Six days into the BC Bike Race, the dictionary definition of the word "singletrack" seems fitting. My mental range is limited by the exhaustion I feel after hundreds of kms racing my mountain bike, and by the rigid focus I must maintain in order to keep my body and two-wheeled machine in good working order day in and day out.
The "singletrack" I'm referring to here is not one of limited brain function, however. It's the term used by mountain bike riders to describe trails. In this case, it's a world famous route that spans some of B.C.'s wildest and most spectacular West Coast terrain and underpins the BC Bike Race, an annual seven-day 335-kilometre test billed as the "ultimate Single-track Experience." Over 500 racers have travelled from 26 countries to compete in this year's event.
Traversing some of the world's best mountain bike terrain, this singletrack winds up and down the B.C. coastline. After pre-staging in north Vancouver and travelling by ferry to Nanaimo, riders gather in Cumberland, near Comox on Vancouver Island, to begin the race. From there we race north to Campbell River before sailing to the Sunshine Coast where the race passes through Powell River, Langdale and points in between. On day six, we return to the Mainland for final legs in Squamish and Whistler. Along the way, we weave through towering stands of timber, scale mountains, whisk into lush valleys and catch our breath at scenic viewpoints and in picturesque towns.
This is more than a race – it is a week-long journey steeped in B.C.'s coastal scenery and the welcoming nature of communities on Vancouver Island, the Sunshine Coast and along the Sea to Sky Corridor. From savouring local cuisine, meeting and riding with hundreds of like-minded individuals, to watching the verdant coastline drift by from my perch aboard a BC Ferries vessel, this is a mountain bike adventure like no other.
DAY ONE – Cumberland, Vancouver Island
Riders nervously fidget in the start corral, eagerly anticipating the sound of the starting pistol that will send us barrelling down Dunsmuir Avenue alongside the old West-themed storefronts that line historic Cumberland's main street. Our route today will take us into the hills where decades of coal mining once fuelled this region's economic prosperity. Today, minerals are no longer being pulled from the ground like they were in the early 1900s; instead these mountains are destinations for hikers and, of course, mountain bikers like us.
Businesses like the Riding Fool Hostel, Dodge City Cycles bike shop and the local bike-guiding outfit Island Mountain Rides have made it their mission to share the trails surrounding Cumberland. Combine this with dedicated local trail builders creating miles of world-class singletrack trails, and you have a mountain bike destination that is hard to beat.
Our BC Bike Race route makes the most of the trailbuilder's efforts, and the day peaks with a rocky, excitement-filled descent from Forbidden Plateau, high above town. My bike dances underneath me as I charge down the mountain, soaking up every moment of this new natural resource Cumberland is tapping into: unforgettable mountain bike experiences.
DAY TWO – Campbell River, Vancouver Island
The frenetic starting pace of the leading riders quickly gives way to a pecking order among racers as we head into the trails surrounding Campbell River.
I latch onto a pair of riders from Calgary; it's their first time riding west of the Rocky Mountains. Muddy sections lurk in the woods from the previous week's rain, turning some sections of trail into nerve-wracking rollercoaster rides. We work through the difficult bits, and the singletrack rewards us on the other end with swoopy, smooth contours. As the vibrant greens of the forest blur in my peripherals, one of the Calgarians yells, "I love my bike!"
The day ends at the BC Bike Race basecamp on the soft grasses of Willow Point Park, in the heart of Campbell River. Thanks to a tent city established by the teams of industrious race staff, all we have to do is lie in the shade, re-hydrate and doze off for a while, soaking up some restful moments before dinner time. I wander over to a corner of the park and join a yoga class, run by instructor and fellow racer Ryan Leech. My muscles appreciate a good stretch, and judging by the groans of other racers prostrate on mats around me, so does everyone else.
DAY THREE – Powell River, the Sunshine Coast
Eagles soar overhead as we sail across the scenic Strait of Georgia to the isolated northern tip of the Sunshine Coast on the BC Ferries Queen of Burnaby. The fresh sea air fills my lungs as I fixate on countless picturesque coves.
Arriving in Powell River, I reflect on this town's tumultuous history of boom and bust cycles known to many forestry-based economies. More recently, Powell River has turned to other forms of industry, including eco-tourism. Gathering from the warm reception we receive, the BC Bike Race is a perfect fit.
Departing the ferry on foot, we walk up the main street towards the start line with crowds of locals cheering us on. School-age cheerleading squads perform acrobatics to the rhythms of teenage percussionists pounding on their drums.
Storeowners hand out watermelon to racers, while bagpipers pay tribute from a street corner.
Powell River's community spirit overflows onto the trails as well. Hundreds of people line a freshly built section of single-track called Death Rattle, cheering encouragement and ringing cowbells. There's even a fellow railing out rock anthems on his guitar and battery-powered amp. The energy is electric as I mount my bike and cascade my way through some of the most enjoyable trail I have ever ridden.
That evening we convene for dinner at the local sports complex. The hockey rink is devoid of ice and has been converted into a dining venue complete with candlelit tables fitted with fresh tablecloths and silverware. Decorative white lights adorn the sides of the rink. Girls on roller skates float around serving local craft beer and wine while we dig into a meal of barbecued pork roast, shrimp and asparagus pasta, local organic veggies and caramel-glazed cake for dessert.
