A few weeks ago was The Fluffy Bunny XCM mountain bike race, hosted by Onyerleft racing in Bragg Creek AB. It was the third round of the Alberta Cross Country Marathon series and the provincial championship for the discipline. Kokanee Redbike was there and it was the second race of the year and a true test of form for my 2016 season. Though, I suppose before I elaborate on our day of racing the XCM in West Bragg, I should back up a bit.
Back in the spring of this year Kokanee Redbike team manager Mike Sarneki approached me with the proposition of racing the New Denver Galena Ghost Ride in September: a 100km point to point mountain bike race with 3200m of climbing from Kaslo to New Denver. As I am apparently easily persuaded into committing to arduous feats, I naively agreed and signed up for the event.
It wasn’t until after registering for the behemoth event that the reality sank in of how demanding the Ghost ride will be. The fact is, I have never raced that far or climbed that high in a one day event. It was at that point when the science books came out along with the Richard Simmons work out tapes and a six month training plan was put in place to prepare.
Training for the Ghost ride for me was a very difficult thing. It was not difficult because the training itself was hard but because it meant missing out on team and club events in trade for solitary heart rate and wattage monitored -monotony. However, driven by a natural self-preservation of surviving the Ghost ride in September, I diligently persisted, and tapped out the hours on the pedals as much as I could in the time that I had before September.
With the decision to do the 100km race, also came with it a change in my racing disciplines. It became clear that to improve my endurance for the ghost ride, I would have to focus on racing in fewer events and longer ones. Focusing on XCM’s, my first race of the season was the River Valley Royal Rumble (extended edition) hosted by Hardcore Bikes back in May. I felt good in that race and I was able to achieve my goal of executing a consistent pace with each lap, while keeping enough in the tank for my last lap to be my strongest lap. At that time I hadn’t been training with my new structure for very long yet signs of improved endurance were beginning to show early on. The true test for me though would be the Fluffy Bunny XCM Provincial Championship, just a few weeks ago. With The fluffy Bunny about ten weeks after the RVRR, I was very curious to see how things in my race performance had changed.
On the Saturday before the Fluffy Bunny, Mike and I headed down to Calgary in hopes of pre riding the course after the race that day had wrapped up. To our dismay, Mother Nature had other plans and washed away our hopes of a pre-ride with the damp of a rain filled afternoon. As the rain persisted on into the evening we began to fray over the conditions we’d be facing. Luckily though, a brighter day rose out from the darkest night as the deluge gave way in the morning to the warm sun. Our race day was coming together nicely.
Early race day we got to our pre-race rituals. We made extra time for breakfast given the race discipline of the day. I took the initiative of manning the frying pan but was quickly demoted from team chef to team bottle filler upper due to some dusty instead of runny eggs. It took a bit of time to get over the emotional trauma of my demotion but once I did, we were on our way to the Fluffy Bunny.
Arriving at the event we setup Kokanee City (aka K-Town) in record time and got suited up with just enough time to stage for the start. Even though we had arrived slightly tardy to setup for the race, I still managed to find the time for a pre-race (awkward) stretch session and a full on deva fit over the team pump before staging. Sitting on the start line waiting to hit the trail, conditions looked good despite the rain the night before. The weather was nice for the start, sunny and cool but warming. We were in store for a beautiful day of suffering; the bunny was not looking quite so fluffy anymore.
One minute warning, thirty second warning, oh wait! I scrambled to open the menu on my Garmin and shut off the heart rate alarm just in the nick of time: menu, menu, home screen… And we’re off.
With my new methodology and this being a longer race, I really focused on ignoring the pace of the group and doing my own thing instead of my usual tactic of blowing up while trying to maintain contact. In turn, I found a comfortable cadence and kept a tidy line to the right of the trail. I maintained my composure as a large portion of the field passed me by. We only had a few hundred meters or so of flat double track and trail until we were set into the first climb of the day up to Rangers Summit. It was there that I observed something that I hadn’t experience before.
Rangers summit is a testament to K-Country mountain biking. With 310 meters in elevation and over 4km in distance it very much set the tone that this would be a climbers race. Thanks to my new training structure, on this climb was where I had a new experience. As the climb persisted on and my fellow competitors and I slogged our way up the winding steep grade, I continued to maintain my comfortable pace. While churning away in climbing gear, I began to notice that I was beginning to catch up to a few of the racers that had overtaken me at the start. Even more incredibly, when we reached the top of The Summit I not only caught up to them I began to pass them back!
