After a week of fantastic riding around the Rockies, it was time to race!
The setup for ST6 is a little different to most stage races. There is no “camp”, instead all riders organise their own accommodation. Given a large number are local riders, this obviously works very well for them, but can be tricky for overseas riders.
I have been lucky to join up with Catherine Williamson and we are being supported by Jammer and Rob from Mongolia Bike Challenge, meaning we have transport between stages. We have also got to know lots of local people and have been able to stay with Leighton Poidevin for the few nights in Canmore. Stage 1 was in Bragg Creek, about an hour drive from Canmore. We left around 6.30 to sign on, pick up our swag bag and then had time to relax and warm up before the 9am start.
West Bragg Creek
40km with 1400m climbing.
There were lots of very competitive riders here, so I wasn’t sure how I would do – but was hoping to get into the top 10. When the race started, we had a few kilometres on a wide gravel track, gradually climbing for a few kilometres. On the first steep pitch Cory Wallace pushed the pace and split the pack. Up until then I was feeling OK, but was struggling when the pace was increased. We finally hit a singletrack downhill and I found myself in a space on my own, unable to pull back time on those ahead. The descent lasted a long time and it was very rough, the track was covered with roots and some rocks as well and I was starting to regret my choice of a hardtail!
After the downhill, we hit the start of the Pneuma climb, which was the longest of the day and possibly the whole event. It was all singletrack and rather than gradually climbing, it was up and down with steep, punchy climbs that I was struggling with. I wasn’t feeling great, my body was complaining and I found it hard to sit down on the steep climbs, but standing up wasn’t possible because I’d loose traction. By the top I’d lost a few places and was not a happy bunny.
The downhill, named “Race of Spades” was the first of 4 timed descents during the week, which would give the enduro guys something to fight for. I was just behind local rider and first female, Kate Aardal. I figured I’d just hold her wheel on the way down as I guessed she would know the lines – but that didn’t happen, she disappeared almost straight away! The descent was fun, with lots of TTF’s (technical trail features) on the way down, almost none of them were rideable on a XC bike – either being skinnys, or massive wooden drop off’s or gap jumps, north shore style.
At the end of the timed section we hit a very steep climb, the top section being too loose to ride and then another long downhill section that wasn’t as steep as the first section and I was enjoying the smoother terrain. I pushed on a little harder up the last hill of the day, a 4km climb and much smoother and less punchy than those earlier in the day. It suited me far better and I managed to get by a few riders ahead and into the final downhill. We had pre-ridden it a week ago, but so slowly that it was practically a new downhill for me. It wasn’t simple and my hands and back were shot from the bumpy terrain and I was willing it to end. Never have I felt so beaten up on just a 40km ride!!
I eventually rolled across the line and was pretty disappointed with my ride to say the least. Despite a week on similar trails, racing the course destroyed my body and I didn’t feel strong or able to stay with the top riders from the go. I finished 19th in category, 35 minutes back on Kris Sneddon who won the stage by a few seconds over Cory Wallace. If my body holds up a little better on the next days and the course is a little more suited to me (ie. not as bumpy!), then I hope to be able to gain time and places, but I have no idea what the remaining stages are like.
42km with 800m climbing
The day started with a 90 minute drive from Canmore, which was our last night under a roof to the start at of stage 2 at the Nipika resort. It is an eco, human powered resort which essentially means they love human powered sport (XC skiing, biking, horses, etc) and its not mains connected.
Rumours were that the course was going to be bumpy. Even more bumpy than the previous day. Uh oh. The start of the race was almost immediately into singletrack, so as a result the race organisers sensibly made it a time trial start, with groups of 10 at 1 minute intervals starting with the fastest 10 on GC.
After a pretty awful day yesterday I was in group 3. When we set off, I pushed ahead and got into the singletrack first. It started off as a nice, fairly flowing trail, but soon turned to a narrower more hidden trail and harder to see and all in the trees. I couldn’t find much flow at all and had a few guys on my wheel, although the group had already split apart and there was just the 3 of us up front. The guys behind were desperate to pass, but it was all singletrack and I wasn’t about to stop to let them by. When we eventually hit a wider trail I pulled away, only for them to come right back to my wheel on the next singletrack section. It must have been pretty frustrating, but thats racing and you have to ride to your strengths and exploit others weaknesses. It is a situation I’ve had reversed back home countless times.
The course was a figure of 8, with the crossing point almost half distance and if I am totally honest, I really hated the first half. It had no flow, was lumpy on the ground as most of the trail looked like it was only recently cut or barely used. Parts were fun, but overall unless you knew the course it was hard to push hard as you never knew when it was about to switch back 180 degrees, or go up a near vertical bank. A few sections were along a very high (40-50m) vertical cliff face, which was a little intimidating. While there was no huge danger, a caught pedal or a wobble in the wrong place might have been the end. At times during the first half I was ready to pack up and go home. I just wasn’t enjoying the riding at all and I kept thinking about Iron Bike, which has just started and why I didn’t go there instead!
The temperature was starting to rise, so I stopped at the feed station after 24km to refill my bottle. As I stopped, leading female Kate Aardal came by so I followed and stuck on her wheel. It was great to have a wheel to follow, Kate is incredible on singletrack, even though so knows the area I am guessing she hasn’t ridden there too many times so there was a lot of skill on show, plus being used to riding that kind of singeltrack. From here on the race seemed to pick up. I was going faster with a wheel to follow and the track seemed to be less bumpy and more open and flowing.
I was more upbeat and the increased speed on the singletrack was a great motivator. I stuck with Kate for much of the second half and she was pulling back people as we got towards the end of the stage. On the final kilometre I caught sight of a guy that is just ahead of me on GC. He is a good singletrack rider and good technically, but not as quick climbing so I was able to get past and pushed on across the line. The second half made up for the first half somewhat and it was comforting to hear other riders talk about the stage and many had the same feelings. No flow, bumpy and hard work with the second half being much faster.
After a swim in a very cold river fed pool and probably eating a little too much for a 2.5hr effort we headed to our camp for the next few nights in the town of Radium Hot Springs. Given its almost 30 degrees (and forecast to get hotter!) the hot springs are not too appealing, but the stream flowing through our campsite does look nice. It does feel odd to be doing a stage race that feels so disconnected, there is no “camp” or base, so riders are scattered all over the place and I will probably leave Canada without really getting to know any of the other riders, which to me is probably the best bit about stage racing.
Given I am so far back on GC and the stages are not really to my liking, I am tempted to stick the baggy shorts on, put the VIRB camera on the front and just enjoy the riding. Maybe I will give it one more shot, tomorrows stage is supposed to be better, more flowing riding and hopefully the type of riding I came to Canada to enjoy.
Continue to Stage 3 & 4 reports