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Canadian Gravel National Championships Recap

Posted by Andrew Davidson on June 27, 2024

Photo by @davidfmiller

In the true words of American singer-songwriter, Roger Alan Wade, “If you’re gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough.” Many would agree that taking to the start line of the Canadian Gravel National Championships, in the daunting weather conditions that rolled in overnight, was far from the smartest of decisions, but we Canadians are a tough bunch! Several who had registered pulled the plug and added their name to a significant list of DNS s, perhaps intelligently, and the rest accepted our fate, and all that the day held in store. Nearly two weeks on, some of us are still riding around with shamefully squeaky bottom brackets that need repacking, or have applied the out-of-sight, out-of-mind strategy to our gravel bikes, which have yet to log a pedal stroke since an unforgettably soggy day in the Alberta foothills.

While mechanically unsound, it may be the healthy distancing required to process and recover from the brutal and beautiful second edition of the Canadian Gravel National Championships.

Photo by @davidfmiller

The conditions that made for a true hard-man / hard-woman day of racing. Photo by @davidfmiller

Hosted in 4iiii’s backyard, the town of Water Valley saw the start and finish of countless personal triumphs, heartbreaks, and every other imaginable storyline. Fittingly, the Water Valley Saloon, which stars as the town’s most recognizable feature, set the tone for what would be a worthy script of a classic Western film. Horses that could go on no more, the expenditure of one’s ammunition too early in the shoot-out, and a lasso shaped 118km course profile. The “bad guy” role was infamously played by the race day weather conditions, as temperatures plummeted, rain fell, wind blew and at points hail pelted down. The once dusty, hard-packed and fast-rolling terrain became a sinking and soft muddy gauntlet. Riders huddled in cars and under tents until the last possible moment, before being corralled for the neutral roll-out. As is becoming the positive trend in gravel races, the men and women were sent off on their challenging journeys as separate fields, and the race for the maple leaf jerseys was on!

The Elite Women’s field, which had their own start. Photo by @davidfmiller

With a long, high-speed descent to mark the end of the paved neutral start, riders were properly shivering in their boots/carbon-soled shoes before the first pedal stroke of competition had been taken. While the pace did heat up quickly, as the terrain tilted upwards and the days main animators pushed on at the front, extremities remained frozen and vision gradually reduced from the muddy spray that coated lenses. The sustained and gradually steepening climb to the first feed zone around kilometer 40, saw the main selection happen, with the main podium threats crest with a small gap that would never be closed. Among them, 4iiii athletes Michael van den Ham, Andrew L’Esperance, Sean Fincham, Carter Neiuwesteeg and New Zealander, Cameron Jones. In the women’s race, local cycling hero and former 4iiii athlete Sara Poidevin broke free of the field, taking one rider with her, as the others struggled to keep pace.

The lead group from the Elite Men’s field, from which the podium would be decided. Photo by @davidfmiller

Whether at the pointy end of affairs or pulling up the rear, riders faced the same adversity, as worsening road conditions reduced the surface to a peanut butter-like texture that sapped the legs of watts at an alarming rate. The constant filthy spray of mud in the face left most piloting their bike with little vision, while attempting to avoid larger rocks and even thicker mud patches on the descents. The relentless wave of steep hills that brought speeds and cadences to a grind began to really blow things apart around the 75km mark, as groups of 1-4 formed around the course. Race strategies were shifting to survival strategies as the taxing effort and elements saw an increased demand for calorie consumption, as the fear of an epic “bonk” if failing to do so, was always looming in the back of mind.

To top it all off, mechanical issues plagued many throughout the day, with countless derailleurs ripped from their hangers, punctures, electronic shifting breaking down and leaving riders spun-out or unable to climb. Perhaps the most frustrating gut-wrenching instance was in the women’s race, as solo race leader Poidevin, who looked well on her way to the win, fell victim to the derailleur-clogging mud and subsequently was overtaken in the later stages of the route.

Elite Women’s 6th place finisher, Hannah Simms, embracing the muddy terrain. Photo by @shimizuimg

Yet despite all the grit in our eyes and exasperation with bikes and bodies that were failing to perform as hoped, it was an equally exhilarating experience to fully embrace the harshness of it all. The raw beauty of the surrounding landscape, the communal suffering and work being done within each group, and the knowledge that you were truly testing your limits to the fullest. A national championship should always be a hard-earned title, and this surely was going to be just that. As someone who had raced all seven previous editions of the event, before it hosted the national championships, with results ranging from the overall win to a DNF , it was also satisfying to see Canada’s best tackling a classic Alberta route. I’ll admit, it was also validating to see how deep others, with significantly greater race resumes, were digging to will themselves to the finish line.

The scenic views were a nice reprieve from the tough pedal-pushing. Photo by @davidfmiller

Some of the locals that came out to spectate and cheer riders on. Photo by @davidfmiller

As the first trio to roll back into Water Valley, the elite men’s podium saw a fairly cagey finish, with Michael van den Ham making an early bid to ride away from the Quebec duo of Adam Roberge and Julien Gagne. His attack was reeled in and then countered, with Adam Roberge taking the final push for victory and the maple leaf jersey just ahead of Gagne, with a small gap to MvdH for the bronze. The elite women’s title went to a surprise winner, Katja Verkerk, the 20-year old Victoria rider who had been riding strong in second place when race leader Poidevin had her mechanical. Verkerk held off an impressive list of chasers, including Haley Smith and Gabby Traxler to take the solo win and the national title. Equally hard fought were the podiums being contested by the wide range of age group categories on course, with riders from 15-65+ showing their tenacity and mental strength to bring home results they’ll not soon forget.

Left to Right: Elite Men’s Podium, Julien Gagne, Adam Roberege, Michael van den Ham Photo by @davidfmiller

Left to Right: Elite Women’s Podium, Haley Smith, Katja Verkerk, Gabby Traxler Photo by @davidfmiller

With tales of adversity being shared by the growing mob of weary and weathered finishers, with faces of shell-shock and satisfaction, whether from a stellar result or just surviving the day, the energy outside the Water Valley Saloon was great. What was once a parking lot full of hundreds of clean, trepidatious gravel racers some 4-6 hours earlier was now a scene of relief, laughter and accomplishment… and ultimately the sign of a hugely successful Canadian National Gravel Championships.

The post-race faces of the days weathered warriors. Photo by @davidfmiller

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