Humility. That was the taste in my mouth as my seat whacked me in the back of the head for the second time that morning. I lay sprawled out in Whistler’s world-famous dirt, and it was only the first day of practice for the Whistler round of the Enduro World Series. Clearly, I was in way over my head.
I’d come to race this round of the EWS for a couple reasons. First, last year’s edition had become infamous. Dubbed “Crankzilla,” it had included massive amounts of climbing and even more steep descending on raw British Columbia trails. It was a fairly epic achievement to even make all your stage start times and not be disqualified. Enduro racers who lean to the downhill side of the spectrum bemoaned all the climbing, while those who favored the cross-country side spoke fearfully of the descents. Anything feared by everyone, had to be interesting … right?
Second, racing any round of the EWS is a unique experience in the sporting world. It’s one of the only top-level, professional sporting events that an amateur can sign up for — without any qualifications — and race on the same course, on the same day as the pros competing for the big money. You can’t race in the Tour de France and rub elbows with Chris Froome, but I practiced with — and got passed repeatedly by — top pros like Fabien Barel, Tracy Moseley, Dan Atherton and Josh Carlson.
I knew before I even arrived in Whistler that I was going to be out of my element. I started mountain biking, and racing, at age 13, but quickly showed that my main quality as a rider was an ability to suffer — not any real technical skill.
My first real trail ride was punctuated by a dozen crashes. I was lured to the dark side, road racing, through my high school years — where bike handling was less prized than the ability to put the screws to the pack on a long climb. Since then, I’ve spent most of my quality time riding the dirt, and my technical skills have improved through sheer force of will and pure volume.
I can hang with most anyone on any trail. I regularly place top ten in local expert class cross-country races, mid pack in enduros, and top 20 in the annual trail rider’s testpiece — the Downieville Classic All Mountain category (aka, the “All Mountain World Championships”). I was confident I could hang at Whistler, but knew it would be difficult. My goal was to finish, hopefully respectably.
“Hey Bud” is the name of the trail used for Stage 1 and served as my Whistler wake-up call. Just outside the famed bike park, the trail plunges down steep sections of loam cross-hatched with slippery roots. Raw, beautiful, and terrifying for this guy who’s spent his riding career careening at speed over dust and rocks. Only 1.7km long, it felt like an eternity of maxed-out heart rate without even turning the pedals. I finished the trail with my confidence shaken.
Stage 2 crumbled it to bits.
The top half was the famous “Top of the World” trail and I felt at home on the open, rocky terrain. The second half left the park and entered a tight woods section called Khyber. While not as sustained as “Hey Bud” it was substantially longer and had sections that were essentially steep chutes with roots and rocks that were seemingly designed to pitch you over the bars — quickly becoming a regular occurrence for me.
I returned to my tent after practicing four out of the five stages a shell of a rider. Race organizers had eliminated much of the climbing in favor of riding the lift for some of the transitions, so there would be no Crankzilla 2.0. I was sore and beatdown from 12,000 feet of descending and crashing repeatedly on the steepest, sketchiest terrain I’d ever ridden.
More importantly, my confidence was shaken, a key component in riding competently and quickly downhill on technical terrain. I’d overlooked regional terrain differences and underestimated the pure difficulty of the riding in Whistler. I wondered whether I should even start the race. I’ll turn 40 next year, and my riding mantra has definitely evolved from, “Go fast, take chances” to “Be smooth, be safe — you have to go to work tomorrow.” I was further hampered by my bike choice, a 135mm travel 29er trail bike. Fine for most anything in California, but like bringing a nail file to a gun fight in Whistler.
Another half-day of practicing on the remaining stages didn’t improve my mindset much and a steady drizzle began to fall. I thought about buying new tires. I thought about renting a much bigger bike. I thought that the rain would be a perfect excuse to bail on the race. I sat down in the base Village area and stared up at the cloud-shrouded peaks. Where’s the line between challenging yourself and just being stupid? I realized I wouldn’t really know until later, and there’s no way I could sit here and watch the race go on without me.
I rolled off the start ramp the next morning just as the last drops fell after a night of steady rain. I zoned out during the only long climb of the day up to Stage 1, concentrating on only the next pedal stroke — blocking out negative thoughts.
There was a loose, jovial atmosphere as my fellow amateurs queued up for their start time. I breathed easier. As soon as the timing beeps started, I pushed off and into the trail. It wasn’t as muddy as I’d feared, the loam had held up well in the rain, but the roots were unreal slippery — like strips of black ice in the dark woods. I was passed multiple times by faster riders, shaking my confidence but also relieving my competitive instinct. It was just me against the trail. I drug a foot down a few sections and crashed embarrassingly on a small, greasy uphill before crossing the line, relieved to be in one piece.
I dropped my chain twice on the top of Stage 2, erasing any advantage the terrain held for me and presaging the onset of more serious mechanical problems. The second half on Khyber was straight out of my nightmares. The rain had turned the chutes into muddy slip and slides studded with roots and rocks. I crashed hard going into one and limped on foot down the rest of the chute before slamming hard onto my tailbone. I couldn’t even walk this shit. I began to worry I would be DQ’d for exceeding the maximum time limit for the stage.
Stage 3 went relatively smoothly, with an over the bars crash off a rock face feeling almost natural at this point. I took cruel comfort in watching another racer crash hard right at the finish line of the stage. I wasn’t the only one. Even local guys contesting for the win described wipeouts and ugly, survival riding.
I felt much better going into Stage 4, with most of the technical difficulties behind me, but started dropping my chain with greater regularity as my speed increased. I spent minutes mid-stage untangling a grotesque mess of chain and derailleur. Most of the final Stage 5 was spent in way too low of a gear to even pedal, a cruel joke on the most pedally stage of the day, in an effort to keep my chain on. Then my derailleur cable broke and I was stuck mashing my largest gear into the final bermed twists and turns of the bike park before pathetically airing into the finishing chute, with a solid crowd amassed to watch the more talented pros finish later.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I hugged my wife and daughter. I was in one piece and was even an official finisher, making all the time cutoffs. Somehow, I’d even managed to beat one rider, barely dodging DFL designation. The course had stripped me down to a pure rider — riding to survive. BC had ripped me out of my comfort zone and forced me to reevaluate myself as a mountain biker.
As I pointed the car south the next morning and back towards more familiar trails, two voices competed for attention in my mind. “You survived! Count yourself lucky and get back to the XC riding you know you’re good at.” But … just as loudly, “You know, with a bigger bike and focused practice on riding steeper, more technical terrain, you could actually do this without embarrassing yourself.” We’ll see which one wins out.