by Christine Vardaros

It’s been many days since Belgian ’cross racer Ellen van Loy (Telenet-Fidea) and I headed home from Canada’s Paris-Ancaster (P2A) gravel race that took place on April 27th. Even so, we are still both high as a kite, flying on all the incredible memories we accumulated in the five days while we were there. From living on a creek buried in the woods where we could easily explore the picturesque wilderness to crazy fun singletracks and mud dives during the P2A race, we lived the dream for those five days.

Even before we arrived at our host house, the mood of our trip was already set thanks to Tim Farrar, co-organizer of P2A along with John Thorpe, who collected us at the airport and drove us directly to Café Domestique located in our host town of Dundas for a maple beer—not that was a serious show of tour guiding! Not only was the beer really tasty but the café was such a riot that it took Ellen and me a full five minutes of selfies with the café storefront before we could enter.

Selfie in front of Cafe Domestique! © Christine Vardaros

Selfie in front of Cafe Domestique! © Christine Vardaros

Upon entering we were greeted by a mannequin completely suited up in the coffee shop logo, complete with cap, booties and musette. Inside, the walls were completely covered with cycling memorabilia collected from the biggest international names in cycling. Natually, Ellen left a jersey and cap behind to be added to the already-large cyclocross collection, including items from current World Champion Zdenek Stybar. The café is owned by former Mariposa framebuilder Krys Hines who really nailed it with this hotspot that is always bustling with outdoorsy folks.

Cafe domestique. © Christine Vardaros

Cafe Domestique. © Christine Vardaros

When we finally arrived at the host housing, again we were blown away. The house was not only gorgeous but located seemingly in the middle of the woods, complete with stream running through the backyard. It reminded me of my old town of Mill Valley, California. But in place of the infamous Dipsea Trail, they have the Bruce Trail, which runs a full 930kms—and cyclists are allowed to ride it all.

in my SHEEX sponsor pajamas enjoying living on a creek. . © Christine Vardaros

Hanging out in my SHEEX sponsor pajamas enjoying living on a creek. . © Christine Vardaros

The inside of the house was designed like my dream home: spacious, clean and neat, stylish, with a subdued elegance about it. Not only did we have our own bedrooms—mine came with a view of the stream while Ellen opted for the one with the ginormous bed—but there was a sports room equipped with every sort of toy you’d ever imagine for your own workout gym. There were also two trainers set up for us, accompanied by a pump, a stereo system that I played loudly while Ellen was on the trainer so that I could better entertain her with my wicked dance moves, and a large screen television.

As for our hosts, Joany and Mark, we couldn’t have been any more lucky. They both made us feel at home while taking care of our every needs. They also shopped for us—every sort of organic vegan delight I could imagine was contained in that house. Twelve kinds of oats and muesli, Stella beer, red beets (for sports enhancement) and brussel sprouts! Joany also bought me a special avocado sprout wrap and Ellen a cheese and bread assortment just in case we hadn’t eaten on the plane. For the following days, whatever we ate was immediately replaced by two more, but of different flavors so we wouldn’t get bored.

The house was equipped with live entertainment in the form of Trixy, their sweet Vizsla dog, and Mikey, a standard poodle they were dog-sitting for the week. Joany and Mark are hard-core long distance trail runners who compete around the world so Trixy gets in lots of exercise! Before arriving at the house, though, Ellen was a bit apprehensive due to her fear of dogs—she was bitten in the face by a dog twenty years ago. But within three seconds of entering the house, she magically forgot all about her paralyzing fear. Within five minutes, they were simultaneously sitting on her lap. I think by the end of the trip Ellen had at least 150 selfies with her new furry friends.

Not so scary—Ellen chilling with doggies at host housing. © Christine Vardaros

Not so scary—Ellen chilling with doggies at host housing. © Christine Vardaros

That first evening, Joany and Mark took us on a hike (although they referred to it as a walk) through the woods. In maybe 45 minute’s time, we saw a couple of waterfalls, some amazing singletrack trails and lots of swirls and twirls of the doggies as they leaped effortlessly over fallen branches and streams.

