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The Other Side of Pont Rouge

The wise gasp and rub their eyes
the smoke of victory wafts
on the fumes of sighs


Rod and I slowly exited the parking lot and drove away from Pont Rouge. The day wasn’t over, but the straw-coloured sun had lost its fire. On the way to the race, we had talked specifically about racing, bikes, coaching and teammates. Now, as the waning sunlight mingled with the breezy treetops, we were talking broadly of work, reading, finance, the oil spill and what happened to Debbie Brown.

Staring at the highway rushing under our speeding vehicle, I couldn’t help but think of all the different lines that lead us in and out of bike races. We can talk about family lines and genetic inheritance. We can talk about sporting history, and the routes by which we came to race bikes. We can talk about social networks, peer groups or the webs from which we draw in order to train. As a coach, I think about these things when planning schedules, putting groups together and interacting with clients, but earlier in the day I needed more specific language. Rod and I arrived at the race and two of my clients had already been dropped from their race. And yet I had seen the peloton go past, with Debbie pushing the pace.

I believe that both dropped riders are both capable of getting on the podium (one has already done so). I believe that both need to get stronger and more experienced to consistently succeed at the level they desire, but this is doable. I believe that racing can provide a sense of fulfillment for them. I believe that they both contribute in important ways to any group with which they train. They have a lot to offer and to gain through racing. But what lines could I offer to express the need to trust in the path they are on? How could I convince them to stay on course–just after they’ve been dropped?

I told one rider that all racers get dropped at some point. I told them that many successful racers spent a couple years getting dropped before building the fitness and skill set to succeed. But most racers know this already. Such comments don’t build commitment; they only momentarily alleviate doubt until the rider starts replaying what happened in their head again. Ultimately, continuity in competitive sports is determined by the lines you learn to tell yourself after your race is over. And those lines will constantly change. People can help you with your lines, but the muttering that goes on in your head is your own, even if you’re hearing the voices of others! The main point I want to make here is that how you deal with setbacks is not simply a measure of character. It is an essential aspect of athleticism. Prospects go through interviews not simply to see if they are nice people. Those running the selection process want to know what you can bring to the table to produce a championship. What is your attitude towards the sport? This is a question related specifically to your athletic ability.

So why do you stay in the sport? This is a question cyclists of all ages and abilities should ask themselves. Many will phrase the question this way: “Considering how much I put into it, what do I get out of bike racing?” This is a question of value and economy. We can measure gains in power, strength, speed, and so forth. Let’s call this quantitative gains in fitness. We can also try to assess how much fun we’re having, or the social benefits of racing. And we can take note of gains in experience and knowledge. These are qualitative aspects of the sport–aspects that I believe are undervalued in relation to performance.

But cycling has another aspect that we cannot properly measure at all. In sports, we call it “grace.” Over the last few years, I have come to appreciate the grace of cycling more and more. It has to do with my role as a coach. I no longer train myself. I don’t set personal racing or riding goals, or create workout schedules for myself. I train others. My stake in cycling is now watching and learning from the performance of others. I spend hours a day watching people move, and many other hours planning ways to make them move differently, or to become more aware of how they cycle. By doing this I’ve come to believe that grace is expressed in a massive variety of ways.

Grace is effortless beauty of movement, form or proportion. That means that what is graceful about cycling does NOT involve all the work it takes to move a bike quickly. Grace is effortless. You might think it is about an economy of movement but grace is more intangible because movement requires work. Have you ever sprinted or whipped around a corner in a way that seemed effortless? Or, have you ever been hammering while having an experience that was “in the zone” or somewhat out of body? Some athletes are able to repeatedly represent the dual experience of bodily power and out of body grace in the way they move. Sprinters carving their way to the line; climbers accelerating up the road; time trialists wrapping their chains through every pedal stroke. Even entire pelotons can move gracefully, and learning to read the flows of pelotons is a good racing skill. There are many reasons why I’m involved in cycling, but witnessing and helping to produce graceful movement is one of them. The problem is that grace is very hard to describe accurately. It’s more poetic than technical.

Sounds corny? Perhaps. But while I was standing in line to register for the Pont Rouge road race, I saw Robert Ralph accelerate his cadence over the final 50 metres–at maximum speed–to win his race. Shortly afterwards I saw a nervous Judith Hayes tighten her core and churn her quads with relentless consistency through the power portion of the pedal stroke to win her race. Two clients winning races within minutes!! But as Judith crossed the line I looked back up the road. Debbie was one of several riders left lying on the road. We all know these things can happen, and what to do in these situations, but there is always something missing, or that can’t quite be articulated in a satisfying way.

While Debra and those who had crashed in front of her were still on the road, Max Joly Smith was on his way to propelling himself over the line in second place. His ability to accelerate a bike is phenomenal–and getting better. Later, Rod Matheson would flat, but Patrick Russell would slip into a late break of four and finish second in his race. And after a great team effort, I was able to win the final race of the day.

On one hand, Toguri Training clients dominated the podium at Pont Rouge. On the other hand, it is hard to know what to say. As Rod and I drove back to Montreal we got a call from Vanessa Cheong updating us on Debbie’s condition. She had, as we suspected, separated her shoulder and fractured a rib. The body will repair its own lines, and there will be time to absorb the impact of the fall. New lines will be drawn. What a strange day. Amidst the highs and lows, the sun seemed stuck in the sky, like the period at the base of a question mark’s hook. The day was hanging on that hook–and it wasn’t over yet.

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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