Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I passed The Test!

Now that my fingers have at last become ungnarled I'll share with you my latest adventures on the left coast. Back in April when I came out for some Easter riding, it seemed everyone I met wanted to know one thing: "Are you coming back for The Test?" "What the hell is that?" I wanted to know. So after a few first-hand accounts, a bit of googling, and some humming and hawing, I decided to give it a whirl.

The Test of Metal is the "Canadian Epic" mountain bike race. It's been held every year in Squamish BC since the mid nineties ... which is just about as old as it gets when it comes to mountain bike racing. You can read more about the history of the race here. By the numbers, the Test of Metal is a 67km point to point race. There are 35km of some of the sweetest single track in the country, layered with 1,200m of climbing.

My own Test experience began on Wednesday with a flight out to Vancouver. Kona Matt was my hero that night: he and his lovely girlfriend Larissa picked me up in the Kona van from the airport. We quickly did a beer bong and then went on our merry way. Okay, not really. Larissa and Matt ferried me to Squampton and then Matt helped me get the bike ready to rip before they headed back to Coquitlam. It wasn't until it was time to say goodbye that I found out it was actually their third anniversary that night, so boy did I feel blessed to have been taken care of so nicely on such a special occasion. There are some truly decent people in this world, I tell ya. THANKS!!

Thursday I wanted to get out and see the big scary race course. Or at least the important parts. I sure didn't plan to ride the whole thing. The only problem was that I didn't know any riders in town. So I went and loitered around Republic Bike Shop until I met Karl, who was kind enough to squeeze in a ride before his massage. Plus I got to meet his adorable puppy Mia, a four-month-old huksy and future trail dog.


When it came to the coruse, for the most part, I was kind of underwhelmed. I'll be honest, I was starting to wonder what all the fuss was about. It seemed like whenever we rode something I felt would be tough at speed, I'd discover that it was just a route Karl was taking us on to connect to a part of the course that was actually in the race. So ... a lot of double track was covered before we arrived at the famous Powerhouse Plunge. At which point I was decidely overwhelmed. I bounced my way down in a combination of sketchy riding and hike-a-bike. Twice I thought I was going over the bars in some of the more perilous angles I've ever encountered on two wheels. Immediately after the ride, I began focusing my energy on mentally smoothing out the trail so that it would go a little better on race day.

Just before plunging.

Friday I woke up with a migraine. The weather forecasted a week of rain before I left, but I had yet to see any of the wet stuff. Back home, I'd asked Nancy to do her sun dance and it turns out she's really good at it. When they weren't busy looking for cougars, the whole town was looking up, wondering where the rain was. I was thankful for the weather but could have done without the migraine. Perhaps it also had something to do with the entire wheel of award-winning brie I consumed ... but who could say for sure?

Mmmmm ... Brie. I'm intolerant of lactose intolerance.

It was really trying to rain, and I wasn't the only one with a resulting headache. Finally, Friday night the clouds emptied and my head cleared like someone had flipped a switch. So Friday ended up being a rest day like it was supposed to be. If I hadn't had a massive headache, I'd have been out sabotaging my race by riding to my heart's content, so perhaps it was for the best.

With the perfect amount of rain Friday night, the course was in prime condition on Saturday. The dusty corners had been tacked up a bit. The clouds still hung around a little keeping the sun off the exposed climbs. And the pressure was down so my head finally felt less like a cinder block.

It was a strange feeling being at a race where I didn't recognize anyone. Not even familiar jerseys! Occassionally a stranger would come up to me and say hello. I met some nice people from Toronto, and reunited with my Easter Bunny from April. The starting area at the Brennan Community Centre was a bit of a zoo. Almost 1,000 racers, plus their supporters were milling around chatting, peeing, and hydrating before the opening ceremomies. When your bike is ready, to claim your spot in the starting chute you turn it upside down and leave it between the tape so you're still free to keep chatting, peeing and hydrating without worrying about getting a good position.

Bikes all in a row

Since I was racing in the Elite category, we got our own starting chute right at the front of the race. That meant I had a primo vantage point for the ceremonial drum and dance the Squamish First Nation performed.
Squamish First Nations welcome us

I sang along with Oh Canada and then rolled out with some of the best riders in the country, including race winners Catharine Pendrel, and Max Plaxton. It was quite a feeling leading out a mass start of 1,000 riders. The buzz of 2,000 tires on the pavement was the coolest sound in the world. The course took us through town and up into the highlands before dropping into the first off-road sections. It was a full on road-race til then. All of a sudden I was calling on pack skills I'd put on the back burner for a couple seasons. In a regular mountain bike race, it's all about the hole-shot, which is usually just a couple hundred metres up the course -- so the start is usually very fast as everyone clambers to get in first. But in this race, we were on the roads for over ten minutes so it started like a road race -- slow, with everyone eyeing each other and doing their best to hold lines through high speed corners and yes, even drafting! It was like worlds colliding, and luckily I avoided any real-life collisions.

