Cycling Chronicles Vol 2

BikeBrampton brings you a short story by Steve Stoller. 

As a cycling enthusiast, I have found there is rarely such a thing as a bad ride. There is bad weather. There are mechanical mishaps. But unless you crash, I maintain, there is no such thing as a bad ride. There are good rides and then there are great rides. These great rides are the ones that stand out in your mind years later, and maybe even the rest of your life.

One such ride, for me, occurred in 1988. It involved the appearance of Steve Bauer, one of the best cyclists Canada has ever produced, who was to be racing in a local criterium in downtown Toronto. A criterium is a type of bicycle race involving a short, usually circular course consisting of a large number of laps.

The race was billed as the Labatt’s Blue Light Grand Prix, a 60-kilometre criterium race set around the Esplanade and Front Street area, near St. Lawrence Market. The advantage is that spectators get a more satisfying and continuous view of what is going on in the race.

Although I had watched Steve race as an amateur, he was in the big leagues now, racing successfully in Europe on a professional team. He had come to the attention of more mainstream Canadian sports fans after winning an Olympic silver medal at the 1984 Los Angeles games, in a highly dramatic duel to the finish line against American Alexi Grewal.

There was no question. My hero from Fenwick, Ontario was racing, I had to go, and I had to ride my bike there.  

I studied the race schedule, calculated how long the race would take, based on what I knew about the average speeds of pro cyclists. I checked the sunset time for that day. According to my calculations, if I rode my bike down, I could watch the finish of the race and still get back home to Brampton before sunset.

At this point, I should explain something. Early in my cycling life, I did not ride my bike at night. I was convinced at the time that it was too dangerous to ride at night. There were few statistics, and more importantly, no access to statistics that told me otherwise. All I was going by was memories of media stories where cyclists were hit by cars during darkness hours. Consequently, although I was an avid cyclist, I did not venture out after dark. In fact, I did not even own any bicycle lights. That said, you can see why it was so important for me to be home by dusk.

The weather was ideal that day and the ride to Toronto pleasant and uneventful. I arrived in plenty of time and took a place at the barricades near the start/finish line on The Esplanade. There was a carnival-like atmosphere, as men and women in their business attire, who had just come from work, mixed with the spandex cycling crowd.

The program started with the women’s race. It was to be a shorter distance, with a smaller field of riders. The riders were led out by a Ferrari, provided by Remo Ferri’s dealership, as a pace car.

Unfortunately, around the end of the women’s race, the Ferrari pace car encountered a mechanical problem on the course. A radiator hose had failed, dumping a large amount of coolant on the corner of The Esplanade and Scott Street. This was something the race organizers had not expected and would result in a long delay, for clean up.

The clean up was finally completed and the course was deemed by the officials to be safe enough to race on again. I looked at my watch. Things were way behind schedule but there was no way I was going to leave early.

Criterium races are exiting to watch due to the high speeds and close quarters of the riders. This course was one of the tighter ones, resulting in some crashes, but nothing serious. There were various break away attempts, which were all shortly reeled in by the peloton. The peleton is the main group of riders in a road race. Riders save energy by drafting behind other riders.

Bauer waited until the second last lap. He positioned himself near the front of the pack, near Ottawa’s Brian Walton. Walton broke free of the pack on the last lap with Bauer glued to his back wheel. In the final straight Bauer slingshot past Walton to take a convincing victory. The crowd loved it.

I looked at my watch. It was late. If I was going to get home before dark, I would have to ride faster then I ever had in my life.

I checked my wristwatch and started out from in front of the Hotel Novotel at a furious pace, headed for Lakeshore Blvd. Watching the race had pumped me up and I felt great in the saddle. I was picking a route with the fewest amount of traffic lights, because I knew a high average speed would be crucial.

I was riding a 1984 Bianchi 5. It was a bike that Bianchi had outsourced to be manufactured in Japan, and it showed. The only thing made in Italy on this bike were the rims and saddle. Modifications I had made were limited to the drive train and tires. Upon purchasing the bike, I had immediately purchased a different cog set cassette, from “Pedlar” on Avenue Road.

The factory wide range gear set was replaced by a straight block or “corn cob” cog set. This is so named because of its resemblance to a corn cob that has been eaten. There is only one tooth difference between the cogs, which results in this appearance. The tires were so thin that I could drop the wheel out of the drop out, with an inflated tire, with out even releasing the quick release on the brakes. In my mind, this made my bike even faster.

Steve Stoller flying mile

I was riding well on Lakeshore Road, feeling the only thing limiting my speed was traffic lights. The first challenge was the High Park hill, north from The Queensway. I had chosen this route to get me up to Bloor Street. The hill was steep, but short. The disadvantage of the straight block cog set was that, although I had a greater selection of high gears, there were no low gears for climbing. I took as much momentum into the hill as I could and then immediately shifted to my lowest gear. As my pedal cadence slowed, I gave it everything I had. I was climbing so hard that I heard creaks coming from a bike that had never creaked before. At this time, I felt erroneously, that I might actually generate enough power to tear the bike apart. Once this hill was completed, I felt nothing could stop me. One more hill on Bloor Street at the Humber river and then I settled into a fast cruising speed for the remainder of the journey.

I know I was riding fast as I was hammering the entire way, but in those days, I wasn’t running a bike computer, so I had no idea how fast. As I finally let off and glided into my driveway in Brampton, the sun was deep on the horizon. I had done it.

I immediately looked at my watch to reveal the second hand just sweeping by the twelve, meaning I had completed the ride in 72 minutes flat.

Things change on the streets; more traffic lights are added. Bicycles change, more gears are added. The thing is, I have never been able to duplicate the speed of that ride on that route. So, it will remain, in my mind, one of my most memorable rides.

Other stories by Steve Stoller