The BC Bike Race Experience
Time for Something Different
It's hard to pinpoint why I haven't partaken in BC Bike Race before this year. Not because it's difficult to figure out the reason. It's hard because the reason is either one thing I'm not keen to think about myself - or another.
Since the race began in 2007, I always imagined circling the calendar one year, counting back an appropriate number of weeks, figuring out some kind of training (aka survival) program, and going for it. Every year in January, I think about it. And every year I either procrastinate on the decision or admit it would be easier to chalk up non-participation to inconvenient timing. That is a terrible reason because I'm one of a very small number of very lucky people who can figure out how to turn a full week of riding into 'work' but also realizes that a week like that is an aspirational, once-in-a-lifetime bucket list event for most riders. For all of those that would love to do BCBR, the majority probably have legitimate obstacles, whether it's fitness, time constraints, financial priorities...and here I was waffling about it every year, thinking to myself I'd get around to it eventually. In a way I was probably being disrespectful to those that would kill for the chance by not taking advantage of the opportunity sooner.
In the less desirable column of 'things it says about me for not doing BCBR sooner' though, if I really dig into it, a little self-realization made it even more essential that I finally went there, did that, and got the belt buckle. And that reason has to do with a word that I don't shy away from when stood atop a 20-foot plunge down a near-vertical granite wall into an abrupt transition, with rain falling all around and a front tire glistening with moisture and loam. At times like that, I'm happy to put it right out there. It is a word I nevertheless don't like tossing around in other, less visceral contexts.
I am not an overly prideful mountain biker. I think of my skills and fitness as being pretty average as compared to other riders on the North Shore, with an above average instinct for self-preservation. This is a place where skills and fitness hang off of people like custom suits on Wall Street, so being an average rider here puts you in pretty good company on a global scale, but still, I'm happily average and not deluded about where I sit in terms of Ride Order Philosophy. It's taken a long time to polish my average skills, by the way, to the point where I can hang onto the group on rides where I'd want to be able to, and also be happy to take a hard pass on hitting moves that come with consequences I understand and no longer feel willing to manage. My relationship with fear and risk is healthy. It's the fitness part I've been pushing into the shadows.
Once upon a time I confronted that type of uncertainty head on. Living in Europe and working for Ritchey, where work culture dictated participation in the 90-minute daily lunch ride, I jumped with both feet into my education as a roadie. And each day I got my ass kicked in a way I hadn't experienced in any sport I'd played for 20-something years before - or since. Eventually I got fit and learned a thing or two about how to ride a skinny-tired bike. I learned even more about myself in the process. But then I moved back to North Vancouver and reverted to my loam-chasing, beer-swilling ways.* Two-hour rides were now punctuated by brief hike-a-bikes, and longer beer breaks. I still spent a lot of time riding, but the fitness demands of the average ride on the north shore, with my riding buddies, were low in comparison. Fun factor? Way, way high. But 15 pounds later, and it was clear I had regressed. Mightily. Something had to give if I was going to prove to myself that I still knew how to cover ground on a bike. I may not care about looking like an XC racer, or ever being mistaken for one, but I do still think I should be able to line up at a challenging race and give a decent effort. And yes, as far as goal-setting goes, that reads as vaguely as it is intended to.
In recent years - pre-Covid, too, so I'm not using that as an excuse - my group of buddies and I hadn't planned a riding trip in a while. Not one with ambitious rides, anyway. Bad timing had messed with a few Chilcotin trips I may have been able to do, and the same happened with a few other near misses. As much as I have more than my fair share of sweet riding opportunities, it had been a while since I had a target of some sort. I've been on some big rides in that time, but there haven't been a lot of circled dates on calendars. I haven't been pushing myself. The closest thing to discomfort on mountain bike rides was testing rain gear in truly shitty weather, and most gear is pretty good these days, so even that wasn't proving uncomfortable. For all my time spent mountain biking - a sport that can be pretty tough if you want to let it be - I was getting soft.
Fear, then, of not being able to get it back. Fear of having turned into a rider that not only didn't dig deep very often, but even worse - didn't want to anymore. Of course I know I could set a training program, stick to it, and get in shape - theoretically. And I had intentions of doing so. But several solo rides of more than 25 kilometers earlier this year did nothing but prove how bored I sometimes get on long, solo rides. Listening to podcasts helped but beer and a few handfuls of spicy dill pickle chips still beckoned at the end of any lap that brought me back towards home. I needed to ride 20 kms in one direction before turning back, but kept thwarting myself. Riding a truly top of the line Santa Cruz Blur made the kilometers melt away easily, so why not take advantage? I was enjoying those rides but just couldn't fathom lacing together 3 or 4 of them in a week, and forget intervals because I was already juggling a move and a bunch of other stuff, so what was my motivation here? Had I changed mentally as a rider to an extent that I wouldn't be able to line up to BC Bike Race and finish - gracefully if not quickly - without suffering to finish each day? Perhaps this was a midlife crisis of a different sort. My mountain biking identity was at odds and that did fill me with fear and dread, because like it or not, my identity is very closely tied to mountain biking.