I expected the race to take me about 3.5 hours but I had no idea how to pace it since I hadn't even seen a quarter of the course. Throughout the race I oscillated between feeling really good and really bad and it was hard to get a consistent effort. I knew there was 1,200 m of climbing, but what does that really mean? Are they steep? Technical? Long? Turns out BC climbs aren't like Ontario climbs. They aren't even like Quebec climbs. At least you can see the tops at those venues. The climbing I endured was endless, and it didn't feel like we were getting good returns on our vertical investments because any time the course pointed down, it was almost more of an effort: the descents were strewn with drops, rocks, loose corners and roots that rival most logs in Ontario. Not to mention other racers. Every time I got to the bottom of a hill it felt like I'd been beaten with a stick, and run over by the field. And then of course it was time to grind up another pitch.

Course map: available at all local grocery stores

Climbing was a big part of this course, and the crowning effort was what almost did me in: the 9 mile climb. The 9 mile starts the second half of the course. I hadn't seen it in preride, so I didn't know what to expect at all. We passed through a particularly raucus feed zone (honestly, spectating the Test of Metal might be the better idea!!) and I figured it must be about half way. We were slowly mounting a gravel logging road. If I was at the bottom of a 9-mile climb, that's something I'd want to know about, so I asked the man riding next to me, "hey, do you know where the 9 mile is?" and he said "oh yeah, it kind of sneaks up on you. It's coming up soon." Taking that to mean that this was in fact NOT the 9 mile, I gave it some gas expecting to see the top around the next corner. Or maybe the next one. Or maybe the one after that ... ? The climb just kept going, and going, and going. And it was getting steeper, and I'd run out of gears a long time ago.

Finally, I asked another rider, "hey ... is this the 9 mile?" "Yeah!" he says between gasps. So it's possible the guy I asked first was the only jerk in mountain biking, or else he just genuinely didn't realize and we both got a surprise. I changed my strategy and settled in. Awhile later, the ground levelled at last and there was a feed zone with watermelon, gatorade and cheering spectators. I was so happy to have made it I said out loud, "thank god that's over." My neighbour cheerily informed me, "oh no, that's just the first plateau. There are three! Next section is a little steeper." He might as well have pushed me off my bike and stepped on my head. I was heart broken. I slurped down my ride-by watermelon and steeled myself for more. And up and up we went! Another few minutes and we passed a sign that said 6 and a quarter. Only a few more miles up. The 9 mile made me really stare down my doubts. I dug deep and stayed up. A dude in front of me keeled over, dusted himself off, got back on and kept going. I thought, if he can do it, for sure I can do it. And what awaited us for a reward when we got to the top? Another climb! Hurray!

And so it went. And went and went.

Next time, I'll know a lot more about what to expect. Pacing will be easier. I'll know where the bottlenecks happen. And I'll know it can be done -- a fact I wasn't so sure of come hour three on Saturday.

I passed The Test!

When I finished, I indulged my newly spurred cravings for watermelon until I'd eaten I think almost an entire one to myself. (The amazing volunteers just kept cutting up fruit plates for the racers coming in and they didn't mind if you had seconds ... thirds ... eighths ...) I toured the finish area and then took my tired and battered body home to Brackendale.

I think all that racing and being jostled on the race course knocked a screw loose in my head because I somehow decided it would be a good idea to go out for a ride with friends that afternoon, a mere 2.5 hours after I crossed the finish line. I showered off the Test of Metal so I'd be clean-ish to start my next ordeal. I even donned a double chamois; the Test of Metal awarded me my very first saddle sore!

A familiar lookout!

Priscilla, Crispin, Axl and I put in another three hours revisiting Recyle and checking out Pseudotsuga too. It was amazing. The trails out there are just phenomenal, no matter what kind of riding you do. And even though they were fairly new to the sport, Crispin and Priscilla were straight up killing it. It was impressive stuff. And they didn't even get mad at me when I got us lost on an uphill detour!

Crispin, Priscilla and Axl

So with that, I'd had my fill. That was easily the heaviest day of mountain bike riding I have ever done. I limped back to Brackendale, feebly tried to pack up and eat and then it was off to Toronto. I got onto an earlier flight which was a blessing, and passed out almost immediately. G met me at the airport and took me home to sleep in my own bed. When I close my eyes three days later, it still feels like I'm riding the sweet Squamish single track.

To close, I just want to send another huge thanks to Matt and Larissa for getting me to Squampton. I also want to thank Matt B for all his hospitality and great conversation. Thanks to Priscilla and Crispin for being such stoked riding buddies. Thanks to Nancy for the Sun Dance, and thanks in advance for my eagerly-anticipated post-race massage. I also want to thank G for being such a big help getting me to and from the airport and of course for fielding freak-outs over race jitters and pedal-removal troubles. Thanks to all the volunteers and organizers for putting on such an epic event. Thanks to Tantalus and Republic Bike shops in Squamish for your help with tune ups and last minute equipment needs! Thanks to WestJet and my aunt Mindy for safe flights! And of course, as always, thanks to Sweet Pete's for all your help on this race and every race.

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