Bring On the Pain

Seven days, five towns and over 200 miles of some of the world’s best single track. With multiple days behind and more ahead, a racer finds his groove among the ferns and forests of Vancouver Island. Photo: Margus Riga

Bring On the Pain: Megaphones and Masochism at the BC Bike Race

At any other endurance race, having a megaphone-armed, Afro-bedecked Brett Tippie announce the event from his downhill bike—powered by an electric motor bolted to the frame—may seem crass. For the BC Bike Race, it’s spot on.

Spanning from Vancouver to Whistler and along the southeast corner of Vancouver Island, the seven-day event has earned a reputation for its difficulty and unorthodox style, becoming one of the world’s most premier—and colorful—endurance events in less than a decade.

The brainchild of professional mountain biker Andreas Hestler and event organizer extraordinaire Dean Payne, talk of the BC Bike Race (BCBR) started in November of 2006. Payne was phasing out of Whistler’s Sea2Summit Adventure Race Series and contacted Hestler to put together a stage race. With Crankworx’s already established notoriety, Payne and Hestler decided it’d be a prime location, and in June of 2007 the first BCBR was held—and has evolved a uniquely Pacific Northwestern style in the years since.

“We started off with the traditional mindset: A to B along gravel road and hit a bit of single track here and there,” says Hestler. “Then a course designer suggested we just shuttle people past the gravel roads to the single track. And we said, ‘Why not?’”

It’s unusual for a race to be sponsored by a ferry service and seaplane outfit, but the BCBR is definitely unusual. The race now includes bus, van, ferry and even seaplane shuttles to maximize single track time, a format that makes the experience uniquely familiar.

Despite hosting 600 racers, including some of the most elite enduro riders in the world, stage-starts during the BCBR are uncharacteristically relaxed. With the Salish Sea as a backdrop, riders line up in Cumberland for another wonderfully grueling day. Photo: Todd Weselake

“What would you want riding with your buddies: ride 60 miles of gravel road for 6 miles of trail?” asks Hestler. “Of course not. We just started to morph things towards that type of experience, and I think that really resonates with people.”

Since that first race, the race roster (spanning 30 countries) has exploded, impressive for something that costs over $2,000 and started right before the biggest recession in recent history. Besides Payne and Hestler, there are only five part-time staff in the office—during the race, however, that number balloons by nearly 200 staff and volunteers.

“Basically, it’s like dealing with 1,000 people for a mobile, seven-day party,” Hestler says. “We have 600 racers and then volunteers and workers, who we have to feed, move to five different towns and set up tents for each night. It’s not easy.”

BC has always been on the forefront of the mountain biking world, and the BCBR is on forefront of the endurance race world. While it’s become a bit of a bucket-list ride, it’s unapologetically brutal, something participants should be ready for.

“I think we’ve fundamentally affected other stage races,” Hestler says, “We applaud people doing their own thing, and we’re doing this very much PNW-style. Hard? Yeah, but it makes the time relaxing with your buddies on the beach that much more enjoyable.”

We sent Freehub’s Enduro Team Manager Steve Dempsey to chronicle that experience. Bring on the good times. But first, bring on the pain.

Mic in hand and Afro on head, Brett Tippie gets riders stoked before the enduro section at Powell River. He’d spend the rest of the day announcing from a homemade, electric motor-powered downhill bike. Photo: Margus Riga

Stephen's Race Journal

We have bonded through suffering.

We recognize each other from the previous day’s racing and post-stage living. Each night we lick wounds, clean bikes and swap war stories of close calls and big crashes. There is a reason this race sells out in less than 30 minutes: seven days of community and pampering, traveling through one of the West Coast’s most beautiful areas to ride nearly 200 miles of world-class single track. By day seven, it’s almost too much.

Thanks to the 180 workers, racers’ worries are simple: wake up, eat, wash up, race, eat, share stories and finally rest. There is catering, massage, a complete bike shop and a full medical team. Production handles transporting bikes, luggage and racers, as well as setting up and tearing down our tents. Racer relations manages general services, The Bear’s Den (electronic media center with Wi-Fi), finish-line food and in-race shuttles. Bike patrol and course management keep us safe and on track. The marketing and media teams are up early to rush into the depths of the BC forests for photos—and follow the last racers with helmet cams to record the ripping descents. While everyone else sleeps, they compile data and post the daily edits, photos and write-ups.

But what really sets the BCBR apart is the sense of community that develops over the week, as strong as the need for French roast in the morning and cold suds in the afternoon. Most crew members are themselves riders, and those that aren’t make up for it with effusive warmth and excitement. I am hooked. So are the other racers.

It is truly a beautiful and uniquely PNW-esque experience: the staff, the colorful locals, the raw beauty of BC, the incredible riding, the bonds formed through masochistic bliss…the list goes on and on, and so do the trails.

