I was at the top of Seven Summits in Rossland British Columbia, 2200 meters above the valley floor and only half way through stage three of the Singletrack 6. Staggering to my feet, I looked down and realized I was still holding the grip in my hand from my snapped bar. Swiping the dirt and sweat from my brow, I asked myself: ‘How did I get here?’
Let me tell you my story. First, you should know: I’m not a racer. I’ve done a few downhill races back in the day but never lined up for a cross-country mêlée or any sort of endurance event. I’m competitive enough, but racing seemed like a great opportunity to ruin an otherwise awesome ride. I fully appreciate the merits of racing and why others love it, but it’s just not my jam. So when Santa Cruz Bicycles’ Seb Kemp, invited me to come race this year’s Singletrack 6, I had mixed feelings: joy, excitement, trepidation, fear.
The invitation to participate in the Singletrack 6 came at a time in my life when I was looking for a challenge. I had recently been following Seb’s journey at the Trans Provence – which he completed along with a couple of old friends and Ontario transplants, Todd Hellinga and Jeremy Schaab. Their adventure looked amazing and very inspiring to me. Like many riders, I spend hours daydreaming about epic trips to exotic destinations but pulling the trigger is never that simple. Seb had to ask me a few times but I did eventually say yes and registered for ST6. I still wasn’t convinced I could do it, but knew that this was part of the journey and committing to it was the first step. I then managed to rope in my good buddy Kris Somers who had the exact same reaction I did, but like me, he accepted the challenge.
How does one prepare for a 6-day stage race comprised of several 45km days with 2000m of climbing? I still don’t have the clear-cut answer to this; I had never trained a day in my life. I will, however, share with you what I did to prepare because I want others to know that if I can do it, they can too.
The first thing I did was look at training programs designed for other stage races. I noticed that many demanded nearly a full time commitment. That would be a problem. I’m fortunate to have a somewhat flexible schedule but even I could not dedicate the amount of time these programs required. More importantly, they didn’t allow for any ‘just for fun’ rides, and that is the point of riding for me. One of my greatest assets was my neighbor Hal Judd. He has competed in many such events, and was the angel on my shoulder in preparing for this race. He was getting ready to ride the Colorado Trail solo, so while our destinations were different, our paths were the same.
Off the bat, Hal took me out to the Niagara Escarpment for some hill repeats. I knew about hill repeats but he showed me some suitable gradients to work on and taught me about pace and effort. It was a rude awakening. I was dead by the last hill but went back down for one more climb. He said that he knew then I was going to be able to complete the race, even though I was barely able to finish one basic training day. Those six hills, which we did twice each, only added up to roughly 32km with 1200m of climbing. Not even equal to what would be the shortest day out west. What I came to learn, and what I drew upon during the race, was that this was all mind over matter. The most important thing was not to quit. That became my focus for the next few months preparing for the race.
This spring and summer in Ontario have been the wettest on record. The trails have never completely dried and may not, even as we’re now approaching the fall. Ontario has no elevation to speak of and even fewer places where one can train well using that stunted vertical. Going into this, I felt my best bet was going to be cranking out laps up The Grind at Blue Mountain. Blue has an elevation of 230m so I would have to hit it ten times to equal one of my six days. I never got to ride it once though. Every time I wanted to try it, I got rained out. Many trails in Ontario, including Blue, are clay based so it’s not a matter of just sucking it up and riding in the rain. It’s simply not rideable. That really put a big chink in my plan.
What ended up being my go-to for hills was Kelso Conservation Area. I did my biggest day at Kelso early on in my training. The vertical is only 83m but I rode it twenty-two times for a total of 45km and 1826m. This ride was more about knowing what to expect than decisive training, I needed to know that I could at least finish one day. This was a big ride for me, both mentally and physically. I returned to Kelso several times leading up to the race but stuck to 1200m days. On occasions I couldn’t make it to Kelso, I rode my local bump at Centennial Park. At only 23m, it was hard to believe it would produce any rewards but I did it, over and over until the sun went down.
