Before I jump into the day-to-day racing, I just want to say that this was an experience I won't soon forget, if ever. Spending a week in the Kootenay range of the Canadian Rockies with my bike, a trusty teammate, and a supportive wife and her sister was remarkable. I'm a lucky man to be able to go 7 days where my only concern was to wake up at 5:30, eat breakfast, load a bag on a truck, and ride my bike all day. The TransRockies crew, my teammate Brett, and our incredible support crew of Kristin and Lindsay, made it so that turning over the pedals of my mountain bike was the only thing I really needed to worry about for a week's time. And in that week I rode over 500 kilometers, climbed dozens of towering mountain passes, forded countless rivers, and experienced the satisfaction of digging deep, emptying my internal fuel tank, and racing with some of the very best mountain bikers in the world. In one of the most scenic regions of North America. Into the mountains we went day after day and out we came with memories, friendships, and enhanced skill and fitness.
*Note: The distances and elevation data provided here is from the Official Route Book. The information is not 100% accurate, as each day was typically 2 kilometers shorter than advertised, but contained roughly 320 meters of additional climbing. Also, just as a general aside, I should say that most stages had 2 or 3 checkpoints but that we never stayed there for more than 2 to 3 minutes. We were always pushing forward. Our finishing times represent nearly continuous time in the saddle. There were 131 teams in the Open Men division at the start of the race.
Stage 1: Panorama to Invermere
- Total Distance: 33 km (20.5 miles)
- Total Ascent: 1139 meters (3,737 feet)
- Paved Road: 8.0%
- Gravel Road: 16.0%
- Double/Single-Track: 76%
- Open Men: 85th Place
- Finish Time: 3:45:37
In many ways, this was the most grueling and painful stage of the week. The race began at the base of the Panorama Ski Resort and after a short but fast procession through the village, we quickly hopped onto a doubletrack trail and climbed up the side of the main ski mountain. My heartrate was already above 180 bpm before we even reached the trail and the combination of high temps, elevation, and a ridiculous pace left me gasping for air and wondering what it was I was trying to do to myself. I had to stop and gasp for air. I used taking photos as an excuse for stopping. Needing to pee was another excuse I used. We eventually reached a massive bottleneck where hundreds of riders were funneled onto a tight, rooty section of singletrack. We stood in line for ten minutes and waited our turn at the unrideable tangle of trail. It was here where I finally got my heartrate below 175 bpm and was able to smile at myself for jubilantly riding the skinny ladder bridge at the base of the mountain for kicks. It was off the side of the trail and I thought it would make for a cool photo.
We soon exited the woods onto a super-steep mountainside and hiked the bikes over 3,000 feet in elevation gain in less than 2 miles to the Taynton Pass saddle at 7,250 feet. This was the most arduous and painful hikes I've ever done with my bike. Brett and I joked about longing for "easy" rides like 5 Drainages. My heartrate leapt to 185 bpm and hovered there for over an hour as we and several hundred other masochists followed one another up the steep and loose trail. The ski resort was a dollhouse filled with ant-sized people below us. Directly behind me during the hike-a-bike was two guys from Calgary who I met at the 24-hour race in Spokane. They finished 5th and 6th in Spokane to my 7th place finish. Small world this endurance racing is. I beat them this time, though. Ha!
The descent from Taynton Pass was epic. Thirty-six very tight and technical switchbacks dropped us to the heralded Canyon Trails where we roller-coastered our way through several miles of pristine singletrack alongside canyon edges, sometimes close enough to see the aquamarine water hundreds of feet below the trail. Did somebody say vertigo? It was clear on this very first day that Brett would have to slow a bit for me on the climbs, but that together we would out-ride many other teams on the singletrack as our technical skills easily outclassed most other riders, especially in the middle and back of the pack. The switchbacks were as tough as those on the Palisades trail here in Washington and we cleaned most of them and made up a lot of ground on teams that passed us during the climb. We each crashed once on the switchback descent -- nothing serious -- but it was good to get what would be our one and only crash of the week out of the way early.
