By Vernon Felton
"Now, remember people—this is just the first day of a seven-day race. That means you don't—let me repeat this here—don't want to go all out for the glory today. Seven day races aren't won on the first day, but they definitely can be lost on the first day."
This is the announcer of the 2013 BC Bike Race attempting to talk logic to the unruly mob of 550 racers who are crowding the starting line, itching to turn the cranks and hit pay dirt. After months of training, days spent traveling from all over the world to British Columbia, and a whole lot of time milling about and getting ready to roll, the racers are antsy.
But here's the catch: on this first day of the race, no one (outside of the top pros) really knows how they stack up against their fellow racer and so today is really the race organizers' attempt to sort racers out by their skill and fitness levels. Accordingly, you show up to the start line and sort yourself out by how fast you think you'll ride. Two and a half hours? Three hours? Four hours? Five hours? Everyone is packed up at the front—no one seems to think it'll take them more than three hours to finish the 55.5-kilometer (34.4-mile) route, which is a bit of lunacy.
This is British Columbia we're talking about here—you might be able to crank out blazing times on perfectly groomed cross-country trails, but the rock and root- riddled trails up here have a way of beating the snot out of you and adding hours—not minutes—to your expected finish time.
That's why the announcer is trying to bring the masses to their senses.
It ain't happening.
A gaggle of riders from Mexico is singing “Cielito Lindo” (that "Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay" song) at the top of their lungs. Other riders peer at their Garmin computers or fiddle nervously with number plates. The bulk of the riders stay bunched up at the start. A few drift back to the four and five-hour mark. It's an uncool place to be, but as the days stack up, it'll become more popular.
CUMBERLAND, HERE WE COME
The first day of the BC Bike Race begins and ends in Cumberland—a small, former mining town (population 3,000) on Vancouver Island. Jeremy Grasby—the owner and proprietor of the Riding Fool Hostel (a seriously great place to stay if you are visiting) has been shaping the course since year one. Why did he get involved with the race?
"It's about adventure! It was a pioneering event. The BC Bike Race is large in size, sure, but it's also big picture thinking. Give people this chance to ride the best trails in British Columbia? Yeah, I definitely wanted to be a part of that right from the start."
What distinguishes his Cumberland course apart from the other six stages?
"Well, I think the diversity of riding is one of the big things that sets us apart. You have these ripping, lush and green river-valley bottoms, with short, steep ups and short, steep downs, and you've got this 10-kilometer, fireroad climb and then you are ripping down the face of Hidden Plateau, which is this super fast and long descent down this open rock face that takes seven minutes for even some of the fastest riders and it has these great views and then once you get done there, you link back to the trails that are immediately behind Cumberland, the highlight of which is probably Teapot. They're all fun, and they're all really different from one another—it's a great mix."
THE CONGO LINE
The first wave of racers takes off, fittingly, to the gentle strains of Guns 'n Roses' “Welcome to the Jungle.” The first dozen or so kilometers are a fairly gentle introduction to BC riding—velvety singletrack that rolls and weaves through dark forests. The first hour or so, however, is also a constant congo line of squealing disc brakes, muttered curses and cries of "Sorry!.” Nerves are still high. Racers from dry climes are quickly learning that there's a slimy root just waiting to take them out every few feet of trail. And those seemingly dry wooden bridges don't take kindly to the use of brakes, quick accelerations or uneven pressure on the handlebars. Riders go down. Hard.
Eventually the pack begins to spread out as we begin the 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) climb to the first real downhill section. Normally I view fireroads as a bitter means to an end, but this one affords great views of the islands and the coastal mountain range. We put our heads down and grind it out.
The BC Bike Race now includes timed "enduro" sections. If you're in this thing for the descents, these are the highlights of your day. The first one is, as Grasby said, a screaming descent. It is fast, steep and it rockets you down massive slabs of rock. It's all easily-rolled stuff, but it's also a little wet and muddy and the track is littered with riders from Europe hobbling and slipping down the slope in plastic XC shoes, wondering what the hell they got themselves into.
Eventually the trail levels out and we spends the rest of the day rolling, dipping, in and out of clear cuts and deep forests. At the aid stations, riders re-fuel, seek assistance with mangled bike parts and generally bullshit about that last sketchy section of trail. As we near the finish line, the banter subsides, riders grow determined. Chit chat grows sparse. The climb up "Buggered Pig" lives up to the trail's name.
At the top of the last big ascent of the day, a voice booms out of the woods—telling jokes, laughing at its own jokes, cheering people on…it's Brett Tippie, one of the legendary"Fro-riders" and, without a doubt, one of the funniest men alive. Later after the race is over and the riders have gathered in the dining hall, it seems like every racer has a story of how Tippie offered them something to eat, danced with them, high-fived them, or told them a joke. There's a good reason for that—he did. All 550 of `em. Today, Brett Tippie was the world's most butch, one-man cheerleading squad on earth.
It's late now. The campers are all marinating in their sleeping bags after a day spent riding absolutely world-class trails.
We have a 6 a.m. wake-up call tomorrow morning. Breakfast is at 6:30. We board the buses for the staring line at Campbell River at 7:00.
Ready. Set. Go.