TRT’s Colin Fowlow Wins General Classification and Provincial Title after Eighty-Nine Kilometre Two Man Breakaway at Tour du Port au Port - Newfoundland & Labrador Provincial Road Race Championships
This past weekend I was fortunate enough to attend my home province’s first-ever Provincial Championship during my first visit home since joining TRT! Bicycle Newfoundland & Labrador (BNL) dubbed stage two of this year’s Tour du Port au Port their Provincial Road Race Championship. "Port au Port" is Newfoundland’s longest running multi-stage race, taking place on NL’s western-most peninsula. Historically a fishing haven for French and Basque fishermen, the Port au Port Peninsula bears one of the country's most magnificent coastal routes. The harsh climate comes from its location in the Atlantic Ocean and mountainous terrain from the edge of the Appalachians. With far fewer numbers of participants than races in British Columbia, these elements play a crucial role.
I came into Sunday 1'05" down in GC. I'd lost time in Saturday's TT because I Merckx'd it, but that was to be expected. My plan for Sunday was to attack within the last thirty-kilometres, where the roads are rolly and people are generally worn out. It's relatively easy to get away over the early eleven-kilometre climb out of Cape St. George, but the headwinds afterwards are notorious for reeling back in eager breakaways.
My hopes of a healthy breakaway group were dashed, however, after East Coast boy and GC leader, Joshua Veber, attacked on the opening climb. Of the riders at the head of the race, I was the only one to follow Josh up the hill. The full gas effort nearly tears me to shreds, and I worry that it's far too early in the long and windy race to be putting all our cards on the table. We crest the top of the hill and Josh signals for me to pull-through. "How's it looking back there?" he says.
"Josh, man, that was a great effort, but I don't want to ride all the way around Port au Port with just one other guy," I reply (I might have also sworn at him, but it was windy, and he didn't hear).
So Josh, who's probably about 6'6," kept riding into the headwind. With about ninety-five kilometres, a mountain pass and a spectacularly brutal headwind remaining, it seemed like a hopeless effort. I was expecting my old coach, Peter Ollerhead, and the group of six or seven guys we'd left behind to come past us at any moment. Eventually, Josh seemed to surrender; he stopped pedalling at the front. I felt bad not contributing to his daring breakaway, so I told him he'd done a good job and rolled through.
After soft-pedalling for a while, we still weren't caught, and Peter's group were nowhere to be seen. Josh had his wish—the race would be between him and I. So I gradually started picking up the pace, hoping to soften him up before we hit the "the Cape."
We rotated a couple times, and as the pace increased, we both started occasionally holding each other at the front. "Don't blow a gasket too early there, bud. We still got a big climb up ahead," said Josh.
Annoying but true; it seemed like I wasn't putting any damage into him, and we were soon to come upon one of the largest climbs in the province.
We arrived at the bottom of the Cape St. George climb, and Josh flicked his elbow yet again. There's no way I handle another one of his full-gas efforts, and the Cape was at least twice as long as his initial attack. So instead of pacing him into the bottom, I rolled beside him and said, "Nah, sorry dude. I think you're going to attack me."
"No way, bud. I'll need some help in the winds on the other side."
"Tell you what. If I'm still with you over the top of this climb, I'll help you on the other side."
So Josh rode on. The very beginning of the Cape holds its steepest bits. Josh climbed steady, but didn't seem to be working overly hard. I, on the other hand, just stared at his wheel. Daring not to look ahead, I was so ragged, my saddle creaked and my rotors started scratching against my brake pads. I was within an inch of my life when he turned and said, "The hardest part's over. It gets more gradual for the rest."
I hugged Josh's wheel for what felt like forever. Soon, though, I saw my dad parked up the road. "I'm gonna take a bottle," I shouted through the wind. We were reaching the first plateau of the climb. Vegetation was sparse, wiped clean by years of wind and ice. After a few weeks of racing only crits and training at the velodrome, I figured I'd be suffering quite a bit by this time in the race. My dad had a bottle of Coke waiting for me—just like we planned.
I ditched an empty bottle and took the one filled with Coke. I only had a couple sips, as not to upset my stomach. The land around us was barren now. Just tiny, sideways growing trees coming up between the rocks, was all that was visible before the edge of the cliffs. Soon we reached the top of the climb, with Josh, thankfully, content to sit at the front the entire time.