Stage 2: Invermere to Nipika
- Total Distance: 60 km (37.3 miles)
- Total Ascent: 1302 meters (4,271 feet)
- Paved Road: 9.0%
- Gravel Road: 45.5.0%
- Double/Single-Track: 45.5%
- Open Men: 83rd Place
- Finish Time: 5:03:26
Day 2 began with a long gradual climb to the top of the notorious Bear Creek descent. I was still having a bit of trouble getting used to the heat and elevation and was, again, pretty slow on the ascent. This unfortunately left us in bad position leading to the Bear Creek descent. These several kilometers of rough, rocky, rooty trail dropped steeply while crossing back and forth through the sturm and drang of the Bear Creek drainage valley. The organizers warned of the trail being mostly unrideable and how dangerous this stretch would be. They said 50% would have to be walked. Brett and I easily rode half of the trail and could have ridden most of the rest too had it not been for the unskilled train of riders we were stuck behind. Again my slower climbing ability landed us further back in the pack than we belonged and what would have been an incredibly epic and gnarly descent was one of frustration and rising tempers. We tried to pass some slower riders but there were simply so many people walking the descent it was an effort in futility, especially given the steep rock drops and occasional mud bogs.
Brett and I never once uttered a single word to one another that wasn't positive during the entire week, yet we were both growing angry with the fun being stolen from us by the slower riders we were stuck behind. Fortunately, when we came to our first river crossing, the frigid thigh-deep water washed away our anger and we were soon on the gravel roads leading towards the exceptionally beautiful and remote Nipika Mountain Resort. Unfortunately I broke my chain about 10 miles from the finish and our haste lead to our having to rebreak and fix it a second time as we accidentally forgot to route it through the chainrings when fixing it. We lost about 10 minutes here, but like our crashes on day 1, this would be our only mechanical problem of the week. We didn't so much as have a single flat tire the rest of the race.
Stage 3: Nipika Loop through Millar Pass
- Total Distance: 90.1 km (56.0 miles)
- Total Ascent: 1139 meters (4,993 feet)
- Paved Road: 0%
- Gravel Road: 57.1%
- Double/Single-Track: 42.9%
- Open Men: 84th Place
- Finish Time: 6:02:49
For the first time in the six years of the event, we would be starting and finishing at the same place. Forest fires in Alberta forced a last-minute re-route of the course and, fortunately for us, the race organizers always have contingency plans in place and alternate routes for us to take. Today we would ride further than the first two stages combined in a large loop through Millar Pass. The scenery on this day was as epic as any I had seen and, best of all, I finally begun to get my legs under me and was feeling strong enough to shake off the rust that had me doubting myself in the weeks leading up to this race. Again the pace at the start of the event was off the level and although I felt a bit better than in previous days at the start, I still had to have Brett reign in his energy a bit so I could keep up. This stage also introduced what would be a constant refrain from riders for the rest of the week -- the cautionary yelling of "Bar!!!" during descents. Much of the double-track trails we descended on were very steep and cross-trenched with waterbars to minimize runoff and erosion. Hitting these trenches at high speed was a recipe for disaster and, much to Kristin's worrisome dismay, the medi-vac helipcopter was quite busy on Stage 3. Evertime it lifted off for another rescue Kristin was forced to worry if it was flying for me. The pit in her stomach would last until she saw me roll into camp hours later. Poor thing. Things got so bad on one descent that organizers stepped in to block the trail and meter the traffic at 30 second intervals. Numerous riders met the end of their week on the slopes of Millar Pass, one of which had to be helicoptered to Calgary's emergency room. Others made the trip in ambulances.
Although trying to keep the bike's rubber side down during the dusty, high-speed descents through the fields of waterbars made the stress of the day weigh heavy on the mind, it was our off-course jaunt that cost us dearly. Brett and I formed a nice four-man paceline on the gravel roads between the second and third checkpoints and mutually oblivious to the world around us, followed this other team through a wrong turn. For a half hour the four of us climbed switchback after switchback up the wrong mountain pass. We rode three kilometers off course and climbed nearly 1,500 feet up a mountain we had no reason to be on. It proved to be a blessing in disguise.
