Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Great Narration of the Trans Rockies by SF Adventure Racers Craig and Mark

TransRockies 2008 Mountain Bike Stage Race

It is quite difficult to find the words to describe the Transrockies experience so many come to mind. Beauty, Joy, Misery, Agony, Suffering, Sore, Sick, Wet, Dirty, Elated, Dejected and on and on.

To put this race in terms that might resonate with some of you. 7 Stages, 58,000 feet climbing, 342 miles of technical off road riding. Imagine the camping situation of Wildflower, but you have to break camp before you race the long course at 8 am every day - now do that 7 days in a row with 20x the elevation gain. 300 teams of 2 riders from dozens of different countries.

Other than the notions that this was going to be 'hard', I didn't have many expectations for the race. I wanted to ride to the limits of my ability and face challenging terrain. Little did I know that those boundaries would be stretched farther than I thought possible.

Stage 1; Panorama to K2 Ranch
Distance; 55 km (34 mi)
Elevation; 2200 m (7217 ft)

Mark and I lined up with much enthusiasm for Stage 1 after the long trip to Panorama and the many bike building, bag sorting chores the night before. The sun was shinning and riders from dozens of nations waited anxiously to get going. The gun went off for the parade lap and we set off to gradually, patiently pick our way through the teams ahead of us. Knowing a massive climb leading to singletrack was ahead, we set the goal of moving up as much as possible without breaking my legs in the process. We did well to clear the 'riff raff' during the hour + of climbing that ensued. I was struggling on the climb as was to be expected, but felt OK once we started traversing the singletrack ridge. Our fine weather quickly deteriorated as we crossed steep shale fields. Within minutes we were riding in hail and snow! At the sunny start line, we had elected to travel a bit light on gear (just jackets). As if that wasn't bad enough, Mark sliced a 2.5 hole in his tire requiring a careful, fingers crossed repair job in the snow! We took about 20 minutes to get back sorted out before we continued traversing and descending the mountain. We road well throughout the stage, but realized if this was a 'easy stage' we were in for one hell of a week. We arrived at K2 Ranch to get our first look at tent city. Each evening tents would be erected and available on a first come first serve basis, along with showers and bike washing. We settled in to what would become our daily choirs, tent arrangement, unpacking, bike wash, bike repair, shower followed by evening dinner and next days stage review.

Stage 2; K2 Ranch to Nipika Resort
Distance; 74 km (46 mi)
Elevation; 3000 m (9842 ft)

Waking up crusty and damp in a tent at 6 am knowing that we were soon to be climbing nearly 10k feet was quite difficult. Still in the 'excited to be here' phase, we packed our bags and headed to the start line. Due to our mechanical on stage 1, we were in start group 2 which put us behind 1/3 of the pack at the gun. With a longish jeep road to road section ahead of us, Mark and I drilled it from the gun working our way through the pack like a road race. We managed to bridge to the lead group just in time to start climbing. I was a bit cooked from the chase so I had to insist on a casual pace even though Mark's legs were telling him otherwise. We proceed to climb and/or traverse forever. After aid station 1 we started to see people pushing there bikes up the trail and eventually we were relegated to the same strategy. I started to suffer as the trail got steeper and steeper as unlike Mark as an adventure racer, I haven't spent much time pushing my bike. Just when I thought things couldn't get worse we reached a plateau and saw an ant line of riders with bikes on their shoulders hiking up the steepest rock field you can imagine. We resigned ourselves to getting it done and took our place in line. After about 30 minutes, we started to hear people call down the hill asking if anyone could see a trail marker. Apparently the entire top 1/3 of the race is off course! We discovered with the help of other racers that we had climbed passed the turn off and were torturing ourselves for no good reason (the pros had probably gone an entire hour up the hike-a-bike hill!). We bushwacked through the woods to rediscover the trail amongst the chaos of 100s of confused racers. We then hit some gnarly steep singletrack which I enjoyed which lead to an even gnarlier section of sloppy, wet, creek crossing singletrack. We emerged from the woods to learn the extent of the race chaos....we discovered that we were in the top 30 teams. We decided to keep hitting it in the hopes that we could make up some time from the day before. The pro teams eventually caught us on the run into Nipika. It was actually quite surreal getting passed by the pro who looked effortless as they danced by us. We felt we road a great stage and would easily make up the deficit we created on stage 1. Unfortunately we would later learn that this stage would not count on the General Classification b/c of all the lost riders. While I appreciated the situation, I was a little disappointed as we road very efficiently and had in this tough stage (not too mention that we wasted time lost as well!). Nipika was to be our home for two nights. It is a great eco-lodge built entirely of products found on the property.