I tried to incorporate longer rides crushing gravel into the mix and eventually worked up to 100km days. These are not what I would consider fun days and I would have much-preferred smashing laps in the bike park or riding flowy singletrack. I suppose the fact that the trails were a sloppy, wet mess helped me make the right choices. If I did sneak in a fun ride at my local trails, I forced myself to do double loops to try and match my distance goals. I managed to hit a few 1000m days at 3 Stages in Collingwood, but still nothing close to what was in my future out west. Those rides were inspiring however, because I felt strong doing two loops where previously one left me spent. Something must have been working.
As the race grew closer, I attempted to complete consecutive 100km days on my gravel grinder. I felt like if I could bang off successive, prolonged days it would be a good indicator as to my survival rate when the true test was upon me. What these long, repetitive rides and mind-numbing days climbing gave me was the bare minimum I needed fitness-wise. More crucial however, the mental focus and confidence that I could dig deep and achieve what I set out to do. Whatever I did, I always climbed one more time than I planned to do and pressed 10km further than slated. My mind always had to win over what my body said it could do. I knew that wanting to tap-out was going to be the real battle out west and that was where I had to triumph. I wanted to do everything I could to be ready. I had no idea what ready was but all I knew was that I didn’t want to be in the start coral, on day one, and feel like I hadn’t done enough. But how much was enough.
Riding the Singletrack 6
This year’s event would have us riding three days in Rossland, two in Nelson and one in Kaslo. The TransRockies Events team put together six amazing days of riding which you would be hard pressed to do on your own without support. That’s how I was approaching this, as six days of epic rides, not a race.
The opening ceremonies at Red Mountain Resort was the first chance we had to meet the dedicated squad behind Singletrack 6 and to hear a bit more about what the next six days would hold for us. I think most would agree that the highlight of that night was hearing Course Manager Trevor Gavura outline what was in store for us the next day. I grew to look forward to these; his presentation for each day was witty and a bit sadistic with lots of helpful nuggets. I really enjoyed these as well as getting to know him over the course of the six days. Trevor obviously loves riding and the layout and markings on the trails were beyond reproach. Clearly done by a rider. It was also very reassuring to hear from the medical staff on that first night. They had some great advice for riders and left you feeling assured that you were in good hands out there.
Stage 1: Rossland – Distance 40.3km, Elevation gain 1600m, timed descent 2km, 272m descent.
I knew getting day one under my belt was going to be a big accomplishment. The first highlight from day one and something that fueled me for all six days was seeing World Champion and Olympic Bronze medalist, Catharine Pendrel. I’ve known Catharine for a long time but I’m always behind the lens taking pictures of her as a photographer. When I rolled out on day one, I could hear her cheering me on and taking pictures of me. It was surreal and definitely gave me the best send off I could ask for. Thanks, Catharine, I heard you.
I’ve never lined up with a big group of racers like this and opted to start near the back and find my pace over the course of the ride. While I don’t regret this decision, I ate a lot of dust. I think I’m still coughing up bricks. I had to pass a lot of riders during the first singletrack climb but that was all part of the learning experience.
Leading up to the race I struggled over what bike to bring, my Santa Cruz Tallboy or Hightower. It was really only the last week before leaving that I opted for the trail-taming Hightower over the XC slayer. I think either could have worked and the Santa Cruz pros Dylan Wolsky and Alex McGuiness certainly made their choice to rock the Tallboy seem like the right one.
I was only a few hundred meters into the first descent when it became clear that I absolutely made the right choice for me. There were riders strewn along the sides of the trails nearly the whole way down with flats and mechanicals. Others were humbly walking, way out of their comfort zones. The descents were gnarly and certainly worthy of the Hightower, and I was stoked that I brought it. That bike is amazing. It gave up little on the climbs but was a huge advantage going down. I never regretted it once.
In all my groundwork getting my pre, post and while riding nutrition sorted, I never got electrolytes dialed. I bought some to try but never did manage to work them in. I figured my gels and bars had what I needed and it was working well enough leading up to the race. The medical team did warn us about the extreme heat, which reached 39° during some of the stages, and highly recommend managing electrolytes. Kris and I had both overlooked this but heeded their warnings and incorporated a bottle. During a climb on day one, I felt my legs starting to cramp. I drank half my bottle of electrolytes and the cramps soon faded. I was sold and never cramped again for the remainder of the race.
For this first day, I wanted to ride the whole stage and not get off my bike. In retrospect, I think that may have been a mistake and I likely went too hard out of the gate. My reasoning was that this business of getting off your bike was a slippery slope, and I came here to ride these stages, not hike them. That being said, I burned a lot of matches I maybe shouldn’t have.
