This is a cycling nerd totally geeking out. He might be me.
Okay, just to warn you in advance, this article is a doozie. I also meant to post it months ago.
Today – Sunday, September 8th, 2013 – was a life defining day for me. Not in a “I’m quitting my job and living off the Earth from now on” kind of way, but in a life-defining “I know what I love” way. It’s a day when you recognize at the end of it that your life will never be the same, because you understand yourself that much better. My dad would have said it represented being on the path to self-actualization.
It’s a day when you catch foreign tourists photographing you as you make a phone call at a telephone booth while leaning on a mountain bike and are covered head to toe in mud; a day when you see your father cry as you approach him holding a piece of paper that says “degree” on it; a day when you turn to your brother beside you and scream “we’re going to the Stanley Cup finals!”; a day when you stand on a beach and watch the first place team paddle in and cross the finish line at Eco-Challenge; a day when you see your future wife walking towards you with barely contained emotion; a day when you stand on a mountain ridge and look around at 360 degrees of forever and realize it’s exactly the place you want to be at exactly the time you want to be there; a day when you get goosebumps as people cheer you on crossing the finish line at the Ride to Conquer Cancer; a day when you first hold your son or daughter, look down at them, and feel their warmth and their movement…
So now that you know my biography, what happened to me, today? Well, I went to a bike race. Sounds pretty stupid, right?
The finish gate in downtown Calgary
This September, following a flooded early summer, the inaugural Tour of Alberta ran a five stage bike race through a whole pile of communities in southern Alberta. Some (Canmore, for example) had to be deleted from the original race route owing to the planned race stages being partially destroyed (bridges, in particular) by monumental floods. In a year reeling from tragedy, the province instead focused on positivity and triumph and in the end hosted some of the world’s most accomplished professional cyclists. Examples included Ryder Hesjedal (Canadian, and winner of the 2012 Giro D’Italia), Peter Sagan (2013 Green Jersey winner of the Tour de France, and wheelie maestro) and Cadel Evans (2011 winner of the Tour de France). For the first time ever, us backwoods Albertans got to watch them work first-hand in a UCI Pro Tour stage race.
A family of cycling geeks. Okay, might be mine, ca. 2007.
I’ve followed cycling for years. From mountain biking in the 90s with names like Tomac, Juarez and Herbold to the Tour de France and then other pro race events (as coverage improved) with names like Ulrich, Armstrong (I’m still a fan) and Beloki leading the way. We know a lot more about the truth behind some of these athletes today, but that will never take away the excitement and thrill I had watching these races, and overseeing the epic battles that took place as the grade went up. Especially they will never take away the inevitable phone call from my dad within the last 10km of any stage, where both of us would proceed to scream at each other and the TV for however long it took the riders to haul themselves over the top. Sprint or climb, it was always exciting. This year’s Tour de France was just as exciting, and I think my mom and I were on the phone every night, doing the same screaming and hollering. The neighbors must think we’re nuts. We love cycling, as you can clearly see.
When I found out the Tour of Alberta would be charging through Alberta, I knew that I was going to be there to see it. With two young children and a day job, I knew my opportunities to follow would be limited, but my target was the final Stage 5, which finished with four laps around downtown Calgary. What promised to be a beautiful September (all of our seasons have shifted to the right in the calendar, it seems) and a professional cycling event… couldn’t be missed.
We headed down to the train station quite early – we didn’t know what the crowds would be like, and didn’t count on getting in and out of downtown easily with roads closed for the race. When we got to the finish line proper, we found a lot of fun. A definite buzz about the place, and lots of sponsors and vendors had booths and tents set up all over the place. There were also food trucks in abundance, which always means good eats.
We toured the booths, and I did a virtual time trial on a bike trainer (my body didn’t enjoy going from rest to 190bpm in under a minute – I had to sit down for a while). Obviously my time – while top dog for a while – didn’t hold up, as I never got a call that I’d won a $100 gift certificate. There were people around, but it didn’t feel like throngs of insanity, yet.
