Not going to lie; rolling into my first Centurion my cycling confidence was not exactly in the right place for the daunting task I had signed up for. After a horrible effort at Tour de Terra Cotta (DNF) and a few back of the pack results in earlier attempts, I was wondering how I was going to pull off my longest ride while keeping pace with some very experienced veterans of the sport…
With early start times in September you are bound to wake up to crisp, cool temperatures, especially north of the city. Centurion Canada race morning definitely held true to trends which meant I was going to have a difficult time deciding what to wear for my 172k ride around the scenic country side of Collingwood. The forecast looked very promising for the rest of the morning so the trick would be to wear enough to stay rolling in the early miles of the race, knowing too much clothing would come back to haunt in the final few hours of the ride. I used my previous fall experiences to apply the race layer and then added some items that I could afford to toss out at the start line.
The FMCT squad had planned to gather in our resort parking lot at 6:30am so I made sure to be ready to go before the group assembled. Once we had much of the team together, we made the short ride over to the start line at the main staging area in the Village of The Blue Mountains. The riders for the C50 Mile race were just getting into position for their send off so we milled about for a few minutes, took some group photos and then grabbed a spot in the line slowly forming for the C100 Miler.
Due to the incredible turn out for both races, they announced a delay in our start by 8 minutes so I got in some final prep work before joining Richard Westwood and Sean Delanghe in the start corral. Even though we were in the first corral of 1,000 riders, we still had quite a few people in front of us. It would have been nice to edge our way to the very front but I reminded myself that this was my first Centurion and I have never raced over 100k before so there was a world of unknown ahead of me on this day. My motto for today was “Be Patient!”
As the lead vehicles rolled the huge group out, it took us just over 30 seconds to reach the timing mats and then it was game on. The neutral start from the escort of police and officials allowed us to bunch up pretty close to front which led to a few close calls in the group as turns and round-a-bouts forced everyone to throw on the binders. I picked a safe spot on the right edge of the road and stayed alert to avoid rear ending the mass of riders ahead. With my attention focused on the sudden stops, I lost sight of Sean as he weaved his way closer to the front. I knew it was not a great place to take any risks with my bike handling skills so I stuck to my plan and held my line on the shoulder of the road.
We stayed neutral much longer than expected as the peloton stayed tight up most of the first climb on the east side of the mountain. I was afraid this climb was going to be a free for all, forcing me to expend too much energy trying to stay near the front. Thankfully, it was much easier than anticipated and Richard and I stayed in touch right up until the neutral roll out was lifted. My Falcon teammate then picked up the gap really well when it formed and I followed in behind as we pushed harder over the final few hundred metres of the climb.
At this point, we were right on the back end of a pace line that was stringing out over the rolling hills that followed the major climb. It was tough for me to see what was happening up ahead and, by the time we had a better visual, the massive peloton had gapped our group. This was not a big deal to me as I was just happy to be in a larger group with Richard and some strong riders.
As we made a left turn to head south on Grey Rd 2, I started to feel the powerful breeze we were going to be battling for much of our journey. I made sure to stay mid pack, sheltered but also in position if a smaller group decided to break off the front.
Our chase group continued along the open roads at a very respectable clip during the next several kilometres on top of the mountain and I remained comfortable, slightly back from the stronger riders pulling us along. I did not want to make any crazy mistakes, especially, this early in the event and just tried to enjoy the amazing sights the region has to offer.
Getting closer to one of the trickier descents on the tour, I started to get a little nervous not knowing how the rest of the group would tackle this twisting, quick drop out of the hills. I was feeling good in this group and knew if I got too conservative there would be a chance they could create a gap which would be tough to close as an individual.
Thankfully, nobody went too wild in this drop zone and I actually descended very well. My bike was rolling as smoothly as many of the faster guys so I was able to move up near the front runners and was hoping Richard was able to stay close. After a few minutes of downhill action, we finally flattened out at the base and I could see that he was right behind my wheel and we were in a great spot to start our eastward push across to the Creemore area of the route.