The final 6 miles of the day were on beautifully technical singletrack on the cliffs above the Kootenay River. The trail was dry, rooty, and swooped back and forth inches from what would be a certain-death freefall into the river below. It was exhilirating and Brett and I picked our way through the field of riders. We were thinking the same thing -- let's make sure those guys who went off course with us don't beat us. They were about three teams ahead of us in a long line of riders on the singletrack and when we descended to the river's edge they took the turn wide and we passed on the inside. I heard one of them say, "There goes team two, shit!". And it was on. Our friendly rivalry with a couple of guys from the UK who led us off course was born. We soon climbed a ridiculously steep hand-over-hand riverbank to regain the cliffs above the river and Brett looked back to me. "Do you have anything left to pass some riders?" he asked. I told him I'd give it my all and together we raced past team after team and charged hard through the last roller-coaster hills to the line. In those final miles of day 3, after going off-course for half an hour, we made the transformation from a couple of guys hoping to finish TransRockies to a team that would be giving it their all every day. A team that, albeit in the middle of the Open Men pack, would be one to reckon with.
Stage 4: Nipika to Whiteswan Lake
- Total Distance: 113 km (70.2 miles)
- Total Ascent: 1139 meters (4,403 feet)
- Paved Road: 0%
- Gravel Road: 54.9%
- Double/Single-Track: 45.1%
- Open Men: 64th Place
- Finish Time: 6:19:11
Stage 4 is proof positive that elevation profiles and route descriptions could be very misleading. On paper this looked like an easy day and one that we would be able to make up some ground on other teams. The elevation profile showed two major climbs of about 6oo meters each followed by a nearly 40-kilometer descent on gravel road. How hard could it be? Knowing that much of the mileage would be rapidly chewed up in a paceline on gravel roads, we really worked hard on the singletrack and double-track sections. Brett was forever encouraging me on and I rewarded his positive attitude with fresh legs and steady climbing. Instead of falling behind on the climbs, I held my ground well and, at times, we even passed a few people going up the mountain instead of down. We were fast through the river crossings and steady on the climbs. Although Brett's fearlessness would put a gap between us on the blistering descents, I was able to keep him in sight and hold off most other teams.
That is, until we reached the supposed gravel road finishing stretch. The easy 40 kilometers we relied on to bring us home was one of the most painful and demoralizing stretches of the entire week-long experience. We exhausted ourselves while climbing the final mountain to the top of the lengthy road section only to find that the road steered us straight into a howling headwind; that the road was heavily washboarded; and that there was nearly as much uphill as there was downhill. Sure, the overall gradient was downhill, but 300 meters of downhill over 40 kilometers leaves plenty of room for strength-sapping rollers. We weren't halfway done with this stretch of road before it was clear I was running on empty. I lacked the strength to hang onto the pacelines that roared past us for very long and our worst fear was realized: we were too slow to ride with the pacelines we saw and too fast to be caught by other isolated riders. Brett dug deeper, pulled in front of me, and blocked the wind for much of this stretch. Mile after mile, Brett pushed himself harder and harder to allow me to draft behind. Both of us were exhausted, sunburnt, caked with dust, and practically begging to see the finish line. Brett sacrificed his reserves to get us home. The guys that crossed the line that day wearing our uniforms and riding our bikes were empty shells of the men who set out from Nipika some 6-plus hours earlier.
Stage 5: Whiteswan Lake to Elkford
- Total Distance: 93.3 km (58.0 miles)
- Total Ascent: 1528 meters (5,013 feet)
- Paved Road: 1.7%
- Gravel Road: 51.5%
- Double/Single-Track: 46.8%
- Open Men: 49th Place
- Finish Time: 5:40:04
Despite the utterly depleted feeling we shared at the end of the previous stage, seeing that we finally finished in the top half of our class put a bounce in our step. Mine especially. Brett was still reeling from the previous day's tremendous effort, but I felt fresh. My plan of eating until I feel vomitous has been working well and while Kristin, Lindsay, and the rest of the travelling circus caravan of TransRockies made the four hour drive to Elkford, I put the hammer down and paid Brett back by pulling him through the hardest day yet. The race started and I immediately felt better than in previous days. I had my legs. I rode myself into shape and it was my time to shine. My time to lead. This was a team event and Brett needed me to do the encouraging, for me to block the wind, and for me to guide us home.
