For the 24th year, the (in)famous Paris-Ancaster ride/race tested the spring fitness, mud lust, and plain ‘grinta’ of riders from southern Ontario and beyond. Our Stephen Cheung was in the thick of the action.
Gravel or off-road events are all the rage these past few years. But some have been around since well before gravel bikes or even cyclocross bikes were on the minds of bike manufacturers, let alone in the garage of riders.
Back in 1995, when I was a Ph.D. student in Toronto, my buddy Stuart convinced me to join him for this new Paris-Ancaster race, then in its second edition. Being new to the area, I had no clue where Paris or Ancaster was, but Stuart promised mud and fun.
From its initial start, P2A has grown into a 2,000+ rider event. There is the full 70 km race, with an Elite/VIP wave plus 4 staggered wave starts. A shorter 40 km and a recreational 20 km family event are also held, each with different start locations but all converging on Ancaster for the finish.
Between my 4 years in Toronto during the 90s and the past decade back in Niagara, I’ve done P2A about 8 times riding two different mountain bikes, two cyclocross bikes, and now a spanking new Devinci Hatchet carbon “All Road” gravel bike.
Stable on the road, it really comes into its element off-road, being nimble without requiring constant attention. Mine was the 105 version, featuring excellent hydraulic disc brakes, thru-axles front and back, and 40 mm tire clearance shod with Maxxis Re-Fuse file tread tires. You can also see the sweet Pioneer Dura-Ace 9100 cranks and powermeter upgrade.
I was initially somewhat hesitant about how the file treads would perform on the trails and in the mud but I ended up pleasantly surprised. At the Tour of Pelham earlier in April, I managed to clean the entire farm grassy excursion section despite soft ground and hills. And at P2A, I managed to ride most everything except the deep extended mud.
P2A is perfectly situated in mid- to late-April, making it one of the first big events in the Ontario cycling calendar. P2A, therefore, serves as the ideal motivation to train hard through the harsh Canadian winter.
The April date also means that every year is a Russian roulette in terms of weather. Through the years, I’ve raced P2A in scorching heat and dust, sleet and mild blizzards, pouring rain and cold, or ferocious cold grey winds.
This year featured the latter, with about 3°C for a high and a whipping headwind straight from the east that threatened to send us back to Paris throughout the whole day.
From early on, P2A has invited selected stars of the cyclocross scene to attend, giving locals a chance to see, ride, and hang with the big names. Through the years, invitees have included 2004 Paris-Roubaix 3rd place Roger Hammond, 2007 Worlds CX silver medalist Jonathan Page, British CX star Helen Wyman, and multi-US national CX champ Jeremy Powers.
This year, big names included Sunweb pro Leah Kirchmann, US CX rider Rebecca Fahringer, and multi-time British national CX champ Ian Fields.
Having just returned from a hard week of riding in Virginia while coaching with Hunter Allen and Peaks Coaching Group in the Blue Ridge Parkway, the legs were not in any mood or shape for a peak performance. That plus the shock of three days of baking heat and sun, then getting back to near-freezing temperatures and a howling headwind meant that I was in for a rough day.
So rather than perfecting my warmup, I hid from the cold and wind inside the VIP hospitality tent and huddled with a few free espresso for some internal warming and courage instead.
Thick woollen vintage soldiering outfits of the ceremonial starters were probably much warmer than lycra at warding off the cold.
Some of the smarter top female riders improvised a perfect trainer warmup spot inside a trailer to get out of the wind and cold.
I finally dragged my recently sunbaked body out for a short warmup. After an initial short uphill drag, the pack turns down this fast gravel descent. Beyond the mayhem of a mass start, extra fun was provided from dodging all of the water bottles bouncing out of cages.
The first 9 km or so was at warp speed along a rail trail. Right from the start, my legs were most definitely not listening to my brain, and I quickly found myself attacking off the back of successive waves of riders. This traditional fast start comes to an end with a sharp right turn up a long and hard loose gravel wall, where the winning breakaways usually develop. I put my CX portaging skills to use here.
About half the course is open roads, with the remainder a mix between rail trails, gravel, and singletrack. Then to connect everything together, there are a few tramps through private farm fields in varying definitions of ride-ability. This field was so rough that it required a dismount but permitted a quick chat with one of the largest hogs I’ve ever seen.
Two crazy mud chutes in the final stages of the race define P2A, with the second one here much worse than the first. In previous years this chute was super narrow, but recent roadwork has widened the chute without removing the muddiness.
Halfway down the chute my Hatchet, despite the 40 mm tire clearance, got so clogged with the gloppy mud that it couldn’t be ridden or pushed, giving me more chances to hone my CX shouldering form.
Once out of the chute, the final kick in the kidneys was the steep off-road St. Martin’s climb up to the finish. Nothing like having a 1.5 km technical trail with stretches of 15% grade to get to the finish.
The after shot of the Hatchet. Up until the mud chute, I was silly and delusional in thinking I might not even need a bike wash.
Speaking of bike washes, the one supporting local youth racers did a rip-roaring business.
Over the past five years, the P2A organisers have offered a “VIP/Olympic Experience” package. This was a definite treat, with preferred parking at both the start and finish and a free separate shuttle to the start, including valet unloading and racking of the bikes.
Once at the finish, VIP had a free bike wash and dedicated shower facilities along with a gourmet meal to look forward to. Plus all the proceeds went to the good cause of the St. Joseph’s Hospital Foundation in Hamilton.
For all riders, a hot lunch, live music, and a bike expo greet you at the finish in Ancaster community centre, making for a great venue to hang out (after you’ve thawed out) with friends and relive stories from the day.
2018 will be the big 25th anniversary for Paris-Ancaster, and I am already looking forward to another bash through the awesome course and experience. For more information on joining the fun check out the Paris-Ancaster website.