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Road to the 2018 BC Bike Race

06 August 2018

By Bruce Newton

Part One

I remember the moment distinctly. Sitting there, beer in hand at a Christmas 2016 bbq, chatting to a good mountain biking mate about life the universe and everything… well, just mountain bikes really.

And I just blurted out ‘let’s do the BC Bike Race’. He kinda laughed and dismissed the idea with the words along the lines of ‘why would I want to inflict that on myself?’. Fair question from a smart man. Why would anyone want to go through the pain of riding 300km-plus and climbing 10,000m in seven days? Me, I guess. I’d read about the race for years and saw the whole concept the other way round – seven days riding the best singletrack British Columbia has to offer.

Seven days where all you think about and focus on is riding your bike on some of the best trails in the world through some of the most spectacular places on earth. What could be better?Back then it sounded … doable. Now three months out from the 2018 race with my entry secured, airline ticket purchased, thousands of kilometres of training under my wheels and about to take delivery of the Giant Trance Advanced 1 I will ride in the race, I am terrified.

The closer I get and the harder I work the more I realise just how in over my head I am. To put that in perspective. I am the very definition of the average mountain biker. I have been associated with two wheels virtually all my life, be it bicycles or motorcycles, but only got into MTB in my early 40s … a bloke who’d been sedentary for a decade focussed on business, family and making money.

I kid you not, mountain biking saved my life. I lost weight, reconnected with my younger self, made a lot of new friends of all ages and simply fell in love all over again with the simple act of pedalling on two wheels.

I’ve raced, I’ve done epic rides, I’ve ridden in much of Australia and some great places overseas … one of the upsides of a job that puts me on planes too often. But I’m not fast up or downhill, I baulk at the technical stuff and in a group ride, you’ll find me huffing and puffing along near the back.

When the race starts on July 7 I’ll be 55. ‘That’s not old’ I tell myself and I know there will be blokes at the BC older than me going a lot faster. But that’s one of the beauties of mountain biking; the challenges and accomplishments are personal, from climbing that hill, to rolling that rock garden to completing a seven-day race.

Part Two

I blame Andreas Hestler for getting me into this mess. I’ve never met anyone who makes something so hard sound so easy. Hestler is the public face and co-founder of the BC Bike Race and when I met him last year it tipped me over the edge into full commitment. “Ha don't be nervous,” he told me. “It's just riding a bike - and you have all day (summer time) to cover the distance, you will crush it, I'm sure!”

This is a classic Hestler response when you express nervousness at the prospect of riding for seven consecutive days, an average 40km a day, mostly on technical Canadian singletrack and – oh yes – climbing about 10,000m across the course of the week. For ‘Dre’ as he is universally known, “riding a bike” means something entirely different to me. He is a multiple cross country mountain biking national champion and Olympic representative … from a country where riding a mountain bike and trail-building has been taken to art-form level.

Last northern summer I was lucky enough to be visiting British Columbia on business and he was happy to catch up, give me some pointers, even loan me a bike and send me off to some trails which would give me an idea of what I would be up against in the race. “This is not a cross country stage race, this is a trail bike stage race,” he told me. “We are in a unique place in that way in the world. The Cape Epic is pure cross country, the Trans Provence is pure enduro, we’re somewhere in between.”

He sent me off to Squamish, which is an hour up the road from Vancouver and will be the final gut-busting day of the 2018 race (53.7km and 2645m of climbing! Nuts!) with a list of trails to ride;  Half Nelson, Pseudotsuga, Hoods in the Woods, Powerhouse Plunge, Roller-coaster, Lumberjacks, Leave of Absence, 50 Shades of Green. “If you can ride Hoods and the Plunge then you can ride just about anything in the race,” Dre told me. Well, encouragingly, I could ride those trails. But, I have to admit, I did have a few second look at some of the technical features and struggled on some of them.

The BCBR does not tackle the gnarliest of the region’s trails. I know that because I got lost a couple of times during my Squamish recce and ended up on singletrack I simply could not ride. Man, was I pleased when I hauled out Trailforks and realised I’d gone wrong. Even on the stuff I rode, the more challenging A-line technical sections, such as some of the slab riding on Leave of Absence, are roped off in the BCBR once the elite riders go through. 

When you’ve got 600 riders traversing a trail and someone spends five minutes at the top of a rock pondering ‘will I or wont I’ that can cause all sorts of issues. But even saying that, Hoods in the Woods and the Plunge showed me there will be plenty of challenges. As Dre pointed out, the level of technical challenge itself isn’t that extreme, but combine it with steep downs and ups then it gets harder. Yep steep; steep with roots, steep with rocks and – unexpectedly – steep and blown out in places where the dry summer had broken up the loam and loosened rocks from the soil. But it was a positive enough experience for me to think, just maybe I could do this.

