Imagine this. You show up to a race, and it is mass start. But there are two categories: e-bikes (motor bicycles) and regular bicycles. You are on a regular bike, and while you are only racing other regular bikes, e-bikes are racing each other and you. Because no e-bike wants to get beat by a regular bike.
The faster of the e-bikes separate, and there you are, in a chase group of e-bikes, but it is the lead group of regular bikes. An e-bike goes off the front, you jump on the wheel. You sit behind it, in the draft, and get pulled up to the lead group. You are now safely tucked in there. All of the other regular cyclists missed the separation and you end up winning.
Do you take pride in the win? Was it cheating, or unfair? Are you just using the resources left to you? If you were 2nd place regular bike and knew an e-bike paced your winner, are you jealous, understanding, or is that just the race?
The situation above was just a thought experiment, but representative of a mass-start gravel race. The e-bikes represent men, and the regular bikes women. Obviously, men do have a slight physiological advantage over women, but don’t worry, just as in the thought experiment above, only a few men are able to use that advantage to actually be faster (WINKY FACE IT’S A JOKE ALL PEOPLE ARE CREATED EQUAL (or is at all men are created equal and some women are more superior?)).
Ok back to the point. This past weekend was Paris to Ancaster (P2A). I did the race last year, you can read more about that experience or the race here.
The course was similar as last year, the crowd was a little different; no roadies showed up on the women’s side, but Helen Wyman came out, in addition to Jenn Jackson. From what I can gather about Jenn, she has recently entered cycling, and in a way similar to myself (and many other elite cyclists. She was doing another sport (Nordic skiing) and was like, bicycles are cool – that’s my thing now. She has since become Canadian mountain bike U23 National Champ and it looks like she has dreams to hit the UCI mountain bike circuit. I knew none of this going in to the race.
I started slow, as usual, trying to avoid crashing on the first section of tight rail-trail. I knew there were a few women ahead of me, but I wasn’t sure who. I passed a few going up the first steep pitch. On the wide rollers I worked hard to bridge from group to group until I was in a string of riders working their way through the first sections of single track. In an open field, I saw two women ahead of me: Helen, and Jenn. I passed Jenn, but she hopped on my wheel. This is when I knew she was a threat. The three of us ended up together, working in a small rotating paceline of 3 until a larger group of men reached us, and we tucked in with them.
Well shoot. We were in the major chase group, consisting of about 20 people. It was windy. VERY windy. Last year the groups were much smaller and I was riding hard, clinging to my group, taking pulls, and urging them faster when we settled pace knowing I was 2nd and chasing 1st. Last year Leah was in the front group, and it seems that she was working as hard as I was but couldn’t take the pace of the leaders and dropped off. Once she was solo she lost the 20% pace and energy conservation gain and slid back until, eventually, I could pass her to take the win.
This year, the lead three women were in a huge group of men, on a very windy day, and moves weren’t sticking and the group wasn’t shrinking. I had no idea what to do. At mile 23ish I attempted a break, but when I got to two others who were up they admitted to me that they could not hold the pace, so we were quickly caught. In a race of only women, the others would not have let me get away easily, but the break either would have stuck, or the chase back would have whittled down their reserves. Either way, we would have battled fiercely; instead, the huge group came to us unceremoniously, almost without effort. If any one person went to attack, the blows were delivered through a pillow due to the size of the group, no one in the group impacted even close to the effort put out but the attacker (man or woman).
The three of us stayed in that group until the last few kilometers, when Helen crashed, and then I thought I made the winning move by dive-bombing Jen into the first of two muddy chutes. I knew the first one down would be the winner. I was right. Little did I know that being in the big ring was over-geared for this downhill which was thick peanut butter. Jenn, who had been cool as a cucumber, riding smoothly the whole race, slid on passed and gapped me there, thus being the 1st down. She did take the win, by 40 seconds, which is crazy because that’s about where I passed Leah last year, and I ended up beating her by 45 seconds. The difference was, I beat Leah because she was cracked and not a strong technical rider. I was beat because though I wasn’t cracked, Jenn was a strong technical rider, better took an element, and was strong enough to keep pushing through.
The day was by no means easy, but I am a little disappointed with how it went. It felt more like a group ride than a race. We were three passive riders, hanging on, looking around. The only way we may not have ended up together was if one of us had been up further up at the start, thus either winning, or, similar to last year, cracking and then getting dropped.
The promotors, John and Tim, said they had considered what it would take to get the women in their own wave, but I don’t think that is necessary. Racing with the men adds another element. Not only do we need to think of clothes/layering, bike choice, tire tread, width, and pressure, but now also our gender alliances. Maybe I should have actually asked some of the men in that big group to try to make a jail break with me. Is that different than making a plan with fellow women in a road race?
This just means that next year I have to go back to P2A to see if it plays out differently. Will I make the lead group? Will I again be trapped in a group with fellow racers and need to find a way to outwit them, as well as out strength and out ride them?