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The Globe and Mail

Canadian cyclist nears finish line of gruelling race

It's a harsh slope with an ugly name.

In West Virginia yesterday morning, Kevin Wallace murmured a sigh of gratitude as he looked up at Cheat Mountain and thought about his specially designed climbing bicycle.

"This is going to be the hardest climb of the whole way," the Canadian bicycle racer told his following crew. "This is the main reason I brought this bike."

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It was a remarkable statement from a cyclist who'd already crossed the bulk of the continent with the Race Across America. He'd already been grateful for that bike on many occasions, switching to it to climb literally hundreds of slopes that included the mountains of Colorado as he crossed the Continental Divide.

But yesterday his focus was on the present and, relying on a steady stream of Advil Gelcaps to keep the pain of his injured knee at bay, he climbed slowly but steadily to the top of the mountain. A narrow, steep and curving route, it might have seen former service as a goat path.

Mr. Wallace crested the slope around dawn and came upon a scene of pastoral beauty. Morning mists hung in the air and curious young cows were scattered around the road.

The distinct smell of mint wafted on the cool air as he swapped bicycles again, relegating the climbing bike to the van in return for his flatland ride. A moment later he pedalled off down the road, his legs moving sluggishly but the worst of the transcontinental race behind him.

It was one of the last climbs of the race for Mr. Wallace, a Mississauga resident who should finish RAAM early today in Atlantic City. He left the San Diego area 10 days ago and will have ridden his bicycle nearly 5,000 kilometres by the time he crosses the finish line. He had pushed to within a few hundred kilometres of the end by late yesterday.

The race has been winding down but the emotional stakes remain high. Mr. Wallace knew that and, although aware he was riding well, admitted he could go into a tailspin in minutes if his performance started to unravel. He didn't even want anyone to say that he was doing well because "it won't mean anything" if he doesn't finish the course.

There were concerns Monday that Mr. Wallace's strained knee might put him among the ranks of the DNF (did not finish). But the injury was held at bay, and he rode yesterday with his joint swathed in a tensor bandage, nourished by painkillers.

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"We were popping these things like candy in 2004," said Jeff Rushton, a long-time friend who teamed up with Mr. Wallace to set a two-man RAAM record that year. "They're all that are letting him do this."

As Mr. Wallace approached the intimidating Cheat Mountain climb in the predawn, he fell back to the vehicle to ask for yet more painkillers. He'd been showing signs of increasing agitation as the race went on, particularly at night, and was clearly unhappy when his crew voiced concern about his dose.

"I want more Advil," he said. "Why one and not two? One doesn't do anything. It's baby food."

Mr. Wallace had set out to break the record at RAAM, which has been ranked by Outside magazine as the world's most gruelling endurance event. He hoped to parlay the exposure into a substantial fundraising drive for the Betty Wallace Centre in Mississauga, a cancer-treatment facility named for his mother.

His cause has gained attention but he missed his chance to break the two-decade-old record.

Yesterday, Swiss rider Daniel Wyss beat Mr. Wallace to the finish line. Several other riders were expected to finish before Mr. Wallace and, at this point, all he can hope for is to finish credibly among a pack severely depleted by the rigours of the race.

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"This is killing him. He'll never tell you, but he's dying inside," Mr. Rushton said. "This is not about the record. He just wants to finish with dignity."

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