Predictably, Dre reinforced that when I dropped his bike back to him. “You know the technical is something you are going to get better at as you go through the week, so ease yourself into it, have your bike properly prepared for the adventure in BC and then patiently build your skills. “Don’t throw yourself on day one down trails you don’t know. Mountain biking is about walking, there is always some walking, we are all in over our heads at some point.” At some point? More often me than you, Dre, I reckon!

Part Three

I find myself in the oddest places training these days. It’s driven by the fact that I have a job that is highly transient - I could be just about anywhere anytime – and there is this thing called the BC Bike Race looming. July 7 is just around the corner.

Last week I was on the road in north-east Victoria, which sounds great because there is so much exciting (and steep) riding in the high country. But when you’re working and travelling the riding gets jammed in where possible, which leads to some different experiences. Monday about 4pm I was in Wangaratta with about two hours of daylight to burn, but where to ride? Often, the first step in these situations is to head to the LBS and in this case I was directed to a place called Ryan’s Lookout in the Warby-Ovens Ranges. “Just follow the singletrack alongside the fence and you can’t go wrong,” I was told. They weren’t kidding! The trail led me up the hill and across the road into a maze of technical, rocky singletrack. It was a pleasure to ride and even more of a thrill because it was so unexpected. There are a few vids of the trails on youtube so have a look and check them out. Better yet, go and search them out for yourself!

On Wednesday morning I was in Harrietville, just down the road from Bright … but without a car to get to its awesome trails. But with plenty of forestry trails leading up, up, up into the forest I certainly had the chance to do some serious climbing. And given the amount of climbing in the BC (about 10,000m over seven stages) it’s a really good idea to settle in and have some long, steep, steady upward training rides. A combination of the West Ovens and Albion Tracks took me 800m and 12km up into the lush forest in about 1hr 20 min. About 30 mins later I was back where I started.

On Friday afternoon, job done, there was just enough daylight left to duck into the Buxton MTB park on the way home and get in nearly two hours of ebbing and flowing singletrack, including a couple of runs on the black downhill to finish.

Today I’m in outback South Australia and it was a sprint out and back from Parachilna on the railway line maintenance track. No climbing, no tech, but after a long working day it was just the tonic. Tomorrow? Who knows where I’ll be or what riding there is to be had. But if I’m riding, I’ll be happy!

Part Four

Big day last Friday. I collected the Giant Trance Advanced 1 I will be riding in the BC Bike Race from Bicycle Superstore in Mornington. More than collected, I got to help build it with shop manager Justin. Well, build it is a bit of an exaggeration. The bike is three-quarters assembled when its pulled from the box. The big job, apart from cutting off all the wrapping, was installing the dropper seat post, mounting the front brake caliper, bolting in the handlebars, installing the front wheel and setting the suspension.

We also took the decision to swap the front tyre from a Maxxis High Roller to a slightly less aggressive Minion DHR. The tyres were also Stansed – no tubes for me thanks! Now, I’m a bit ten thumbs with all this stuff, so my contribution included dropping all the Allen keys on the floor and screwing in the stem cap so the Giant logo was upside down. Justin watched on patiently, intervening only when I was on the verge of disaster.

Build complete, the bike went on the scales and came up at 13.1kg. I’d love to get it into the 12s and that’s probably going to be an outcome of tyre choice. Next step was a first ride on my home trails at Red Hill. I am coming off a 100mm XC bike with 2x10 gearing, so swapping to a 150/140mm trail bike with 1 x12 gearing and a dropper was always going to feel a lot different.

The bike park at Red Hill is steep. Doing 1000m upwards in 20-25km is entirely achievable. I quickly learned that climbing was a different challenge. Get low down over the stem and grunt! That steepness gets paid back in spades on the way down. Trails like Rock Salt and Pins and Needles have lots of gnar (as the Canadians say) and the Trance ploughed right through it all. That’s encouraging, because the whole idea of getting off the XC bike for the BC Bike Race is to have a safety margin for the steep technical downs that are common in the race.

I might not climb as fast, but my primary objective is finishing each day in one piece and being able to turn around and do it again the next day … for seven consecutive days. Just as I was beginning to get the hang of the Trance the Fox DPX2 shock decided it didn’t want to play any more and dumped out its air. That was a bummer, primarily because it was a long walk back to the car. The fault itself is a simple fix of a faulty seal. Justin and the guys at Mornington had it done and the bike back to me in 24 hours. Thanks guys, the countdown is truly on to July 7 now. Got to keep riding!

