Just like last year, there was a miserable, wet forecast for race day, and once again the morning of the race a greatly improved forecast appeared. There were a few sprinkles of water during the race, but later in the day the sky lightened and the clouds went away completely and the sun came out.
This was my second year in the Cheakamus Challenge, and my riding buddy Kevin L.’s first mountain bike race. In training rides we did we appeared pretty evenly matched. I’d drop the hammer and try and ride faster than him in training, but he’d always be there right on my tail. So while neither of us were going to be competitive in a race that draws a lot of well seasoned riders, we would be fighting tooth and nail to see which one of us would finish first.
The race started at 10 a.m. and we rode the first 5 kilometers of pavement in a tight pack, keeping an easy pace. Once we hit the gravel, the legs are asked to do quite a bit more work to keep pace, and I began to drop back. I hadn’t been sleeping so great this week, partly due to a tweaked neck, so I wasn’t feeling 100%, although I was still feeling in decent shape.
On the gravel road there was a little tiny sausage dog who was out there having a blast, his little legs were spinning like mad as he tried to keep up with the cyclists. He was a well behaved dog and was keeping to the side of the road – not a tire nipper. As each rider outpaced the little dog, he’d drop back and start racing the next rider, tail wagging like mad. He kept up with the pack for a really long time despite his tiny size. It was too funny.
On the first climb up to the canyon to the train tracks I started getting a stitch in my side. Not a good sign this early in the race. I could hear the train coming, and pushed harder, but didn’t make the crossing before the train came. Thankfully, it’s just a passenger train and only a few cars long. There was about twenty cyclists or so who were slow out the gate and got beat by the train. Gave us a short breather. I was right on Kevin L’s tail crossing the train tracks, but after that he pushed hard on the remaining hills in the canyon and got ahead of me.
The old road through the canyon is currently being graded by heavy machinery as part of the sea-to-sky trail project. Most of the work is complete, and it was all freshly graded dirt and crushed rock going past Starvation Lake. Some of the gnarliest bits of trail on the way out of the canyon haven’t been upgraded yet, so there was still a bit of bumpy riding before we hit the highway.
On the highway, I got passed by a few people, still with a stitch in my side if I pushed too hard. More people passing me going around Shadow Lake, more people back on the highway, and a couple people passed me going through Brandywine. Some of these riders were faster rider’s who’d flatted out in the canyon. There were a lot of people who got flat tires in the canyon this year, I think I passed at least 10 people in the race who were changing flats. Other riders were just getting ahead of me because I wasn’t still feeling a bit sluggish. At two hours riding, I was beginning to worry about bonking out before the end of the race, but once I hit the sea-to-sky trail I finally got into a groove and started feeling good and began passing a few riders.
Aside from going past at least three times as many riders with flats this year than last year, I don’t remember seeing any dropped water bottles last year. This year it seemed like I was passing a fallen, mostly-full, water bottle every fifteen minutes. I’m thinking next year maybe I won’t carry any water and just scavenge from water jostled loose from other riders!
I caught up to Kevin L’ along the sea-to-sky. We rode together for a bit, until I lost traction on a tight corner and had to jump off the bike. Landed on my feet unhurt, but we stopped there for a 30 second breather and food break. He had home-made bars in plastic wrap. I had a big, open bag of potato starch, chopped dates and coconut oil. So I could just pull out a scoop with my hand, then toss this bag into my cycling jersey pocket. I took off 15 seconds before him from this break, and stayed ahead until the climb to Loggers Lake, where I widened my lead by at least a minute.
On the rocky grade coming down from Logger’s Lake I almost got bounced off the bike and bailed. Then I realized that I’d had my front shock locked out. Doh! I had to stop twice for quick breaks on the decent as I was getting some cramping in my legs. Riverside Trail was a good ride and I thought I was making a good pace, but right before I got to the aid station before Farside Trail, Kevin L. had caught up to and passed me. We stopped for at least a minute at the aid station.
Riding up Farside, I again headed out on the trail ahead of him. He was having none of it this time though, and said he was feeling his second wind from the banana and watermelon we downed at the aid station, as he passed me and started to pull ahead out of view. I dug deep and tried to keep up, and managed to keep him in sight until we hit the climb to Tunnel Vision. I was really feeling a good groove on this climb and pushed hard, and passed a few riders on the climb up. On the last big, straight hill I couldn’t see Kevin L. behind me at all, but I knew he was faster on the descents. If I could beat him to the bottom of Tunnel Vision, I’d probably have my goal of beating him in the bag.
The descent went pretty well. Every time I ride this trail I manage to ride a couple more technical stretches or really tight hairpin turns that I haven’t ridden previously. Still had to get off the bike in a few places. Lots of folks I’d passed on the climb went zooming past me on the descent. This trail isn’t really one you want to be riding on a hardtail. I was getting bounced all over the place on some of the rooty stretches, I got to the bottom ahead of Kevin L. though (he was also on a hardtail). I didn’t see him at all, but later found out he saw me right at the bottom, about 100 feet behind me. He said his descent was slowed because his legs were starting to give out and he was having trouble staying in the saddle. At one point he said he hit a big root at slow speed and went over the handlebars but mangaed to land on his feet.
I tried to dig into the tank for some extra gas on the climb up Kadenwood, but I was starting to peter out and had to drop down to granny gear for much of the climb. Finally I reached the top of Big Timber, and the welcome sight of the final descent. On a tight, rough turn at the top of Big Timber I put a foot down and my calf muscle cramped hard. I stopped the bike and switched to resting on my other leg, and then that calf muscle cramped up. So then I ended up waiting beside the trail, then end so close, for a couple of minutes I till I got the use of my legs again. It was a pretty gnarly cramp and I was worried it’d happen again on the descent, Big Timber is bit thrashy in places for a hardtail. But my legs held, I stayed ahead of Kevin. L. and pulled across the finish at 5 hours and 8 minutes. Kevin L. wasn’t too far behind and crossed at 5 hours and 10 minutes.
I didn’t beat my goal of doing the course in less than 5 hours, but I did beat Kevin L. I also improved upon my race time from last year by 41 minutes, although the course was a couple kilometers shorter this year. Still I was about thirty minutes faster this year, so I was pretty happy about that. I felt way stronger on the final descents down Tunnel Vision and Big Timber this year. The deadlifts and kettlebells swings I was doing in the off-season last year really paid off there. I should have been doing some calf raises though, as my calf muscles were definitely my weakest link. I also almost never get cramps, and the cramping was the rate limiting factor in the second half of the race. Even as early as coming out of Cheakamus Canyon when I flexed my leg muscles to flush the lactic acid build-up the muscles felt like they weren’t relaxing well at all. I’m chalking this up to not enough sleep, and not warmed up enough at the start, but I also haven’t been doing enough stretching and foam rolling.
The Cheakamus Challenge is a great race. It was a shame that the weather forecast probably kept some people away again this year. British Columbia’s first GranFondo was last week, and with four thousand riders taking part, it was cool to see so many people into doing a big ride. However, if you stack the Cheakamus Challenge route against the GranFondo route, the Cheakamus Challenge is a much more scenic and interesting ride than grinding out the miles on the highway. Of course, the GranFondo isn’t a race, and there were so many points along the Cheakamus Challenge when I just wanted to stop and take a good 15 minute break. The memories of the pain is fleeting though, and even a day later I’m only left with memories of a great ride.