Race day! I’m not even going to begin to try and count how many races I’ve started in my 20 years as a competitive mountain biker, but let’s just say it’s a lot. Even so, the first race of the season always throws me for a bit of a loop and makes me question myself. How do I do this again? What is the structure of my pre-race prep ride? What are all the little things I need to get ready for race day? The first race just takes some extra thought and a few more written lists than when I’m mid-season. And then there’s always the question: Can I get myself into race mode when I need to? But the answer is always, yes.
The second I press start on my Garmin and begin my warm up routine, my focus narrows to the job at hand and the 60 minutes leading up to go time. And once the whistle blows or the gun goes off, my focus tightens even more to what is happening from one moment to the next. Who is beside me? Who got out of the gate first? What is the best line through the first corner? How can I defend my position? How do I enter this section of trail in order to nail the correct line?
It’s fun! Sometimes I catch myself losing focus and thinking about something completely not related to that moment in the race (What am I going to eat for dinner?) and I quickly bring it back. If I’m not thinking about each pedal stroke or every line choice, I’m not going as fast as I could be.
It was awesome to have Ryan come over for the weekend, even though he chose not to race. I felt bad, because it’s a pretty long and expensive trip to come over on the ferry, plus he took a day off work. But it meant a lot and helped me feel grounded. I didn’t really get anxious at all, because he was there to help me and I didn’t feel like I had to do everything myself. Even though I was still on team camp schedule, I found time to hang out with him before and after dinner, which was great, since I hadn’t seen him in almost two weeks!
On race morning, we had breakfast together and then he helped me lug all of my stuff down to the team tent area of the race site, which was located by the start/finish and feed/tech zone. Hugo from Giant Canada had set up an awesome pit for me and Heidi (Liv Vancouver Ambassador doing her first ever elite race), consisting of two tents, work bench, bike rack, table and chairs surrounding — get this — two portable propane fire pits! Let me just say this: Hugo is THE MAN. We quickly figured out feed and tech zone logistics. Hugo would stay in the top feed/tech zone to give me bottles and provide mechanical support in case I needed anything. He would also have spare wheels on hand and some spare parts, like a derailleur, derailleur hanger, chain, pedals, seatpost, etc. I then sent poor Ryan down to the bottom of the course out in the boonies to the second feed/tech area, where he would have his wheels ready in case I needed spares down there. He was also sure to have some tools with him.
Then I started my warm up, which consists of about 40 minutes of riding on the road and includes some “opener” efforts to get my system firing and ready to go. It was chilly out (actually, it had snowed overnight!), so I made sure to bundle up. Luckily the snow had melted for us.
Just before I rolled to the start, I dropped off a bunch of my layers and chugged most of my warm up bottle, keeping on a jacket that I would hand off at the last minute. I was called up fourth in order of world ranking and chose a spot in the middle beside Emily. American rider Jenna squeezed in beside me on my left. I quickly ate an energy gel and washed it down with a sip for my start bottle. I hopped around beside my bike and did some small running steps on the spot in order to keep my legs warm. I’d opted for bare legs, but arm warmers and an undershirt under my new Liv short-sleeved jersey. It was only about 5 degrees and I hoped the effort of the race would keep me warm.
Then, with about two minutes to go, I handed my jacket to Team BC coach Mike, who in turn handed it to Hugo (Thanks guys. ) and swung my leg over my bike’s top tube. With one minute to go, I clipped my right foot into my pedal and made sure the left pedal was aligned parallel to the ground. With 30 seconds to go, I slid my butt onto the nose of the saddle with my left toes just touching the ground and I crouched with my chest low over the bars and my arms braced wide with my elbows out. I took in some quick deep breaths and focused on the first corner. The last 15 seconds felt really long and I poised and ready to pounce, I thought I might false start, I was twitching — it’s gotta be soon!
And then we were off, I think I got clipped in first and charged off the line. I saw Cindy get the hole shot. That’s good, I didn’t want it. I wanted to start fast, but I didn’t want to start too fast and burn all my matches at once. The pace up the first climb was fast, but not crazy, and we stayed together in a bunch. There was some jostling for position, but I just stayed where I was. I knew it was across the flat gravel, followed by the final punch into the first singletrack that really mattered.
Cindy was the only one to enter the singletrack ahead of superstar climber Erin. It was a good move and a perfect example of knowing your competition. Cindy knew that Erin’s technical riding is her weakness and she took advantage. It’s really hard to get ahead of Erin on a climb, however, so that was a pretty big risk. Knowing all of this, I chose not to dig super deep to try for it, because there was still lots of racing left and lots of time for things to sort out. The favourites, Kika and Emily, were both stuck behind Erin, so I wasn’t panicked that I was too. A bunch of us just followed Erin down the long narrow single trail that offered no place to pass. Kika squeezed by her when she made a mistake, but she was the only one to make it through. I remember myself thinking that was the winning move.
