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Axes and pies on the cyclocross course

How Manitoba's head coach is handicapping the top racers

Manitoba cyclocross is nailing the fun factor and the spectators are loving it. This season, the top racers have had to split wood, have a pie eating contest, run an entire lap of the course and do runs-ups backwards as handicaps in an attempt to level the playing field. Each week the handicap is different and they don’t know what it will be until they arrive on the startline.

Every weekend throughout the cyclocross season, Manitoba Cycling Association head coach Jayson Gillespie arrives at the course and devices that weeks handicap. His challenge is slowing down the provinces top racers, who would easily ride away for the win minutes ahead of the nearest challengers week after week if left unhindered.

In Manitoba, cyclocross races aren’t divided into categories of elite and masters racers. Instead, people are placed in either A, B or C field where they will be most competitive. Apart from three top racers in 2018, this model gives everyone a good challenge. But this season, Danick Vandale, Mitch Ketler and Ness Dalling have been just too fast.

“They are easily beating the rest of the riders by three, four or more minutes. By handicapping them, it’s a way to actually make it challenging,” Gillepsie explains. “It’s more exciting not knowing if they would win every time. It’s more spectator friendly.”

It all started in 2016 when Gillespie made Vandale wait at the start line for three minutes after the field started racing. Since, the handicaps have evolved in sophistication. In 2018, some of the more creative handicaps have been implemented. They have included chopping wood, doing run-ups backwards, waiting for the leader to do an entire lap before starting, running an entire lap of the course and a pie eating contest.

“We wanted to come up with creative ways so they didn’t know if they would win and making them race as hard as they can,” says Gillespie. “I don’t like it when athletes, especially top level ones, easily win. I like that they have a challenge and they learn to manage their emotions and their pacing to figure out how to win. This way they have to put it all together.”

Vandale and Ketler do the full handicaps while Dalling, who just reached a higher level this year, usually gets a half handicap. The whole thing is made possible because of the light-hearted nature of the sport. For these primarily road focused athletes, it’s a fun way to keep in shape and continue working on bike skills during the fall. Gillespie says all three athletes have a good attitude about the challenges they are tasked with facing.

At Thanksgiving, that involved eating one-quarter of a 14” pumpkin pie from Costco before starting. The pies were being given as prizes to the winning racers. One of the athletes in the earlier race donated their pie and it became the handicap.

Ketler would take the win that day. Turns out Vandale hates pumpkin pie but he still crossed the line in second.

“Wood chopping was definitely interesting, “Gillepsie says about the handicap at Southern Cross the next week. “The organizer presented the idea. We were looking for a three-minute penalty. Right at the startline we let everyone go, they each had to cut four stumps but the wood was so dry it only took one or two strikes so in less than a minute they were done.”

The solution was to line-up more blocks of wood. Vandale had to split wood a total of three times during the race and still won. In an impressive show, Vandale cleanly split 10 pieces of wood in less than 30 seconds to the joy of the spectators.

The whole atmosphere is made more fun with a master of ceremony announcing the action. “The additions of the handicaps and challenges have been a crowd pleaser,” Gillepsie says. “It’s fantastic, the crowd here loves it.”

In most cases, one of the three top riders still ends up winning. The only time they didn’t manage to win was when Gillepsie made them wait for the lead rider to cross the finish line after one lap. That gap turned out to be just too big to overcome. With one more race left in the 2018 season, we will have to wait and see what Gillepsie’s final handicap is.