By Vernon Felton
"What was that?"
We're at the first aid station on the Cumberland course, on our first day of the BC Bike Race, and the rider asking that question aloud is still reeling from the day's first enduro downhill. The guy shakes his head.
"I thought I was going to die!"
Another rider wobbles by, en route to a warm cup of Cytomax, and manages to add, "And there were people actually riding that trail."
All of which had me thinking: These poor sons of bitches have no idea… Just wait till we get to the Powerhouse Plunge in Squamish.
That first day's descent down Teapot on the Cumberland course was pretty minor—a few roots, a few steeps, but nothing requiring air or much in the way of technical prowess. Relax your arms, give your brakes a much needed break of their own, and you'd rip through it with a big, shit-eating grin on your face.
Squamish’s Powerhouse Plunge, on the other hand, can be a handful, particularly in a race. A standby portion of competitions such as the Test of Metal, the Plunge is a chunky mess of roots and rocks. I'd done it during a rainy edition of the Test of Metal and it was like a Pacific Northwest version of Dante's Inferno—the trail isn't steep and it's really not that technical, but when you toss in a couple hundred, flailing riders who keep death-gripping their front brake every time they see a root or a big rock, well, shit gets hairy in short order. Suddenly, your ability to maintain speed and momentum comes to a crashing halt and you're left trying to mash your way through a downhill rock garden at about 2 miles per hour. It's a bit like trying to steer a bulldozer solely through mind control.
On Day One of the BC Bike Race, however, I kept these thoughts to myself and made a mental note to try and enter the Plunge (when we finally got to Squamish), with a good bit of space between myself and the next rider. What actually concerned me more was the elevation profile for the Squamish stage of the BC Bike Race. The racer handbook showed a constantly zig-zagging elevation plot—climb, descend, climb, descend, climb, descend—with a day's tally of 30 miles and 5,849 feet. After five straight days of long rides, those numbers didn't exactly having me brimming with enthusiasm.
NO, REALLY, IT'LL BE A CAKEWALK
A few days before the BC Bike Race kicked off, I asked Dave Heisler, the owner of Corsa Cycles in Squamish, about the course he designed.
"Oh, it's not as bad as it looks on paper," said Heisler.
"Really?" I counter, "Because I looked at it and immediately thought, 'You motherf*cker!'
"No, it's not bad at all," the course designer contended. "Look, we've routed the climbs on really mellow roads and doubletracks—so you get to great trails without any real pain. There's Hoods in the Woods, Psuedotsuga, the Powerhouse Plunge and, of course, Half Nelson. People always say that Squamish is the best course of the entire race."
I'd ridden most of those trails he’d mentioned before and would agree that they are undeniably great, but I still had my doubts given those climbing stats. Math is math, right? You can't scale that many feet after several consecutive days of big rides without some misery. Turns out, however, that Dave was spot on with his course design. Squamish was a blast. Despite some decent elevation gain, the climbs were middle-ring cruisers and the descents were nothing shy of mind blowing.
TAKING BACON FROM STRANGERS
When I hit the bottom of Half Nelson riders are stopping and giddily high-fiving one another.
"That's the best trail ever!"
"I have a new favorite trail!"
Grown men reduced to giggling girls by just a few miles of berms, rollers and table tops. It must be seen to be believed, but people are universally floored by the downhill pumptrack that local builder, Ted Tempany, spearheaded with the help of a small army of Squamish locals. Within a half mile of the trail's finish, I'd heard at least three different riders vow that they'd one day return from Australia, Alberta and Texas, just to ride that trail again.
And bacon. Did I mention the bacon? Somewhere before Hoods in the Woods, another stellar section of singletrack, a volunteer is standing at the top of a climb with a pan full of hot bacon. It is salty. It is fatty. It is absolutely the best thing I have ever eaten.
Not long after our pork-fueled pit stop, I hit the Plunge. While it's still a bit of a madhouse, complete with wide-eyed riders blocking all the ladder bridges and littering the descent in the least-convenient way possible, it's still a hoot. We've been blessed with an unusually hot spell this week, which means the trail is in fine shape. You can even do idiot things, like brake on the roots (a necessity on the cluttered sections) without eating crap. Sweet!
By the time we riders hit the finish line in Squamish, there's a sense of euphoria in the air, the last hard day is behind us and it wasn't nearly as trying as many of us imagined it would be. My Garmin helps explain why: we climbed about a thousand feet less than predicted in the racer guide book. It was still a fistful of elevation gain (4,727 feet, to be exact) on your sixth day of racing, but it's a number our legs can live with. Now all that remained was the victory lap in Whistler.
DON'T MAKE ME SCRAPE YOU OFF THE COURSE
"So, I don't know how to put this positively," says the race announcer to the assembled riders on our last stage in Whistler. "This is a great course and a great way to cap off the BC Bike Race, but last year, we had more crashes and injuries in Whistler than anywhere else in the race."
Grant Lamont, the course designer for the Whistler stage, and the man responsible for putting in a lot of the trails around Whistler, for that matter, steps up to the microphone and adds his two cents, "Hey, have a good time out there, but just remember, you're in Whistler today. The trails here are tough. Don't go forgetting that. Don't make us have to scrape you off the course today."
It was a hell of a way to kick off the final day of the BC Bike Race, but Lamont had a point. A lot of the worst wrecks happen when you least expect it; at the end of the ride when you're knackered and you let your awareness lapse at the worst possible moment.
We start off the final stage with a mellow, but persistent climb up the slopes of the Whistler bike park. The moment we start heading down, the wrecks begin to pile up. Halfway down Crank It Up, I see the bike patrol putting a sling on a rider who wound up misjudging one of the trail's many jumps. He won't be the only one.
Eventually the route winds us away from the bike park and onto the newer Lost Lake trail system. The trails are largely mellow, and a huge departure from what we've been riding—there are still rocky sections and technical bits, but it's a dry and loose, rock-over-hardpack kind of terrain. There's nothing in the way of mud or wet roots or loam. For many riders from warmer climes, it's a welcome return to the kind of terrain they are most familiar with. On the whole, the Whistler stage proves an easy day for us—at 14.4 miles and 2,500 feet of elevation gain, it's roughly half the length of a typical stage. By the time we hit those Lost Lake trails, we can practically taste (so to speak) that BC Bike Race belt buckle that marks a successful bid of the BC Bike Race. Most of the riders complete the course in short order. As they cross the finish line, one of the many race volunteers drapes the BCBR belt buckle around their necks.
What seemed like an insane number of miles and elevation gain a week ago are now over and done—a figure on our cyclocomputers, an accomplishment achieved, a shiny buckle at the center of our waists. At the finish line there are no ends to the high-fives and hugs, and it's impossible now to tell the difference between the competitive types who spent the previous seven days blowing past other racers and the take-it-easy types who simply came to this event for the scenery and the chance to sample BC's finest. T-shirts are being handed out and you can already hear racers talking about signing up for the 2014 edition of the BC Bike Race, which begins taking reservations the following day. Within 24 hours of the last racer crossing the 2013 finish line, half the slots for next year's event had been spoken for.
Thinking about signing up for 2014?
You'd better move fast.