When ambition exceeds preparation

10 04 2017



As the pros in Europe race the cobbles at Paris-Roubaix, Lapierre and the other bikes of the FRF take shelter at the cobbles of Riley Park awaiting the start of the Pacific Populaire.


Every cyclist has been there, the painful place where ambition exceeds preparation. It can be a ride too far, a hill too steep, a pace too quick.

Sunday that place had a name: Pacific Populaire.

The Populaire is the annual season-opening ride for the BC Randonneurs, that slightly unhinged group of cyclists who think nothing of dedicating eight hours or more of a Saturday or Sunday to pedal 200, 300 or even 400 kilometres. But since this is April, this event is a more modest 100 kilometres, with lesser options for cyclists just looking to stretch their legs in the fresh air.

It’s an organized ride that’s open to anyone ready to pay the $20 registration fee. Support is limited: riders are given a map and list of directions; there’s one pit stop with water and a selection of modest snacks like banana bread, cookies, date squares and fruit.

The casual vibe and low cost of entry have made the Populaire a favoured ride for roadies testing their early-season fitness or measuring the toll exacted by winter’s sloth. For the past few years it’s been adopted by the FRF as the launch ride to our season.

Usually I miss it as I’m still playing road hockey. But a convergence of circumstances made it a possibility this spring. The only question: could my legs handle it?

The unrelenting wet, cold weather has made it difficult to put kilometres into the legs; the Populaire’s 100 km was 20 km further than my longest ride so far this year, and 20 per cent of all the riding I’ve been able to achieve. That’s a long way from the 1,600 km I’d done by this time last year., including a handful of metric centuries. But the route was flat and familiar, an amalgam of two of my regular rides, out to UBC and down through Richmond and Steveston.

So when the week’s rain dissipated to just cold gloom, I kitted up and joined about 1,000 other riders, 16 of them from the FRF.

Right from the get-go the pace was quick. Everyone was eager to stretch their legs after such a difficult winter and early spring. Pacelines powered along the wide shoulders around UBC and along River Road in Richmond; in the first hour I covered almost 30 km.

As we headed south along rural roads towards Steveston, brisk head and cross winds slowed the groups, made it imperative to seek shelter in the peloton to conserve energy.

An extra cookie at the midway snack break cost me my place in our group and a significant effort to get back on. At the Canada Line bridge back into Vancouver, the price of that cookie came due; 80 kms into the ride my legs called it a day on the span’s gentle zig-zag inclines. As my quads spasmed their protest, my group rode away. The day’s chill suddenly felt colder. A few raindrops fell from the clouds. And while stoplights and narrow city streets allowed the occasional regroupment, it quickly became apparent the day’s final 20 kms would be a lonely, grim pedal of death.

Next week the Randonneurs will be riding 200 km. No thanks, I’ll pass…



The reward for the day’s pain: a medallion that will likely get lost in my desk.



Man on a mission

18 03 2017



The sun is finally out, but it’s still a wintry sky.


“Ride,” she said, as the sun broke through the clouds. “You need to go for a ride.”

Of course, Princess of Pavement was right.

It’s been a dismal winter of ceaseless cold and snow and ice and rain. And it’s put me in a sullen state.

Last year at this time, I already had 1,300 kms in my legs. This year, it’s a third of that.

It hasn’t helped that the wintry weather also cost us nine weeks of road hockey.

There’s no doubt the lack of activity has softened my belly. And the diminished endorphins have soured my mood.

So when the morning rain turned to sunshine, Princess of Pavement prodded me. She knows the frustration of inactivity as injuries and school commitments have kept her from her beloved running for more than a year. She’s only just getting back to it, heading out for measured 5 kms when she has the opportunity; her smile lights her way.

But while the sun was out, an icy wind blasted up the river. We’re in the back half of March and we’ve ventured into double-digit temperatures maybe a half dozen times. Last year, the cherry trees were already in full pink bloom.

It was slow going into the stiff headwind. My ears chilled even under the flaps of my winter Castelli cap. I harboured no great ambition for the ride, other than 90 minutes of turning the pedals in fresh air; but it was so much warmer at home in the condo.

But at the turnaround, when the head wind became my booster, my mood lightened, my face warmed. My heavy legs suddenly became powerful pistons. I was a jet engine, rocketing along the flats at 35-40 kph with barely any effort.

It had taken an hour to get to the turnaround; it took only 30 minutes to get back home. Grinning from ear to ear. Mission accomplished.

Stealing rides

25 02 2017

Yes, there’s snow in those clouds.

Facebook is taunting me.

