Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Season Recap.

As I am currently going through injury related mountain bike withdrawal, I am a little bitter. Looking back on the Alberta Cup mountain bike season, it was a bit of a yawner. Anyone remember when mountain/foothill XC races had more variety than monotonous machine build? Oh yeah, nobody showed up.

I've finally figured it out

It took me a while. You aren't paying for a race (or vacation), you're staking claim to a chunk of time for yourself in the future.

Sorry, I would love to strip and repaint the house but I've signed up for this thing back in March!

Friday, August 7, 2015

Singletrack 6

So I finally caved and decided to figure out what the fuss was all about with these stage races. I was able to score a cheap entry to keep it under $100/race, book the time off work and I headed out to the Thompson-Okanagan with Pierre (former junior Quebec Canada cupper) from Golden, who was fortunate enough to score a free entry that was donated to the Golden Cycling Club.
These stage races pretty much condense an entire season of racing into one week. How would my bike and body survive without much time off between races? I made sure to bring 2 bikes and some spare parts (tires, wheels, brake) to be safe.

The week long race format has certainly evolved and I found the course selection to be pretty good. The TransRockies guys were pretty visionary in linking together sections of trail and road (and barely rideable creekbed?) found in Doug Eascott’s/Gerhart Lepp’s Backcountry Biking in the Canadian Rockies, but mountain biking and mountain bike trails have changed. Volunteers don’t want to be sitting in the rain in the middle of the backcountry for hours on end. Future motivational speakers want a little less suffering. Mountain biking is descent oriented and riders are looking for trails built specifically with bikes in mind, but what comes down, must first have gone up and singletrack climbing trails are also gaining popularity as alternatives to gravel road climbs. Each course featured over 1000m of climbing and with distances of 35-45km.

Why do logging road climbs lack even a fraction of the popularity of the classic cols of the Alps and Pyrenees? Sure they don’t have the history and pack more suffering and remoteness, but they take you to places you can’t normally see from the car. Canada’s road passes are disappointing: they are busy with highway traffic and gawking tourists and the road quality is generally terrible.

This was also my introduction to stage racing. There is a wide range of racer abilities: World Champion Catherine Pendrel and Canadian XCM Champion Cory Wallace were racing along with who it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call “first time mountain bikers”. As I found out is typical for these races, the start area plugged up quite quickly with rides who did not have much business being there, or who weren’t interested in racing as hard (they were just trying to finish), so the first part of the race I burnt some matches trying to weave through riders out for a casual ride before the first piece of singletrack. People were spread all across the road, it was like trying to run up an escalator with people standing in the walking lane! After experiencing this frustration on stages 1 and 2, I made sure to be the first one to line up for every stage, and laughed to myself as I triggered a stampede of mediocre riders plugging the start chute in front of the faster riders I usually end up riding with. The top guns, well they enter the start chute from the front, nobody is going to complain, they deserve to be there. Women, mixed teams, masters teams in a tight battle for podium spots would do that too, and they would get passed shortly after the start as order was usually sorted before the courses constricted. Start waves would help.

The style of racing is different from the short climbs, short laps and fast, wide open descents found on more recent “spectator friendly” courses in Alberta. It made me nostalgic for the time when we used to race to the top and bottom of the Canmore Nordic Center, and the long singletrack descents of Hinton. There is a reason that XCO is dying but people will pay big bucks to do singletrack heavy stage races (BCBR, Fernie 3, and Singletrack 6). Nobody watches Alberta cups, so let’s race on trails that we enjoy riding!

Back to the style of racing: I found that each day, after the start was sorted, I would find myself riding with a similar group. Some men’s teams, ST3 riders, masters riders, and of course open men riders (and Kate Aardal!). I would try to move up on singletrack climbs where possible but mostly ended up sitting in with the granny ring getting a lot of use, hit the road climbs pretty hard, and try not to lose too much on the descents! With a long week of riding looming, I found it hard mentally to push myself over the top and I was more focussed on staying ahead of those behind me on GC rather than fighting to move up. The legs felt great except on the final stage.

There was a timed descent section in each stage and it was always interesting to see where I stacked up, sometimes losing a couple of minutes to the fastest rider, but they could use some tweaking as they contained climbs and road sections.

Pierre was on the meal plan and we found the pre-race briefings the evening before valuable. Unfortunately, the dinners, breakfasts, and briefings often required a longer drive to the next race in the morning (Salmon Arm to Silverstar for stage 2, Silverstar to Vernon for stage 3, Silverstar to Kelowna for stage 4, and Kelowna to Penticton for stage 5). Sounds like 2hr morning transfers were the norm last year as well (Golden to Revelstoke).

Stage 1: Salmon Arm.

