Words by Seb Kemp
Photos by Joe Parkin
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck, right? Sure, but there might be more to that duck than meets the eye. Maybe that duck likes to paint, drink mojitos and take long walks on the beach.
Whistler's Crankworx event looks, moves and sounds like an energy drink-fueled, corporate billboard wearing, mayhem-inducing event for brightly-clad gravity riders and accompanying GenerationY ravers. However, Crankworx has got far more going for it (as does the town that birthed it) than many people realize. People who come during this ten-day period in August each year see the giant inflatable beer cans, the blinking big screens, the chairlifts, the big stunts, the queues and the din of thousands of revelers, errr…reveling. So many people leave Whistler thinking that it is just a mountain town Disneyland-slash-halftime show for Kokanee-addled, adrenalin hedonists.
The Canadian Open Enduro / Round 5 of the Enduro World Series might have changed a few people’s mind about what Whistler.
The race course took competitors on a 55km loop of the Whistler valley that started high up on the peak of the mountain of the same name, away from the world famous bike park and its groomed jump trails, and and down the little known (to the uninitiated) Westside trails twice, then back to the very top of Whistler's peak, and then down through the bike park on one last uber descent that finishes in the epicenter of the Crankworx loud-hailer. Of the 55km only perhaps 20km occurred within the bike park boundaries, the rest of the big battle took place on the relatively unknown trails throughout the valley. Now of course, the Whistler's secret is out.
As race day morning dawned it was obvious that the weather was a little different than expected. After 40 days and nights of unbroken sunshine the heat in the valley had built-up so much that the trails were dust bowls and the lakes were bathtub warm. However, the pressure in the atmosphere had caused the thunderheads to blow in. As the pro men and women stood on the roll-in, the clouds gathered, grayed and began to rumble. There was no time for tire changes; instead, it was going to be a case of dealing with whatever came this way.
In the SRAM pits Jerome Clementz and Curtis Keene did the last of their bike checks.
"All I will do is put on my mudguard. There is no point to change tires now, I hope." – Jerome Clementz
"It is what it is. We will all ride in this." – Curtis Keene
As his gondola cabin wound its way to the top of Whistler, Kiwi privateer Jamie Nicol explained his outlook on the day:
"The thing is the bike. If I was out riding with friends I wouldn't worry about doing a ride like this, but this race will be different. The bike needs to survive."
At the top of the gondola, with one last chairlift to the summit where the first self-propelled liaison of the day was waiting for the racers, the clouds were racing in, hiding the peak from view. The Peak chairlift was silent. Unwilling to risk seeing the chairlift turn into a deadly rotisserie machine for lightning flailed flesh, the lift was put on a twenty-minute hold. Racers began speculating as to the fate of the race if this storm closed the lifts all day. Some racers mentally prepared for a pedal to the peak, others just patiently waited while discussing the big picture of the courses ahead.
"I keep getting surprised at how long the day will be. Actually, its like that every round; I'm always surprised." – Joe Barnes
"All the stages are different. Sure, there is more time to lose oN stage five but there is also more places to make it up." – Jamie Nicol
Just as the nerves began to calm and the racers considered moving inside to drink coffee to pass the time, the lift bell rang and the wheels started turning.
It was cold and blowy on the peak. The famous view concealed by the retreating storm clouds. Down at the start line for stage one, the brightly-colored race kits stood out from the moss and granite like alpine flowers. Aside from the crescendoing beeps and Cedric Gracia's flamboyant voice, the crowd was calm and quiet.
I find Jerome away from the crowd, overseeing the proceedings and contemplating the day ahead so I ask him where the race can be won.
"Stage 4 has a climb and is a long stage so time can be made there. Stage 1 is also long and stage 2, although short, is somewhere where time can be lost if you are not careful. And then stage 5 – lot's to lose and not much to gain. It will be a big, good day."
When I ask what his plan for the day will be Jerome replies:
"To find a good pace."