Part Five

The BC Bike Race is a 7 day mountain bike race in British Columbia. 625 riders, 7 days, 300km, 10,000m of climbing, 80% single track and ... well that probably says enough. I've been working towards this race for about 18 months. Strava - which I joined around the time I started training says I've ridden 5247km. That's probably not a lot, but it was all off-road (except for a couple of rides at the Tour Down Under last January). Elevation gain so far in 2018 has been 50,120m. So you can see that's what the emphasis has been on.

Anyway, today was my first ride since I landed yesterday morning. I was part of a guided group that rode part of the day 6 course at a place called the North Shore (or more specially Mount Seymour). This is a legendary place amongst mountain bikers, a bit like Bathurst for car racers - technical and steep up and down. It was fun, the stuff we rode reasonably challenging.

The trails wander up and down through an amazingly beautiful forest, the surface is incredibly grippy, but littered with rocks and roots (more rocks). Something is always happening. The photo is on a black trail and I could ride almost everything. The stuff I couldn't get was weird - an uphill ess bend (I completed harder ones later) and an up and over on a log roll. I also felt pretty knackered on the climbs (we did 430m in 10km) and my heart went a bit nuts. It's jetlag, lack of sleep and all that I reckon. I am out there again tomorrow so after a better sleep and couple of good meals I'll see how I go.

To finish up, I have to acknowledge a few people: Mostly my wife Jane who despite falling seriously ill just three days before I was due to leave, insisted I still come and do this. Sadly, she can't fly at the moment so the holiday we planned in BC post-race has been postponed for 12 months. Also, many thanks to Justin, Phil, Damo, Anne and the rest of the crew at Bicycle Superstore Mornington. The Giant Trance Advanced 01 is riding beautifully. I'll send a daily update, but they'll be shorter from now on. Promise! Hope you enjoy the ride with me.

Part Six

Well that was a lot better!

 With another half decent night's sleep the return to Mount Seymour with tour guides Endless Biking was more enjoyable. I got put straight to the test with a big, long fire road and bitumen climb that set us up for four technical descents that will all be in the race. 

The good news is I didn't pop on the climb - okay I fell off the back of the group, but not too far. So that was encouraging.

Yesterday, I would have had to stop a couple of times to recover.

 The hardest of the descents was Lower Dale, which had one steep, rocky, rooty feature after another. Canadians say the tough stuff is 'janky' and this was pretty janky as far as I was concerned!

 Our guide Ryan was awesome, showing us the best lines, assessing and modifying our riding styles and being very encouraging. 

Each time we'd walk through the feature and then he'd ride it and we'd do our best to emulate him, some better than others. I did ok, getting better and more confident as the day went on.

I'm amazed by what the Trance is letting me do. With 150mm of front suspension, 140mm at the rear and a dropper post, all I need to do is get low in the ready position, keep my eyes forward, roll in with the right amount of speed and follow the line. It works.

 But it's still a challenge to control my nerves, anxiety and breathing. Everything is within my capability and fitness level I just have to believe it. If I can do this, I can do anything in the race.

Anyway, tomorrow is orientation day followed by a ferry ride across to Vancouver Island and the first of seven nights sleeping under canvas. Then on Saturday, it's race time!

Part Seven

It's the calm before the storm and to continue the watery analogy I feel well in over my head.

 Today was all about registering for the BC Bike Race, getting everything packed and loaded on the trucks and from North Vancouver getting across to Duncan on Vancouver Island.

So it went something like this; taxi from the hotel to Capilano University, register etc, sit through a very amusing hour of briefing of which the upshot was you can beat a black bear in a fight, you can't beat a grizzly and clean your hands properly after a pooh.

 Then it was on the yellow buses, on to the ferry across to Vancouver Island, then back on the yellow buses to Duncan, where we are now ensconced in a tent city.

I've now had the chance to appreciate the sheer scale of this event. The 625 riders are supported by 250 travelling staff, the beloved red shirts. There's a wellness centre, a chill out zone, a massive bike maintenance area and full-on catering that feeds us all twice a day and has snacks on hand to feast on after we cross the finish line.

Speaking of which, tomorrow is day one, only 41km but 1692m of climbing, about double what you would expect in a race of that length at home in Australia.

 I'm not as nervous as I thought I might be. I think that's because I am still not getting my head around the full enormity of what I have committed to do.

 I'll let you know in my next post whether I have a better understanding of all that.

Read Neil's full BC Race Report.