A bike on the trail is worth two in the hand (Pic: Dan Hudson)
Slippery singletrack (Pic: Dan Hudson)
Stage 4: Etherington Creek to Sandy McNabb
Summer in the Rockies often means blues skies, a scenic dusting of snow on the peaks, and wildflowers in the meadows… But it can also mean driving rain, near freezing temperatures and miles of gooey mud. During Stage 4 of the 2005 TransRockies Challenge, the racers were subjected to all of the latter and none of the former.
After a couple of long, trying days, Stage 4 would have been a sudden change of tempo regardless of the conditions. The 61.5km included over 50km of singletrack with two major mountain passes and the first major river crossing came just 500 metres before the finish line.
The rain began to fall Tuesday night at Etherington Creek Campground as the racers tucked into an enormous Alberta-style spread of barbequed chicken, potatoes and salad. The intensity only increased as the night wore on and after midnight, the skies let loose a deluge of biblical proportions on the dozens of tents and campers housing the racers, supporters and staff.
The 8am rollout seemed relatively sedate, but the attacks started early, leaving the group in shards as it passed through the feedzone at the base of Grass Pass, the first major climb of the day. First to the bottom were GC leaders and second-place Rocky Mountain Business Objects and the Race Face Mountain Men. Joining them in the front group was the Costa Rican team of La Ruta des los Conquistadores/Scotiabank, who obviously found the slippery conditions to their liking.
The rest of the field was already over two minutes behind, but those gaps would quickly grow to monumental proportions as the teams climbed the two passes and faced the variety of technical descents which followed them. The mud jammed gears and the temperature plummeted to 6°C (42°F) at the top of Sullivan Pass, while the 10km of singletrack through cow pastures turned into an evil slog.
This is mountain biking, though, and many riders start to smile at the thought of this mess–especially those from places like British Columbia and the British Isles, and even riders from the very wet and woodsy North Carolina. Just as wet weather can drastically change the outcome of motor sports events, Stage 4 of the 2005 TransRockies saw some sudden and dramatic order shifts.
At the front of the pack, Rocky Mountain Business Objects took their third stage win in four, coming in 30 seconds ahead of their determined rivals, the Race Face Mountain Men, finishing in a winning time of 4:26:56. Their time was roughly 45 minutes slower than the winning time from 2004, when Stage 4 was raced in perfect conditions. Paolo Cesar Montoya and Marco Pohlond of Team La Ruta des Los Conquistadores put in an excellent ride to place third on the day, proving that wet weather skills translate from the tropics to the North.
Easily the most impressive performance of the day was put in by Open Mixed Category winners Robin Seymour and Tarja Owens of Ireland. Rodge and Podge came in 5th overall on the day in a stunning time of 4:48:24, 37 minutes ahead of the previous GC leaders, Marg Fedyna and Blair Saunders of Team Adidas/Roll Up the Rim. Talking after the Stage, a clearly shattered Seymour and Owens said “it was so unbelievably hard and muddy out there… We’re sort of used to stuff like that riding at home, but honestly, that was mad.”
Though Karen Masson of Team Cane Creek is originally from Australia, she’s spent enough time riding in the wet trails of the Eastern US, that she and partner Trish Stevenson are happiest when the skies open and the trails get slippery. They established a small gap before the bottom of Sheep Pass, and drove through to the finish opening up an 8½ minute gap over GC leaders Nikki Kassell and Hillary Harrison of Team Momentum Training by the finish. Despite the win, Kassell and Harrison managed to protect their lead and still held an 8 minute gap going into Stage 5.
In a race like the TransRockies Challenge, though, there is so much more going on than the shuffling and reshuffling of the Top 3 places. On a day like today, every team was pushed to the limit to keep bike, body and mind in working order on their way to the finish. For some, like Mark Banham and Pete Sutton of Team 59 Commando, the day in the rain was just like one of the training exercises that they are put through as part of Britain’s elite fighting corps. On the other hand, reknowned UK cycling journalist Steve Worland, riding with mountain bike legend Keith Bontrager, had a tough day riding through the muck while fighting off a chest infection. Seven hours in the cold and rain should have him back on track!
And as we’re in mixed company, we won’t even get into a discussion of the 16 or so riders who doffed their clothes for an impromptu “Naked Mile” ride midway through the stage.
Then there are the mechanics. With the over 320 riders needing at minimum new cables and likely much much more, the wrenches from three local bike shops will once again be up into the wee hours making sure that a lot of tired bodies have functional equipment when they roll off the start tomorrow. What’s on tap when they do? Only the Queen Stage of the TransRockies Challenge from Sandy McNabb to Bragg Creek; 108km with over 2,300 metres of climbing including 50km of singletrack and an ascent to over 2,100 metres on Powderface Ridge where it’s possible that there’ll still be snow left over from today’s deluge…
The prototype shoe-fired power station proved to be a success (Pic: Dan Hudson)
The mechanics were working into the small hours to get bikes ready for the next stage (Pic: Dan Hudson)
It’s pretty out there, though (Pic: Dan Hudson)
Stage 5: Sandy McNabb to Bragg Cree
Regardless of snow, rain, sun or fire, Stage 5 from Sandy McNabb Campground to Bragg Creek has been the toughest stage in the TransRockies Challenge each year that it’s been held. That’s why it is considered the Queen Stage of the event. Though the exact route changes year to year, the stage is always over 105km long and includes over 2,000 metres of elevation gain. The profile includes over 50km of singletrack and six major climbs.