This week my feed has been pocked with reminders of last winter, when the weather was mild, the roads clean and riding opportunities seemed endless; in the first two months I already had 1,000 km in my legs.

This year has been all about stealing rides.

Sure, there’s the whole job thing; earning a paycheque again does have a way of curtailing long midweek days in the saddle, turning the pedals.

But mostly it’s been the weather.

This has been a winter unlike most.

It’s snowed, a lot. So much in fact, even our weekly road hockey game was put on ice for two months.

It’s been cold. Thaws have been few and far between. And when they did happen, they were quickly followed by more snow and extended stretches of freezing temperatures, icing the roads and bike routes all over again.

So when the clouds do part, the temperatures moderate, and the roads are dry, it’s time to pull on the tights, layer up and steal a ride. Even if it’s just for 90 minutes or so. Before Environment Canada issues the next “weather advisory.”

Spring can’t come fast enough. The way things are going this year, it likely won’t…


Oh, the irony…

The café where everyone knows your game

13 02 2017

We all like to geek out from time to time.

For cyclists that can mean waking in the pre-dawn gloom to hunt down streaming feeds from bike races around the world because Eddy Merckx knows we don’t get those on mainstream TV. Or exchanging quips about the results from the latest World Cup cyclocross race.

Mario Bartel storyteller cyclist blogger

The winter snows still aren’t completely melted as the FRF gathers for a special Family Day ride to The Musette Caffé in downtown Vancouver.

Around here, some serious geek jones can be fulfilled by a ride to The Musette Caffé.

I’ve written about The Musette before. But that was when Vancouver’s favourite cyclists’ coffee shop was a hole-in-the-wall tucked into a back alley off a bike route.

In January, The Musette emerged from its secret spot to a highly-visible location on one of the main thoroughfares for bikes and cars into the downtown peninsula. It had been closed more than a year after the old site was bulldozed for a gleaming new condo tower, and the owners built out the new café. The wait was worth it.

The Musette has been a destination for Vancouver’s cycling geeks from the day it opened. The snacks are tasty and healthful, perfect fuel at mid-ride or as a post-ride treat. The walls are adorned with all manner of cycling bric-a-brac and memorabilia, from classic steel bikes to a collection of cloth musettes from various pro teams, to autographed pro team jerseys to route markers collected and kitchy souvenirs at the Tour de France and the Giro. There’s even bike racks inside the café so cyclists never have to be out of sight of their ride.

Mario Bartel blogger storyteller cyclist

The Musette Caffé has a gleaming new location but a lot of the old memorabilia is back, including vintage steel bikes, jerseys and posters.

The new location takes that cycling geek chic to a whole new level. The memorabilia is still plentiful, with new discoveries to be made every visit. But the café now offers a full immersion experience into cycling lore and legend. The outdoor patio is constructed of cobbles. The communal tables inside are made of wood reclaimed from an old velodrome track in Antwerp, Belgium. The banquette overlooking the main floor area is modeled after the open concrete showers at the Roubaix velodrome in France where the Paris-Roubaix spring classic race concludes every April; the race’s winners are commemorated on little brass plaques affixed to each “stall.”

Mario Bartel blogger storyteller cyclist

The banquette area of the café is an homage to the open concrete shower stalls at the historic Roubaix velodrome; the light fixtures even look like the shower heads.

The attention to detail is stunning. Interior pillars are wrapped with ad banners from the roadside of the Tour de France. Order number stands are modeled after number plates affixed to bikes at the Tour and the Giro. The impressive espresso machine has been painted with World Champion stripes.

Stepping into The Musette is like walking into cycling, and everything that is great and colourful and historic about the sport. And yes, there’s still racks to park your bike inside. Although it was so busy on our holiday Monday FRF pilgrimage, we had to lean our bikes amongst the dozen or so already parked outside.

Keep your head down!

28 01 2017

Keeping your head down on the bike is how you power through rough weather, or a bonk on the third mountain climb of the day.

This winter, it’s a matter of survival.


This is the kind of massive pothole that can destroy a season if a cyclist isn’t paying attention to the road surface.

It’s been an extraordinary off-season. After a run of virtually snowless winters, we were hit hard in early December by three consecutive storms. The thaws that usually wash those snows away never really happened. Instead, we descended into a weeks-long deep freeze that iced the land and roads and bike paths.

Now that temperatures have moderated, and most of the snow and ice has melted away, we’re finally able to safely get back on our bikes. But keep your head down, your eyes on the pavement ahead!


Warmer temperatures and blue skies have actually afforded some opportunities to ride.

