Written by Melanie Chambers.
“I feel like I’m on a glacier pad, alone. Then someone kicks the pad, launching it into the ocean.”
This is my mindset the day before my third mountain bike race; naturally, any sane person would ask: Why am I doing this? It’s because once you start, something takes over. The competitor comes out and wants to race. So far, I’ve placed second and then fifth, after a flat tire bumped me off the podium. But as I’m learning, each race has its own physical and mental challenges; this one would prove to be the hardest in both respects. Despite pre-riding the course at Horseshoe Resort twice, the most I’d ever done, I still had to dismount my bike on some tricky sections. And when my tire flopped around on the trail, I didn’t have the aggression or the will to control it. That worried me.
The last time at Horseshoe I was skiing cross-country across the street at Copeland Forest, but the amount of mountain biking trails here, and in this region, is ridiculous: 4,400 acres in Copeland, 40km on the ski hill, Hardwood Hills 5km away with another 80km, plus road trails. Recently the mayor of Oro had over 800km of gravel roads paved – virtually traffic-less, I’ve been told.
This is the resort’s fourth time hosting an Ontario Cup and this summer, Horseshoe is also the athletic village for the mountain bikers competing in the Pan Am Games; the venue is at Hardwood (July 11 and 12), which is also the site of the next race, but first things first: Horseshoe.
Opting to stay overnight at the resort, it’s a relief not getting up absurdly early and driving from Toronto – a bonus since the race started half an hour earlier from the normal 10am. After forcing down some granola and cottage cheese, P offers to warm up with me, which makes the ‘glacier pad’ feeling a little less real. Remembering how I didn’t warm up enough before the last race, I went a little longer this time. “It’s OK to suffer a little during the warm up – that won’t take away from your race, trust me,” he says. It seems counter-intuitive; shouldn’t you save all your energy for the race? But no. Warming up properly means your body is ready for the hard stuff.
Moving into the starting corral, my main competitor isn’t there. A bummer when you think about it: what’s winning if you can’t beat the one person whose bumped you from the podium a few times? But I do recognize and hug Karen Duff, a new friend from the last race. Feels good.
As we chat, I can hear other women talk: “Two other girls just backed out of the race. They were just too scared. It’s a hard course.” Gulp. There’s no way I’m backing out. At the line, P is there on the sidelines. We strain to reach one another for one last kiss. I want to impress him.
Called up to the line, it’s time to go. I’m moving. Washed-out ruts in the road bounce the bike around and I’m near the end of the pack. I hear P: “That’s it, do your own pace , Mel!” Horseshoe is known for climbs. At the top of the hill, the next section is fast; I drop into the big chain ring. Time to catch my breath – it doesn’t matter but every race my mouth goes dry in seconds: nerves. The trail skirts along the base of the mountain in front of the spectators, until forest opens onto single track. But not before a sand trap – the bike swerves. Steady, I think. Then, a climb. Nothing too monstrous, but a minute later there’s another one that cuts up quickly. A real heel digger. This is where I begin to pass some riders.
Lifting my head, I see two options: giant boulder to the right, or flat. “You can totally go over this,” said P on the pre-ride, referring to the boulder. I choose flat, but not before seeing a fellow rider blast to the top, hold steady, then tumble down the side of the rock onto the trail. I ride around her. Hey, she’s not hurt! I’m not completely heartless.
“I used to tell my regular spin participants to make their best sex face during a hard climb. It got them laughing, if only to forget the pain.”
But maybe karma is kicking me because next thing I know the trail washes out a bit and I’m hurtling over the bars into a pile of mud and leaves. Get up, get up, I tell myself, straddling the bike quickly I hear someone behind me: “good recovery.” And finally a reward: a series of swoopy switchbacks that don’t require a single pedal stroke; just point the bike down and glide. About four of these give me a good rest and a chance to smile. Fun.
Lap one, done. Everything I do now is the last time. But, with less energy. The climbs are taking their toll and my breathing is laboured; less reaction time. And the trail saves a steep switchback near the end. It takes less energy to run so I hop off the bike. “Good thinking,” says Karen, who is behind me and does the same. Back through the narrow trail, my elbows keep banging into the trees: fatigue is setting in. And then the ramp. A series of flat rocks sandwiched between two trees at the end of a bowl drop. I hear P’s voice from the pre-ride: “Don’t touch the breaks and hammer up.” It works. “Nice job,” says a rider walking up.
I’m already at the last big climb. After that, the rest is gravy. P is there running alongside me: “You’re in first place.” “What what?” Impossible. I always distrust good news until proven otherwise, but this news makes me want to suffer a bit more; I can’t let it go now and begin pumping my legs up and over the crest of the first climb, that flattens out, and begins again – sneaky bugger. Near the crest of this final climb, I notice an older, heavier man struggling. “Killer eh?” “You ain’t lying,” he says. We laugh and solider on.
And with that done, it’s hammer time. “Let’s finish off this bitch,” I say to a younger girl behind me. “Yeah!” she screams. Grrr. I scrunch my face. I used to tell my regular spin participants to make their best sex face during a hard climb. It got them laughing, if only to forget the pain. Coming out onto grass, there’s the line. The crowd. The music. And P: “you won!” Hunched over the bars gasping for air, I don’t believe it until he checks. Yup. Wow, that didn’t feel like a win.
Crashing more times than I can count – including twice over the bars – it was a struggle. And, maybe because my rival wasn’t there, it felt less than ideal. But there it was. The hardest course I have ever raced, and I won it in an hour and two minutes, and my second lap was two minutes faster than my first. But perhaps because this race was a struggle, for everyone, it was also the most encouraging of all the races: other riders kept telling me to go hard, keep riding; one guy even gave my bum a little push when I slide off. Wow. The riding community has always been amazing and now as a competitor, I’ve found a new home.