Paris in the spring. Hearts begin to dance, and in evr’y glance you’ll find an invitation to romance. – Ray Noble
Paris. A town filled with postcard natural scenery and cobblestone architecture. A town that is the backdrop of countless heartwarming memories for so many around the world. And a town that is the start point of one of the world’s most lauded mass-start point to point cycling adventures. One that ends not in Roubaix, but in Ancaster. That’s right, I’m not talking about Paris “le beau” of Europe, I’m talking about a Paris much closer to home – Paris, Ontario, which for over two decades has been the start point of the Paris to Ancaster bike race.
This event has near legendary status among Ontario cyclists. Each year, well over a thousand riders gather in the morning and in a pulsing tide of waves they break into a 70km adventure across a mix of off road trails, farm lanes, gravel roads and the odd tarmac section thrown in for good measure. The sense of adventure is only heightened by the journey. You don’t ride the same laps repetitively, each piece of trail is only rolled over once. At the finish in Ancaster riders are met with blaring music, food trucks, massages and of course screaming fans.
The race itself first began in 1994 as the brainchild of Tim Fararr, John Thorpe and Chris Kiriakopoulos. At over 20 years old this makes the event older than some of the participants. It was originally conceived of as a way for the founders, who had been running races for 12 years already, to shake out the cobwebs after the winter and get their gear and teams ready for the season. But it turned out the guys had caught lightning in a bottle.
A perfect storm of timing, terrain and tires; the race was a hit. Year after the year the event attracted more and more riders as the combination of interesting trails (some not rideable any other time of the year) and early season conditions provided a great adventure to start the year for mountain bikers and roadies alike.
What started out as more of a hard core ride is now an inclusive event for the whole family. Which is great, because it’s been around long enough now that people who raced in the 90s are now back with their kids. The event now offers a 20km option, as well as a kids ride of up to 3 hours. The kids ride includes instruction from certified Cycling Canada instructors, and takes place before the main race so that racing parents can drop off their groms and make their start time. Kids will be supervised after their ride until parents cross the finish line.
The 20km option still offers the point to point adventure feeling of its bigger 40/70km siblings, but in a more compressed version. It’s a great option for newer riders or those who’ve trained with copious amounts of beer and revelry throughout the winter.
What’s fun for amateurs is fun for pros as well. On the start list it is common to find some very big names in the cycling world, from former Olympians to professional cyclocross and mountain bike racers. “That’s what we feel is part of the draw” says Tim Farrar, one of the founders of the event, “that mass participants get to ride on the same course as world class athletes and Olympians”.
Few years of the Paris to Ancaster are the same. Because of the time of year that the event is staged, a long winter can leave a lot of variables on the trial. Conditions can be unpredictable and some years are definitely wetter than others. As a result each year is a beautiful delicate flower with no two being alike which helps keep riders coming back year after year.
Putting on this event takes coordination between the organizers and two separate municipalities. While this sounds complicated, after years of practice the organization works as smoothly as a freshly tuned SRAM XX1 drivetrain. Municipal approvals were simplified somewhat by 2001’s amalgamation of the Greater Hamilton Area (Southern Ontario’s other mega city) but the Paris to Ancaster has generally has always had great support from the community.
There are hundreds of people involved in the event. From the main organization team, to the course marshals scattered across the course, to the feed station managers, to private landowners allowing thousands of riders to race through their properties; it takes a village. Not to mention the police officers posted to help with traffic control and the first aid professionals on hand for the minor mishaps which are inevitable in an event of this scale. And the race relies on the kindness of strangers – without permission granted from local landowners the Paris to Ancaster would not be possible.
The organizing of the event begins the day after the race finishes. Tim, John and a few other senior managers do a ride through the course, doing any cleanup and talking about what worked well, and what could be changed for next year. It’s a management debriefing – but the boardroom is swapped for a classic bike course.
On a personal note, it was years of intention before I first tried my first Paris to Ancaster race. Grinding through a farmer’s field after a few dozen kilometres, I remember thinking – I’ve made a huge mistake. With each energy sapping pedal stroke I could feel my legs getting closer to seizing up. At least I didn’t seem to be alone. I was surrounded by people suffering similarly through the unpaved, ungroomed trail with sweat on their brow, foam at their lips and stuff coming out of their nose. This is the rabid looking face of the Paris to Ancaster racer.
But hark…Up ahead I could hear the unmistakeable clarion tones of a cowbell, and then cheers of encouragement. A crowd of people standing around a feed station up ahead energized us and turned those gnashed teeth into moon sized grins. After scarfing a couple cookies and refilling our water bottles the mini-peloton I was riding with set off again with a renewed vigor and excitement. This rollercoaster of emotions is what makes this race great.
In other words, the event is exhausting, but beautiful and intrinsically rewarding. Through the ride you’ll pass through open meadows, heavily wooded forests, and rolling hills of farmland. Not to mention the infamous Powerline Mudslide, which is like trying to pedal through a giant trough of old Nutella. The route the event will take is flexible, and weather dependent, often being finalized just days before the start. There are certain elements that are always there, including the start and the finish at the Ancaster Rotary centre but by and large there are no two years that are exactly alike.
Last year I did it aboard a 29 inch carbon Lapierre hardtail and had a blast. This made the off road sections a breeze but made some of the more open gravel roads a bit of a challenge. The race can be done on a mountain bike but a cyclocross bike is undoubtedly the tool for the job. This year I’ll be entering again aboard a new Norco Threshold – a purpose-built and ferociously green cyclocross race machine.
I’ll pause on this point, as I’ve been a lifelong mountainbiker and had always been a bit of a hater of cyclocross bikes. But after first riding one last fall I’m shocked at how much fun it is. I’ve had a great time riding mine, and it has lengthened the riding season for me and provided a lot of new adventures with new people. Given that I originally purchased this bike with the Paris to Ancaster in mind it makes me wonder how many people have been introduced to the discipline as a result of this race over the years. Yet one more reason this event is important.
If you’re riding in the race this year I’ll see you at the start line and maybe curled up in the fetal position on the sideline at Martin’s hill when my legs inevitably seize up. If you’re not signed up do so soon! At the time of publishing there were still a few spots left in the 20 and 40km routes. And no matter what size your wheels are or how many derailleurs you have I promise you won’t regret entering the legendary Paris to Ancaster race.