The text message comes in too late. Well-intentioned but ill-timed: “Tattoos are a terrible idea. Eat more poutine instead.”

Words/images: Heidi Swift

Poutine is a Québécois dish of short French fries and cheese curds topped with brown gravy.

Solid advice from a wife who probably knows what she’s talking about—after all, we are in Montréal, the poutine center of the world. But the artwork has already been laid out and scaled and stenciled onto skin. The boys are standing around in cycling kit in various stages of undress. Jazz is holding his drawing up to his right collarbone, just below the scar from his surgery a few years ago. The tattoo, like the scar, is a rite of passage of some kind, though we haven’t quite identified what exactly he’s passing from and to. We just know that it’s important.

Four of the six Team Clif Bar riders are getting some version of the symbol, the initials “TCB” with a lightning bolt. They’ve come here for a bike race, the Critérium National 2017; but, caught up in the rush and adrenaline of the moment, the tattoos feel more significant. We’ve spent the better part of the afternoon in the lobby of the Tattoo Lounge on Boulevard Saint-Laurent. We have discussed the benefits of permanent eyebrow tattoos with the young ladies waiting in line to get theirs. We have described to the ladies exactly what criterium racing is in an attempt to help them understand why they are sitting around with six grown men wearing spandex pajamas. They appear amused and half-interested. Mostly they just seem nervous for their imminent face-tattoo experience. We can’t blame them.

Outside, all of the Argon 18 Nitrogens are stacked up in front of the shop’s picture window. There is a street fair in progress, so the road is closed to traffic and filled instead with people strolling among rows of vendors hawking tie-dyed hippy pants, handmade jewelry and bags of popcorn. The pile of superhot matching carbon frames is a magnet for attention and more than one passerby meanders in to inquire about them. Argon 18 is headquartered in Montréal, which is part of the reason we’re all here. The other reason that we’re here is that no one on the team has raced the Critérium National before (or even been to Montréal for that matter)—and Team Clif Bar is fond of a good adventure.

Just after 3 p.m., the last ink is finally in. Team camaraderie permanently etched into skin. The boys jump onto their bikes and roll politely through the crowds at the street fair en route back to our lodging so they can prepare for their race. I follow on foot as they roll past Spécialité Slovenia Boucherie Charcuterie, where earlier in the day we’d eaten a burly lunch of freshly grilled sausage on thick bread served to us by serious, French-speaking men with white hair and white butchers’ jackets. “Is this the secret to pre-race nutrition?” I’d asked then. But JD Bergmann had only smiled his suspicious leprechaun smile at me while specifying Dijon instead of regular mustard.

They roll past the GoGo Lounge, the Dirty Dogs mural at the intersection of Rue Guilbault and a restaurant called Big in Japan. The street art here is world class, a two- or three-story masterpiece at nearly every intersection. The city itself is 375 years old with the charm to prove it. We would prefer to stop and enjoy the culture more fully, but at T-Minus 90 minutes to the start of the race, we are all a bit further behind schedule than we would prefer. By the time we reach the mural called Graffiti Granny, urgency sets in and the guys are riding their bikes very fast, the way they do. I lose them altogether and maintain a brisk pace toward the apartment.

From issue 72. Buy it here.