I climbed the first major climb of the day, a 900-meter ascent up the Elk Creek Drainage, better than I climbed all week. Good enough in fact to put my big 29er wheels to good use on the way down and steamroll past teams walking the tricky technical debris torrents that washed out the trail. We soon came to an awesome section of rooty singletrack belonging to a trapper who lives in a cabin in a meadow we eventually came to. Talk about a slice of paradise. Brett was bonking pretty hard on this section of singletrack, but I felt great and gave him my wheel to draft off. I was happy to return the encouraging sentiments on this day and mile after mile of rooty, fun singletrack rolled under our wheels. We reached the second checkpoint and looked around. The scenery was beautiful but better still was the new faces we hadn't before seen outside of the dining tent. These were the faces and shaved legs of fast riders, many of whom we had seen on the podium each night. Today was going to be epic!
I continued to feel strong on the second major climb of the day up the White River Drainage. It was a double-track climb through heartbreakingly beautiful mountain scenery. It was the perfect climb and I don't recall getting off the bike once -- just the perfect sit-and-spin climb that went on for miles and miles and climbed a couple thousand feet. Best of all, we knew a super technical rock-garden descent was coming up on the other side. The organizers warned that a three-kilometer stretch of the descent was extremely rocky and technical and that a 1-kilometer stretch was all but unrideable. We rode it all. Brett and I blasted past several teams walking lengthy sections that resembled a roided-up version of Porcupine Rim then soon came to a half-mile stretch of wall-to-wall angular chunks of quartzite the size of, pardon the phrase, baby heads. We paused, saw the numerous photographers further down the trail, and injected ourselves with some Kodak Kourage. I watched one rider endo on the rocks and catapult himself over the embankment and into the trees in a full airborne somersault. I saw him laughing and continued on. My legs are and still bruised and scratched from the rocks I kicked up during this descent but Brett and I cleaned 99% of this "unrideable" trail and found ourselves hooting and hollering the whole way down. The ride was perfectly punctuated by seeing a large black bear saunter across the road 50 yards in front of us on our way into Elkford.
We knew we'd move up in the standings a lot today and that our finishing time was going to land us in the top third of all teams, but we didn't know how well we had done until the awards ceremony for that day's stage. All week long we spent at least a portion of every day riding with the two girls who placed third in Open Female every night. They often beat us, but not by too much. Day 5 was different. Not only did we finish ahead of them, but we actually finished within 15 minutes of the Open Female winners, a team featuring US Olympian Sue Haywood. The Open Male winners once again beat us by over an hour, but the women riders are superbly fast and I'm damn proud to say I finished a 58 mile ride only 15 minutes off the pace of Sue Haywood.
Stage 6: Elkford to Sparwood
- Total Distance: 116 km (72.1 miles)
- Total Ascent: 2300 meters (7,546 feet)
- Paved Road: 16.0%
- Gravel Road: 57.0%
- Double/Single-Track: 27.0%
- Open Men: 51st Place
- Finish Time: 7:21:17
Welcome to the Queen Stage, the most brutal stage of the entire race. Prior to Stage 6 I might have been apt to come home and say that TransRockies wasn't as tough as I thought it would be. I have no such inkling anymore. Cycling News' report on this day pegs it as one of the most difficult stages in TransRockies history and I am in no place to disagree. First, the conditions. On top of the high temperatures and constantly blowing dust clouds, we were deep in a haze of high altitude smoke from a nearby forest fire. Ridges and mountain tops right next to us were barely visible through the thick haze of the smoke and our week of blue skies and cloudless days had given way to a suffocating blanket of gray that reminded Brett and I of a misplaced Seattle November. And then there was the course. The stage began with a steep three kilometer road climb leading out of the town of Elkford and up onto the fun, technical singletrack near the picturesque Josephine Falls. From there it was a fast gravel road section to the first of the day's two 3,000-foot climbs.