It took until we exited the singletrack onto the gravel road at the very bottom of the course that things finally began to string out as Erin rocketed up the climb on her own, chasing Emily. Haley and I seemed pretty matched, while other riders were falling behind. We caught and passed Cindy, who was already paying for her initial effort.
For the rest of the race, Haley and I rode together. It was kind of fun not racing by myself, which often happens in Canada Cups. Haley was riding strong and set a good tempo on the climb and she was riding technically well. She had more horsepower and would often gap me a little on the climbs, but I would bring it back in the singletrack. I knew this was going to be a hard race to win between the two of us and I was constantly trying to figure out how I could best her. I used her draft as much as I could across the flats to conserve energy for the climbs, but I was still on the limit on the uphills and didn’t have the jump to pass her. I could match her pace, but not surpass it.
Glued to her wheel in the singletrack on the final lap, I was still trying to strategize where I could get around her. It was impossible to pass on the trail and I couldn’t out-gun her on the flats. Could I get her on a climb? But suddenly I took my wine a few millimeters wider than usual and I slipped out on the slick soil and was forced to unclip and put a foot down. I didn’t crash, I didn’t have to dismount, but that one bobble, that one dab created a massive gap. I was shocked by how quickly it happened. I was right on her wheel and suddenly I couldn’t even see her anymore! I guess when you stop dead while the other person is motoring along, the result is pretty dramatic.
I chased hard in the trails, trying to claw back the gap, but time was running out and there just wasn’t enough trail left. I had her back in my sights, but the gap was too big and she held me off to the finish, where I crossed the line in fifth. I was pumped with my ride, despite some tactical things I could have done differently. My legs felt good and I thought by technical riding was solid, despite that one small, but fatal error. For the first race of the season, it was a positive experience and I was pumped to sneak onto the podium. I think I should have dressed a bit warmer, though, as I remember noticing my feet and legs were cold during the race… I should have known better, considering my cyclocross racing experience! But it’s kind of funny how I’ve compartmentalized mountain bike racing and cyclocross.
I’m so grateful to Hugo and Ryan for supporting me during the race. The organizers did a great job of putting on a high quality event and Bear Mountain Resort’s venue is perfect! I really appreciated all of the people who were out there cheering and supporting the athletes, it really reflects a strong cycling community on Vancouver Island.
First race in the bag! After cleaning up, I went back down to catch the end of the men’s race and attend awards. Then it was back to the hotel for a Canadian team meet and great, which was fun. Finally, Ryan and I drove down the mountain to a sushi place and enjoyed a yummy platter of assorted rolls. Mmmm sushi….
I had one of my classic post-race sleeps, which one would think would be good, being so tired, but no… my post-race sleeps are always bad. I think it’s a combo of the adrenaline, excitement, heightened metabolism, caffeinated energy gels, sugar, etc., but I rarely sleep well after a race. So I woke up at 5:00 a.m.
After lots of groggy Instagram creeping and when I thought it was an appropriate time, I went over to Ryan’s room and had coffee and breakfast with him before going back and changing into cycling clothing for a kid’s event that was going on… despite more — you guessed it — snow! A huge group of young un’s showed up to ride bikes, regardless of the crazy weather, which was sweet. Several of my teammates also participated in the pre-ride festivities as we attempted to inspire the next generation of shredders. I did my best to be cool, but when I asked one of my young guys whether he had any questions about racing or being on the Canadian team, he responded: “Nah.” I asked him if he was just there to ride bikes, and he said: “Yeah, I just wanna ride my bike.” Fair enough!
After that appearance, I rode back up to the hotel and met Ryan for a bike ride! I wanted to show him the neat Stewart Mountain and Scafe Hill trails we’d ridden earlier in the week. Thank goodness for Garmins, I just loaded that previous ride’s “course” and pressed “Go!” It was fun to take Ryan on a little tour of trails he’d never seen before, despite the bouts of snow and rain we experienced along the way. Today’s trail conditions were a lot tougher than the other day’s, so that made things more challenging in general, but especially for my tired body. I was slipping everywhere on greasy rocks and roots and was definitely making lots of mistakes. But all in all, it was awesome to be outside in the woods riding my bike with Ryan.
But, alas, he had a ferry to catch, so we had to head back. That one last ride was a great way to wrap up a fantastic camp and a generally awesome time at Bear Mountain. I can’t thank Ecoasis, Bear Mountain Resort, Cycling Canada, Coach Dan, Tara, Trotter, Garrigan, and my teammates enough for contributing to such a positive and inspiring atmosphere. This is just the beginning of what is going to be an amazing season and the camp was the perfect way to build momentum and get the wheels turning.
Sandra Walter’s first time competing for Canada was in 1998 as a junior at the World XC Mountain Bike Championships. She has since flown the maple leaf at eight more World’s. Her competitive career spans two decades & is fueled simply by a love of the sport. She aspires to achieve new sporting heights, while inspiring women & girls to discover the joys of mountain biking.