After reaching the summit of Ranger’s Summit, we were dropped down into Snakes and Ladders, a flowy trail of berm riddled switch backs. This winding decent was such a blast and a nice reprieve from the climb before. It was a great section to really carry speed; that is until the trail rolled into the Ladders portion which was true to the name. Racers now had to serpentine up from the bottom of the snake pit with the Ranger’s Summit climb already in the legs. We were only to settle in again and really see how our legs could power through. After the first climb up to Ranger’s Summit most racers felt that they had enough, and this was only the first lap! I could hear the comments and moans of whoa emerging from the valley below as racers at the back of the group stepped onto the first rung of the latter. For me, I still managed to maintain and didn’t fade as I embarked on the second big climb of the day. I settled back into my happy place and once again chewed away at the mountain in front of me. This was what was new for me, compared to my previous seasons this change in endurance was drastic.
I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing. Before trying this new training structure, this amount of climbing would have caused me to fade to a slow crawl but I was persevering. The Fluffy Bunny was where I came to test my new engine before the Ghost Ride in September and the improvements in that were shocking. All that time in the saddle, practicing diligence and patience, not knowing what it would come of it until this moment. With this revelation my confidence went up and I thought, maybe I can survive the day! In life though what goes up must most certainly come down and nature has its way of maintaining balance.
Feeling good, I failed to maintain the smoothness that had got me this far in the race. After Snakes and Ladders we stepped onto the Ridgeback trail and while feeling overly confident, I stepped on the gas. Up on Ridgeback the terrain changed and not in a way that benefited anyone like me racing on an XC hardtail. Roots jutting out from the soil and gardens laden with jagged stones; this was the wrong place to loose composure and amp things up. I bashed through the rugged downhill side and as I did, I felt my fork begin to feel more and more ridged. Hammering on through the garden of rocks and roots I knew something had gone wrong. Moving onward into Bobcat I was certain that I had completely cooked my suspension fork and all short travel damping was no more.
Strange Brew was the last decent before heading into the start finish to lap through: 3.6km and 240 meter decent of rough hand tingling roots and muddy (on this day) uneven terrain. In previous seasons where my ability to climb had been lacking, the descending was where I learned to make back time. Here however with a near ridged fork on a hardtail I had to hold back in the downhill shaving off speed in order to hang on the bike. I lost significant time during this section and even worse the fight to hang on wore me down and thus caused my endurance to fade much sooner once in lap two.
Lapping through to start my second lap, I was still confident and feeling good with my climbing despite my struggle on the last downhill toward the start/finish area. My pit stop was a fast, quickly switching to a fresh bottle and off again up to Ranger’s Summit. Second time through on this long climb my form still held strong. Climbing up out of Snakes & Ladders I started to feel the stepper grades taking their toll even with 30 plus km’s in the legs. The second lap, for the most part was very much business as usual for me and not too much unlike the first. I even found myself enjoying the uphills more than the descents, due to my fried suspension. With a lesson learned on my first pass through, I was able to smooth things out riding through Ridgeback the second time. I ran into trouble again when it came time to tackle strange brew on lap two. This was where things went almost disastrous for me. Hammering through with almost no squish the first time was bad enough, taking it on a second time was pure agony. My hands and arms ached and weakened so badly that I had no choice but to stop. I attempted to adjust my faulty fork into performing with some level of decency by letting almost all the air out of the shock chamber in hopes of gaining some motion. In the time I spent on my mechanical issue, the racers who hadn’t caught up to me during my abusive and sluggish decent manage to catch me here. The fatal nail in the time coffin for me was letting the pain and fatigue cloud my judgement. I had I been watching the clock and odometer more closely I would have realized there wasn’t enough time in the race to allow for a third lap as we in the team had originally strategized to do. If I had the sense to do that I would have realized that even fixing my suspension would not have made any gains with only one downhill section remaining.
I recently listened to Mark Allen the great Triathlete say, “the only bad race is one you don’t learn anything from”. Originally I left The Fluffy Bunny with a sense of disappointment as I found myself fixating on the issues with my suspension, poor judgment and misguided time tactics at the end of the second lap. Now that I’m looking back at this race as a whole I have a great feeling of satisfaction. For me this event above all else was a trial run before the 100km Galena Ghost Ride. Bearing witness to a drastic improvement in my personal fitness, I also made some mistakes to learn from and take into New Denver. With the Fluffy Bunny done and dusted I’ve already made adjustments to my equipment as well as my strategy and mental approach. I feel making these errors and experiencing these challenges have better prepared me for what may come this Sunday in the 100km New Denver Galena Ghost ride.