The next morning, we met up with local cyclist and P2A volunteer Pete Farr to get a better look at the trails, but on two wheels. Within 15 minutes, though, our plan took a detour. Pete ran over a branch and ripped his derailleur off, along with half his hanger. Immediately, I was on it to transform his bike into a single speed. (Hopefully, my husband Jonas doesn’t read this. He does all my bike work because he believes I’m not handy with tools!) After a bit of work, his bike was transformed and we were on our merry way—although it may not have been so merry for Pete, who had to pedal like a madman on some of the sections to ride a nice pace. Even so, he kept on smiling along with Ellen and I.

For the second half of the day, Pete continued to play tour guide, but this time without the bikes. We saw so many amazing places such as the smallest church in the world with only nine chairs (people actually get married there), a cute tourist town called Niagara on the Lake where you could buy everything imaginable made from maple syrup and ice wine—two of Canada’s great claims to fame, a winery for an ice wine tasting, and finally, the Niagara Falls.

Niagara Falls detour!

Niagara Falls detour! © Christine Vardaros

Last time I had been there was many years ago when I was in upstate New York to compete in the Empire State Games for fencing, and then, we saw it from the New York side. From the Canadian side, it was much different, as you stood just above the horseshoe-shaped Canadian falls instead of seeing it from afar. You cannot imagine the magnitude of it until you are standing alongside it. It was both overwhelming and unforgettably incredibly cold due to the mist that sprayed everywhere. While peering over the side, my first thought was of Jonas and the first time he took me to Belgium’s biggest waterfall. He was so proud that I couldn’t bring myself to telling him that compared to Niagara Falls, his looked like a tinkle into the toilet.

The next morning we went exploring on the bikes and ended up back at Café Domestique, where I think all activities start and end, considering all the familiar faces we saw. After a cup of tasty espresso and a quick conversation with one of the enthusiastic private landowners named David Masters of LUNA Adventures, whose property we were to soon ride through in P2A, we rushed back home, switched our clothes and headed over (in the pouring rain) to the meeting point for the P2A VIP pre-ride. Once there, we were given the option to be driven the 15km over to the start of the pre-ride or to ride there, and Ellen and I opted for the choice that was more dry. We assumed that everyone would choose the same but it turned out that the only ones opting for the more comfortable option were the only two who flew to the race from Belgium, a country where this weather is the norm! Oh, the irony…

In the beginning of the pre-ride, I thought that the race would be a piece of cake as we glided along nicely groomed gravel roads. That was until I smacked into five potholes in a row. Note to self—keep your eyes open while riding this event! For a few minutes, I got some pointers from Canadian cyclocross star Mike Garrigan (Van Dessel/Shimano), who’s won P2A three years in a row from 2010-2012. In 2013, he was third (with a flat tire) and this year around he finished in seventh. We also rode alongside Canadian Maghalie Rochette (Luna Pro Team) who was at the race to do some fine-tuning before heading off to Europe to contest the next rounds of MTB World Cups.

Immediately after the ride, Ellen and I were given the VIP treatment: While we were shuttled directly home, our bikes were being washed by Alex Sanna of SRS (Soigneur Race Services), who turned out to be very helpful over the next couple of days. I met him a couple of years ago when he spent three months working at the ’cross races in Belgium for a couple of cyclists including cyclocrosser Vicki Thomas. I was very thankful for this because my bike and I took a muddy spill on the ultimate mud chute when we were flipped by an oversized branch.

Krys from Domestique. © Christine Vardaros

Krys from Domestique. © Christine Vardaros

After our tag-team effort of taking turns cooking dinner and having a long shower that luxuriously doubles as a steam room, we were out the door with our hosts Joany and Mark on our way back to the P2A VIP party held at—you guessed it—Café Domestique. There, we saw again many familiar faces but from the cyclocross community this time, including as Jeremy Powers and Aaron Schooler. We also encountered many other interesting folks including our competition, Mandy Dreyer, who’s won the race for the last couple of years. Stuffed to the max from delicious snacks, including some vegan ones especially made for me, and St-Ambroise beer, we headed home.

See Christine’s bike profile here.