Over these flatter roads, we were riding two by two but the wind was hammering on an angle and bashing the riders at the front and on right side of the line. Unfortunately, I was caught over on this side for much of this stretch of road and had to work a little more than those on the left but was still feeling good and held my spot trying not to disrupt the flow.
Coming across County Road 33, we picked up a few more riders that had been spit out by the peloton and they put in some nice work up front on this windy crossing. We then approached our right hand turn that would take us through the farm lands leading into the town of Creemore; I saw the signs up ahead and scanned down the road we would soon be traveling along.
I was a little disappointed at this time not too see any groups within reach on the road. I knew the peloton was huge and it would be tough to crack the top 100 (a secondary goal I had in mind) if we kept tight in our current spot but I remained patient knowing it was still early in the ride.
Once we made the turn onto Fairgrounds Road, most of the south bound asphalt was flat and some of the top riders were starting to get anxious to pick up the pace. I made my way up the pack to see what was happening and noticed a group of 10 or so started to rotate through a few strong pulls. I looked back and saw a tiny gap starting to form and didn’t want to lose contact with these guys so I jumped in for some time at the front.
As the rotation continued, a few guys dropped off and the numbers were getting down to just a few of us. I could tell this was starting to work the legs a little more than I was wanting at this stage so I decided to back out. Thankfully, the bulk of our pack had stayed close and were drafting off the tornado leading the charge so I dropped back to catch a breath and spotted Richard being smart, staying out of the trouble ahead.
As luck would have it, I had pulled off at a good time as I could now see the Creemore climb in the horizon. I regrouped and settled into a better spot for the uphill spin. It ended up being an easier hill than expected and also had a rewarding backside that took us into town so I was able to fully recover before doing a little zig-zag on some of the small town streets.
After passing through another feed zone in Creemore, we were directed west where we finally received some tailwind help and had a beautiful riverside ride along the Mad River. I assume most of the other riders knew what was coming up as everyone was strung out along the road with very few willing to jump on the front. I now know this was for a good reason as the climb was much tougher than it looked from the bottom.
At the beginning of the climb I was making good progress up the hill. As I focused on my breathing and cadence I must have missed Richard, and a few others, passing on my left side. Nearing the ¾ point, the climb was tearing up our group and I was in the middle of the two pods wondering where Richard had gone as I could not see him in the line of guys falling off the back.
Finally, on a steeper pitch, I spotted him leading the charge of the group in front of me. Damn, I now had some damage control to catch a wheel before being dropped off the collection of the climbers forming ahead. I dug deep and jumped out of the saddle to make sure I did not miss that train. Just as I was clipping back on to the end of this new, smaller chase pack, I saw Richard pull off the front and move to the middle of the lane to see if I was still on. I gave him a quick wave so he could easily spot me and we kept on rolling, a few people lighter than minutes earlier.
Moving on, the pace seemed to get more spirited heading towards Badjeros. I had not fully recovered from the hill effort yet and was working much harder to stay on the wheel ahead of me. To my relief, we crossed this section in fast order and had to gear down for the turn before shooting north on Country Road 63. This tiny break in pedaling was enough for me to catch a drink and find some energy for the next challenge.
As we continued, a few riders (including Merrill Collins - the overall female race winner!) attempted several breaks. I was feeling in control of my heart rate again and, as I had seen so many little breaks quickly reeled back by the momentum of the group, I decided to just monitor their progress. I was pretty confident we would stay in contact so I held my position and conserved as much energy as possible.
One triathlete, riding with aero bars, must have thought they were going to get away for the long haul and decided to time trial across the two hundred metres, which seemed to spark Richard’s interest. He started to gear up and I had to make a quick decision. I held tight knowing my split second hesitation would have missed the boat, which seems to have entered Richard’s thoughts as well as he instantly pulled back, giving up his chase before exiting our group. It was a good call on our behalf as it didn’t take long before the entire crowd had caught the four escapees.