The first day started in the Rubberhead trails, just east of Salmon Arm and finished in the South Canoe trails south of Salmon Arm connected by sections of the Larch Hills Traverse. I have previously ridden sections of the course: I found that the Rubberhead area was underrated, the South Canoe stuff was fast, and the Larch Hills Traverse was overrated when compared to other backcountry rides (Frisby, Keystone, Jumpingpound to Cox, 7 Summits, etc…). I was impressed by the course as it managed to link up some great descents in both areas rather than the long road sections of the Larch Hills Traverse. Transrockies races used to be notorious for the suffering: Rain, poison ivy, bushwacking, long hours in the saddle, and I’m happy to say I escaped the suffering that most people experienced on stage 1: the wasps nest in the middle of the course that was agitated when one of the first riders stalled out on a climb and had to put a foot down. I was warned by riders ahead, and I ran as fast as I could through there. We were told that we would be riding almost all of the trails in the South Canoe area, and they weren’t kidding. After descending down Coffee Time from the Larch Hills traverse, the course meandered around on Schizo and other trails from the Salty Dog race before finally dropping down to the finish. I found my descending was not up to par and I lost time to riders I had been climbing with and finished only a couple of minutes ahead of a large group of riders.

Stage 2: Silverstar.

Back in the day, before my time (and before a lot of people’s time), Silverstar hosted World and Canada cups. Lately they have been stepping up their cross country offerings by bringing their machine built flavour popularized in their bike park to the woods surrounding the ski hill. After a start loop that was too short for my crappy start position, we entered the slippery roots of BX Creek, before burning along the ski trails (and missing a sharp right onto the Corkscrew trail, named so for sections that cross back over itself). Crack of Dawn is a classic from the World Cup days, and I thought that the short, steep descents offered some good variety for the day. A bomb down a bike park trail and into a steep road climb, where we were reminded that we had skipped a section as faster racers started passing us. I really dropped the hammer here as I was feeling good. A long singletrack climb brought us to 6kms of Beowulf, what will become their signature cross country trail when the remaining 24km is built! Honestly, I got a little bored of this section, but was in awe of how smooth and fast the top guns were riding it as they passed me. A long but not steep road climb where I could see riders suffering up ahead brought us to the final descent down Snake Pit (a pedally downhill) to the finish. 

Stage 3: Kalamalka Park (Vernon).

Stage 3 is one that I was nervous about as it featured the DOUBLE BLACK EXTREME Big Ed trail. I chose to give my Xprezo a rest day today and picked my trusty Marin Attack Trail (woah are those 26” wheels? Yup, and 9 speed as well!). With the bike weight around 30lbs, my game plan was to sit in for the long singletrack climb up Stone Free and Stoned Again before dropping the seat and riding Big Ed comfortably, well at least more comfortably than someone on a hardtail with the seat up. Well that was the theory anyways. A long flattish road lead-in to the singletrack didn’t really allow the start to settle out very well, but I was with a determined group and after a short descent down No Boats, I was actually picking off previous day’s riding partners on the long singletrack climb. On my 30lb bike. 

We should stop weighing bikes. It’s really the rotating (wheels + tires) weight and the overall rider + bike + backpack weight that makes the most difference. More suspension travel and dropper posts will make up more time on the descents.

Then disaster struck. As soon as the Tombstone trail showed its rocky teeth, my dialed Marin wasn’t seeming so dialed. The chain kept getting stuck between the chainguide taps and the little chainring and jamming. Instead of feeling comfortable down Big Ed, Twisted Sister, and Crash of 08, I kept having to stop to unjam the chain and just wasn’t feeling confident. I powered up the climb out of the lake and on the road to the finish to salvage my day.

This was the last stage for the 3 day race and I’m not sure I’d be content if I went home early. I'd recommend signing up for all 6 days. If you only want to do a 3 day race, then do the Fernie 3.

Stage 4: Myra-Belleview (Kelowna).

While I was originally planning on going with the Marin again for this day, yesterday’s problems were fresh in my mind and I went back to the Xprezo. The race started with a road climb into a doubletrack climb and I really enjoyed the start as I could go as hard as I wanted with nobody getting in my way. And I went hard, well a little too hard as I got caught by a train of riders on the Kettle Valley Railway. I was able to latch onto the train. I survived Vapour (lots of blood and flat tires for other riders), though not without losing time on the descent to the group. I suffered a little on the climb back up to the KVR but had another train to pull me along the railbed to the Crawford descent. I rode the long descent cautiously and while I did lose the riders ahead, nobody had caught me by the time I reached the bottom. The last climb caught a lot of people off guard as it kept going up and up through open, burned out forest with a couple of steep sections, but I had enough in the tank to ride it strongly. My best race of the week. When loading my bike after the race, I noticed that my front rim was cracked, huge wobble, loose spokes, etc… How my tire didn’t flat, or how I failed to notice where I did this or the wobble while riding is beyond me! Unfortunately, I left my spare front wheel in Canmore to save space!