Stage 3; Nipika Resort to Nipika Resort
Distance; 44.2 km (27 mi)
Elevation; 1514 m (4967 ft)

Stage 3 was a first for TR: a time trial. Rider were set off at 30 second increments on a shorter course (I should note that this short course still contained more climbing than almost all of our normal training rides). Mark and I both felt good on this stage so we really pushed our limits. We managed to catch all the riders ahead of us which gave us a clear look at the amazing singletrack course. We road the ridgeline of a gorgeous river most of the day descending and climbing through the rocks and trees. I think we were both enjoying ourselves despite the quick pace. We've learned that Mark and I are one of the better singletracking teams in our division so this course suited us well. One of the most memorable moments of the day was coming upon a motocross rider on a steep singletrack descent. We were totally committed to a shoot, when we discovered the Moto rider, we yelled, he crashed and we rifled by him. We finished the day in 9th in our division which was very satisfying. Our morning start afforded us a leisurely afternoon in Nipika and some well earned 'ease' in our daily schedule. Later in the day we learned that our friend Greg had broken his frame. Ever the solution oriented thinker, Greg bought a new Rocky Mountain bicycle to continue the race the next day (more on that later).

Stage 4; Nipika Resort to Whiteswan Lake
Distance; 109.7 km (68 mi)
Elevation; 2567 m (8421 ft)

Stage 4 was the longest stage in KM so we knew we were in for a rough one after our efforts in the TT. We had another very fast start which left Mark feeling a little winded, while I on the other hand was feeling quite spunky. Today's stage was a bit less steep which suited me well and I quite enjoyed the long climbs and river crossings. The team aspect of TransRockies adds and interesting dynamic to each day as it is as important for your partner to feel good as it is for you. While I was struggling to stay with Mark on the first days he was now struggling to stay with me. As good teammates and friends, we just did our best to keep moving and cover this long stage. We cleared the toughest climbs and started a long single/double track descent. At one of the last checkpoints we heard of a bad crash a couple of KM behind us. A little investigation (and the arrival of his teammate, Carrie) led us to learn it was our friend Greg and most likely a broken collarbone. We were totally bummed, but knew he was being as well taken care of as possible (he ended up with a helicopter ride home). We push on through the stage and hit a long road section to the finish. I was pulling hard, but honestly as cracked as Mark was with the long hours of riding. We pulled into a beautiful field and headed for tent city. We discovered a creek behind some trees and decided to soak our weary bodies, before tackling the chores of the day. Whiteswan lake brought a welcome addition to tent city....a local MTB club cooking burgers. Now we could have dinner #1 at 3 pm in prep for dinner #2 at 6 pm! We continued to meet riders from all of the world and developed a crew of bay area riders that we spent most of our time with.

Stage 5; Whiteswan Lake to Elkford
Distance; 88.5 km (56 mi)
Elevation; 2147 m (7043 ft)

We knew from the course overview the night before that Stage 5 would be rough. Almost the same amount of climbing as the day before in 12 less miles. We've learned at this point that what that really means is 'get ready for a big hike-a-bike section. Mark was still feeling a bit dodgy but as always he remained up for the challenge. We hit the course and again for unknown reasons, my legs we magic (despite having picked up a sore throat). I found myself riding many of the sections people were walking which felt great. I think Mark recognized that I was probably going to pay a heavy price for this exuberance, but he let me go anyway. Sure enough we hit the final aid station and got reports of a heavy duty hike-a-bike section in front of us. We shouldered our bikes and got started with the frustrating task at hand. After a LONG time, we finally crested the pass only to be greeted by the 'rock garden'. The rock garden is essentially a descent that is 100% on 6-12 inch rock. There is no possible way to ride other than picking your way on top of 1000s of rocks. While not my idea of a good time, I relished the technical challenge of the section and pointed my Niner downhill. The combination of gravity, big wheel and a little prayer helped me navigate the 5k of rocks. Mark, with a look of shear terror, decided this wasn't his cup of tea and proceed to dismount and run/walk the section. If poor Mark hadn't been tortured enough already after the rock garden we had 10k of technical dirt/rock descending to do. I'm glad I was ahead of Mark as I'm sure he was cursing my name for a good 20 minutes as he picked his way through. We finally hit a fire road into town and knocked out the remaining 10k. It was so hot today that we were both totally fried. Arriving in our first official town, the finish line spread was filled with treats that we hadn't seen all week (gold fish, chips, lemonade, muffins). It was a little bit of a shock to the system to see buildings etc, but the comfort of tent city was just around the corner. As a big bonus we learned we were next to the town pool and we were given free access for a bit of a swim (after finding the requisite mtn. stream to soak in first). We ate dinner in a hockey rink and we greeted by the town mayor. Mark discovered while inspecting my bike that my bottom bracket had frozen and looked at me questioningly as to how I made it all day with cranks that barely turned (I told you I had good legs). I dropped the bike off at the bike shop that traveled with the race to have a new BB install over night.