Despite the hand-wringing and doubt, there were a few things working in my favour. First, I had a really great bike to ride in the race, graciously loaned to me by Santa Cruz (with the understanding I'd review it - and that is coming soon), and I'd had plenty of time to get it set up for me, and to really get comfortable with the way it rode.
Second, by the numbers, an individual day at BCBR doesn't look too bad: for the 2021 edition the average day called for 37 km of riding and 1,084 m of climbing. For North Shore terrain, those are long days with plenty of climbing, but totally approachable, especially because we'd be riding in and around Penticton, which is much less technical than the trails the BC Bike Race normally traces along BC's coast. I'm not a fast climber, but I have a long history of being able to suffer in slow-rolling diesel mode. And once the trail pointed down, especially in the bony, technical sections of the Three Blind Mice trail network that Penticton/Naramata is known for, I'd be in familiar territory. My advantage would always be in the technical stuff. Let the leg shavers beat each other up on the climbs, I'll gladly pass a few on every descent, confident I could take care of my bike and body on the way down, avoiding flats on the sharp rocks and other perils.
And third, as much as I felt like I needed to confront some of the doubts swirling in my head, deep down I was confident I could line up for BCBR and finish each day without feeling totally shattered. You could chalk that up to strong self-belief or intense naïveté - I'll take either one. What I didn't know was how I would feel after six pretty big days in a row. This is what a lot of first-timers at BCBR are trying to figure out. You may be able to string together a few days of 1,000m of climbing at whatever constitutes a race pace for you, but what happens on days 3, 4, or 5? I felt confident I could do it, but there was a bit of fear there, too. Fear that my lack of goal-setting over the last several years might catch up with me. Fear that, despite having everything going in my favour from the outside, I would mess it up and fail to finish, or make such a hash of it - broken bike or body, or something like that - that I'd wish I never started.
It's common to joke that you're BC Bike Riding, not racing, and for a lot of us, that line of thinking makes it easier to shake off the nerves on day 1. I had the stated goal on the way in of setting aside any worries about where I finished. What was important to me was enjoying the riding, and riding fast when I felt good, sure, but not stressing about where I placed. The race would come to me, I hoped, I just wanted to manage the amount of suffering so I could finish each day without dreading the next. As someone who hasn't done a lot of racing, this was the only way I felt comfortable approaching this experience. I don't know how to race, let alone at a six-day, seven stage effort, so how could I possibly expect much until I went through it for a few days first?
I may not have trained much, but I did do plenty of preparation. I'll cover things like gear, food, etc in a future article, but I spent quite a bit of time deliberating about that stuff, and put what knowledge I do have to work. So while I had the usual pre-event nerves that are entirely normal, I could at least be happy that I'd done what I could to show up as ready as possible, if not entirely fit. The route was finally released a week or two before the race started (usually it would be released earlier, but BCBR organizers this year had a monumental task in putting on that event in a time and place when other events - like the Penticton Ironman - had recently been cancelled) and I was able to pre-ride stage 1 a few days before the race. That was hugely helpful, because it allowed me to get a sense for what to expect in terms of bike and body.
By the time day 1 finally arrived, I was impatient to get underway. There was no more fitness to be gained (faked) and I was tired of the looming date approaching - I wanted to get on with it. Day 1 was hard. Even though I'd pre-ridden it a few days earlier, I stopped plenty of times that day, to rest, to eat something, to take in the scenery. When you're racing, of course you don't want to do those things, you want to race! But I did anyway. I stopped to take a few photos. I stopped at the aid station for what felt like 3 minutes but was actually more like 12. And I stopped on the descent because my lower back and wrists were screaming. From a technical standpoint, the descent was straightforward albeit technical - there were some jagged rocks where you could truly mess up your tires or yourself. It was super fun and I was loving it, but my lack of preparation was equally obvious on the way down as it had been on the way up. A huge takeaway for me from the race in general was that you have to train your legs and lungs, but you also have to do core work and get joints like wrists ready to take a pounding on 10-kilometer descents with little XC forks up front. You need to do long rides, and you need to do them without stopping, because that's what you're going to want to do in the race. Even a long race like BCBR. Because you only want to have to pass someone once, and then you want to enjoy that feeling of being strong and riding away from them, not having them go by you again because your wrists are sore.
I got through Day 1, faster than the day I pre-rode it (of course) and also feeling a lot better at the end. That was a big realization, and, I hoped, also a predictor for the rest of the week.
Part 2 coming next week...