The intangible along the ride was the feed stations. I think they are essential at any race but Seb Kemp and Matt Morrish of Cycle Solutions took it to eleven. From 100m away they could be heard calling your name and cheering you on. Once there, you were greeted by a cool misting station, an ice-cold sponge on the back of the neck and enough stoke to launch a rocket with. That stoke was chicken soup for the soul and enough to get you most of the way up the next soul crushing climb. This was something we all looked forward to and was absolutely irreplaceable. You guys are true beauties!
Each day had a timed descent. I started to look at these rides as the ultimate self-powered shuttle runs. The descents were legit; I was totally in my element here. While my goal was to survive the rest of the stage, I definitely got after it once the trail pointed downhill.
The best sound I ever heard was the announcer in the distance, just when I thought I didn’t have anything left to give. I knew then I had done it. Crossing the finish line was an indescribable feeling. However, this first day was harder than I could ever have imagined and I had five more to go.
Stage 2: Red Mountain Resort – Distance 32.6km, Elevation gain 1500m, timed descent 3.1km, 418m descent.
Kris and I were staying at Red Mountain, and the first thing we noticed when we arrived was how insanely steep the mountain was. I remember thinking; there is no way we’re riding up that. Surprise! Not once, but twice.
The work that has gone into the trails at Red Mountain is simply incredible. One of my favourite descents of the entire race, called Full Monty, was along this stage. It is a rock-slab laden gem of a trail. This wasn’t the kind of trail you wanted to get hung up on, you had to carry your momentum and be on your game. The stars aligned for me on this decline as Kevin, an amazing ST6 ambassador, was on site at one of the cruxes of the trail, asking struggling riders to move off the trail. There were also courteous riders in front of me who were great about letting me by as I called “rider back”, allowing me a clean run on this killer trail. I’m still replaying some sections in my mind to this day.
The icing on the cake was the manicured climb up the back of Red Mountain circumnavigating the peak and the final timed descent down its face. I actually walked a corner along that decent, it was so dicey. It was a highly exposed left-hander that I just couldn’t get my head around. Did not compute. Being that it was a timed descent made it particularly excruciating to walk. Once I came around the corner, a medical team was standing there. One of them gave me a thumbs-up and said “wise move”. I didn’t feel like such a Joey after that. I pushed on only to puncture not much further down the trail. With each rotation of the tire I could hear the air hissing out and the sealant trying to work its magic. After half a dozen or so revolutions, I heard it seal. I got back on the gas. My tire was soft but I managed to make it down in the top third of the field. Matt, Seb and Steve Neal from the Cycling Gym showered me with beer as I crossed the finish line. I outlived another day. Bonus points for the race finishing at our condo door.
Stage 3 – Seven Summits: Distance 35.2km, Elevation gain 1500m, timed descent 6km, 686m descent.
Seven Summits is an IMBA epic, bucket-list ride. People from all over the world travel to ride this legendary trail. This stage would mark the first time it was allowed to be raced. Even though we were both dog-tired, Kris and I were really looking forward to this day. Matt would also be riding stage three with us, which I was super pumped about. Despite living in the same city, we never get out together as much as we’d like.
Earlier in the year, I visited Santa Cruz Bicycles for a factory tour and met Emily Marriott, whom I found out was also doing ST6 with her husband Adam for their honeymoon. I met these two again on stage one and we rode together quite a bit over the six days, I really enjoyed hanging with them.
That Seven Summits day was shaping up to be the best yet. We had a wicked posse going, stopping to take pics, lots of high fives and hammering hard on the downhills. The trail was rowdy, full of baby heads and fast. I had a massive grin on my face the whole time. 360 panoramic views don’t hurt either; it was everything I hoped for.
After mandatory selfies up top, Matt, Adam, Emily and I dropped into the first descent like a freight train. Conditions were like riding through a rockgarden filled in with flour. Traction was at a premium and I washed out in a loose left-hander. When I stood and tried to pull my bike up with me, only the grip came up. I had snapped my carbon bar in half as well as my front brake lever. When Matt rolled up I was standing there, covered in dust realizing my day was potentially over.