Stage 5: Penticton.

I came up with a quick fix to prevent the chain from jamming and I was prepared to throw the power down more cautiously. The stage on Campbell Mountain was the easiest stage of the week both physically and technically. The trails were pretty loose and it almost felt like fatbiking on snow. I didn’t get my best start on the nervous road rollout but I rode pretty strong on the climbs to work my way up. The descents were fast and loose but otherwise off camber sidehill was the theme of the day. Though the course was smooth, I didn’t have any chain issues. With the finish right by the lake, there was lots of time to enjoy the beach and walk along the strip. You know, do what normal people do when they go on vacation!

Stage 6: Penticton.

Last day. Will the legs and bike hold up? Another nervous road rollout brought us to the dusty KVR which we soon departed up a steep road climb where I made my move. By the time the climb funneled into singletrack I was well positioned. The legs were feeling the effects of 5 days of racing and I focussed on trying to hold onto the group I was with on the long singletrack climb with some short descending sections. I kept glancing down at my Garmin to see if we had gotten any closer to the top elevation. It slowly ticked down. Upon finally cresting the top I pointed my bike down through fast trails, short technical sections, and a rocky section with some minor routefinding required! A road climb let me put the power down again before diving down over more rockslabs and loose corners to the finish where I was just a coast down the KVR away from the lake. I made it.

Stage 7: 

Is this even a thing?

The Okanagan was a great place for a race and the weather was great with some rain in the first couple nights to keep the dust down. Races were held early in the morning to beat the heat and allow for plenty of time to enjoy the other things the Okanagan has to offer: Lakes, golf, and wine. For a non-racing “support crew” there really isn’t a better place to hold a week long race with the same quality of trails. Tent camping in the Okanagan leaves a lot to be desired compared to my experience at much quieter and spacious Whistlers campground in Jasper. Camping and mountain biking go together!

When reflecting back on the week, I’m glad I jumped on the opportunity to check “Ride a week-long stage race” off my bucket list. I enjoyed the courses, I would highly recommend them to any travelling rider, but I don’t think I loved the racing (the chaotic starts, limited time to repair bikes/bodies) enough to pay full price. There’s a reason people do these, and if they priced races, meals, transportation, or accommodation any lower, they’d have a huge logistical issue on their hands. The whole operation was pretty dialed and a highlight for me was Raven Eye’s and John Gibson’s excellent photography.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Royal River Valley Rumble

Kurt and Geoff put on a great race. The course featured some steep climbing and I found that I had to spend the flatter sections recovering. Just getting over an illness, but the legs felt good for 7th place.

Got the drone out

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Casual Skiing

It has been game-on in the rockies since the last weekend of February. Sure, the lack of snowfall frustrated powder skiers, but for any ski mountaineer worth his/her weight in snow, it was a glimpse outside of the typical continental snowpack. As long as the weather was good, and fresh snow was given some time to settle, good days in the mountains were pretty much a given. It was hard to avoid the call of the mountains with the conditions .

The crust...er windslab was breakable, but the terrain was impressive. (chick-a-boom)

I think most skiers in the rockies don't get onto steep terrain as much as they would like. The mind has nothing else to think about but making the next turn.

There were weekends where the weather didn't cooperate. Thick clouds would build to the west brought on by strong winds. Progress was made possible by occassional emergence of landmarks. (popes)

Steep terrain, or slogging it out. Early spring stability made both options work out. (pumpkin traverse)
And slog we did. (Kicking Horse pass to Lake Louise via Opabin and Wenkchemna passes)
Spirits were high upon cresting the final col of the day, but were soon shattered by the long road slog on the exit.

Putting a skintrack into the alpine is the essence of ski touring. Until the clouds roll in obscuring any landmarks.

Where to go skiing? I usually have plenty of options rolling around inside my head. Sometimes I just want to return to a spot that I've been to before, but not recently. (Black prince to Sawmill highline)

We were often reminded of the thin snow year and high winds earlier in the season. An early season snowpack on a large slope is not a good thing and we had to pull the plug on this one.
Hitting ice while turning does not inspire the same confidence that a deep snowpack does.

Cloudy again. Well we tried to make the most of that weekend.

High winds here brought in a storm that deposited 30cm of low density blower.

It sure felt good to stand on top of something steep and aesthetic after getting thwarted by weather and shallow snow.