From borderline-natural loam fests to rocky, rooty tech lines to fully manicured berms and tabletops, the BCBR covers everything the PNW has to offer during its week-long journey. Photo: Margus Riga

Stage 0: Welcome to North Vancouver

An air of excitement was the first impression upon entering the registration area in Northern Vancouver; the second, as racers followed neon-green tape to the check-in, was organization. The line formed at 8 a.m. and was packed until 4:30. Despite the rush, I was registered and had my race package—info packet, race plate, 90-liter duffle, Lululemon hoodie and a yoga mat—in less than four minutes after getting to the desk.

North Van’s Obsession: Bikes provided a full bike shop service. WD-40 was operating a bike valet, where racers gave their bike to 7-year-olds hopped up on RedBull, who spray down chains, gears and each other in good spirits.

The anticipation of the morning stretched into dinner, and racers checked out the venue and enjoyed a beer or two before finding tents for a restful night. Let the week of trail journeying begin.

Stage 1: North Vancouver

Trails: Circuit 8, Fisherman’s, Hyannas, Bridal Path, Old Buck, Upper Severed, Baden Powell, After Taste, Forever After, High School, Greenland, Bottle Top, Expresso, Dempsey Braemar Connector.

We launched the week from the registration site in a moto-lead start. Maybe the testosterone was low or the overcast skies kept aggression at bay, but there was no jostling for position or thrown elbows; a pleasant surprise, as the first 800 yards of a race is usually the sketchiest part.

You gotta go up to get down, and Stage 1 wasted no time getting the “up” out of the way, jetting through a short section of pavement and a gravel trail before dumping out onto the fabled Vancouver single-track.

The relax vibe continued, with riders communicating freely while passing or looking for extra space. The fun began after 1,350 feet of climbing: the countless hours of building by Vancouver’s highly motivated mountain bike community became apparent on the delicious descent, all beautiful downhill and techy lines. It left us wanting more…which we would get in excess.

Racers arrived at camp radiating enjoyment and were soon ushered onto the next ferry to Cumberland, accompanied by a pod of Orcas. The boat leaned heavily as passengers scurried to catch a glimpse of the majestic whales. Then it was off to bed to prepare for another hard day’s ride.

Already strapped in shoes and helmet, Steve Dempsey gets in some quick water-side journaling before the start of the Powell River stage. Between beers, exhaustion and a food coma, post-race writing isn’t quite as effective.. Photo: Dave Silver

Stage 2: Cumberland

Trails: Lighthouse Way, Further Burger, Bucket of Mud, Bear Buns, Tea Pot, That Dam Trail, Swamp Monster, Lower Crafty Butcher, Soggy Biscuit, Black Hole, Space Nugget, Thirsty Beaver, Blue Collar, Upper Crafty Butcher, Double Pumper, 50 to 1.

At nearly 30 miles, the Cumberland Stage was a long one—the hills went up in every direction from camp, and started immediately. The enduro section was memorable, as was Brett Tippie announcing via megaphone in an Afro.

The descent started with a moto-rut switch back, littered with chunky rocks and roots, and the high-speed tech continued from there. The many off-camber, rooty corners pushed unfocused riders into the bushes, and there was a six-person backup as the lead group was afflicted with five simultaneous flats. Wow.

The Racing Viking is a former BCBR winner, and at the bottom he came surging to the front. I let him tow me for a half-hour, and the reason behind his victory was obvious. He was damn fast.

After the single track descent and looping though camp, we started a long, deceptively taxing climb. Suffering through cramps and sun exposure, in our exhaustion a group of us missed a left turn near the bottom, wandering for a few minutes before finding the course. A natural rock double at the finish was uplifting, but not as much as the massage and medical tent visit at camp.

The rainforests of the Pacific Northwest are famous (or infamous) for their roots, mossy rocks and monster trees. With ferns whirring by, Dempsey descends along world-class single track through some archetypal PNW woods. Photo: Margus Riga

Stage 3: Powell River

Trails: Zevier’s, Blue, Washout, Suicide Creek, Aloha, Death Rattle, Sweetwater Creek, W8 Trail, Cable, Toad Hollow, Frog Alley, Squirrel Crossing Bridge, Yew, Spur # 7, Mud Lake, Myrtle Springs, Edge Hill Rip, Dipper Down, Willingdon Beach.

Our ferry to Powell was greeted by a dock packed with cheering locals, a 13-piece band and a 20-person drum circle, and along the course entire pajama-clad families encouraged the tired, dehydrated racers from their driveways. I have never seen a town share so much love and pride.

At only 2,660 feet of gain, Stage 3 was the shortest climb overall. With the two-foot-wide trail offering nearly endless line choices, we ripped fast and flowing single-track nearly the whole day. Corners on Death Rattle were bermed and tight, and I was lucky enough to suck the wheel of a BC local who knew the trail. Following blind and holding on for dear life—what a treat!

After so much climbing the previous two days, the 30 miles felt short…which also might have to do with it being some of the best trail on the planet. Other than the maxed heart rate—and a few bike ejections from clipping trees—at times I could almost forget I was racing. Almost.

The campsite was beautiful. Two streams converged before dumping into the Salish Sea, generating the kind of white noise money can’t buy, and the swimming off the dock was perfect for washing off the sweat, blood and mud. As night fell, racers and crew members shared stories and drinks by the fire for far longer than probably wise. It was that kind of day.