The descent was windy and kept hitting us at every angle. Josh went into a supertuck, and I gave him a lot of room in case the tall local boy on his new XL frame began to take flight.
We made it to the bottom safely, and I went to work in the headwind. It was hilariously strong. On the nearly entirely flat, ocean side road through the small French community of Lourdes, it took me an unfortunate amount of watts to even break the twenty-kilometres an hour barrier.
Josh cut a much larger hole in the wind for me. I made sure to ride hard at the front, but recover well whenever I got in his draft. Eating, drinking and shaking the legs were my three mental checklist items whenever I hopped in the back. Josh, on the other hand, was forced to deal with my shoulder-high draft whenever I was out front. I needed to wear him down, accelerate on the risers and ride just above threshold on the flats. Fortunately, it seemed to be working.
As we navigated the peninsula, the winds soon turned in our favour—or rather, Josh's favour. I'd done all I could to wear him down in the headwind, but soon we were to arrive at the base of the last long climb: "Picadilly Slant." Josh pulled into the bottom of the hill. Carefully, he brought up the pace. With the wind at our backs now, I stayed on his rear wheel as best I could. Keeping a distance such that I would have
room to come around as soon as he started to ease off. I watched his body language. The moment Josh seemed like he was weakening I knew it was my chance. I attacked. I swung over and rode the rest of the climb as hard as I could. It was the first time all day I could hear Josh breathing out of his mouth. At one point, I thought a gap might be forming. But by the time I made it to the top, Josh was still right behind me.
It was within the final fifteen-kilometres, and Josh and I were still together. We were both hurting, and I was still over a minute down in GC. The winds were hammering us once again, and Josh was riding his own pace at the front. He never flicked his elbow for me to pull through. He was recovering, and not wanting me to control the pace in the headwind. I was starting to feel confident. I'd worn him down.
At twelve-kilometres to go, my dad parked his truck on the side of the road to offer us bottles. The road kicked up briefly, so I tried to get out of the saddle. As I did, I was overcome with a horrible feeling in both of my quads. I tried again and collapsed.
Desperately hanging to Josh's wheel now, I was in danger of getting dropped in the closing kilometres. It's been years since I cramped like this on the bike. I managed my nutrition and drinking well today, but my legs just weren't used to such a sustained effort. I had to pedal as smoothly as I could. As I focused on the bottom of my pedal stroke, my legs trembled like they were experiencing some sort of aftershock. Had Josh of attacked, there wouldn't have been anything I could do.
We crawled along. The remaining kilometres were ticking away. Josh's tank was empty, and my legs were failing quick. "Go for it, man. I'm done," said Josh. My face was in a grimace. I said nothing. I was producing all my power with my left leg and zig-zagging behind him on the road. Shake the legs. Shake the legs. I checked the Garmin: six-kilometres to go.
I brought up my cadence to where the pain in my legs was just barely tolerable. Swinging to the side of the road, I accelerated as hard as I could. My legs felt like they were ceasing, but I kept going. I was worried that riding through this much pain might be doing real damage to my muscles. But I'd committed. Plus, how much damage could I really do in less than six-kilometres?
The closing kilometres of the Tour du Port au Port are an intimidating place to be on your own. No respite from the wind, and steep rolling hills that make sure you use up every ounce of energy you might have left. I finally look over my shoulder. No Josh, just my dad in his pickup-truck following behind. He catches me looking: "KEEP GOING!" he yells.
I drain whatever I have left in my legs on my way to the line. I try to stand on the uphill finish, but my legs cramp even further. I scream out in agony. I'm okay with the pain, though. I confirm in my head that I'd accomplished what I'd set out to do. I'd won Newfoundland and Labrador's first ever Provincial Road Championship during my first summer home since joining TRT. I'm not gonna lie. Those last few hundred metres were pretty emotional. This season's been far from easy, but crossing the line at my 'hometown' race, in front of friends and family I haven't seen in months, is all I need to get that little boost that keeps me going. Dad holds his hand out the window and I high five him as I go past. "YEAH BUDDY!"
Josh crosses the line 2'01" later. People joked when I came home for the race it wouldn't be competitive. I knew they were wrong. I fought for this win just as hard, if not more, than any race I’d done out West so far. Josh gave me a run for my money, and damn near cracked me a couple times. It takes a strong breed of bike racer to compete out here. No pelotons to hide in, no "fair weather" days. Just two boys, wide open roads, gnarly conditions and Newfoundland's most rugged, beautiful race.