May 5, 2016
Last summer photographer John Gibson was invited to capture the stories from Singletrack 6: Ride the West. I was invited to ride it. As John raced around popping out of the trees in his flannel shirts, always one length ahead of us on his E-Bike, I raced my 100mm Orbea Oiz full suspension through mind-stoking Singletrack close to my home in Kamloops. BC.
When I stage race, it’s an experience that I’m seeking. I’m not saying I won’t turn myself inside out if I have to, especially for a timed descent, and especially if my husband is in the same race and thinking he’s going to take me on the descent, but I am mostly seeking the adventure, community, and the different challenge that stage racing offers.
So what’s it like for you racing one of these? John had lots of questions about my experiences at Singletrack 3, the 3-day option of Singletrack 6, and I’ve tried to fit them and some tips at the bottom of this rider's perspective.
It probably isn’t surprising that for me lining up at a multi-day stage race which starts with ACDC blaring on the start line, feels different than lining up at a World Cup. I might be wearing baggies and a Camelbak, rather than a skinsuit and game face, but there’s definitely still nerves. Nerves that come from anticipation of the unknown. How fast will it be? How will my body stand up to back to back days of racing? How destroyed will I be after? What are the trails like? Is doing a 3-day mtb stage race 5 days before a World cup a bad idea?
How hard is it?
The first stage race I ever did was the BC Bike race in 2009. It was the first time in my life I actually wished Singletrack would spit me out onto a fire road for a bit because I wasn’t sure I would make it to the finish if the next 30km was as demanding as the 40km we had just done. On a fire road, I could recover, trade up pulls with my teammate Katerina or find a guy’s wheel to sit on and recover for a bit. That desire didn’t last long, though - I hate fire roads - and it didn’t have to as we were sent back into the forest with just enough recovery to enjoy attacking the lush singletrack again. I loved it
Stage races actually start pretty darn hard and you just go with it, or at least that’s my approach. For me, every race start is a chance to practice something I kinda suck at so I embrace it. But if you are racing with a partner you have to keep that in mind too. When I raced with my Luna teammate Katerina Nash in 2009 we were used to duking it out at the front of World cups so we could both start hard. When I raced BCBR with Geoff Kabush in 2010, (Canadian Olympian in 2000, 2008, 2012) he had to keep looking back to make sure I hadn’t gotten swallowed up by the pack and left in the dust and when I raced with Luna’s up and coming U23 rider Maghalie Rochette in 2014 I had to make sure I wasn’t setting a pace that we would regret later in the day.
Throughout the week, you see dynamics unfold as teams agree to a divorce and ride solo or strengthen and keep laughing together. The pace settles down (a bit) further into the week as riders learn what pace they can and can’t get away with, but it's still shockingly fast for a 20+hr week of racing. Of course, there is also a widespread with the fastest riders coming in under 3 hrs each day and others in 7-8 hours…with a lot more photos on their cameras.
Why did you do ST3?
I used ST3 as a training block to help carry good form into the second half of my season. The year before I had won Worlds, I think in large part thanks to a killer training block involving BCBR earlier that summer. Lea Davison (USA) who also did it finished 3rd at the same Worlds and Kim Hurst of New Zealand went on to become the 24hr World Champion that fall. It seemed there was something to the volume of fast mtb miles we got from mid-summer stage racing followed by some recovery that led to great form. But fitting a stage race into a World Cup season isn’t always easy. The only way I could fit one in last year was to race Singletrack 3 in British Columbia the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday before flying to Quebec Wednesday to race the World Cup at Mont Sainte Anne on Sunday.
Doable? I thrive off of a little craziness in the schedule so I had asked my team to trust me that this was the right prep to keep me strong in the second half of my season. I was determined to show them their trust hadn’t been misplaced. I tried to restrain myself, though, after going too hard on day 1... but going fast is just more fun. Recognizing I may have pushed a wee bit too much at ST3 I rested hard going into the World Cup in Quebec and had my best race of the season finishing second.
Because most of my summer is spent at race venues, airports, and hotels I relish the chance to lounge on the grass in the sun after a race and camp for a week…even if it’s cheating with sprinter van camping. It makes me feel like I’ve had a summer ride vacation. I may be a professional bike racer, but at these events I’m also just another rider, parking my van beside theirs, having fun, getting tired, savouring my morning coffee and riding my ass off. The atmosphere in and around these races is great. Everyone recognizes it’s going to be a big week and you want it to be fun. It breeds awesome camaraderie on the trail and hanging out afterwards. Everyone has a story you get to know as the week unfolds.
What is it like racing with guys?
I started racing, rather than just riding because I like how racing pushes me to find more than I would on my own. So if I sign up for a race, that’s what I want.