The first major climb topped out at 2,000 meters above sea level and was mostly rideable but did contain several steep hike-a-bike pitches that required short bursts of pushing. The descent was a combination of double-track and gravel road and aside from the occasional hair-raising waterbar, was relatively uneventful. We blasted over a smorgasbord of track conditions through the 30 kilometers between the second and third checkpoint and were anxious to start the final major climb of the week-long event. It was an 1100-meter ascent that would bring us high above the mining town of Sparwood. Again I pedaled nearly the entire climb and although Brett felt as if we were back in the middle of the pack, I knew better. We yielded few places on the climbs and I was sure we were holding our own at the top third of the field.
The descent into Sparwood was ridiculous. Absurd. Stupid. Did I mention ridiculous? For starters it was steep. Not ass-behind-the-seat steep, but fast enough to require constant braking. Secondly, it was heavily rutted and wheel placement was of the utmost concern. And then there was the willow trees. They leaned over the trail roughly five feet off the ground to create a green visibility-blocking arch. For two miles we descended through this seemingly impenetrable network of willow branches, forever yelling "Slowing!!!" to one another and being slapped across the face, chest, and head by branch after branch. All the while trying to ensure we don't hook the wrong side of the gully with our front wheels. I'd say it was a suitable cap to a arduous day, but we were far from done.
We soon hit the singletrack in Sparwood. The sweet, buttery, swooping, roller-coaster Sparwood singletrack that erased all pain, delighted everyone, and is worth another 10-hour drive to southeastern British Columbia in its own right. Brett and I were up far enough in the field that we were able to cruise this world class stretch of pristine tread with some very fast riders. No slowpokes here. We banked, we climbed, we descended, and we yelped with glee as we sped through the turns at mach speed. And then we crashed back to the stark reality of TransRockies: this is one tough race. Despite filling our hydration packs at the third checkpoint, we were out of water and still had several miles of double-track to go. Hilly double-track. And then when the double-track was done, we had hike-a-bike boulder crawls underneath a pair of bridges on rocks the size of Volkswagens. We were utterly spent, dehydrated, caked in coal mine dust, sunburnt, and had spent over 7 hours breathing forest fire smoke. We finished and nearly collapsed across the finish line. And we did in fact finish in the top third of the field. Stage 6 took no prisoners and left many casualties.
The organizers knew the absurdity of the day's dimensions and enforced no cutoff times on this day so as to maximize the number of finishers. Several teams were finally pulled from the course as darkness set in at 9:30 that night, more than thirteen hours after the day's racing had begun. No, I wouldn't dare suggest that this race is easy. Anybody could enter TransRockies and I strongly believe everyone should. Just don't expect to finish without proper conditioning and skill.
Stage 7: Sparwood to Fernie
- Total Distance: 48 km (29.8 miles)
- Total Ascent: 655 meters (2,149 feet)
- Paved Road: 12.0%
- Gravel Road: 63.0%
- Double/Single-Track: 25.0%
- Open Men: 54th Place
- Finish Time: 2:11:33
If Stage 6 goes down as one of the most difficult days in TransRockies history, then Stage 7 is sure to become known as the fastest. The organizers predicted a finishing time just over two hours. That was for the winners of the Open Male division, not for a pair of guys from the Seattle area hanging on in 54th place. Despite the tremendously difficult day that preceded this final stage (not to mention the 5 days that preceded that day) this was essentially a thirty-mile all-out cross-country race. The field exploded off the starting line as if shot from a cannon with fresh, perfectly rested legs. I had to practically beg Brett to slow up a bit over the first 15 kilometers as even my exhausted, depressed heart rate had once again risen back to 175 bpm. Finally, after about 20 kilometers, I regained my form and on a gravel road stretch pulled my big wheels in front of Brett and gave him a tow at 65 kilometers per hour down a gentle descent. We instantly closed a 100-yard gap on a train of riders and settled in behind them as the climbing returned.