A bunch of cycling nerds. Oh, look, me right at the front and center. Hmm. I sense a pattern.
We decided to pop a squat by the finish line, anyway, so as to make sure we had a spot when the real action started. And when I say by the finish line, I mean right on it! I was stoked. We made friends with the people around us: a couple who’d been camping there since early morning, and some really interesting mega cycling fans from Edmonton who’d been to several major races world-wide (several Tours of Australia, Tours of Malaysia, and a Giro d’Italia to boot). We talked shop. The virtues of different frame design aspects, our favourite riders, our not so favourite riders, and our favourite moments from memorable races. I was surrounded by like-minded nerds.
When the race finally started, some announcers went to work across the road from us, calling the shots as the stage progressed from Okatoks towards Calgary. They were a pretty talented pair, and I was disappointed when I watched the stage again on TV later that they hadn’t had those two actually making the TV call.
When the call finally started to heat up, then the crowds started to gather. That’s when we started to feel pretty smug about squatting on the finish line. I started to get really excited. When the riders entered the city, the commentators started to get more excited, too. I craned my neck back to the main stage of the Tour of Alberta setup to catch glimpses of the peleton on familiar roads. Seeing that group wind its way down Crowchild and Memorial on the big screens was a bit surreal. We were starting to get blocked in on the fence from all around; the crowds were starting to get antsy for this thing to go screaming by.
The breakaway crosses the finish line on a lap.
Then, the peleton entered downtown. My adrenaline and the anticipation reached a breaking point. The guys making the call across the road started to lose their minds, they weren’t sitting anymore. A breakaway. A Canadian in the breakaway, three riders working together to stay 15-20 seconds ahead of the main pack. Then we were warned that the group was coming down the stretch for lap 1 at the finish line – it was just a cop car. The effect that had was incredible. People starting screaming. People started leaning over the fence, trying to look down the gut of Center St. towards the Calgary Tower. I swear another minute passed and the crowd paused mid-crescendo – maybe we all collectively wanted to make sure we had room to get even louder when the insanity passed. Then some motorcycles, one obviously a time-check motorcycle with the back rider holding up a small whiteboard that read “Thank you Alberta!” She was grinning like a maniac, and he crowd got louder. Then a couple more motorcycles. Then the race marshall’s car. Then, the three rider breakaway. They were gone that fast.
The crowd was fever pitch. I don’t think I understood on TV how long 15 seconds actually was. When you watch these races, and there’s a break at 15 seconds in the final kilometers of a race, you just know “well, they’re done.” I’m sorry, folks, 15 seconds is a bloody long time. The crowd waited, screaming, then we got louder.
The peleton screams through on a lap.
The peleton went by. I’ve never seen anything like this, and I will definitely see it again. It is my mission to see it again under any circumstance I can. The front third went by before I really even realized it, and then I felt the wind. This large group was pushing so fast that they created a wind in their wake, and it hit us fans on the other side of the fence like a blast of nitrous oxide in a Fast and the Furious movie. I don’t think I’ve screamed like that since the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2004. My eyes were wide and I tried my best to focus in on what was happening in front of me, but it was just too fast. Incredible!! It turns out that 15 seconds when you’re pushing your bike over 50km/h is a long time, I don’t care who’s counting. To catch those riders in front of you, you’re going to have to push even faster than that! The peleton has the advantage though, in numbers and airflow.
Then the support caravan went by. Each team has a support car with mechanics, snacks, drinks, and spare bikes strapped to the roofs. The riders were fast and completely destroyed any vestige of rational thought I had left, and the support vehicles brought that rationality back down with a crash. These cars were positively sprinting – I’ve never seen cars driving that fast downtown. That really helped me to put just how fast these riders were into perspective.
My mind was blown, my heart was racing, and that was just lap one. They were going to go by me three more times. And they would only get faster.
Two more laps went by, and they were every bit as exciting as the first, but that first exposure to just how incredible these riders are will forever stick in my head as one of the most amazing moments in my life. I rode the crescendo of the approach to the peak of insanity as those riders went by like an adrenaline junkie going into freefall. It was like my own personal Stratos – with a whole lot less risk to life and limb.
