By Barry Wicks. Photos by John Gibson/Gibson Pictures.
When I first started racing bikes, my mom used to drive me to races in her blue Dodge minivan. My bike, my most prized possession, would be carefully tucked into the back seat, protected from scratches and the elements. We would listen to the alt-rock station or NPR when the signal was strong enough, the sounds of “Car Talk” or the Smashing Pumpkins becoming the soundtrack to life. Not much has changed, really.
Today, my friend and Kona Endurance teammate Kris Sneddon reaches a hand through the spokes and tugs at the wheel strap, trying to figure out how to secure our bikes to his new bike rack. His Jeep idles in the parking lot of a Days Inn, AC cranked, waiting to take us into the mountains as we sweat in the mid-August heat, struggling to make sure our bikes don’t fall off, AC/DC trickling weakly from an inadequate sound system.
The Jeep makes a decent road-trip vehicle, its boxy space swallowing up more gear than its small size would suggest. The solid axles leave something to be desired in the handling department, but they make up for it when the road turns up steeply into the brush. Our bikes bounce and sway as we jostle down the trail, but they stay attached.
We finally reach our destination: the start line of the Singletrack 6 stage race in British Columbia, Canada, with its tagline of “Ride the West.” It’s a funny claim, since we just drove more than 600 miles east from the Sunshine Coast to get here. We decide to keep an open mind and see what singletrack secrets hide for us in the vast wilderness of eastern B.C.’s Kootenay mountain range.
I still get butterflies in my stomach, even after hundreds of start lines in my race career. It’s exciting that the feelings are the same as they were when I did my first race ever, as a lanky 13-year-old on a 24-inch Sekai Rammer, hustling the dual-slalom gates at Oregon’s Mt. Hood Ski Bowl. I won that first race, not only because I was the only one in my category, but also because that first race got me hooked on the feelings. The sensation of getting away with something, being allowed to break the rules of everyday life, is still there every time I line up, looking to break free from the bounds of normalcy and escape into the turbo world of racing.
Into the mind
The first stage traverses Moon Mountain and the Bragg Creek drainage west of Calgary and this well-developed trail system is the easiest one to access. Kris and I make the most of the sunny weather, shaking out the legs from the long drive and getting our bearings for the long week of trail riding we face. This stage features the first of many timed descents throughout the week. Trailing Kris by a minute and a half at the top of the descent, I drop in with abandon and quickly became very intimate with a trailside tree. First lesson of the trip: six days is a long time, better to be careful and not wreck yourself on day one.
Nursing a sore shoulder I cross the finish line and headed straight for a pile of watermelon laid out in the hospitality tent. Rivulets of sweat drip out of my salty helmet into my eyes so I head for the river. I brace myself for the broken chill of the pearlescent blue green water clouded by the glacial till of thousands of years of mountain history. I take a breath, close my eyes and plunge in. As I hit the water my muscles immediately seize, my breath catches and for a moment I am suspended in a fizzing cloud of sharp blue-green nothingness. I leave only a ripple in the insistent flow of time as water continues its rush to the ocean. My head breaks the surface and I scramble back to the bank, cooled, refreshed and shocked by the cold water.
I have done this before, this lowering of my body into the swirling, powerful waters of a location. It always helps connects me to the ground and focus my spinning mind. It roots me to these mountains. I let the icy water come up over my face and keep my eyes open, welcoming the sting into my periphery and watch the colors pop in my field of vision as the water washes over me.
We spend so much time as bike racers in a distracted world inside our own minds. The effort and focus necessary to be successful is a very effective method of blocking out the real world. I think that is the truth of why people ride their bikes in the first place. It forms the escape, the distraction from reality where everything except the task at hand fades away. For the average person, this is pure bliss; the echoes can last throughout the day and week following the ride. It is this feeling that gets them through the next boring staff meeting or spreadsheet task.
For me it is different, but also the same. My entire existence, my purpose as a professional athlete, is to occupy that special zone, to go into that region of finite focus, to suspend reality and go really, really fast on my bike. I do this daily, train for it, practice it, make this special place my default mode.
Like any good thing, excess can be detrimental. Just like the brain of a coffee drinker without the caffeine stimulation, fog and chaos set in. It has become an intrinsic need for me, both an addiction and catharsis escaping into this hyper focused world of the race mind.
