Catch up on previous Episodes Here:Episode 1Episode 2
Whistler, Canada. What is there to be said about this place that has not already been said? Well here is something: most people that know my life long passion for mountain biking are shocked to learn that I have never been. I always tell myself, "I don’t want to go to Whistler (and the rest of British Columbia for that matter) and just race." I have obsessed for decades over films and photos from this magic mountain bike kingdom and I know that one short week would only fuel my yearning to stay there. If I am going to visit this place, I want to be prepared to stay, do it right, see it all, and reap all the rewards this land has to offer.
This year I decided to break "Morse's code" because if I am going to commit to an entire international race series, how could it be complete without Whistler? For this round, I traveled with a long time racing mate and fellow Vermonter, Gavin Vaughan. We found an affordable non-stop flight from Montreal to Vancouver on a Wednesday evening. As we landed in the promise land, anticipation and excitement began to build. We headed down to baggage claim and waited for the bikes to arrive. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, thirty minutes, still no bike. Forty-five minutes later and baggage claim is now nearly empty. I’m beginning to think our prized possessions caught a nap on the runway in Montreal. With no one in sight, we head to the info desk at the airport so they can call some folks from the airline to meet us and fill out a lost bag form. Fifteen minutes later, still no one arrives at the claim desk to help us. This cycle repeats itself for another 45 minutes. Meanwhile, we noticed another poor lost soul separated from its owner at the carousels with us. It was a “Whyte Bikes” box sitting unclaimed in the baggage area. Finally, the last plane of the evening pours into baggage area, as well as some staff of the airline. We describe our situation with the impending race in a few short days only to find that there are no forms left. I now begin to understand why our flight may have been so cheap. So Gavin, a few other customers, and myself all fill out photocopied forms with the same reference number. My hopes of seeing bikes before the weeks end were sinking. I feared the same plight as the nearby Whyte bikes box was destined for our bikes. At least the claim attendant was kind enough to include a business card with a couple numbers, instructing us to, "call at noon tomorrow and we will probably have the bikes by then; you'll be all set." Great, let's move on to Whistler then.
The following morning we made our way into downtown Vancouver by train to catch a bus up the sea to sky highway through North Van, Squamish and Whistler. These legendary locations were all at my fingertips as I sat wide eyed, face pressed against the glass. I dreamed of what lay beyond the pines down to the forest floor. Upon arrival, we promptly met up with a couple East Coast juniors, Emmett and Ziggy, who had road tripped out for the race. We went for a stroll in town amongst the herds of tourists throughout the village, greeting the familiar faces of racers with head nods and high fives.
At noon we made quick work of the bike recovery mission. Gavin called the hotline while I attempted the additional number. An hour and a half later, Gavin was still on the line getting offered several credit cards and other options that did not involve speaking to a real human, while I kept reaching voicemail. Now I fully understand why the tickets were so cheap; it appears they cut cost by eliminating customer support. After countless calls over the next several hours we finally reached someone who informed us the bikes were scheduled to arrive on the 11:30 evening flight. Since practice kicked off around 3:00 the next afternoon, we decided it was not worth the risk to wait for the airline to deliver. Ziggy graciously emptied his loaded car and let us make the 2+ hour drive to Vancouver to rescue the precious cargo. When we scooped up our bikes that poor Whyte Bikes box still remained in the middle of baggage claim, validating the midnight send.
Friday morning came quick, but we were able to build the bikes, dial in the gear, and set out for a mandatory pre-practice lap on A-Line. As this was my first time in Whistler, it only seemed right to start on A-Line. After two hot laps on the most reputable trail in the world, we headed to the summit to begin practice on another iconic trail, Top of the World. After a minute or two into this 20+ minute stage, I was so fired up on the trails that I blasted by my friends who had all stopped for a break. I even shouted to them, "I'M NOT STOPPING YET, THIS IS TOO GOOD! YEEEWWWW!!!". Although, several thousand miles from home, almost equally as far as Europe, there was something about these trails that felt familiar. Maybe it was decades of obsession and anticipation all pouring out of me at once, but I was riding fast and it was a blast. Practice finished out well, no crashes, just a slow leak in the front tire that I would later attribute to a faulty rim strip as I prepped the bike Saturday night for the race.
