My posts on bike races are pretty formulaic. "I did this race. These are the reasons it was awesome. You should do it. Thanks to the organizers." For the Merritt Crown I have to add a "this race might not be for you if" section. It's still an awesome race. I still think you should do it. I'm still grateful to the organizers for putting on such a fun event. To make the best of the Merritt Crown, at least the 2020 Merritt Crown, you need either more preparation or more patience than most cross-country mountain bike races usually take.
The course signage is minimal, which is understandable for a small grassroots event with a long course. The organizers are very clear about this in the race description and in all communications leading up to the event. They urge all riders to carry a phone with the route loaded on it so they can follow the course that way. Even riding with a phone in your pocket you are likely to make some wrong turns. This means you have to be patient or you have to be prepared. Being patient in this case means accepting that you'll go off course sometimes, checking your phone often, and backtracking until you're on course again. The alternative is to be prepared. This means going to Merritt once or twice leading up to the race and pre-riding the course. This way you get most of the wrong turns out of your system before race day. This takes quite a bit of commitment. The Merritt Crown might not be for you if you can't be either prepared, or patient, or some combination of the two. I opted for the path of patience. Before the race started I had never ridden in Merritt before. I did benefit from riding the first third of the race with my friend Glen who had pre-ridden the course. (Thanks Glen!)
Enough about route-finding though. Let's talk about the course. The course is long! There are 60km and 120km options. Whichever you choose you're in for a big day. The 120km option has everything from technical singletrack to paved highway. The course connects three different trail networks together. Getting between networks involves some road riding. There is even an 8km stretch along the highway between the second and third trail networks. That's not to say this isn't a technical course. There is some ligitimately black-diamond terrain. There are rock rolls, steep and loose chutes, a tight twisty canyon, and a lot of nice singletrack. The course gives a surprising sense of solitude. In the middle section of the race near Big Lake I went hours passing through vast farmlands without seeing an other person. The last section up Sumac Ridge looks short on the map, but with ninety-some-odd kilometres behind you the climb up to the ridge is pretty rough. It's an appropriate way to end a rough day.
With a half an hour before the 7pm cutoff I realized I had gone off course. There was no way for me to make it back to the course and finish on time. I accepted my fate and made my way along some logging roads back to town and to the finish line. At the end of the day I my GPS track was 600m shorter than the proper route. I owned up to my accidental cheating and there was a "DQ" for disqualified next to my name in the results. They gave me a plastic crown anyhow. I'll just have to come back next year and finish the race properly.
The organizers managed to put on a race in 2020. That's a hell of a feat. It felt really safe, too. Starts were staggered. We all wore masks at the start. At the feed stations we riders all wore masks (and retreated to a safe distance to actually eat). A huge thank you goes out to the organizers and volunteers for making the race happen against the odds, and doing it right. I've also gotta thank the people at Republic Bicycles who fixed a spoke for me at the last minute. Cheers!