For a while it looked like 2017 might be a year without long cross-country mountain bike races in Squamish. In 2016 Test of Metal Inc. organized the last run of its four iconic races — The Ore Crusher, The Test of Metal, The Gear Jammer, and the JABR (Just Another Bike Race). I'd be saving a few dollars in race registration fees and I'd have a few more summer Saturdays free, but I was going to really miss these events. They were always incredibly well-run. Spectators came out in droves making all the racers, regardless of speed or athleticism, feel like champions. For those of us lucky enough to live in Squamish it was nice to race on our home trails.
Thankfully the Sp'akw'us 50 was announced, backed by a non-profit society called the Squamish Mountain Bike Festival whose name hints at larger ambitions in years to come. Many of the key people behind the Sp'akw'us 50 had also been involved in the Test of Metal series of races. The Sp'akw'us landed on the same weekend that the Test of Metal was traditionally held, making it clearly a successor to the Test.
The race started with a loop through a defunct golf course. There were a few narrow bridges and pinch points, but the racers near me mostly merged courteously and we got through without much delay. As we entered the bike trails a bagpiper played trailside. A fellow rider quipped "Hey, isn't that the tune they play for soldiers going off to a hopeless battle?". We climbed Jack's Trail, 50 Shades of Green, and Mike's Loop. The firm dirt was more pleasant than the Test of Metal's opening climb, which was entirely on pavement.
From there it was fun mix of single-track and logging road, with a technically pedalable hike-a-bike thrown in for good measure. Halfway through the Sp'akw'us' 50km distance I arrived at the highest elevation point in the race, the top of the 6km long 360m high Stl'halem Sintl' (aka the Legacy Climb). My legs were complaining from the climb, but I knew I was sitting 600m in elevation above the finish line with only three small climbs in my way and a whole bunch of fun trails to ride.
Some other racers and I got a nice little rest during the second half of the race while we stopped to give a family of bears some space. Nonetheless I had to walk my bike up one of the last climbs to keep my legs from cramping. The prominent roots and awkward corners of Cherub in the last stretches of the race demanded more nimble manoeuvring than my tired body could muster. I won't be riding that trail again until next year's Sp'akw'us. I crossed the finish line in just under the time I had hoped for; the realistic time that I had hoped for, anyhow, there's always part of me hoping that on race day I'll be way faster than I really am.
The Sp'akw'us gave me everything I love about cross-country bike racing. There was a challenge, a sense of accomplishment, some suffering, and some thrills. Even though there were hundreds of racers ahead of me, the spectators cheered and I felt like a star (well, maybe my outfit had something to do with that). Most importantly there was that fun mix of camaraderie and competition with my fellow racers.
I'll be back next year. I'll be the one in the stupid costume, or hopefully, one of the ones in the stupid costumes.
Thanks to all the volunteers, sponsors, participants, and spectators.