Race day began with the only two substantial climbs on some trails on Blackcomb. First run was solid and I carried the momentum I had built in practice, climbing up for stage two with time to spare. I laid my bike down by the start and perused the crowd up top, joking around with the “other Adam” privateer. When it was time to go, the official called out, "30 seconds til start...10 seconds…5 seconds…GO!" I sprint off the line, but at that moment I knew something felt wrong. Two seconds later and a hard left hand turn revealed a nearly completely flat front tire. "NOOOO THIS CAN'T BE, IT WAS FINE JUST A MINUTE AGO." I quickly processed the crisis, while attempting to still race, coming to the conclusion that the faulty rim tape I fixed must have lifted up while the bike was sitting idle and I failed to notice walking to the start. Some riders might shy away from a double black diamond trail named “Crazy Train,” flat or no flat, but I did not come all this way to quit on the second stage. So, the race was on and I cannot put into words the commotion that ensued down to the bottom, though I was still able to salvage 74th on the stage (this would have actually been a great result for me at some of the European rounds). Fortunately, I had some Vittoria's new tire insert, the Airliner, which allowed me to push fairly hard despite the flat. It's cliche to say, but "never give up" has always been my mantra. This theme has been prevalent throughout the season and I would not have finished a single round if I let a crisis like this consume me.
Stage 3 had a tight transfer time and was a chaotic scene at the start. I would end up missing the whistle by a minute or two and receiving a penalty on the overall. Aside from these setbacks, I was feeling great on the bike, so I absolutely raged my way through the next two stages, posting a 36th and 43rd, two results that shocked me. These results were beyond the goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year. This tidal wave of energy carried over to the final stage, Top of the World, where I rallied, having a blast and going fast, but unfortunately cut a tire on a sharp rock like many riders on this stage. This happened on the upper third of a 20+ minute run. This stage will go down as one of the hardest all year, but doing fifteen minutes of it with a rear flat may go down as the hardest run of my lifetime. After having a few good stages, I was not about to cruise to the bottom; the fire was sufficiently fueled and I still gave it everything. The Airliner saved me again and I was able to salvage another top 100 stage time. I left Whistler energized by the legendary trails and some competitive stage times, but disappointed by a few mistakes that led to disaster. This wasn't bad luck, it wasn't the rim strips fault for lifting up and leaking air, it wasn't the rocks fault that punctured my tire, these were mistakes on my part. Realizing this is how I learn to balance all the factors that make for a good race. If there is one EWS race on the schedule next year, redemption in Whistler is the one.
Time at home throughout the summer was hectic. While I tried to catch on sleep and jumped right back into work, it would often take me an entire week to have enough energy just to unpack the bike, clean my gear, and feel normal again. That would only leave a couple weeks to get back into a conditioning routine before it was time to break down the bike again and head out on another trip. With shorter days late in the summer, I had to find ways to extend my rides.
The final trip of the year was a whirlwind. Back-to-back race weekends in Ainsa, Spain and the EWS classic Finale Ligure, Italy. There were nine of us converging in Barcelona to tackle the final 2 rounds, but first... long time racing mate and fellow Yeti/Vittoria Ambassador Tom Sampson and I would try to squeeze in a quick EWS Continental Series race in my home state of Vermont. With dwindling allowance of time off work, this meant squeezing eight stages of practice into one day on Friday, racing Saturday and Sunday, driving two hours home, washing my gear, packing the bike, working a full day Monday, then catching a red eye to Europe that night.
I was excited to finish out the season with a crew consisting of long time, east coast U.S. racing mates and a few new mates, all trying to make a full year of EWS racing complete. Brendon Edgar and Cody Kelley are prime examples of those familiar faces you catch head nodding and giving high fives around the world throughout the year. Now, we joined forces to make one more trip to Europe and complete the season. I decided having an extra day before practice was necessary for the logistics of our group meeting in Barcelona, so like any round prior, when there is a day of downtime we hustled our bikes together to go ride! Cody had been to Ainsa before and led us to some unique gray spine-like terrain. This would be similar to some of the stages and a great way to get familiar with the dirt and everyone in the squad. We had a blast dancing our bikes down these natural spines and taking in stunning views of the Spanish countryside.
Thursday morning's early wakeup and scramble for shuttles to practice was starting to become quite familiar. We were amongst the first riders to head high into the hills. We were greeted by spectacular views and some horses roaming the start area. There has not been a single stop on the series that was not worth the scrambling for time, funds, and effort to get there. I am continually amazed by the people and places we visited. Spain was no exception.