Because the consequence of our wintry weather is streets and bike lanes cratered with crumbling asphalt, gaping potholes, yawning sinkholes. A moment’s inattention can collapse a front wheel, pitch a daydreaming rider over the handlebars, destroy a season.

The work crews are out there, doing what they can to patch the pocked pavement. But they can’t keep up with the structural failings. The repeating cycle of freezes, brief thaws and subsequent deep-freezes expanded cracks into fissures, pocks into potholes. And with more cold temperatures forecast, it’s only going to get worse.

Still, a couple of weeks of warmer weather has afforded some chances to ride. The legs are still feeling the effects of the season’s sloth, so the routes have been conservatively flat, the pace languid. But the air filling the lungs feels good, the muscle fatigue is welcome. Because it means we’re actually out there, turning the pedals, keeping our heads down. Dodging divots.

Frosty first foray

15 01 2017

The last time I threw a leg over Lapierre was 57 days ago. That’s 1,368 hours off the bike. Too many.

When circumstances presented an opportunity today, it was time to end that slothful streak.

We’ve endured an exceptional winter so far; two months of almost daily rain was followed by more than six weeks of cold and snow and ice. It caught everyone off guard, especially road crews who’ve been playing catch-up ever since the first flakes settled on the pavement back in early December.

Mario Bartel storyteller blogger photographer cyclist

It’s been such an exceptionally cold and snowy winter, there are ice floes heading down the Fraser River.

In this part of the world, a snowfall is usually followed in short order by a thaw to wash the wintry weather away.

Not this year.

While we’ve had some moderate days in the past six weeks, they were quickly succeeded by long stretches of even colder weather that froze the slush and water in place. The consequence has been roadways and bike routes left a rutted, snowy mess. No conditions for riding, even when the sun was shining and the skies a brilliant, crystalline blue.

Mario Bartel storyteller blogger photographer cyclist

Even just a few metres above sea level, bike routes are still a rutted, frozen moonscape.

Also frozen out by the weather were the road hockey courts; we haven’t played since early December and a vigorous shovel brigade last Sunday proved futile.

But with warmer temperatures and heavy rain in the forecast for the coming week, the main roads mostly clear and our road hockey game still on ice, it was now or never to get in the year’s first ride, 15 days in.

The air is still frosty, cold enough overnight to freeze puddles into sheens of black ice; route selection was important. We couldn’t head up towards any sort of elevation as that would lead us into the maw of snow-packed side streets and bike routes rutted with bergs of frozen slush. We couldn’t go far because, well, almost two months off the bike tends to take a toll on fitness. We couldn’t be out for too long as our fingers and toes would freeze.

So a modest 37km jaunt along the river was the sum of our ambition; embarrassing in July, a triumph in a wintry January.

Mario Bartel storyteller blogger photographer cyclist

We’re cold, but for the first time in 2017, we’ve actually ridden our bikes on pavement!

A letter of (re)introduction to Lapierre

27 12 2016

Dearest Lapierre,


I’d like to introduce myself; I’m Big Ring.

We spent 6,019 kilometres together this year. But it’s been awhile since we’ve hung out; 38 days as a matter of fact. So I can’t really blame you if you’ve forgotten about me.

It’s been a nasty run of weather and circumstance. Almost two straight months of rainy days, followed by three weeks of cold and snow and ice.


Eternal optimism or false hope; Lapierre gets a cleaning even as the snow begins to fall again…

While others forge on with their knobby-tired, all-weather commuter bikes, or slip the studded rubber onto their mountain bikes, we can only gaze out the window forlornly as the clouds roll in yet again, and the roads are slicked with rain and snow and slush. I guess we just don’t have the Right Stuff to count ourselves amongst the dedicated, the stubborn, the foolhardy who pedal on no matter the conditions. We’re built for sunny days, dry roads.

The last two winters we’ve lived a charmed life. But for the briefest of interludes, the pavement stayed undampened, the skies clear. We were able to stay acquainted, party hearty even.

Five weeks is a long time to be apart, sweet Lapierre. Too long, as the flakes fall yet again, and the roads are clogged with a viscous slop of dirty slush and ice. The forecast isn’t promising either; a brief spell of milder air with perhaps a glimpse of sunshine – just enough to tantalize us. Then the cold and snow descend once again. The annual FRF New Year’s ride may be in peril.

But you are never far from my thoughts Lapierre. Plans are in motion to give you new environs as you rest, to bring back elements of the former bike room from which you were usurped by the arrival on the scene of Little Ring more than four years ago. But as with anything home reno related, that may take me awhile.

In the meantime, we shall commune at the work stand, keeping you clean and fit should the roads ever clear…

Yours in sloth

The Big Ring