On the final lap, I swear one of the announcers’ heads was going to fly straight off of his shoulders. He was a spindly little guy, certainly smaller than me, but the voice that was coming out of him (which I felt he was in serious danger of losing) was like a freight train blasting the throngs of people screaming across the road course at each other. Our Canadian had gone down on a careless error, and it was like the sky had fallen. He’d rubbed a wheel when he looked back to see how far back the peleton was (never look back!), and slid out at close to 60km/h. He got up and finished though – you have to!
Everyone was back together, and the energy was intense. The skies were threatening with rain, but the mood on the race course pushed the rain off. “No you don’t, not yet.” The peleton made the final turn, and buddy on the mic was screaming out of every pore of his face “Sagan! Peter Sagan with an incredible corner!” The Tour de France green jersey winner, was out in front in the final straight, and thousands of Albertans (and some foreigners from BC and Saskatchewan too, I’d wager!) pushed him with all their vocal might. He rode the sonic boom across the finish line, signaling victory by pretending to throw a lasso, and he had the margin to start it early. When I saw the replay later, I was astounded at just how brilliantly he’d taken the last corner. He carried so much speed out of it, that his closest rivals had really no chance of even competing. The crowd was in a frenzy, I’d completely lost my mind, and this had quickly become one of the best afternoons of my life. Nobody cared who won (except maybe the crazy Slovak fans and their giant Peter Sagan heads), they were just treated to the thrill of a lifetime with an incredible 4-lap finish to a professional stage race in Calgary.
Our perspective on the finish line.
Peter Sagan whips it on the finish line. Or lasso? Whatevs, he fast.
Rohan Dennis, the overall winner of the inaugural Tour of Alberta.
With everyone else’s mind blown, Adena quickly brought me back to earth, and we scooted as quick as we could over to the main stage, to get the best spots possible to watch the awards presentations. Seriously, we were right at the press fence, and these human machines who I’d always watched from afar were right there in front of me. The awards were awesome, and the crowd maintained its electricity through the whole thing. Sagan threw his flowers into the crowd, team BMC – who won the overall team competition – destroyed each other with champagne, and a chorus of cheers met every single event. Only at the very end, when Rohan Dennis (the overall winner of the Tour, and member of team Garmin/Sharp) was being interviewed, did the skies finally open up. It poured. Some people tried to hide in vendor and sponsor booths, and others (like us) just wandered around and relished being soaked in downtown Calgary.
What a day. What a life. I love cycling.
For the record, this is what our finish line and podium experience looked like:
Peter Sagan, Ted King, Damiano Caruso… and some nerd. Who might be me.
The next day, I rode my bike to work, and got seriously stressed out because some meetings had appeared in my calendar late in the day. I wasn’t worried about the contents of the meetings, I was worried that they put in serious risk my plan to ride over to Bow Cycle to shake the hand of the stage winner. I did it, though. When my meetings were finished, I sprinted my roadie down to Bow and met Peter Sagan, Ted King and Damiano Caruso. I’m a serious nerd.
So how has this changed my life? Well, day to day not much, but it re-affirmed for me how much I love cycling, and how much I will continue to strive to have more of it in my life. I post pictures of the beautiful scenery I see on my way home to Facebook every once in a while, and people “like” that. I do too. I can only imagine that on some level, these elite pro riders do, too. I rode a good portion of the route they rode from Okatoks when I did the final day of this year’s Ride to Conquer Cancer, and it was beautiful. Pro racing is all business, but I have to think that these guys looked across Alberta on those rides and were also reminded how they got into riding in the first place, too.
Here are a couple of other photos from the event, for fun:
Ryder Hesjedal crosses the finish line.
The different classification winners.
Peter Sagan, final stage winner.
BMC, winners of the Team Classification.
Maybe BMC aren’t as close as everyone thinks.
Apparently the Tour top 3 are also not friends.