It wasn’t long before we found ourselves back at Café Domestique for a quick coffee fix the next morning to get us pumped for the P2A cyclocross clinic we were hosting. We had a total of 21 students eager to learn—20 kids, ages 7-15, (courtesy of Chris Kiriakopoulos who leads children’s group rides on the weekends) and woman, who opted to come back after the kids had gone for a two-on-one private lesson. It was amazing to see how quickly the kids picked up the hop-on, hop-off technique. Not surprisingly, the youngest were faster learners than the older ones, who had already spent too many years reinforcing incorrect technique. But they, too, eventually broke their habits to look like future Sven Nys-level riders by the end.

After the kids departed, it was time for the gal. The first fifteen minutes was spent on getting her courage up to try the maneuvers. Once she gave it a go, with a slight verbal nudge from me—NYC style—she was up and running in no time. She had no choice really with coaches like Ellen and me to get her moving along!

The morning of the race, Mark drove us over to the meeting point at the finish in Ancaster where we were to be shuttled over to the start in Paris. While Mark was kindly working out the logistics of our bike transport, Alex miraculously appeared before us. Two minutes later, our bikes, bags and bodies were scooped into the truck and off we went—truly, the ultra VIP experience.

Once we arrived at the start location and saw all the tents, cars, trucks and 2000 other racers, I could feel the butterflies multiplying in my belly. To calm myself down, I remembered the mini conversation I had with Ellen that morning at breakfast. She said to me, “No matter the result today, we are already winners. This has been the best trip ever!” I wholeheartedly agreed. Every day was an adventure like no other. And the Dundas region of Hamilton where we were located was such a special one that if I ever moved out of Belgium, I would seriously consider moving there. They may have been hit hard over the winter with nonstop sub-freezing temperatures and neverending snowstorms but the area is simply so beautiful and the atmosphere so relaxing that it would make up for not being able to ride my bike in the winter… Or at least I could imagine this to be true.

After we were suited up for our pre-ride, Alex’s friend Edgars Apse gave us a tour of the first few kilometers so we would know where the chaos would take place. With the first pedal stroke of the pre-ride, my nerves were already firing hard. “We are already winners, we are already winners,” I repeated Ellen’s words to calm myself down. A few minutes later, I was rolling up to the start line, passed Krys working the espresso bar at the Café Domestique booth, and queued up for my callup.

As I looked around, I saw some very famous faces. Included in the long list were Steve Bauer—silver medalist at the 1984 road Olympics and second in 1990 Paris-Roubaix, Alison Sydor—winner of 17 MTB World Cups, three MTB World Championships and silver medalist at the 1996 MTB Olympics, MTB/all-around powerhouse Peter Glassford (Trek Canada), cyclocrosser Justin Lindine (Redline-NBX), and up-and-coming-rider Anthony Clark (JAM Fund/NCC).

On the gun, off went Steve Bauer with the holeshot! A few minutes later, I found myself directly behind him, wishing I would have brought my cell phone to document the unbelievable moment where I was holding the wheel of Steve Bauer! Once the initial jostling of positions played itself out, the pace died down a bit. There was not much moving around on the two-person wide fire road unless you were willing to take some real chances, the kind where the unlucky ones end up in a stream.

At around the 10km mark, the field took a right hand turn onto a steep gravel climb riddled with stones larger than my head. The first 20 or so, which included Ellen, were able to clear it while the rest of us were on foot. Once on the bike riding up the still-steep fire road, the strangest thing happened. I was shoved from one side of the road to the other. I was not the only one who was stunned by this unsportsmanlike maneuver—I could tell by the screaming coming from the other side of the trail from a stranger sticking up for me. The brute eventually apologized to me and spent the next hour trying to make up for his behavior by doing work at the front—or maybe it was actually in subservience for his protected rider. When it became obvious what was going on, he quipped, “Yeah, that’s my wife so I have to work for her.” Makes sense, I suppose. He does have to go home at some point.

About 45 minutes into the race, we caught up with Ellen, who’s fast start caught up with her. This meant that the top three gals in the race were now all together. I found this out halfway into the two-hour race when a women yelled to me in a singletrack section that I was the first woman. How exciting! I wasn’t really sure where we were at that point in relation to the other gals.