When I ask him how does he find a good pace and what is constitutes a good pace he replies:
"Tonight I will answer that [question] if I find it today."
From this point there is seven hours of riding ahead, mixed among that is nearly 50 minutes of racing. All the riders agree that this race is set to be a true test for bike and rider and many pundits think this could go down as one of the alL-time classic races.
Enduro World Series director, Chris Ball, is clearly buzzing. "I'm so excited because what I set out to do was find the very best all-around mountain biker and whoever wins this race is probably that person."
Everybody agrees that this race might become a two-horse race. Jerome Clementz is leading the overall standings and comes into this round on a roll. He is so very fit, can pedal a bike very efficiently, is ninja skilled, light on equipment and very savvy and experienced at the enduro game. It's thought the often narrow, tight, tricky trails of Whistler will suit his style more than most.
In the blue corner is Jared Graves. He is a newcomer to enduro but he has made his mark very fast and very surely. With a BMX, 4X and downhill background, his power and skill is undeniable. He is also very, very smart. It's well known that his preparation is second to none and his mental fortitude almost unmatched. He is also very hungry.
However, there are other big-hitting riders who are warming up their swings, ready to make contact. The day will be long and challenging, anything can happen.
In the womens race things look similarly binary. Tracey Moseley has won the last four rounds, looks very fit and is riding very confidently. Anne Caroline Chausson missed some rounds through injury, but still didn't dominate the races she did participate in like people expected.
A nine-minute piece of Whistler history lies ahead on stage one. Aerobic and root-filled and perhaps the flowiest of all the trails. Curtis Keene breaks a buckle. Remy Absalon has problems with a pedal. A host of racers get caught behind slower riders after the start gaps are pressed to 15 seconds to keep the show running on time. Jerome takes the stage win, Graves and Barel nine and ten seconds back.
ACC puts in a good effort and despite having to make plenty of overtaking maneuvers (her series overall position dictates a pretty high number plate and early start time) takes the stage win. Tracey just four seconds behind. It's clear that ACC is back and Tracey will have to fight today.
The freshest of the trails on the course list, Business Time to AM/PM are narrow, winding singletrack that rewards the vigilant and the businesslike racers. Two short but very punchy climbs on ten-inch wide trail that is composed of slippery dust and grippy granite rock punctuate the trail, but the descent – once it gets really going – is very fun and playful.
Justin Leov beams as he crossed the line:
"That is so, so, so much fun. It's almost hard to get into race mode because I'm having so much fun on the trails here."
Plenty of riders comment that they are struggling to find that zen state of flow and race pace that they desire. Gary Forrest has spent much of the summer in Europe to date, competing at many enduro races to sharpen his race craft:
"I seem to be slow to start on these first two stages, but then I start to build up my tempo but then the stage is over,” explains Forrest. “I think I'm acclimatized to the high altitude alps where you can't give your all, all the time. Here I should be able to go all out, but I'm not, yet."
Joe Barnes was in Whistler early to enjoy some BC riding and settle into the style of trail here. Still, it isn't easy to do so come race day:
"I've been finding it hard to find the right rhythm on these trails. They are great to ride but so different to race on them,"
Clementz takes stage two, but Graves is just 1.31 seconds back. A very tight margin over a five-minute course. In the women’s race Anne Caro takes another decisive stage win, 17 seconds faster than Cecile Ravanel. Tracey Moseley obviously stumbles.
The racers have descended 5,000 feet now and ahead of them is the Westside of Whistler. To access the two stages here means two very grunty climbs. Water and food is taken onboard at this point. The race is in full swing.
Pura Vida was a duffy, winding, fall-line with some smart and powerful moves. The original stage was supposed to be longer, but a last minute and extremely unfortunate issue with an obstinate land owner meant that riders were given a respite on the race stage, but corralled into a rowdy, rocky liaison stage.
Cecile Ravanel sustained a separated clavicle and was given eight stitches in her arm two days before the race. It should be slowing her down, but instead she takes the stage win. ACC is just 0.49 down though. Moseley is boxing back with a third place on this stage, but it's not the decisive punches she needs to be dealing.