Stage 6; Elkford to Blairmore
Distance; 102.4 km (64 mi)
Elevation; 2998 m (9835 ft)

Suffice it to say that another long stage was not what the doctor ordered for our weary crew. My sore throat had gotten so bad that I could barely talk to Mark. For some reason my legs were still good, but the voice was gone. I felt bad because I couldn't communicate well with Mark to offer any words of encouragement along the way. It was another hot and long day on the race course. We did our best to keep moving efficiently, but I think we both new this was going to be a rough one. We were greeted with some spectacular views and some amazing river crossing which took the sting off a little bit. We crested one of the longer climbs and started a very fast ridgeline descent. The film helicopter was off to our right with a camera man leaning out of the cockpit. I felt like I was in an MTB video as the copter paralleled our fast descent down the ridge. We hit the final aid station and knew we had another 2000ft of climbing and purportedly hike-a-bike ahead of us. I was feeling pretty good in the legs, but I knew Mark was hating this stage. We continued on as Mark comically stated he needed to soak his feet in the river (I had to admit I had a little of the Canadian hot foot myself!). We found some water for Mark to soak it, but it didn't change the fact that we had a bunch of annoying hike-a-bike to get on with. We slowly made our way through and crossed the finishline with our weakest performance of the week. Despite all the good singletrack in the race, most of our conversations with fellow races was about the unnecessary hike-a-bike sections that seemed to always be present. Its a shame b/c I think the organizers wanted it to be the toughest bike race in the world which took away from the racing aspect and made some stages more like survival stages. Fortunately Blairmore had two things going for it that day. A great soaking river and a pizzeria. Mark made a b-line for the pizzeria after the race and ordered us a cheese pizza. We did a 15 minute soak in the river, then sat on main street eating a pizza! Somehow that Pizza started to change things for the better for Mark.

Stage 7; Blairmore to Fernie
Distance; 78.8 km (49 mi)
Elevation; 2101 m (6893 ft)

Knowing we were on our last stage (and having the boost of yesterday's pizza party), I think both Mark and I was in good spirits despite the growing all over body fatigue (and my cold which had now progressed to a cough). We hit the start line determined to race again. The race started with a climb up a ski resort hill which we fought valiantly up to maintain our position going into the singletrack. We hit a bunch of traffic, but patiently worked our way through the slower singletrackers ahead of us until we had clear trail. We worked well together making sure we were pushing each other as hard as we could in each section. The day had some mentally draining climbs in the middle. At one point I think we were both head down and silent begging for the second aid station to appear. We knew once we hit that section we were blessed with a downhill ride (for the most part) to the finish. We went ballistic down the fire road to find the singletrack and kept the gas on through the first of many sections of 'Fernie' singletrack. For me, hitting the singletrack is like putting gas in the tank so I was ready to rip. We emerged onto another fire road with a group of riders and took a right turn up a hill. Now it is worth noting that when you study the course profile you tend to forget about certain things --- like this damn hill. We started on this hot climb thinking we were almost done not knowing that TR had one more tough as hell climb for us. Probably inconsequential compared to early climbs this one just seemed particularly nasty. We finally made it to the top where local told us that we only had 6k to go and it was all singletrack. Boy they weren't kidding, we hit one of the best, technical singletrack descents I've ridden. It took everything I had to navigate the turns, trees, roots and drop offs they were throwing at me. I finally washed out and crashed lightly which gave Mark a good laugh since I'd stayed upright all week previously. We made it through the track and rolled into downtown Fernie to a heros welcome. We had just finished the TransRockies! We had a good stage and placed 16 in our category and moved up 6 spots on the GC to finish 24th overall. We enjoyed snacks, drinks and a basket of fries Mark bought before landing a ride with all our gear to our hotel. Again, we found a great river for a soak then enjoyed a late afternoon of Olympics viewing on our first beds in a week!

It was an incredible experience with many highs and lows. I enjoyed the race format and organization, but felt they should have made better choices on the route to avoid some of the hike-a-bike. I'd recommend the race format, but would advice looking into TransAlsp or BC bike race as you stay in hotel and you actually ride the course!




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