year. My sense is that you exceeded many people's expectations of how you would do, coming back after over three years out of the sport. You acquitted yourself well at both the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France. I know that your goal was the top spot on the podium at either one of those races, but you did well none-the-less - scoring some big points for the "old-guys".

Now onto 2010 with a new team. Already, I sense that your focus for next year will be the Tour de France and an epic clash and confrontation with your former team-mate Alberto Contador. These sort of rivalries are great for any sport and they have defined the history of cycling. I expect that with the full support and devotion of a team, you will be totally focused on being ready for the Tour de France. However, you know that the knock on you is that you have been too focussed on the Tour de France all these years and that when people are talking about the great riders of the past they note that their palmeres are a bit more rounded with wins and high placings at many of the Big one day classics, other stage races, Tours and the World Championships. Perhaps these people don't recall that the race that actually put you on the map many years ago was your win at the World Championship Road Race and seven Tour de France wins is . . . . well . . . a feat that we may never see duplicated, ever again. In light of that, Lance, why not have a go at some of these other races - it's the perfect opportunity for you, with no real down side. Your place in the pantheon of the true Greats in cycling is guaranteed and assured. All I am saying, is that it would be great to see you mixing it up in the Belgian Classics in the early part of the year and some of the other great races on the calendar. However, I know that your season next year will be focused on the Tour de France.

Best wishes for next year and keep scoring some points for the "old-guys" out there on the road.

Then of course, it's back to Triathlon as the rumours say. We'll see you in Kona in 2011!!

Kind regards,


Friday, December 4, 2009

What Now For Professional Triathletes?

Professional Triathlete Jordan Rapp Celebrates after winning the recent Ironman Arizona Triathlon.

The WTC has come out with some new rules for Professional Triathletes. There was some very good things that they say they will be doing. However the subsequent debate, about who and what defines a Professional Triathlete has been interesting. There are a number of different things going on here that present various challenges depending on where you are in the sport.

A key issue is that the total pool of money available to Professional triathletes, be it through prize purses, be it through sponsorship deals, or be it through other means, is in the grand scheme of things, very limited. The scope and scale is much smaller than people think. Also, the distribution of this money, through no ones fault, is very top heavy - if you are at our very near the top of the sport, you are most likely doing "well". However, after that very select group at the very top, the money drops off dramatically.

Another issue is that many athletes depend heavily on the endemic companies in the sport of triathlon - the obvious equipment and gear suppliers and manufacturers in the business to sponsor them with both product, and money. The problem with this, is that many of the companies in this space are smaller than small - they are micro-businesses and they don't have huge financial or product resources available. There are some bigger players, some of the bike and apparel companies, but to these companies, triathlon is a small part of their business.

Another issue that presents challenges is the division between athletes themselves. Due to past history and politics we now have, two different divisions if you will of triathletes - those who pursue the ITU circuit and associated races and those who pursue the non-drafting events, of which the WTC's Ironman and 70.3 events are the most well known and popular. Within the sport of triathlon and amongst the rank-and-file age-group and participatory triathletes, the Ironman and 70.3 events are very well known. The Ironman World Championships at the Ironman Hawaii triathlon, is to many of this crowd, the most important race of the year. However, outside the sport of triathlon, with regular international TV coverage, and then the massive shot in the arm that they they get every four years at the Olympic Games, the ITU format of racing and the athletes that follow this circut are more well known. I note that in Canada, the most watched Olympic event on TV at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games was the men's triathlon race. Simon Whitfield's dramatic Silver medal performance, was more than just a sports story, it was front page news across the country the next day. It was the same when Whitfield won Gold eight years previously in Sydney at the inaugural Olympic Triathlon.

Many Pro Triathletes who follow the Ironman and 70.3 circuits lament the lack of prize money at these events. Indirectly, they have a point. The oldest Ironman races have not changed their prize purses for 20 years! The WTC has been adding many new events - both full Ironman distance and the 70.3 distance at a rapid pace over the past few years, so the total amount of money available at these races has gone up - you just have to do more of these events and some Pro triathletes have become savvy and picking and choosing their races to maximize the possibilities of making some money and generating exposure for themselves. However, the WTC is not just in the business of putting on events for Professionals, there main customer/participant, are thousands and thousands of Age-Group and rec-triathletes who sign up for races over a year ahead of time to secure a spot in a specific event. Many of their events, be they full Ironmans or 70.3 races operate at maximum capacity and are sold out in minutes of event registration opening up for the following year!

What to do:

- It's remarkable to me that to date their has not been a cohesive active association for all Professional Triathletes to be part of so that they could speak as one to race directors and event management companies. In a perfect world this association would span both the ITU and non-ITU, non-drafting triathlon worlds. This group should not be a sounding board for individual athlete grievances or issues, but should be pro-active in working with races and events and others in the sport to promote the sport as a whole and seeking where Pro Triathletes can ad value to an event.

- Professional triathletes need to think hard about where they ad value to sponsors and events. The good ones get this, and the conversation with them is always very different than the ones who don't seem to get this. Why? Because, the conversation is more about how the athlete can help out and what they can do , than about how much money is in the contract or how much gear they are getting.

- Pro triathletes need to look beyond the endemic companies in the triathlon business for the really good sponsor partnerships. It's these companies, that will actually have the financial resources to help out. Pro triathletes would be wise to follow the lead of one of the best race directors in the triathlon business and look with-in to find these contacts and relationships. What do I mean? Triathlon, seems to attract a certain type of person - that Type-A person who is very goal oriented and driven. Scan the "employment" list at any Ironman race and there are more than a few business owners, Senior Managers and Vice-Presidents and C-level executives. If they are participating in the sport, these people already get it! A warm beach is always the best beach to land on!

- The growth rate for triathlon over the past 5 years has been astonishing. Furthermore, it has been almost completely immune to the economic crisis that has hit many other sectors of the economy. That speaks to the genuine robustness and initiative of everyone involved in the sport. We all could and should do more to promote the sport beyond the usual crowd.

Just some ideas.