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Confessions of a DNF Virgin

Eric Fergusson


"Hey Barb, can you spare a dime...actually I need two?" she rummages through her change.

"Got them," she says. "Uhmm...what do you need them for?"

It is the 1999 Fort Langley 'short rides' day, and I am 90 km into the 100 km route. The threading on my rear quick release skewer is stripped - my rear wheel keeps slipping. For about 10 km I've kept on the road by jamming coins between my rear dropout and the quick release clamp, but the coins are too big and keep slipping, and the problem seems to be getting worse. What I need ideally is a couple of washers (which, as it turns out, are in short supply in roadside ditches in greater Abbotsford) or perhaps two thinner coins, one on each side of the dropout...dimes let's say. The problem is I don't have any dimes.

"Are you sure this going to work?" says Barb.

"Pretty sure, it looks secure" I chirp optimistically. I hop on and prepare to follow Barb down into Fort Langley flats. The dimes hold for about ten seconds, and then the wheel slips for the last time. I don't catch myself this time, and down I go.

"I don't think this is safe," says Barb. "I'll send someone." She heads for Fort Langley without me.

As I wait for the cavalry, I consider my failure. Seven years of randonneur cycling without a DNF, and this is the ride that takes me down. I guess I've had a good run of luck. I haven't even had to abandon a training ride in all that time. But now there'll be a big black DNF in my personal internal otherwise shiny and unblemished psychic database. Then again, there's only 10 km to go...I could walk this one.

But all too soon Manfred and Margaret pull around the bend - my rescuers. Manfred tries to lessen my trauma by listing his own DNFs. I'm surprised to learn that even Manfred has had a fair number, and yes, it makes me feel a little better - I suppose this was bound to happen to me eventually. Later I allow myself to feel even better by rationalizing that this wasn't really a DNF because it wasn't really a brevet. Yes, right, well it's true, isn't it?...and it keeps my psychic database comfortingly untarnished.


Fast forward to Spring 400, May 2000 - North Van, Whistler, Pemberton, D'Arcy. We're about 2 km past the Whistler Control, right at the main entrance to the Whistler village, and I'm not having much luck changing a flat. The cold rain has made me sloppy - I've messed up my two back-up tubes and have started trying to patch, but in the drizzle, this isn't going well either. Meanwhile Michel, who has been waiting patiently, is beginning to shake from the cold - me too.

Soon, Nobo pulls around the bend and stops to check on us. I am finally able to convince Michel to go on without me. "I'll see you guys up the road," I boast.

A kid with a snowboard schleps across the highway and disappears into the village. Where is he going? It's late May...there's no snow, is there? Who knows - the cloud cover is too thick and I can't see up the mountains.

After more failed patching attempts, complicated by an emerging mini pump dysfunction problem, I'm feeling the first tinglings of panic, and more than a little irritation. I'm thinking, "you know those mini pumps are really great...they're small, light, compact, and they fit conveniently up against your water bottle rack... yeah, they're great, until you actually need to use one." With my shaking wet hands I overcompensate for the lack of performance of the pump and munge a valve.

It isn't long before Dave (Johnston), Keith (Nichol), and Manfred are at the scene of my misfortune. "No problem" says Manfred, "I've got extras." He tosses me a tightly bound tube. My salvation, again. They head off.

After a more careful repair, I'm on my bike at last. But on this day, disappointment was never too far away and a few km up the road I'm flat again. This time I'm alongside a lake to the north (east?) of Whistler. To avoid the traffic, I lift my bike over a barricade onto the lakeside bike/pedestrian path.

For the moment the rain has let up. This is my chance to try and solve the core problem, to patch all salvageable tubes, and to organize my remaining resources for the 260 km that still lay between me and a very hot bath back in Vancouver. This break in the weather may be my last chance to finish...

So there I am, overseeing my tubes spread out on this lakeside path in varying states of repair, when I become aware of a car stopping across the highway. Moments later a tall, pretty, very pretty, woman steps out of an up-market SUV and runs across the highway straight for me. She leans over the barricade, smiles, and says "You're Eric Fergusson, aren't you?" ...this was a first for me.

Her next words, alas, were not "Can I have your autograph" or "I've been stalking you for years, and now I've finally got you alone and helpless." Instead she says "I'm Janine Chase, Barry's wife."

Yes, of course, I had met her at the Populaire several months earlier. "You look like you could use a hand," she continues. "We're close by, just up the road...I'll tell Barry you're here."