Kris somehow lingers in the icy chill of the river, calmly paddling in circles, enjoying the water as it swirls around him, his Canadian roots and chest hair somehow protecting him from hypothermia. I watch other riders come to the river’s edge and enjoy as they go through the toe dip to head shake to commitment dance, finally plunging in and washing away their pain and fatigue in the frigid water, leaving only happiness and contentment in its place.
Searching for reason
On the morning of stage three a retired dentist in a highly customized van parks next to us. I make small talk as he inspects his bike, pumping up tires, checking bolts, filling his hydration pack with water and tools and food. I ask about his personalized license plate, which reads “SRCHR”. He replies something about a mid-life crisis, finding himself locked behind real and invisible walls, apart from who he wanted to be and the path he took to escape it. I sometimes wonder what type of person signs up for this race—people seeking out the challenge of a lifetime perhaps or maybe just another notch in the belt for the serious adventure seeker.
I realize the story I tell myself about why I am here is just my own version of this eternal game we play. What we are all seeking turns out to be the same thing, approached from different angles. I like the dentist’s outlook on life, his perspective. He seems to me the wise man on the mountain, someone who has answers, who has been down the path before and knows the way.
I have completed something like 50 days of stage racing in the past seven years. It’s an interesting perspective to have as I’ve seen race formats change and a huge rise in popularity in these events. The first ever stage race I competed in was the BC Bike Race in 2009. Back then, it was a two man team event, much like all the multi-day events were. Having raced the World Cup and US National circuit the previous five years, it was a refreshing and interesting challenge riding with a teammate. Luckily I had Kris.
Kris is some sort of singletrack savant. Hailing from the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, Kris is one of the few remaining “pure” mountain bikers. In an age when road bike training with power meters rules the roost, Kris rides trail everyday. He isn’t one of those new school, dropper seat post, 2.4” tires and at least 140 mm of suspension kind of trail riders either. He is the 29er hardtail, seat post all the way up, skinny flat bar with bar ends but still drop-you-like-a-bad-habit-all-the-time kind of trail rider.
Expanding the horizons
On day four a pair of horseback riders approach on the trail, startled and interested in our spandex, race plates and pace. No time to chat, we holler “hellohaveagooddaybythewaythereare500peoplebehindusfyisorry” as we blaze past, on the hunt, heads down, headed towards the finish. We hope they heed our warning and find their way out of the swarm of racers headed their way. We all go to the forest seeking solitude or the intangible escape offered by the mountains, but we also discover what we desire is a closer connection to others. The shared moments on the trail draw us together; we remember that being together feels good. We race one another but we then come together at the finish. It’s that shared experienced that is a value worth remembering. We are creating our own legends each day to tell over dinner and retell through life.
What began that fateful day many years ago in BC became a continous love affair with multi-day stage racing. Over the next handful of seasons Kris and I traveled and competed as a team all over the world. We went to Alberta for TransRockies, Europe to race the Alpen Tour Trophy and Trans-Germany, we hit the rocks in Pennsylvania at the Transylvania Epic, and went to the ends of the earth and our sanity in Mongolia. At each stop we discovered new things about ourselves and about the world.
At TransRockies we discovered how to survive in epic snow storms on top of mountains and how to negotiate with grizzly bears safely (stick close to the Preserve officer with the shot gun). In Mongolia we learned to sleep on the ground, how to survive on goat meat and pasta for days on end and discovered the untamed beauty of a wild land and its people. In Germany we learned the hard way that grocery stores are only open between 9 a.m. and noon, and then again from 3 to 5 p.m. so you better get your shopping in then or else you won’t be eating much more than greasy gas station meals all week. In Pennsylvania we learned that rocks are unforgiving, suspension is your friend, and that Boy Scouts are really good at underwater basket weaving. We discovered new ways to field service our bikes, that team work could overcome any adversity and getting to the finish line, no matter what it took, was the greatest reward.