Pay to play: ouchies from days one, two, three, four, five, six… it’s a tough race. Photo: Margus Riga

Stage 4: Earl’s Cove to Sechelt

Trails: Kleinlake, Sunshine Coast, AC-DC, Elk, Pole Road, Easy Street, Skullduggery, Beaver Pond, Parbac, Brokbac, Dropbac, Addrenach, Lee’s Big Easy.

As one of the non-riding highlights of the race, 100 riders were chosen by lottery to be loaded into Harbour Air seaplanes for the shuttle to Earl’s Cove. I got lucky, and the views were spectacular—great prep for a tough stage.

From the start, Stage 4 was all subtle grades along rolling terrain. The descents felt sparse, and the climbing kept coming, even more brutal given the heat. The sections along power lines were the most depressing. You could see too far!

Loam is wonderful for downhill; on climbs and XC-style flats, it leeches energy and speed like a quicksand ninja. I crashed hard on a rocky section 100 yards into the Enduro, further slowing things down. Hip ouchy, no more speed on flat front tubie.

That first tumble was followed by four more, including a face slap into a soft berm—lucky it ended with just that—and the last seven miles of descent were a mechanical battle. I just hoped it wasn’t too expensive a fix.

While the week has it's fair share of fun, everybody is still there in persuit of burly trails and fast times. Dempsey takes a minute to focus on the stage infront of him, as there's no use looing backwards. Photo: Margus Riga

Stage 5: Sechelt to Langdale

Trails: Chapman Creek Trail, Dave’s By-Pass, Wagon Road, Up and Over, Guys Gulch, Highway 102, Sidewinder, Upper Flume, Lower Flume, Lunge.

While sprinkled with stiff climbs, Stage 5 was a relatively mellow one. Still, riding through the sections of fresh-cut trail at this point in the race was like descending through sludge, legs heavy and arms rattled from trail clutter. The variety of trail texture was astounding; one six-foot section could contain as many roots and rocks as six miles in other parts of the world. A slow leak led to five stops and multiple CO2 cartridges. Bummer.

Stage 6: Squamish

Trails: Roller Coaster, Lumberjack’s, Jack’s, 50 Shades of Grey, Rupert’s Rock and Roll, Rob’s Corners, Skookum, Half Nelson, Pseuda-tsuga 1, Pseuda-tsuga 2, Pseuda-tsuga 3, Powerhouse Plunge, Hoods in the Woods, Farside, Fartherside, S&M Connector, Endo

Not surprisingly, Squamish offered some of the most fun trails of the race. After seeing Brett Tippie, I got stoked and launched booter on Half-Nelson…and quickly folded a wheel. I hiked back up to Tippie to call for a moto-ride out, after being defeated by a wrong rotor size and no center lock hub tool for a wheel swap-out. Instead, we went with a two-man foot stomp to “straighten” things enough to roll…sketch. Spectators could hear my spokes rattling in the wheel for the next hour-and-a-half as I gingerly crept to the aid station, where the Shimano boys rescued the day with another wheel. Good thing, as the rest of the stage was the best single track of the race.

Fighting loam and five days of full-throttle riding, Dempsey races the quicksand ninjas en route to Squamish. You gotta go up to get down. Photo: Margus Riga

Stage 7: Whistler

Trails: Easy Does It, B-Line, Ninja Couger, Karate Monkey, World Cup, Ho-Chi-Min, Heart of Darkness, Haulback, Centennial, Fountain of Love, Pinocchio’s Furniture, Donkey Puncher, Dwarf Nebula, Molly Hogan, Gee I Like Your Pants, Toad of the Short Forrest, Son of Mr. Green Jeans, White Gold Traverse, Dynamo Humm, Peaches and Regalia.

At just over an hour, the final stage of the BCBR was also the shortest. High-paced from the initial climb, the descent down Ninja Cougar’s swooping section of berms and tabletops was white-knuckle—fortunately for me, I was following a local who obviously knew the trail and was recklessly tearing at red-line speeds. Unfortunately for him, he thought the race finished at the village. Not so much—his Ninja Cougar antics did him no favors when we started the second climb.

With the group already heavily separated, I found myself with a cadre of riders to chase up the technical and rocky ascent. Lungs bleeding and legs fully gassed, then came the downhill—the final, glorious downhill. Thank the Universe for finish lines.

British Columbia is where mountain biking in its modern form truly started, where the rubber went from smooth and fast to knobby and sticky. Why climb Mount Seymour on a 1990, fully-rigid Huffy to descend in a brutal rattle fest? Simple; because it is there. Perfectly encapsulating all things PNW, the BCBR channels that mindset.

Upon driving back to the United States, I felt simultaneous sadness and joy: joy because simply completing the race is an accomplishment itself; sadness because I’d have to wait an entire year to join my new buddies and once more suffer through the exhausted ecstasy—and Brett Tippie-fueled motivation—that is the BC Bike Race.