Dutch Creek to Etherington
Day Three of the 2004 TransRockies was likely the hardest thing that I have ever done in my life. And though I am no crazed Eco Challenge competitor, I have done lots of racing – be it mountain and road bike, marathons, trail running and even an UltraMarathon. I have been caught in a snowstorm at 7,000ft riding but nothing can compare to the soul-testing survival struggle that was Stage Three.
On paper, stage three looked simple enough: 95 km with three major climbs including the legendary Monster Hill push up a seismic line which went straight up the side of a mountain to over 2,200 metres. What was not obvious was the way in which the mud would make sections of gravel road completely impassable, and the way that the clay-based soil would destroy brakes and drivetrain. It was a rare team that crossed the line with both bikes in working order.
After the downpour the night before, most teams went out expecting a tough, wet day and the first climb of 500 vertical metres or so was wet but mostly rideable. The mud was already sticking to bikes and every creek crossing became an impromptu bike wash station as riders dunked their bikes in the hopes of getting shifting back in order.
The descent was a wet thrill ride and I noticed at some point that my back brake was no longer functioning as the pads had worn out in just over two days riding. With two more descents to come in the stage, each labelled “steep” by the guidebook, I was a little worried but our slow average speed was my biggest worry as it looked as though we would be lucky to finish in under eight hours.
A 20km long gravel road connector was to take teams along to Monster Hill and for the first 15km of climbing, everything was working well, then mud struck. As the day dried out and the mud on the roads started to set, it stuck to every part of the bikes to the point at which the wheels would no longer turn and it was impossible to even ride downhill. Now riders were faced with mud-clogged machines that were too heavy to carry and would not roll. People were using sticks and other utensils to scrape enough mud off so that they could shoulder their bikes.
In the end this 5-6km quagmire took most riders roughly an hour to slog through, as compared to the 15 minutes had it been dry… and they hadn’t even reached Monster Hill or the halfway point of the day. At this point, it was becoming more and more obvious that the day would be well over eight hours long.
Once over Monster Hill and a half-hour or so of high altitude traverse, the longest, steepest descent of the race so far followed—in just a few km, the trail dropped roughly 450 metres with sharp waterbars and loose gravel. As I rode, the smell coming off my front brake got worse and worse until near the bottom, my lever pulled all the way to the bar with no pressure — I had boiled the fluid.
After hitting the second feedzone there was one more big climb to conquer but at least the sun was coming out and everyone’s clothes were drying out. Unfortunately, drivetrains had been reduced to piles of noisy, non-functional metal. Lucky riders had one or two gears that would work and maybe enough front shifting to get their granny ring that they would need on the last 15km climb. Teams were borrowing each other’s chain oil once they had run out of their own, trying to breathe some life into their bikes.
Things were so bad on course that one of the Ride Guide cameramen got his dirt bike irretrievably stuck in the mud and he had to call in a helicopter to carry his bike in a sling back to camp so that it could be washed.
Now that I am a day away, the wounds have healed a little, but that was without a doubt the hardest day I have ever spent. At every moment, the temptation to quit loomed and the only thing that made it possible to continue was the fact that the suffering was shared. And I guess that’s one good reason that the TransRockies Challenge is a team event.
The aftermath was a sight to behold. The mechanics had over 200 bikes that had just accumulated a year’s wear in one day. The average calorific burn for racers during the day was 8,000 and the catering staff had to be ready to feed them. Small miracles do happen. No-one was hungry. All the bikes were repaired and riders were ready for another five-hour plus day in the saddle.