"It's hard. Good trails to ride but I don't feel like I'm racing well yet."
Jamie Nicol, on the other hand, is finding his pace quite nicely.
"It doesn't feel that hard. It's all just rolling along."
Everyone is smiling even if 60% of them appear to be a little dusted from crashes on that stage. Most riders know each other by name. They chat and share war stories around the water cooler (literally, because at the bottom of this stage is a feed station). Many riders comment on how much the courses have deteriorated since they rode them during the two days of permitted practice. This is the first time the Canadian Open has truly moved out of the bike park and it does mean exposing the trails to many more tire marks. To offset the damage to trails that 350 racers might have Crankworx has donated $5,000 to WORCA (Whistler Off Road Cycle Association) so that necessary repairs and maintenance can be done without overburdening the work of volunteers on the massive local trail network. Although some trails might be affected heavily, others appear to be riding better than ever or certainly will do when they receive the sort of tender love and care that they needed anyway.
Clementz, again, takes the win on this stage but knows there is still more to come so is modest and composed.
"This is going pretty good for me."
Local shredder Jesse Melamed has been riding these trails all his life, so puts in a blistering run that puts him within a hair of Clementz. Rene Wildehaber is a powerful man and relishes the fury required to really attack these trails at race pace. He takes third which keeps him in the running for the day. Barel slips out of the top three on this stage. While riding to stage four I try to ask him some questions but he is uncharacteristically quiet. I can't tell if he is just concentrating on the task at hand or if the controversy from the day before is weighing on his mind. (He received a five minute penalty for vehicular support during practice which, sadly, puts him outside the running.) He is still able to convey his pleasure of a day spent on his bicycle:
"I like this format of racing very much and the trails are superb."
I bump into Jason Moeschler and he has a huge grin across his face.
"I know the next stage the least so I just want to be safe. My priorities are: don't flat, don't fall, then go fast, in that order."
There is just one big climb to complete and then two big, very downhill-orientated stages to race. Moves should be made here, but at the same time anything could happen to end a racer's day. It is about finding a balance.
Mark Weir knows how to have one foot in the world of speed chaos and considered control. He knew there was a balance between doing a lot of practice laps on the stages to gain knowledge of the trails and conserving his energy enough that he wouldn’tempty his tank on race day:
"Even if I trained this stage more than once I wouldn't go any faster because I would be too tired to go faster," said Weir.
The start of this stage is a sprint on a descending yet low grade double track. But this is just the opening riff to a wild stage, because just twenty seconds in, the trail dives off the side of the hill and the drums, bass and wailing guitar kick in hard. Fall line through rock gardens, rooted turned and then more gradient. A relatively quick pedal about a minute thirty in keeps racers honest, but then when the trail falls away again, this time it's all the way to the valley floor. Off camber roots, perfect radius turns with less-than-perfect landmines scattered throughout, more rocks, chutes that feel like being trapped in a broken elevator, more roots, more rock and more speed. In fact, the trail just gets faster and faster, as if the tempo is being built up to a stadium melting level. It's a truly great trail and as I write this I feel the electric thrill of riding it.
At the bottom that feeling is shared by almost every racer. The girls are high-fiving one another.
ACC comes across the line with a dropped chain. Despite that misfortune she still had to contend with overtaking two girls. She seems on edge and nervous, almost:
"I don't think I won that stage. It isn't possible to win it because of that."
She did though. Ravanel and Moseley continue to fill the top spots, with only 1.13 seconds between the three of them. That's remarkable on a stage that is over nine minutes long. Tracey could have switched the results if she had lined up all her ducks.
"I f**ked that one up. It's a shame because that was my favorite stage too. I went into a steep section too fast, dropped a wheel off the side [of the trail] and lost a bunch of time."
