Check this out!” That was the full content of a March 16th email from a cycling friend, other than a link that included the words, “event” and “beach race.”
Who could guess this innocuous email would provide a life-affirming opportunity?
Opening the link immediately brought up an action photo of a dozen riders on gravel and cyclocross bikes pedaling side-by-side along a wide beach, and announced the Cannondale Ontario Beach Race Championships would be held in Turkey Point on Saturday April 9, 2022.
The promotional blurb on the website began,” What could be more fun than hanging out on a beach and riding bikes with a bunch of fellow crazy people?” Absent was any mention that April 9th in Southwestern Ontario wasn’t peak beach season, and that this winter, which wasn’t finished with us yet, had been the snowiest and coldest in ages. Even so, images, or delusions, of Baywatch and broad, flat Southern California beaches filled my imagination.
“The Cannondale Ontario Beach Race Championships is the first race of its kind in Ontario (maybe in Canada),” was the organizer’s next lure.
“Wow! How often in my lifetime have I had a chance to participate in a first ever, and a Championship to boot?” I asked myself.
There was a weather guarantee too.
“Weather can completely change a race, so we developed the 100% weather guarantee. We guarantee that 100% of the course will have weather. If any section of the course does not have weather, we will refund you that percentage of your entry fee.”
The race would have an official “No whining” policy. I could feel the sales noose tightening. Entry fee was $90, and I’d arrive in Turkey Point at around 10:30 AM, leaving for home at 3:30 PM. That meant for $18 per hour I could blissfully enjoy a no-complaining, no-whining environment for five hours. How refreshing a thought was that? Sounded like a bargain to me.
Intriguing as this might be, there were harsh realities too. The race would start on the beach between two inflatable plastic palm trees. We’d ride, run or walk our bikes 2K west, battling the sand, then return 2K east along an asphalt road before veering into a sand and gravel parking lot for 500 metres.
This would be the support area, or aid station. The organizers had Gatorade and energy bars in mind, I was thinking oxygen mask and defibrillator. We’d return to the road for a few metres, then head up Old Hill Road for a 33 metre (100 vertical feet) climb. After flying back down to the base of the hill, we’d lift our bikes over a low stone wall, carry them across deep white sand to water’s edge, then ride another kilometre of beach back to the palm trees. Piece of cake, and we had to do it only six times.
The racer categories were simple: female under 50, female over 50, male under 50 and male over 50, all in one mass start. None of the usual ten-year age groupings.
“We’re keeping it simple,” the organizers said.
Terrific. I’d be staged with racers young enough to be my grandkids, and I was two decades older than the 50 year olds I’d be competing against directly.
I’d have three weeks for training to become race ready, which basically meant it was already too late. It’s recommended that high-performance athletes should taper (rest) the week prior to an event to recover their energy, so it would actually only be two weeks of training. No sense overdoing it.
Fortunately five repeats of a hilly loop in Short Hills including Hansler Road, Orchard Hill Road, Overholt Road, and Hollow Road would give me perfect climbing practice for Old Hill Road. An unexpected benefit of this training route was making some new friends. Walkers and homeowners usually flagged me down and asked if I was lost or needed directions after my third or fourth pass.
Riding in the sand was still an unknown. There is no fat tire bike in my stable. How could I possibly race on sand for 18K with bicycle tires the width of Snickers bar?
I donned my marine geologist helmet and rode to Camelot Beach west of Port Colborne in search of the ugly truth. If Lake Erie was calm, the beach would be rideable, sort of, in places. A narrow strip of relatively hard-packed wet sand half a metre wide adjacent to the water could support a gravel-bike and rider. If the consistency of the sand was just right, riding in the water very close to the shoreline worked too. Dry sand was impossible, as were the numerous piles of shell, rock and garbage debris. Streamlets of spring runoff crossing the beach could be shallow and firm, or soft-bottomed quicksand. Throw in the odd beached and half-buried log that required lifting the bike over, and 18K (3K x 6 laps) of Lake Erie beach on any but the perfect day might as well be the distance to the moon.
There were so many reasons not to do this race, but of course that was ultimately its allure. How often do we choose to publicly attempt something, knowing the results will be published on the internet for all to see, when there is a significant chance of mental and physical failure?
As children and adolescents we spend much of our time testing our limits, learning new physical strengths and mental skills. What can I get away with, how far can I push? We understand we have to fail to progress, so we don’t dwell on it, we just go for it.
During adulthood the process continues, but we are much better able to judge the risks and possibility of success, then decide if the effort is worth the reward. Each of us finds our personal tolerances, and begin to favour living within them if we can.
The true challenge this race offered was not the beach or the climb, but a chance to see if I still valued the opportunity to test myself physically, and in some small way mentally, for no reason other than the test itself. There would be little outward reward, a podium finish was utterly impossible. The risks were minimal too. Failure to finish might be embarrassing at worst. The “attaboys” from friends and fellow competitors would come win or lose, finish or not.
So I registered to race, and it was exhilarating.
A library full of essays and commentaries consistently list health, routine, relationships, food, respect, comfort and community as those things seniors value most post-retirement. Where are challenge, learning, creativity and growth experiences on the list?
The anticipation, the fear of failure and challenge of the unknown conditions, was truly exciting. The training, however short it might be, provided purpose to routine rides, and a goal. Awaiting the opportunity to test my physical capacity against others, to perhaps experience that perverse pleasure of draining oneself, was invigorating. Temporarily eschewing comfort and routine for a couple hours to enjoy this small challenge was liberating.
The start was like no other I’d experienced. Absent was the shoulder-to-shoulder jostling at the line. We self-seeded in single file along the slim ribbon of wet sand at the water’s edge, the only place there was traction. We quizzed each other to make sure as best we could that the racer lined up in front was faster and the one behind was slower. I began in the final position, guaranteeing that I wouldn’t impede anyone, and might get to make a pass or two.
Within minutes it was obvious there were two races being run: one group fast and powerful vying to win, another group, my group, hoping only for the strength to finish the complete event. Pedaling the asphalt road was our rest, hopefully an opportunity to recover enough energy to climb Old Hill or face the beach one more time. Sand jammed our cleated cycling shoes to our pedals. We fell often without injury, going too slowly to justify calling them crashes.
Some determined that finishing wasn’t worth the effort and quit. Others simply couldn’t make it to the end. In twice the time it took the winner to complete the course I finished all six laps. Not last of the finishers, and ahead of the DNFs (Did Not Finish).
Post-race, while chatting with fellow competitors and the organizers, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. Simply by entering a bike race I had become part of this community, “Hanging out on a beach and riding bikes with a bunch of fellow crazy people,” just as advertised.
Never give up your little bit of crazy — it can be life-affirming. ◆