Stage four is done and I lay still beneath the canopy of trees, the tips of pine needles slowly penetrate my t-shirt, legs resting high on a tree trunk, doing my best to emulate the prescribed recovery technique while breathing in the scent of the forest. Blood pools in my head and I wonder if it will make me smarter, or if the unpleasant pressure in my eyes is just me rearranging my brain bits slightly. I enjoy the tingling sensation in my legs as I roll over and let the blood flow back to my toes, the pressure in my temples slowly subsiding, turning into tiny bursts of energy in my body.
Someone told me that Buddhists believe that in the moment of death we reach total consciousness. I think we can get pretty close on the bike, spending hours a day going into our own minds over and over. Something in the suffering and pain connects us to a more primal version of ourselves, allows access to the immediate moment that’s not otherwise available. The suffering we put ourselves through during the race isn’t the purpose, it is just the given.
We acknowledge that racing hurts but don’t let that define us. The distractions drop away, we become more in tune with our bodies and our environment than we think possible. Every new sensation is examined with a microscope. We are experiencing the suffering but at the same time acknowledging the higher plateau upon which the suffering put us. Finding out what is on the inside, behind all the hidden corners and curtains, nothing can remain hidden inside for long out in the wilderness.
One evening we sit on the deck as the golden glow of the day recedes into moonlit darkness, the trails, the dust, the rocks, the smells, all lingering in our minds. Vast canyons carved by water, hidden among huge forests, experienced in flashes. The suffering and overcoming, the reaching of new levels of elation, breaking free from our previous notions of self, these moments of the day play on a loop, over and over, becoming the background for our new consciousness, rebuilding the foundation on which we can define ourselves. We are lucky for what we have accumulated on these days during this week. The moments when time stops, the monotony of daily life is erased and we live purely in the moment and breathe the air. These moments are why we come here.
We take all these lessons and experience and bring them home with us, packed away in our memory banks, knowing that these memories that we have are more valuable than any gear we can pack in our duffle bags. These moments and lessons we have collected turn out to be the real rewards for having participated in the races in the first place.
Renewing the cycle
We sit and eat tacos and drink ice cold beer near the finish of the final stage. We watch people cross the line for the last time in this event. A man with a beard and a large grin comes across. His jersey muddied on the front, like smeared peanut butter and chocolate, his battle wounds not dampening his spirit. That grin becomes the symbol of what we do, becomes the spirit of all who chance to glimpse it. The unlikely hero vaporizes into his own version of the world, but his energy remains with us, reminding us of purpose and joy, and what we are doing out here on the trails.
On the transfer back to the hotel the radio dial spins in an endless loop searching for a usable signal. Finally in desperation we insert a scratched Kid Rock CD, fished from the crumbs in the lost reaches of the Jeep and settle in. It’s not a great album, but seems oddly fitting as we travel through the mountain passes, noting epic avalanche paths, high peaks above tree line, raw exposed rivers, and the beauty of the trail, tucked delicately among the chaos.
“I wanna be a cowboy, baby” wafts from the speakers, as we, the lone riders in the expanse, follow the marked path, our minds finding new worlds with each turn of the pedals. Music seems to set our mood, so we allow the sound to sink in and draw us closer to the harmony we create as we continue on our journey. The multiplicity of the race days compounding and building as we find new, undiscovered areas of ourselves that we really like. Opened up by the possibilities and moments we earned this week.
We finally reach the end. It is not the end in the true sense of the word, but the place where we get off this train. The race concluded and like any good thing, taken a bit too far. When we awake the morning of the seventh day the pain and echoes of the week combining with the final evening’s revelry form into a dull ache just behind the eyeballs. But it is a good kind of ache.
We know the repercussions of our week in the wilderness are waiting just around the corner. The mountain of emails, neglected loved ones, bosses and children are just on the horizon. We awake on that seventh morning revitalized and begin to bask in the accomplishment. We wandered the forest for six days. We made the butterflies come, we entered the turbo race world, we got rad. The anticipation transformed and became our new reality. Any lingering disappointment and regret fades away. All that is left is a mountain of dirty clothes, a worn out bike and a new spirit awakened within us, ready for whatever comes next.
Editor’s Note: A condensed version of this story appears in Issue #183 of Dirt Rag. To make sure you never miss an issue, order a subscription today—available in print or pixels.
See more of John Gibson’s photos from Singletrack 6. Click on the magnifying glass to open them in a slideshow.