All together again, we then turned left onto Concession 10 where we had encountered a 500 metre gravel section during our scouting ride two weeks earlier. The Centurion organizers had warned us that we would have to negotiate this during the race so we were all prepared for a gravel encounter. Being a very cautious rider, I knew I needed to be up near the front of the group so that I would not be spit out the back. As I saw the construction sign, I readied myself for the bumpy ride and got up to lead the group. To my surprise, the horizon was dark black and looking much more inviting.
Somehow, work crews had delivered a patch of fresh, smooth asphalt in the place of the dreaded gravel. This made my day and I settled down, pumping myself up for the next big task 20 miles up the course. I knew it would be very important to conserve as much as possible before the KOM climb in Kimberly so I just stayed tucked in the group as we passed through Feversham and Eugenia.
During this stretch, we actually picked up more stragglers who seemed very willing to stay out front for our group. This helped our pace a great deal as we reached the big descent out of Eugenia. It is a fairly straight road down into the Talisman Resort region so we safely stayed two by two with most of us just holding our positions.
For some reason, I thought I had several people behind me coming down this hill so by the time we got through the valley and reached the start of the KOM climb; I was shocked that Richard and one other gentleman were the only people to start the timed ascent behind me.
In my practice ride, I took this climb far too easy. I knew I would be left in the dust on this day if I assumed that pace again so I pushed a little harder on the pedals and got into a good rhythm. Before I knew it, I was making very good time up the hill and past most of our group. I actually settled into the three hole before Richard decided to pull around me and attack the front two riders in a powerful acceleration. He looked super fresh so I was not about to match his effort but tried to stay close without over cooking the system.
This turned out to be a wise move as I had a very respectable KOM split and held onto the group which was now even further reduced as some failed to catch back on at the top through the feed zone.
We now had about 40k to go. Richard warned me this would be the real racing section and he was bang on. The group covered the next downhill mileage in very quick time and before I knew it we were staring at the infamous Ravenna climbs where I had a bunch of trouble during our pre-ride.
In the first portion of the climb I was actually feeling confident and ready to roll. The momentum of one of the early slopes had me out leading the charge before Richard wisely caught my attention, reeling me back in due to the head wind and tougher hills to come. We kept pace with the rest of the crew for a few more kilometres before Richard looked over to me and stated he was going for it. I quickly evaluated my situation and decided I would be best to hang on with the group until we crested the steeped portion as I didn’t think I had break away legs for toughest section still to come.
Showing perfect timing and amazing conditioning, Richard darted out on the hardest section of the race and nobody could match his move. I hung on to the back of the group around the corner in Ravenna where we were presented with a crazy, steep test that knocked my legs off. I looked down at my watch and noted 160k and 4:28 as the exact place and time that I lost touch with the group.
I then struggled up the rest of the hill and tried to time trial my way back to the splintered line of a few riders that remained from our group. Just as I was about to reach that last wheel we hit another 15% grade and once again I lost all forward progress. I was now in survival mode.
I knew I had to get to the next corner where the downhill speed of Scenic Caves Road would allow me to reach the finish. Unfortunately, some of the guys I had left behind (before the turn at Ravenna) had pulled together, recovered and were now easily passing me. I tried to grab their wheels but just could not latch on. I put my head down and burnt every last calorie in my body to make it to the corner to accept my free ride down the mountain.
After making another solid drop down to the base, I now had a little finishing kick to hammer it back to the Village. I got on the end of a small pace line and entered with a huge smile, very happy to reach the end of a successful and incredible rookie century ride.
As I saw Richard waiting at the finish, I could tell just how excited he was about our ride. He had a similar experience at Tour de Terra Cotta so it was great to see him pull off such an impressive ride.
Congrats to each and every Falcon that participated in this amazing event. Every one of you worked so hard to prepare for this challenging ride and you should be very proud of your achievements!
Bravo to all the family and friends of the Falcons that helped us through this incredible weekend!
Lastly, I have to give kudos to my duathlon buddy, Bruce Bird, for pulling off an impressive victory. Tough to match that performance!