On Thursday morning, over 300 riders, thinned somewhat overnight by cold-related ailments like bronchial infections and balky knees, rolled out of Sandy McNabb campground. The riders were treated to crisp, clear blue skies with a forecast of perfect cycling weather ahead. The blue skies belied the truth of how tough the day would get – the previous day’s deluge of rain left much of the singletrack in slick, muddy condition and the finish times reflected this, with the fastest times three-quarters of an hour slower than 2004.
Despite the tough conditions and grinding fatigue, most riders new to the TransRockies were amazed by the singletrack and riding in Stage 5 which features two definitive Rocky Mountain moments. The descent from the 2,100 metre top of Powderface Ridge is a classic, with a drop of several hundred metres though different types of terrain and vegetation. Racers then ford the glacially cold and clear Elbow River in the most spectacular mountain valley imaginable.
There was drama and tension throughout the field, as three incredibly hard days of riding were to be followed with yet one more test of soul and endurance. The variability of team dynamics were never more apparent as the fatigue of the previous days left emotions naked-several teams rolled across the finish line without acknowledging or speaking to each other, while others arrived separately, at least one partner having decided that disqualification was preferable to another two days of riding as a pair.
What breaks can also bond, and it was more common to see teams ride across the line with a handshake, hug or high five. After four consecutive days of epic efforts, they have been through dark moments together and come to the other side.
Again, it was Team Rocky Mountain Business Objects who celebrated the best, as Andreas Hestler and Marty Lazarski decided that this was statement day. With a mass of national and regional media in from Calgary at the finish line, conservative tactics were off the menu. Rocky Mountain put the hammer down to make sure that they rolled through first, finishing in 5:28:19, four minutes ahead of the Race Face Mountain Men, and padding their lead to 20 minutes with two stages left.
With the overnight withdrawal of the Costa Rican pair of Marco Pohlond and Paolo Cesar Montoya due to Montoya’s knee tendonitis, and the mechanical woes of the Belgian Reevax.be team, the battle for the third podium spot was wide open. Switzerland’s Daniel and Urs Senn entered the day with a narrow six minute gap on The Bike Shop’s Jon Nutbrown and Kelly Servinski. Early in the stage, The Bike Shop pair opened up a gap on the Team Sennebuebe, but they began to fade and the Swiss came into the finish with a 90 second gap to hold onto their GC podium spot for one more day. The men’s GC movers on the day were the father and son team of Eric and James Crowe, who picked up 10 minutes to move up two placed on GC to fifth.
In the women’s race Team Momentum Training came out of Day 4 with the GC lead, but with a question mark over the health of Team Captain Hillary Harrison. She woke up on Thursday feeling ill, the effect of having spent over six hours cold and wet during Stage 4. Second-placed Trish Stevenson and Karen Masson of Cane Creek took advantage of the opening and opened up a huge 41 minute gap by the finish, to grab the overall lead by a seemingly unassailable 33 minutes with two days to go.
After a stunning 4th place overall on Stage 4, Irish Olympian Robin Seymour and partner Tarja Owens grabbed the leaders’ jerseys back from the Alberta duo of Marg Fedyna and Blair Saunders. Stage 5 was another powerful performance as they came through the line looking utterly shattered but in 5th overall and 13 minutes ahead of Fedyna and Saunders on the day. In contrast to the full-suspension hydraulic disc brakes standard issue equipment, the Irish pair ride on bikes which look more suited to a World Cup race-21 pound carbon hardtails with sidepull brakes-and having forgotten to bring pads for under their sleeping bags, they also confessed that they have been sleeping on the ground. Do they sound tough enough yet?
At the end of Day 5, the end is in sight. Though there are 125km of riding with 2,500 metres of climbing left, the remaining riders and teams have survived the toughest tests that the TransRockies Challenge has to offer. The 80km of Day 6 will include 2,000 metres of climbing, but the reward is an epic ride across a treeless mountain ridgeline surrounded by a panoramic view of the majestic front range of the Rockies, and followed by the warp speed descent down Cox Hill whose profile roughly resembles an elevator shaft in the route book, and feels that way on the bike.
The route ends up at Rafter Six, an authentic Alberta dude ranch, where dreams of the finish line in Canmore will dance though the heads of weary mountain bikers like those of Santa Claus do to children on Christmas Eve.
Pete Sutton and Mark Banham of Bikemagic’s adopted Team 59 Commando are keeping it steady and consistent – 44th in Stage 4, 37th in Stage 5 and 41st in their category in the general classification. Clearly they haven’t had any major disasters and have settled into a rhythm, and with just two more stages things are looking good…
More details and full results at www.transrockies.com.