Adam and Emily weren’t far behind and Adam knew exactly what to do. This was one of the many times he would help me and other riders out on the trail. He whittled a piece of wood that fit in my bar and slid my grip back over it, which got me a couple more inches. I had also snapped my lever, which he tapped up for me. The four of us worked together using our combined tools to get me rolling again. Definitely turned a bad situation around.
The ride to the next feed station was interesting to say the least. I managed but when it got zesty and I had to react, it was pretty dicey. The unbalanced leverage countering to the terrain coming at me was the killer. A tiny nub for a break lever wasn’t doing me any favours either. I knew once I got to the first aid station that it wasn’t safe to continue. I contemplated it for some time but with a 1300m descent at the end of the day, I knew I was taking a big risk. Was a very hard decision to make but know I made the right one. Even to this day I know that was the play. I don’t think this would have hurt so much on any other day but missing that final descent on Seven Summits still stings.
My goal now was to get it all sorted so that I could line up for Stage 4 in Nelson. TransRockies and Raven Eye Photography were great about getting me down the mountain and back to the start to get our truck. I grabbed Kris at the finish and managed to get a new bar and lever installed. Game on.
Stage 4 – Nelson – Smallwood: Distance 45.1km, Elevation gain 2076m, timed descent 2.6km, 368m descent.
Stage four was our biggest day of the event. Bodies blown and minds mush, we had our work cut out for us. Kris and I parked at the bottom of a hill along the rural road with other racers. This location ended up causing us grief in a few ways. The first being that we added a few hundred meters of climbing to our day that we could have avoided, the second would only come to light at the end of the day.
With forest fires raging throughout the province, we were lucky that the stages weren’t affected more than they were. We had some stunning vistas along the first three stages but smoke from the fires shut that down in Nelson, which obstructed some grand backdrops in the Valhallas.
This stage was a big day mentally for me, while not technically the hump day it was the biggest and completing it put day six squarely in my sights. Somewhere along the way I knew I was going to finish it and recall thinking: “bring it”.
When Kris and I rolled back down the hill to where our truck was parked, it was gone. It had been towed. This sucks anytime it happens but tired, overheated and in soggy diapers with all our gear gone, sucked on a new level. TransRockies once again came to our aid and brought me and the bikes back to our hotel, while the fine folks at Elevated Legs got Kris to the impound lot minutes before closing.
I learned a few more things after that day’s adventures. One was that Kris was a wicked guy to have partnered with for this race. The second was that all these things one might consider bad luck were just part of the adventure, which this trip was becoming more and more about. This didn’t feel like a race at all but rather a soul-searching, introspective journey. Two stages to go, could I really do this?
Stage 5 – Kaslo: Distance 38.4km, Elevation gain 1822m, timed descent 1.6km, 172m descent.
Looking back, this was my favourite day. The trails in Kaslo were unreal and I once again got to ride with the superhero of stoke Matt Morrish. But this day was also not without its adventures. Missing our start was a significant one.
This was completely my fault. I dropped the ball getting ready in the morning and I delayed our departure. I’m never late so this was pretty ironic. Kris was pretty cool about it and certainly nailed the KOM on the one-hour drive over from Nelson. Yukons can corner, who knew. We parked on a side street and pulled out our bikes just in time to see the racers ride out of the start one street over. Kris and I took it all in stride and made our way back to the start. As we rolled opposite the group we got duly heckled and encouraged. It was nice to see so many friendly faces cheering us on. We moved through the start, never missing a beat and were waved on through by the welcoming TransRockies team. While I may be green, this isn’t their first rodeo and they’ve surely seen clowns like us over the years.
Shortly after we got started up the first climb, I could hear that unmistakable voice and see Matt coming back down to ride with me. How awesome is this guy! A little further up the road I saw Seb on his Stigmata heading back down the road to accompany Kris. This is what this event was all about. Seb and Matt brought so much to this event, they are just good humans. I tried to carry that energy along with me on the trail and spread that passion to all I shared the ride with.
Midway through that day, I tacoed my wheel and punctured once more. It wasn’t a straightforward fix and at that point in the race, my brain was mush. Once again Adam rolled up with his bag of tricks and got me out of a jam. I never let people work on my bikes; I do it all, but had complete faith in this guy. He’s Macgyver. I never got to fully inspect my rim until I got back, but it’s since been retired.