Satiated by the herculean amounts of food we have just enjoyed, our attention turns to an evening of entertainment featuring local talent. The night is capped perfectly when a teenager shuffles awkwardly onto the stage to sing some pop hits. Belting out pitch-perfect notes, the youthful crooner surprises everyone. The audience's enthusiastic response transforms the mellow vibe into a scene from American Idol.
DAY FOUR – Earls Cove to Sechelt, the Sunshine Coast
For many of the international racers the BC Bike Race attracts, some of the most memorable moments of the week take place beyond the actual racing.
This morning, as the ferry sails through Jervis Inlet on our way from Saltery Bay to Earls Cove, racers crowd the decks, snapping photos of the wild landscapes and soaking up the warm summer sun.
We start today's stage right from the Earls Cove ferry terminal and straight into an unforgiving road climb. The summer sun, which felt so nice on the decks of the Island Sky vessel, now beats down mercilessly, causing rivulets of sweat to sting my eyes. Today is the "Big one" – a 61-kilometre off- road journey that will take us all the way to Sechelt. We're not cruising along the coastline either. We link up long sections of the Sun Coaster Trail, a multi-use dirt corridor that connects several rural Sunshine Coast communities. My legs cry out for a rest as I grind up exposed climbs under power lines and follow the trail as it turns into shady forest for a few moments of reprieve from the baking sun.
As I approach Sechelt, I pass a handwritten sign that promises "Cold Beer, 5 km." Knowing the finish line is near gives my legs another burst of energy. A couple kms of paved road follow, and then I am back into the woods for another stretch of trails, complete with several soul-crushing climbs. The last kilometre seems to go on forever, before I finally coast down Sechelt's steep residential streets to the finish area. What a relief.
My legs are cooked, and my brain feels a little poached from the sun. Reminding myself that tomorrow is another day, I go about my tasks of drinking litres of water to replenish lost electrolytes and washing my trusty Kona Hei Hei bicycle in preparation for the next stage.
DAY FIVE – Sechelt to Langdale, the Sunshine Coast
The morning dawns cool and refreshing, with coastal mist gathering in the mountains high above Sechelt. Today's stage, along with the weather, feels rejuvenating.
The race will bring its challenges, of course, and on the climb out of town I wonder when my legs are going to start performing. As my muscles come to life, I settle into the "daily grind." It's comforting to know a big effort now will pay off later. The race map promises 700-metre-plus descent to the finish line at the Langdale ferry terminal.
Head down, I slip into a smooth rhythm, legs churning as I steadily gain elevation. Through the mist, I hear the unexpected sounds of a trumpet belting out old marching tunes. I pass the mountaintop musician with a smile on my face and prepare to drop into the final slopes, the ferry terminal far below.
The singletrack takes us through Sprockids Bike Park, the first municipal bike park of its kind in north America. The founder, Doug Detwiller, started the program to help students succeed in school. The organization has since helped thousands of youth discover the joys of mountain biking and stewardship, with clinics and programs held all over the world.
The original bike park has seen many changes over its 20-year-plus history and constantly evolves to meet the needs of the Sunshine Coast community. I revel in the bike park's craftsmanship as I shoot out of sculpted corners and leap over manicured jumps all the way down to the ocean.
After finishing today's stage, riders board the Queen of Surrey. Hundreds of hungry racers lay siege to the ship's on-board restaurants and refuel after a long day on the bikes. The 40-minute trip to the
Mainland is also a chance to connect with other riders and share stories of the excitement-filled last few days.
DAY SIX – Squamish, the Sea to Sky Corridor
With hundreds of kilometres of purpose-built mountain bike trails in the Squamish area, the racecourse that is set out for us today is a selection of some of the best single-track this area has to offer.
These trails are the result of years of hard work by the Squamish Off-Road Cycling Association (SORCA) and its dedicated trail builders. Having successfully fostered relationships with the B.C. government, private landowners, logging companies and the Squamish community, SoRCA and its partners have turned mountain biking into a healthy economic generator for the area.
As we line up to start, I eagerly anticipate the awesome singletrack that lies ahead, even if my legs tell me otherwise. This week's physical effort is starting to catch up to me, but I know today is the day to dig deep into my reserves and lay it all on the line. By tomorrow, following a relatively short day, we will be in Whistler.
Raucous neon-clad cheering squads, bacon and dough- nut handouts two hours into the race, and perfectly built trails make Squamish a memorable stage, and gives me an energizing lift perfectly
timed for the race's final stage, tomorrow.
DAY SEVEN – Whistler, the Sea to Sky Corridor
Today's compact stage features a climb and descent through the world-famous Whistler Bike Park, then into the rocky, twisty singletrack of Lost Lake. The climb up the Bike Park is a steep, unrelenting affair, but I crest out on top with enthusiasm, and I launch into the Crank It up track's jumps. Rocketing down the trail, I pass people in the air and on the wide, banked corners arriving at the bottom spent from the effort but energized by the lingering effects of adrenalin.
The rest of the day I resort to autopilot, every pedal stroke getting me closer to the finish line. Deeply focused, the end sneaks up on me, and just like that, the BC Bike Race is over.
After collecting my coveted Finisher belt buckle, I rest in the shade, mentally processing the whole week. A sense of accomplishment washes over me along with a tinge of disappointment that this amazing experience is over.
Exhausted, I'm glad I don't have to race tomorrow. As my mind wanders, I find myself looking forward to revisiting the wild places we rode through on this unforgettable journey.