Most of us would likely cringe at the idea of completing a 160-kilometre bike race.
Well, Steven Baker accomplished that feat, along with two other races, at Blue Mountain in Collingwood from Sept. 16 to 18 as part of the Subaru Centurion Canada cycling series.
Baker, who originally hails from St. Jacobs but now lives in Hamilton, competed not only in the grueling road race which he called the “marquee” event of the weekend on Sunday, he also participated in the Hill Climb time-trial challenge on Friday evening where cyclists had to race up a 2.5-km hill with an average gradient of 10 per cent, and the Timex Vertical Challenge on Saturday, which was a race up the same hill over the same distance but as a flat-out race to the top.
Baker won in his age category in the Hill Climb with a time of 8:37.09, just 10 seconds behind the overall winner. The top 16 cyclists from that race were invited back for the Timex Vertical Challenge with a prize purse of $6,000 available, as well as new Timex heart rate watches.
Baker came first in Heat B with a time of 13:53.38, but had to settle for third overall after the championship final that saw the top four from each heat advance. He clocked in at 14:20.44 – 18 seconds behind the winner – and took home $1,000 for the third-place finish.
The first and second-place finishers won $3,000 and $2,000 respectively.
“My view of that was at age 40, and having gone in Heat B, I didn’t have as much recovery time as the 25- and 18- year-old that beat my time for second place that were in Heat A,” Baker said of the final result.
Sunday, however, was the main event as Baker lined up with more than 100 other cyclists to tackle the grueling mountain course that climbed to an elevation of nearly 1,700 feet.
Baker said that only five kilometres into the race, one racer named Ed Veal formed a breakaway group with five other riders, including Baker, which jumped ahead of the pack.
This group worked together to take turns at the head of the group to allow the group to stay ahead of the pack of other riders.
“The bottom line is if the breakaway survives, whoever is in it wins,” Baker explained.
By the 140 km mark, however, that group of six riders eventually dwindled to just Baker and one other racer, Bruce Bird, and that was the eventual finish – with Baker finishing just three-tenths of a second behind.
“Bruce had a fantastic effort and had a lot of strength left,” said Baker. “He didn’t do the Timex Vertical Challenge on the Saturday, so that’s why he had a little more snap in his legs.
He’s the national and provincial time-trial champion, so he’s a very, very solid rider.”
The Centurion series is referred to as a Gran Fondo race, which aims to incorporate anyone who wants to ride, from weekend warriors to Olympic hopefuls. The slogan of the weekend is “Racers Race, Riders Ride,” and was founded by well-known Canadian Ironman athlete Graham Fraser.
“It promotes excitement about the sport, it promotes mass participation,” said Baker. In only its second season, the Centurion attracted more than 3,500 riders in 2011 and is looking to expand to New York and Niagara in 2012.
Training for these types of distances takes enormous determination and willpower, said Baker, and when it comes to all of our excuses for not getting enough exercise – too busy with work, taking the kids to soccer practice, and the myriad of others – Baker has them all beat.
He not only works at a Hamilton clinic dealing with neuromuscular disorders three days a week, he is also a professor of medicine at McMaster University for the other two days and he has four children all under the age of 12 but still manages to fit in 500 km of training every week.
He also suffered a serious ligament injury in his right knee playing hockey back in 2002 and it limits him to only training on his bike.
“What I’ve learned to do, and the only thing that possibly works for my schedule, is to commute to work,” he said. That commute includes a 45- to 60-km bike in the morning, a quick shower at the clinic, treating patients until about 3 p.m., then heading home for another 45- to 60-km ride and he is through the door by 5:15 p.m.
“From 7:20 to 5:15 it’s go-go-go, but then I’m home for the evenings whereas when most other people with careers get home if they want to train they are gone in the evenings, which is a real problem for family life.”
The Centurion weekend in Collingwood marked the end of the Ontario Cup competitive bike season, but it also was the last competitive race of Baker’s career, as the soon-to-be 41-year-old has decided to call it quits.
“It is hard with four children and a career to manage the stress of competition, and I think different athletes manage that stress better than others,” he said. “I want to just return to riding the bike for the love of riding, and maybe do some local competitions with the Hamilton cycling club but nothing on the provincial or national level.”
He says he’ll miss the feeling of competition and the brotherhood he has formed with the other top athletes in the sport, and admits it will take some time for his body to adjust to the fact he won’t be maintaining that racing mindset every time he gets on the bike.
“At this level of performance it becomes more about a battle of the mind than the body, and you have to have utter mental focus to maintain that tolerance of what you’re putting your body through.
“Absolutely I’ll miss it.”