Riding bikes with a fast group is always a blast and I think riders and racers increasingly get that everyone is going to have their best day if you let the faster climber lead the climb and the faster descender lead the descent. Common sense.
Truthfully, I love lining up the with guys. I love lining up with anyone that pushes me to be faster. It's been really cool to see over the years how the respect level for what women can do on a bike has increased. At these events, I find people are out there looking for a great trail experience so the vibe is good and passing is friendly.
Stage racing will definitely continue being part of my racing. I leave a stage race so stoked on bike life, the people in it, the places it takes you, the adventures it gives you that I can’t imagine not doing more. If a stage race is on your bucket list, I 100% recommend Singletrack 6 and BCBR…. if you’re into amazing trails at least. Here are some tips to guide you through
Tips to guide you:
Each day of stage racing is a hard race in itself where finishing in the top group has its own perks like quick access to the showers, bike washes and beginning to recover, but you need to be fuelled well to do so. During my first stage race, someone told me that if you are famished and eating everything in sight at the end of the day, then you didn’t do a good enough job fuelling on the bike so that’s something I try to keep in mind. Stay fuelled while riding and you’ll not only recover better but be more friendly in the meal hall line.
Before: Stick to what you know: For me breakfast is oatmeal. You can pretty much guarantee it will be anywhere and can make it as simple or amazing as you like, but yes they have bacon! Meal times at stage races are usually set. Don’t be a stickler for eating 3hrs before the race. Get sleep and have a smaller breakfast if you need to and then continue to fuel frequently in the race. If you don’t eat well the morning of a race, eat more before bed.
During: At the intensity of XCO racing, like a World cup, you can really only inhale liquid type foods like an electrolyte drink or gels, but for stage racing I’ll take solid, easy to eat food like Clifbloks, Luna & kit’s organics bars (no melting!), a bottle with drink mix and a camelback with just water. On a hot day or to help your body digest the sugars in your food having both water and drink mix available is great. Test out your fuel options on hard training rides.
After: Hydrate, and not just on beer…although I have been told beer has more potassium than a banana and I am willing to believe both that this is important and true. Use that well-known glycogen window to get in some carbs and protein to kick start recovery. Recovery powder is easy to pack with you on the trip, easy to manage after racing and ensures some hydration.
Are minimal as days are longer. After doing a warm up day one to prepare yourself for a hard start the other days are more about just waking up the legs without adding fatigue so the start doesn’t feel as bad.
Know yourself. You are more likely to have a better experience if you do not go out too hard, but yes day one, in particular, there can be bottlenecks so if you’re in it for the competition as much as the experience it may be worthwhile starting harder on Day 1.
Usually, after races or hard training, I am wound up. I fall asleep easily, but when I wake up at 4, my brain is still running at 100 kph and there is no more sleep for me that day. I wasn’t sure how this would impact my ability to finish a week-long race, but what I learned about myself is that the longer race days didn’t make this an issue. Sure by day 4 or 5 of a stage race everyone’s eyes are looking pretty puffy and the desire to get out of bed when your alarm goes off is not strong, but as long as your tent isn’t Oceanside on a windy night you usually sleep alright, but you may as well bring the eye shades and ear plugs just in case.
How do you make sure you’ll be ready for a stage race?
Ride consistently. Don’t worry about getting in epic rides if you are time strapped, but do ride consistently. Frequency will get you further than being a weekend warrior that has to spend the entire next week recovering. Talk to people that have ridden that area before. Are there trails near you that are similar?
Embrace adventure: Yeah you don’t always know what to expect, that’s part of why you signed up right?
Ride the tire you know best and that is reliable. You don’t want to be dealing with flats and typically the best performing tire is the one you are most familiar with and know how to push. My go-to Stage race tire is the Maxxis Ikon in 2.2 width.
Depends on the event and to be honest I have only ever raced an XC full suspension in a stage race, but when there’s choice choose durability and easy maintenance when setting up your ride.
What’s in your CamelBak?
What that Camelback contains is always a mystery! My Camelbak will have just water in it, no mix, that’s in a bottle, a tube and a CO2 cartridge, patch kit, sometimes a phone with event emergency numbers already entered in, a multi-tool, extra just-in-case food, possibly warmer clothes if you are in the alpine or nasty weather. The rest of my food will be in my pockets for easy access. Often stage races will require that you carry some safety supplies like bandages, gauze, a whistle, matches, but don’t get carried away. You have to haul that stuff around. What will you actually use? One of my favourite memories from stage racing is hanging out with a bunch of women after Stage 5 of BC Bike race. My U23 teammate Maghalie starts hauling stuff out of her pack…safety blanket, a head lamp, various tools. You name it she had it. We figured we could shed at least a pound from her load…funnily we did go on to win the next two days. Hmm…
All images by John Gibson.