Joey Schusler placed fourth at the last round of the EWS in Winter Park two weeks prior and has a taste of the podium now. However, this round hasn't gone quite as well.
"I feel like I'm finally charging. After that stage I realize how much I wasn't charging on the first three stages."
Jerome says he made some mistakes on this stage and no sooner does he cross the line than are the assembled riders looking at the live timing to see what conspired. It turns out Jerome's errors weren't too big, as he takes the stage win again. Four for four, giving nothing to Graves. The day is going Jerome’s way. I ask if the day is harder or easier than he expected. With a grin he replies,
"I expect nothing."
Perhaps he is playing up to the camera pressed into his face by one of the gathered videographers a little when he says,
"I don't have a lot left, but what I do I will give it all."
Four stages have been completed. Around 24 minutes of racing has been counted. However, there is still the same amount again to come on the very last stage. Everything up to now has been just preparation it seems. Clementz has around thirty seconds on Graves but that can be won or lost anywhere on the next stage.
Loading back into the gondola and lifted to the very top of the mountain again, the task ahead weighs heavy on many riders. The dry weather that Whistler has received over the past month has turned the trails to dust, then the tires of the masses have pushed that dust everywhere and from the trail bed nasty, square, toothy rocks have emerged. It's exhausting to ride, brutal to try and race.
Now the live stream kicks in, the village builds a buzz and the crowd assemble around the bottom of the Boneyard.
Most spectators seem distracted by the banners, the bustle and the beauties. That is, until Anne Caro comes across the line. It's plain that she has overtaken many other racers because her time puts her five minutes up on the next girl. Ravanel and Moseley come down side by side. Moseley obviously putting in a solid run only to have to chase Ravanel's dust devil for most of the course. The time comes up on the screen, it's red. ACC has taken the win by over a minute. It's a decisive victory, every stage being claimed by the greatest of all time.
Moseley, still smiling, acknowledges that it was a solid win by ACC, but that she made errors of her own today.
"I could do that stage again. I still have so much left in the tank. That's my fault. I messed up my pace and tempo today. I expected to be far more tired, but I held back to much expecting to be far more tired. Every race I am learning. I've learnt when to push and how my body can recover many times over throughout one day for maximum output. I now know how capable my body actually is."
Then the men begin filtering down. Some get wild on the last straight. The crowd get lubricated, but the cheering is measured. That is until local Jesse Melamed smashes the stage time by a huge margin. His result throws him into sixth overall on the day. A remarkable, yet not surprising result. He might have the local knowledge, but anyone who has ridden with him knows his potential.
Jamie Nicol comes across to take the hot seat. His storming last stage and the fact that poor Fabien has been given a five-minute penalty already means Jamie finishes third on the day. He is over the moon.
"I just spent the day feeling the bike. I am so surprised though. I saw some of my stages results and wasn't really where I thought or hoped I would be. This is great though."
Jared comes across and takes the lead. His power and skill was always going to give him an edge, but the crowd asks whether it was enough to put Clementz into check. As the stopwatch rolls on and mental arithmetic is conducted to figure out the time Jerome needs to cross the line, the atmosphere builds. Then the little Frenchman comes into view. He is going well, but as the clock stops the crowd gasp and Graves bursts out with joy. He has done it! His first win in the EWS.
When asked how his day went, Jerome replies like the champion he is.
"I did great. If I am sad about getting second, then I should give up racing."
The podium is set, giant novelty checks are distributed and the warm glow of accomplishment is clear to see on almost every racer's face. However, back on course the marshals are picking up tape, packing up the equipment and dusting themselves off. It took nearly 130 volunteers to pull off this event, as well as the full resources of the Whistler events crew. For them it's not over. In fact, some of the crew will be up and on the hill again for six am tomorrow. Each day of Crankworx is packed with events that will require the same level of dedication and care.
It's easy to breeze through, unaware of the details that people sweat for this event. A true mountain biker's champion has been crowned but there are also the hundreds of other personal stories from this one great day of adventuring around Whistler on bicycles.