After far too many late nights and missed bike rides recently due to work, I anxiously loaded up the trusty Element on Friday afternoon and drove north to Squamish, British Columbia for the final race in the series. Stefan, a German working on his post-doc at the UW and member of BBTC, came along with me and offered great conversation and a tank of gas. I had ridden with Stefan twice before (the first time being the infamous 5 Drainages ride last summer) and was glad to have someone I knew out on the course with me who had a similar fitness level.
The GearJammer is a 45-kilometer (28 mile) point-to-point cross-country mountain bike race with roughly 4100' of elevation gain. It uses a heaping dose of the most gnarly and technical singletrack Squamish has to offer. In fact, seventy percent of the race is on singletrack. I looked at last year's race results and saw that they mirrored the finishing times of this year's Test of Metal, a race that is 14 miles longer than the GearJammer! I finished last month's Test in 4:07 (was recovering from a mild case of pneumonia) and was told by veteran's of the GearJammer that 4:07 was a good time for my first Test and that I should expect to finish around 4 hours at the GearJammer. Then they looked at my bike, smiled, and added, "but probably a bit longer."
When people hear the words "cross-country racing" they often think of spandex shorts, 20-pound carbon fiber bikes, and buff, non-technical singletrack. Not the case in Squamish. Standing at the starting line of the GearJammer, I was surrounded by bikes with 5 to 6 inches of front and rear travel. Stefan, on his burly Santa Cruz Nomad, was surprisingly right at home in the crowd and didn't stick out like he expected. Me, on the other hand, with my 80mm of front travel and 1" spring in the rear, had brought the proverbial knife to a gun fight. The emcee made a point of pointing to the guy to my right, riding a fully-rigid Salsa El Mariacchi, and basically laughed at him. One guy rode a singlespeed and he too was given his metaphorical last rites before the start of the race. With memories of the Powerhouse Plunge fresh in my mind from the Test, I asked the guy next to me if there was any trails on the course as technical as the Plunge. "Oh yeah, a couple of them. There's some really technical steeps on this race."
The race started out with a few miles of gentle road climbing. Stefan passed me about three miles into the race as I sat and spun, trying to conserve energy and mindful of how much climbing is going to come in the final 8 miles after the Plunge. We were nice and spread out for our first section of singletrack and it was excellent. Intermediate tech, rolling hills, and what I estimate to be a ladder bridge at least 50 meters in length. Yes, meters. It was about 15 inches wide and probably 150 feet or so long and about 2 feet above a bog. I was cruising along it at a fast clip and was feeling really comfortable... right until a photographer's remote flash unit blinded me from a log in the bog. I nearly recoiled from the flash and ended up in the drink, but I corrected the steering and made it across in one piece.
Fast forward through some gentle singletrack climbing, some fast descending, and some really fun trail, we eventually came out to a lengthy roller-coastery road leading to a prolonged climb. We were about 12 miles into the race now and I could see Stefan up ahead of me. I was slowly catching him, but not before we reached the Skookum and Psuedo Tsuga trails. The trails were super dry and dusty and quite loose. They were also every bit as steep and technical as the Powerhouse Plunge, except even more difficult because of how loose the tread was. I ended up crashing into a guy who stopped on the trail. Ended up twisting my handlebars which forced me to spend a minute or so trying to get them lined back up -- you can't risk crooked handlebars and stem on trail this steep and technical. I made my way down most of the rock-drops and around all of the switchbacks, but my nerves were frayed. I had never, ever, felt like I actually needed a full-suspension bike before. I've never actually been on trail where I thought having more than 3" of front travel was necessary. To be honest, I think most of the people I ride with regularly are way over-equipped for 99% of the trails they ride. Well, I can honestly say that I would not have minded a nice solid 5x5" travel bike for these trails on Saturday. I got down the Skookum and Pseudo Tsuga with a few dabs and only a couple of steps of walking, but my bike was taking an absolute beating and I was certainly making it far more difficult for myself than I needed to. I was a bit scared as well, I have to admit.
My fright was partly due to a crash I heard occur behind me. The guy was screaming in agony at a volume and effort I previously would have only imagined possible during an un-anaesthetized amputation. I was already two switchbacks below him and his profanity-laced screaming was enough to drown out all other noise. Thirty seconds and two switchbacks further down the trail, his screaming continued to echo through the woods. The sound of his pain was enough to make me queasy. I can only hope he's going to be okay.
Speaking of fear and injury, this is a good time to discuss two other notable log crossings. The first of which, at the bottom of Skookum (not to be confused with the far more tame Skookum Flats trail here in WA) I believe, was a log about 20 feet long, about 16 inches wide, and oh, about 15 feet above a rocky creek. You can be sure I slammed the brakes and walked over that thing. As did everyone else around me. The other one, perhaps on Pseudo Tsuga, was a ladder bridge about 12 feet long or so with a little pyramid-shaped apex in the center. It was about 14 inches wide. I rolled out onto it and was doing fine, slowed to a near-stop as I was going over the peak and made the mistake of looking down... that's when I realized I was 8 to 10 feet above a rocky creek. Clipped in, no armor, just giving it a go. Yeah, I made it across, but again, I was a bit on edge and was kicking myself for looking down (I thought I was only about 3 feet off the ground).
All of this crazy beyond-XC technical riding did have a funny effect on me though: I ended up cleaning the Powerhouse Plunge. Seriously. The other trails were so steep and rocky and treacherous that, even though the Plunge is every bit as tough, I was so comfortable dealing with it by then that I was able to make it all the way down with just one brief dab at the very top. And that was in traffic. I imagine the knowledge that I had already "survived" it once before helped soothe my nerves, but I'm definitely proud to say that I cleaned every rock-drop, every switchback, and every bundle of roots. It was a minor victory for me, but I'll take it.
I passed Stefan at the aid station after the Plunge. We were 20 miles into the race and he had stopped for water. I grabbed a few pieces of watermelon without stopping and pedaled off to the Far Side and Farther Side trails. Still had 8 miles and quite a bit of climbing left to do, including a lengthy climb (w/hike-a-bike) up a ridge under the power lines but I kept enough in reserve to ride the final section strong. Passed a lot of people here and only got passed back in the final quarter-mile... once my tank was empty.
Finished in 3:40:18 and took 14th of 35 in the Male 30-34 age group. Stefan finished just 5 minutes after I did and came in 19th in the same age group. The winning time was 2:21 (which I'm not sure I understand how is possible) but it was only 10 minutes faster than the winning time of the Test of Metal. And again, this race is 14 miles shorter. My time was 27 minutes faster than my Test time--I guess those short rides on the single-speed lately were helping me out after all!
The GearJammer is a great race for those who want to do an epic mountain bike in a competitive environment. It's not the Test. The Test of Metal is an event. It's something you have to do, and honestly, it lives up to even the loftiest of expectations. The GearJammer has about one thousand fewer competitors (I think 225 started the race) and doesn't have the throngs of spectators and the pomp and ceremony, but it's a great at doing what it does. It's a fun, friendly race on some incredibly epic trail and plenty of sponsor-provided food afterwards.
Special thanks to my sponsors BradyGames and Singletrack Cycles. It was a long, hard month of work, but BG is a great company to write for and their involvement in my cycling helps make attending these races possible. What also makes it possible, particularly this race, is people like Brandon at Singletrack Cycles who dropped everything to get my new bottom bracket installed last week and even helped me wrestle with that stubborn tire! Thanks everyone!