Everyone has good days and bad days on the bike but on huge rides like these you can actually experience the good, the bad and the ugly, all in one day. Matt had devoted his entire trip to helping others and had not spent time dialing in his own bike. We’ve all been there, it’s frustrating and it got the better of him along the way. I was happy to be out there with him sharing that and to be able to help him through it. I also hit the deck hard rallying a descent earlier in the day that left me rattled. My body slammed the dirt like a sack of potatoes.
Even after a very challenging day, Matt and I went balls to the walls, in an all out sprint down a wicked section of trail along the Kalso River below. With no regard for safety, energy conservation or even finishing the day, we went for it. Wasn’t even a timed descent, but we had a time. The Kalso trails were loamy and you could really stuff it and charge hard. We finished the ride together with Emily and Adam and the four of us crossed the finish line together. Pretty epic day.
Stage 6 – Nelson – Giveout: Distance 44.1km, Elevation gain 1659m, timed descent 4.1km, 608m descent.
I’d made it to the final day. I hadn’t quite crushed it yet but there was no way in hell I wasn’t finishing this. I started to stiffen up at the end of the previous day from my crash. From what Matt tells me, it was pretty spectacular. The medical team gave me some topical cream to help loosen things up but even with that, it took me half an hour the next morning to get my leg to complete a full rotation of the pedals. I was pretty discouraged but knew I could do it. I had to.
I ended up getting sick the day after the race. I think it was starting to rear its ugly head around day four but somehow my body, shattered as it was, fought it off until the end. High five, body! That last day, with the gimpy leg and illness at my door, was a tough one. Like with the rest of this journey though, I wouldn’t change a thing. Overcoming adversity and rising above was what this journey was all about.
Speaking of which, there was one last curve ball headed my way. Towards the end of the ride, with roughly 9km to go, the trail crossed a rocky stream. I didn’t anticipate a hill on the backside of it and was in too big of a gear. When I stood up to monster truck up the other side, I heard a snap. My leg drove into the ground – and I realized that I had broken my chain. Standing there, with my chain in my hand, Adam once again rolled up. “I think it’s all downhill after this” he said. I was prepared to fix it but that was music to my ears and I was definitely still up for the challenge.
I managed to pump the entire dirt trail through the forest. It spit me out on a paved road, and I kept off the brakes for that whole stretch. Making my way back into town I timed intersections, slowing down just enough to ensure safe passage but not enough to lose steam. I remember thinking “I’m doing it, I’m frickin’ Aaron Gwin”. I know I’m not Gwin, but it felt pretty amazing.
My worst fear at this point, after all this and the five days leading up to it, was that the grade would pitter out and I would have to walk across the finish line. Not the end of the world but it would have felt so anticlimactic given what I had just done. Still clipping along at a good pace, looking way down the road for the finish line, I nearly missed the turn off. A marshal caught my eye just in time and I managed to make a hard right and carry enough speed to coast across the line. As I crossed the line on that final day, with my chain in my hand, I shouted “with no chain!” Seb and friends once again showered me in beer. I had done it. Overwhelmed with joy and a sense of accomplishment, I celebrated with all the other amazing finishers of the 2017 Singletrack 6.
I can’t recommend enough that you do this race. It’s called the Singletrack 6 Experience for good reason. You will never regret nor forget you’ve done it. I won’t. TransRockies is an incredible organizer whose reputation precedes them. While this may only have been my first stage race, Steve Neal, who has done over 20 of these, expressed it’s the best he’s done.
I met so many incredible people along this trip. I’m sorry I can’t mention everyone, there are literally so many. Sharing times together on the trail or over a beer at the finish, friends for life. I hope my story inspires you to sign up for this race. The trepidations a newby racer such as myself can feel can seem overwhelming compared to how a seasoned racer would approach this. Don’t let that be a barrier to you. You don’t need a fancy bike, mountains to train on or any race experience. Everything you need, you’ve already got inside you. It’s a once in lifetime experience. This was my first but it wont be my last.
I would like to extend a massive thanks to Aaron, Wanda, Trevor, Drew and the entire team at TransRockies Events. Thanks also to Seb Kemp from Santa Cruz Bicycles for everything you do and bring to mountain biking. Thanks to all the participants for sharing this experience with me.
Registration is now open for the 2018 Columbia Mountains. http://singletrack6.com