We rolled straight through the day's lone Checkpoint, barely slowing enough for me to rip a bannana from a volunteer's hand. We were racing like our live's depended on it. It was the final day of TransRockies and we weren't there for a cruise. We had no misconceptions of trying to actually win but we raced as if a 50th place finish was the most important thing in the world. Every rider we saw was marked. We targeted everyone, dug deep, and fought to let no racer go unpassed. We knew the legendary Fernie singletrack was looming on the horizon beyond the last major hill of the day and I knew I wanted to be out of traffic when we reached it. I looked at Brett, told him I had it in me to make a move if he did and, just like that, we leapt to our feet and danced our way up and over the last climb while passing about 10 teams in the process.
The Fernie singletrack is tops. I will make a return trip next year to ride more of it and can't for the life of me see why anyone would ever choose hot spots like Moab in its stead. Fernie is the next big thing in outdoor recreation and I feel somewhat treasonous for aiding in its increased popularity with my measly blog but it has to be said. It was simply that good.
We entered the singletrack at speed and, despite a line of somewhat timid riders in front of us, somehow managed to speed up and over a lengthy, narrow ladder bridge-to-skinny the likes of which I hadn't ever dared attempt back home. That's what living on your bike for seven days does for you -- you become immune to difficulty and shed your fear. I cleaned it like it was nothing. We sped through the up-and-down Fernie singletrack, squeezed through narrow tree openings, hammered our way up the steeps and rocketed the descents. We zipped over ladder bridges, bunny-hopped logs, and -- my friends won't believe this -- even aired it out on a pair of dirt jumps at the bottom of the mountain. We had two fast hard miles to go from the end of the singletrack to the finish line and Brett and I each turned drill sergeant and barked orders at one another to dig deeper, to leave nothing behind, and to pedal harder than we each ever had in all our years of riding. Why? I don't know. It just seemed the right thing to do. We crossed the line in 2:11, a time the organizers barely expected world-class Olympians to finish in. I had never ridden thirty miles so fast in my life, nor probably ever will again. I nearly burst into tears coming down the stretch from the pain, the delight, the joy, and the sense of pure relief that this great challenge was over. I had earned my finisher's t-shirt.
- Total Distance: 515 kilometers (320 miles)
- Total Ascent: 11,250 meters (36,909 feet)
- Open Men 61st Place of 131 Teams
- Finishing Time: 36:24:00
- Time Difference: 11:44:36 behind winner (last place finishers were over 20 hours behind us)
That's right, I'm writing an acknowledgements section on my blog. We took a long, scenic drive through northeastern Washington yesterday on the way home and I had plenty of time to think about what helped get me not only to the finish line, but more importantly to the starting line. For starters, there's Kristin. She offers me tremendous support and encouragement on so many levels I can't begin to describe it here. Those who know us and who read this blog with any regularity know all the crazy things she puts up with, volunteers for, and says yes to. Did I mention she and Lindsay had congratulatory cards and bottles of champagne waiting for us at the finish line Saturday? They did. Speaking of Lindsay, she was a huge help this week. She'll be the first to admit she's not the most nurturing person (her words), but it could have fooled me. She and Kristin washed bikes, readied recovery drinks, did laundry, and made life for Brett and I as easy as could be. They got to do some hiking and spend some fun time together, but they also worked hard so we didn't have to.
I want to also give a big thank you to my sponsors, BradyGames and Scott Friedman of Re/Max on the Ridge. BradyGames has been a tremendous company to write for the past 7 years and I was proud to represent them throughout this year of racing. As for Scott, what can I say? He's the best damn realtor I know and helped us buy our first house.
And then there's my teammate Brett. While other teams were bickering and getting on each other's nerves Brett and I remained ever positive and supportive. There wasn't a single climb in the entire 7 days during which Brett failed to tell me how good I was doing or offer other words of encouragement. And I the same during the descents and fast sections. He was truly impressive to watch and I became a better rider this week through riding with him. I can't imagine how this week would have gone with another partner, but it certainly wouldn't have gone as well. That I'm sure of.
Lastly, I want to thank all of you who email and post comments. I write this blog for me. It's a way to vent, to share, and to simply express myself. Far more people read it than I ever imagined and make no mistake that every pair of eyes that sees this page mean something to me. It's a great source of pride for me that so many of you pause during your busy days to see what I have to say. For that I thank you.
And now I promise to not write about TransRockies again for a very long time.