We begin with a messy ending…

I want to use the following photos as a hook. They are a series of images pulled from the tumbling airs of Ste Martine by photographer Antoine Becotte. It is the end of a race that has already been decided because outside the frame the winning break has long since crossed the finish line. So here is the question that hangs on this painful hook: what caused the accident?

All images ©2010 Antoine Bécotte

For all the European pros passionately following this blog, the well-organized Ste Martine race takes place on windswept farm roads about 35km to the south-west of Montreal. Racers do laps of a 14 km rectangular course.  Some years it is raining, some years it is freezing, and some years it is hot–but it is always windy. It is as if the wind itself shares in the turbulent excitement of the first official race on the Quebec calendar.

Even before the race began the wind swirled the smell of leg balm and the sound of nervous chatter around the parking lot. Riders fought with it as they tried to pin their race numbers onto their jerseys. They turned to face it as they clipped on their helmets. And they punctuated it as they twisted their cleats into the pedals and rode to the start. This year it would be a tailwind finish and a headwind on the long backstretch.

At the start line it was sunny, so an incredible number of riders were taking part. Because it was the season opener, there were also huge differences in fitness levels, which causes erratic riding in the peloton. There were also riders taking part in the first race of their lives. Differences in experience and bike-handling skills can also be the cause of accidents. Add some swirling winds to the equation and, well…you’ve seen the pictures.

So many causes braid themselves into the twisting body of the accident, and I am yet to mention that at least for one frame someone wasn’t looking where they were going. Sometimes, however, it seems too easy to blame the individual, especially when so many factors come into play during a sprint. Think of how many decisions and dynamic contexts have been put into play for that rider to miss the break, to be in front of some and behind others–even before he falls.

Anyone who has ridden in a peloton when the winds are swirling knows how jittery things can get. Wheels shift everywhere as spaces open and close a bit too rapidly between riders struggling to maintain their position. It’s hard to maintain a sense of the race itself as you get caught up in the spaces just in front of you. The key is to try and keep a sense of the big picture. Know where the wind is coming from and anticipate what the peloton will do as a unit. You will get boxed in. You will be forced to do more work at times than you want to, but that’s part of racing. You just don’t want to be so busy yelling at the guy in front of you that you don’t notice as the break walks away. Lots of riders told me after Ste Martine that they had no idea what had happened. It’s a common experience in racing if you’re absorbed by the little battles.

You can get lost within a small frame of vision when sprinting too. In most local races, teams lack the strength and experience to perform a proper leadout for their sprinter. So during the last kms, you get a small group of the faster riders establishing their presence at the front, and all sorts of battles behind them as other riders try to get into their draft. You also get waves of riders coming up to challenge the apex of the peloton. This is especially true when you’ve got long, tailwind run-ups to the finish line. The challenge is to anticipate and read the wave properly so you don’t get boxed in as it slaps into the side of the apex. If you do it well, you can sometimes beat sprinters who are usually faster than you.

A key skill of racing is thus to be able to read the big picture and commit to it. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, your ability to read the scene will lead you to your place on the road during the sprint at Ste Martine. You might be right. You might be misguided. You might suffer unnecessarily. You might excel. But in the end, visions of the scene will collide, merge, and spill in waves towards the finish line. On the other side of the line? That’s where the stories begin. How about this one:

During the day I watched several brutal crashes at the end of races as various categories crossed the line. I began to wonder how Ste Martine got its name. To be honest, I don’t really have a sense of the whole picture. Saint Martin is the patron saint of France and soldiers, but information about Sainte Martine is more difficult to find, and confusing, but here’s the story: During the rule of the Roman Emperor Alexander, Sainte Martine had her body gradually torn apart for refusing to offer sacrifice to idols in the Temple of Apollo, and then later, the Temple of Diana. Instead she continued to pray to Jesus Christ until her torturers were exhausted. While she prayed, an earthquake damaged the Temple of Apollo, a lion licked her wounds instead of attacking her, and winds blew out the fire upon which she was to be burned. Eventually, she met a cruel end but somehow the name of this saint of commitment and bodily sacrifice has come to mark the site upon which the cycling season officially begins in Quebec. By what route did such a name arrive on our shores? An answer to that question would surely require a sense of the big picture that exceeds my grasp. That’s like asking from where do the winds arise?

About Scott Toguri McFarlane

Scott Toguri McFarlane is a former Elite racer, and the founder of Toguri Training Services. For more than a decade, his approach to training has helped aspiring professional racers, provincial team members, and recreational cyclists of all ages and ability achieve their goals, including gold medals at National and Provincial Championships.

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