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.
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.