It is always relieving to find myself back on a flat glacier after a couple of minutes making calculated turns on a steep, aesthetic slope. (Mt. Maude).

Still, the mountains never make it too easy. (wind slab on Athabasca).

Except when enjoying mellow turns down the glacier.

Plus there are many more objectives to ski, so why risk it all for one?

My last ski day of the season could not have been more pleasant. We were late on our desired objective, but we ended up spending the morning chasing corn snow on multiple aspects before descending back to the road with minimal struggle.
From March to May long weekend, I skied every weekend but one. My legs are tired and in hindsight I wish I would have stayed home instead of battling the storms on some weekends. While no one day really stands out as a major accomplishment for me: most of these days felt casual, I think that the past couple of months have been my best period of skiing ever. I have made it happen in the storms, the glacier rope has become a staple of my backpack, I backed off of lines that I didn't feel good about, I have explored many areas that I have always had in the back of my mind, and I have found inspiration for future objectives.

Nothing good comes from going east

Head west, young man.

To the west lie the mountains, to the east lies flat plains, ice storms, salted roads, corrupt construction companies, and cities with too many people trying to get to the same place at the same time.

The further west you go into the mountains, the deeper the snowpack. On the east side of the mountains, the wind and the cold leave little quality snow to be skied.

On the west side of the road. glaciers have carved the mountains into bowls that catch the snow. On the opposite side of the road, flat, featureless piles of rock are scoured by prevailing south westerly flows.

The best skiing is often found to the west.

This is the general rules, but as with most rules, there are exceptions. For one, variety and curiosity are forces pushing one to explore unfamiliar areas. And sometimes, it does snow more to the east.

Skiing on the west side of the road the previous day, we struggled through breakable windslab. The next day, we explored east of the road and found soft snow after some tough trailbreaking through facets. 

After skiing what could be the worst snow that I skied all season (sastrugi), we spent the next day on the east side of the road and found untouched snow even a week after the previous snowfall.

Head far enough east and the mountain starts to have features found on the west side of the road. 

Glaciers have left their mark east of the road, but they still struggle to hold snow.

Smoother mountains on the east side of the road allow for skiing on all aspects. Helpful for chasing corn snow as the sun moves across the sky.

It is possible to get surprised by unfamiliar terrain. This run was longer than it looked from the top!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Ken Jones Classic, Devon Blizzard, Sunridge Fatbike Race

I was pretty pumped for the concluding race of the 2015 SMCC season. After arriving home from Europe and getting some good rest, I was able to put together a consistent string of good training starting with a couple of fatbike races. I enjoyed the cyclocross style format which had us completing 4-5 laps for a total race duration of ~50minutes. 

Ripping the berms at the Blizzard bike race in Devon. The volunteers at the Devon Bicycle Association did an excellent job of preparing the course: packing it down, and putting sand on the icy sections
The Sunridge race had a little more elevation change and included more singletrack and I really enjoyed it!

The course at Lake Louise is dialed in and after being cancelled in 2014 due to cold temperatures, I was looking forward to racing there again. Rain falling overnight with the freezing level somewhere around mid mountain meant that we wouldn't have to deal with the cold. 
Lots of race suits out today. There were a bunch of people chomping at my heels on the first 2 climbs.

The race starts early in the morning and I was not disciplined enough to grab an adequate warmup after the race briefing and morning uplift. That said, after a couple of weeks of ski-mo intervals on Edmonton ski club, I felt really good for the first 5 minutes of the race! My shins really started aching as the groomed trail got steeper and I  settled into 3rd place occasionally looking back to see an epic back and forth battle happening behind me. In addition to many faces that are starting to become regulars in the race series, it was impressive to see Jakub Sumbera not far behind, even though he was racing on much heavier touring gear.

Looking ahead to the 2nd climb, I saw just a single set of ski pole marks in the snow. Travis was breaking trail. Extremely impressive. I upped my cadence through the soft track and distanced myself from the chasers. I skied smooth but really suffered when the final climb steepened. This year, I didn't have Eric Carter chasing me down the final descent so I skied more relaxed to the finish.

Race notes:
-Travis did a lot of trailbreaking
-Jakub is pretty fit to be able to hang in there on heavier touring gear
-There is a big chase pack of skiers brewing up behind me. They are already chomping at Steve Sellers' heels. 
-The Zamzow kid puked on the first climb. Now that's dedication!
-Only 7 females total raced. Anna Sellers had an impressive race in the Junior category. Kylee had to abandon the race early on with some lung issues, leaving only Martha and Michelle to contest the elite race.
-Junior Kevin Hinni put down the 3rd fastest rec course time and emerged from the epic back and forth junior battle for the overall. Hope he sticks with it!