Argh! Cramps! Not now!
‘Now’ is just three hours into the week-long odyssey that is the BC Bike Race, one of the world’s premier mountain bike stage races.
I’d wanted to do it for years, committed to it two years ago, started training seriously 18 months ago and even arrived in beautiful British Columbia, Canada, well ahead of race start to acclimatise to the conditions.
Yet here I was, three-quarters of the way up the second serious climb on day one exhausted, cramping and having to rest, while rider after rider passed me and ground remorselessly on upwards.
At this rate, I reflected, it was going to be an even longer week than I had anticipated.
Just to put you in the picture, I’m no outright contender for race honours.
I am just a 55-year old lover of mountain biking who has had the BCBR on his bucket list for years.
Why the BCBR? It has a reputation among the multi-day mountain bike races that dot the globe (everywhere from Mongolia, to the Swiss Alps to tropical north Queensland) of being the one with the best singletrack riding; kilometres of narrow trails snaking up, down and around the spectacular forested mountain ranges of Canada’s west coast.
The 2018 race was the 12th edition and the 625 entries sold out in just 36 hours, 12 months ahead of the start.
Riders from 40 countries turned up to tackle a 300-kilometre course across seven stages, with more than 10,000 metres of climbing to conquer.
Which brings me back to day one on the side of Maple Mountain in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island and those bloody cramps.
There was nothing for it but to ride when I could, walk when I had to and stop and gather my resources when I could do neither.
It took me a long time to make the final part of that climb, only seconds more to devour about 10 pieces of watermelon at the aid station at the top of the hill.
Around me, I noticed, were plenty of people looking pained and shocked. Clearly, this brutal experience had caught out a few others as well.
But what goes up must come down and that, in this case a steep, loose, rocky, technical trail called Maple Syrup that slid, rocked and rolled for kilometres though stunning rain forest.
This was the sort of stuff hundreds of us had come to British Columbia to ride.
The best bits of mountain biking are when you’re totally engrossed, when you are at one with your bike just like you were when you were a kid. And that’s what Maple Syrup did for me. Instead of ending the day cursing, I was smiling – maybe through slightly gritted teeth, but smiling nonetheless.
And that I learned, as the week went on, was the way of things.
Out there most days for four to five hours, enduring the climbs, enjoying the descents and loving the scenery and camaraderie that battling through the bush on bikes delivers.
I got into a simple groove; I was either preparing to ride, riding or recovering. My life became a process, focussed on completing each day’s course.
The BCBR organisers do everything to help you achieve that goal.
The tents we slept in were set-up when we arrived at the finish line each day, our personal belongings were stowed away securely for us to collect, huge amounts of good food was provided morning and night.
There was bike maintenance, medical, assistance, massage, yoga, a relaxation zone (with wifi) and even a beer tent.
Thankfully, my cramps never returned all week.
I still struggled on the climbs, walking when I had to, resting when I had to. But my body embraced the challenge and for each of the first four days I felt better and stronger each day, moving forward in the field 40 positions (albeit from 459th to 419th).
I learned to calm my fears and nerves: stop worrying about what’s ahead and focus simply on what I was dealing with. It helped on the long gravel grinds to take stock; to peel back the angst and analyse where my head, lungs and legs were at. It always helped.
From day five I started tiring, like a clock winding down.
By the last day at Squamish my stomach was in turmoil, my left-hand was blistered, my bum was raw and cold sores were blossoming on my lips – a sure sign of fatigue and a fading immune system.
I was tired and I paid the price just an hour from the finish.
Pushing hard to make up time from yet another slow climb, I crashed on a technical descent, my left leg smacking hard into a rock. There’s a divot there now, my lifelong souvenir from the BCBR.
Of course, I take much more than that away from 29 hours and 31 minutes of racing (the winner was 14 hours quicker, the slowest rider 16 hours slower); The satisfaction of finishing such a huge personal challenge, the joy of riding such beautifully-built trails, the people from around the world I met, all of us united by a common love of mountain biking.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!