Included in our peloton of 20 some-odd riders was US National Champion Jeremy Powers, who was also in his offseason, having finished his ’cross season in Europe with us. While I rode alongside him, I was bummed for the second time that I didn’t bring my phone to take a photo. How cool would that have been to get a selfie with Jeremy in the middle of the race, I thought aloud. Next thing I knew I was posing for Jeremy’s cell camera—one eye on the camera and one eye on the potholes in the road. A moment I will never forget! (Unfortunately, Powers only thought he had snapped a picture, so there’s no photographic evidence.)

Until about 5km to go, our group engaged in the yo-yo effect due to the terrain like technical singletrack and soppy fields, where it took everything just to turn the pedals over—in addition to the strategic attacks. But it was at that 5km mark where we three gals split up for the final time. Maghalie was the best placed going into the last technical singletrack, while Ellen was somewhere in the middle and I was almost last (note to self, less talking and more focusing.) In the next couple of kilometers, where the riding was super technical with the two mud chutes, the gaps were blown wide open with bodies everywhere.

At the finish located at the top of a grueling 500 meter grinder, Maghalie took top glory. Ellen was second and I rolled in for third, 24 seconds behind her. Mandy finished fourth while our buddy Edgar’s designs for a top 10 was squashed less than 12km into the race when a cyclist crashed into his rear derailleur. He finished the race, albeit on a converted single speed bike, far behind his target placing.

Check out the Strava for the Paris 2 Ancaster Cyclocross Race: Christine Vardaros’s 63.1 kilometers bike ride

Us with Alex, the soigneur. © Christine Vardaros

Us with Alex, the soigneur. © Christine Vardaros

At the finish line, Ellen and I were welcomed with open arms by our super soigneur Alex and mechanic Dex Tao, along with our mega-hosts Joany and Mark! Neither Ellen nor I may not have won the race, but even so, we were like little girls with our perma-smiles and giggles.

We piled ourselves and our bikes back into Mark’s Land Rover and jetted home for a quick shower and bike wash before returning to the venue for the podium ceremony. Upon entering the house, we were greeted by an oversized “congratulations” banner, complete with balloons, courtesy of Joany. She had a flight to catch that day but still took the time to go to the store and set all that up for us! After a few attempted selfies with the banner in the background, we continued giggling like little girls before it was time to do the turnaround back to the race venue.

Post-race pileup in land rover with Mark at wheel. © Christine Vardaros

Post-race pileup in land rover with Mark at wheel. © Christine Vardaros

The post race party did not disappoint. It kicked off at the VIP room with a nice pasta meal with portobella mushrooms (or at least that was what my special vegan meal was) and, of course, a St-Ambroise beer. Now I see why folks pay extra for the VIP package, although some riders mainly purchase it for its “first wave line-up” perks, as I later learned. “You get a great starting position and avoid all the pile-ups in the technical zones. And the prime parking spot allowed for my wife to show up at the finish before I arrived. Worked out perfectly,” explains racer Mike Coughlin of Discomfort Zone Performance Coaching, who dined with us in the VIP room.

The podium room consisted of dozens of tables and chairs surrounded by wall-to-wall booths, including one from Cyclocross Magazine manned by our very own Molly Hurford, who was still muddy from her race. It was such a pleasure to finally meet her after working for her many years now!

Calling it an early night, we headed home for one last celebration—a bottle of the infamous ice wine, courtesy of Mark and Joany. Before our flight the next morning, we made one last stop to Café Domestique before Alex collected us.

Vardaros on the right on the podium. © Pete Farr

Vardaros on the right on the podium. © Pete Farr

On the plane home, Ellen and I thought back over our wild week. If this is what every “gravel” race is like, then we decided that we can easily see ourselves becoming addicted to them. Bonus, they make excellent offseason training since they are that bit longer than a ’cross race. So once the gravel season ends, all you have to do is back off on your mileage, increase your intervals and you’re ready for ’cross! Sign us up… Or at least be sure to sign us up for the P2A15!

For more information, visit www.parisancaster.com