Minutes later Barry is there and we decide that what I really need is a bike shop. We throw my bike in the Jeep and head back to Whistler village. The first bike shop I come across has no road bike parts whatsoever, but the second one has two dusty road bike tubes. I grab them both and two new patch kits. The woman (girl) at the cash encourages me to fix the tire in the shop where it's warm and dry - how could I say no? She too is pretty, I think, but I have trouble looking at her because her many piercings make me a little squeamish. She says that they don't get many road bikes in the shop, and wants to know all about randonneur cycling: "So like you're in the middle of one of these races right now? Cool. I guess you're not gonna win this one, huh?" ...I am a pilgrim in an unholy land. I thank her for the use of the warm space and the floor pump, and get back in my, just kidding...I go and meet up with Barry back at the car. Barry returns me to my stopping point. As he sends me off, he writes something on a card and hands it to me. "Just in case, here's our address, we're right up that road...I don't want to tempt you into doing something you'll regret later, but there's a warm fire, a hot shower, and a glass of red waiting for you there.

"No thanks, I won't need anything else now, I'm on my way." Just after Barry leaves me that cold rain starts coming down more heavily again. I'm a few km down the road towards Pemberton when my back wheel starts rubbing against my chainstay. I tighten the wheel clamp, but the same thing happens again. Three times I tighten it, three times it fails. This is the same problem I had in my ill-fated Fort Langley 100 last June. It looks as though my new quick release skewer threading has stripped. Unbelievable. I get off to tighten my wheel for a fourth time, and notice that my rear tire is again flattening. The thought of changing yet another tire, in the now serious rain with the quick release problem still hanging over me, is just too much for me. I decided to accept the inevitable. I cross the road and start the long walk back up to Whistler.

There was no way to rationalize myself out of this one - this was an absolutely genuine, hardcore DNF. I was now officially no longer a DNF virgin. I might have expected to be more upset with myself at this point, but instead I found myself smiling, and then laughing out loud. I felt strangely calm, relieved - not just about escaping the discomfort that was waiting for me on road ahead on this day, but relieved that I would no longer have the pressure of having to defend this stupid, psychically draining, undefeated streak.

Eventually I wash up back at Barry and Janine's and the accommodation is as advertised and more - hot shower, that glass of red wine, lasagna...while I wait for my soggy lycra to finish the dry cycle, I sit on the warm hearth with the three boys, all under five then, swirling around on the floor in front of me...a little cabaret.

Barry and I make plans to do a make-up ride on this route next weekend (one of the last make-up brevets allowed in BC as it turned out.) And then after a relaxed afternoon, it is time for me to think about returning home. "Let's give him the Jeep - we can all fit in the other car... Have a safe ride home."

I didn't feel as though I had been at Barry and Janine's for all that long, but out on the road I see the first riders on their return leg from D'Arcy. Just as the sun bursts out from behind the clouds I pass Ted and Keith in full flight on the descent into Squamish. They would be the first, and amongst the very few finishers on this ride - only 6 of 15 starters manage to make it back within the limit. As appalling as this seems, it is better than the last time this route was used (summer 1997) when only 2 of 9 riders finished (Ted and Cheryl).


The most perplexing part of the whole experience, for me, is what happened next. It was a few days later when I got around to fixing the bike. The thing is, I just couldn't get my quick release clamp to fail. The threading on my skewer was not stripped; in fact, it was in perfect condition. So what happened out there on the road east of Whistler? Isn't it funny that my mechanical breakdown just happened to occur when I was so conveniently close to a desirable escape opportunity? Maybe there was a part of me that had already surrendered, and was encouraging me to not tighten that clamp properly. Maybe there was a faint voice deep inside whispering "hot shower, warm fire, dry clothes..."

A couple of months later I was riding with Cheryl (and Henry and Karen) on the first leg of Hell's Gate 400. At the first control in Abbotsford I remember that Cheryl had a few things to say about DNFs. "You know, someone should write something about the psychology of not finishing these things." I think she was still stinging a bit from dropping out halfway through the Rocky 1200 several weeks before - her one and still only DNF.

"I thought you were having Achilles problems on the Rocky." I said. There were other factors too - she was recovering from the flu, and was a bit worried about slowing down Keith and the others while they were riding a little too close to the 80 hour limit. I guess there are always other factors.

"Yes that's true," she confirmed about the Achilles tendon problem. "But you know, I think there was more to it than this. I think I just had a lot of trouble resisting the temptation of that open car door...I think there's more going on with this DNF thing than people think."

"You know," I said, "I think you're right."