The weekend of racing kicked off on Friday evening with a prologue through the old village and a party for the riders and spectators to follow. The prologue was a blind run starting on the castle walls, descending stairs and sprinting through village squares. The time would not count for the overall, so it was really just a crowd pleasing event to get people excited about the race. In reality, this was just as easily a rider pleasing event as well. Like many times this year, I got to witness others and myself experiencing something truly unique. The array of smiles and energy in the finish corral of the prologue still makes my head buzz months later.
After a couple long yet seemingly quick practice days, the race was on. We opened up the day with a long physical stage lasting fourteen minutes. I would say my first two stages were a bit of a disaster. A close encounter with the course tape ended up wrapping itself in my drivetrain and a cut tire on stage 2 were beating me down. Similar to Whistler, I was feeling great on the bike, but making foolish mistakes that had me struggling to put down times I was proud of. Frustration was building and some super human rage kicked in, powering me through the last two stages of the day. Finally, a couple heaters and I ended the day on the best high money can't buy. When I checked the day one results, I was shocked to see I had actually finished the last 2 stages in the top 40! This was a ground breaking moment for me. I was shocked to hit this benchmark in Whistler, but now to do the same in Europe where the competition is fierce, was something to be truly proud of.
I approached day two with an ambitious expectation of going out and crushing my way to the top 40 on each stage. I let the idea of a result consume my focus rather than the riding that got me there. The end result was some wild and exciting riding, but unfortunately a touch too wild with some spectacular crashes on each stage. I was fortunate to not sustain any major injuries and still salvage a decent result in the overall, all things considered. I had one more opportunity to figure out the balance and pace required to keep my bike and self together for one of these races.
After a few days of road tripping through Southern Europe we arrived in Finale. I will mention, this year is full of memories and great stories. The four days between Spain and Finale yielded some of the greatest this entire year. There are anywhere from 6 to 9 stories I have debated adding to this write up, but have decided most of those are better shared in person, so let’s get on with Finale. As the most grand finale in Finale, there is no doubt this was the most spectacular venue all year. Pizza, Gelato, swimming in the Mediterranean, and exceptional trails, what more could we ask for?
As usual, with a few days before practice, we set out on some casual rides to see what the soil had in store. Only minutes into our ride, we ran into local guide and fellow Yeti Ambassador Francesco Gozio. He was finishing out a tour and quickly turned us around to ascend a better route. He also queued up some trails for us to ride the next day that would be more similar to the race stages so we could get a better taste of what we were in for. Similar to each round this year, the terrain here was nothing like the others. The dirt was ultra fine silt that was quite slippery over the hard pack tread, while the rock was extremely unique. There is a special rock in Finale, similar to a course pumice stone to the touch, but a drastically different complexion. This unique rock is a combination of granite, coral, and fossilized sea shells that once laid underneath the surface of the Mediterranean and have risen to the hills over millions of years. What's it like to ride this, you wonder? It is the most absurd grip you could imagine (but don't forget the silty soil is still loose and slick!). When riding rocks at home at considerable pace, your tires will begin to deflect off various cambers and shelves in the rock. I have calibrated my micro steering adjustments to this predictable bounce and slip of the rock, but this grip was so extreme that your tires were seemingly glued to the rock. There was such excessive grip that I found myself over steering on the rock and swiftly heading towards the scary edge of the trail. There were many close calls on this first ride from over grip. I thought back to the first round and my Chilean anti-grip friends. They would have surely struggled with the gluttonous presence of traction.
Practice was a lengthy day, even with a couple shuttles. Much of the terrain could only be accessed by long transfers in the woods and up to the ridges between the towns. Stage 2 began with a jagged rock section fully exposed to the wind. Upon foot inspection, it looked horrid. Over this entire year there has not been a more heavily debated line choice as this one. As riders began to pick their way through a variety of lines, it became apparent that despite its appearance, no one was crashing. In fact, most riders looked to be in good control. I hiked back to the start and gave it a nervous run through. Sure enough, the off camber jagged rock provided deceivingly good grip and my nerves were at ease. However, I would later find out some riders, including fellow privateer Adam Price, were not so lucky. This was unfortunate news to hear, but helped put in perspective that this section was not one to simply dismiss from my concerns come race day.
This event had a particularly unique format. When practice begins at most EWS rounds, it's game on for several days in row until the race is done. The race was a one-day race with a practice day. The difference from other one-day races was that we practiced on Friday and raced Sunday, which meant we had all day Saturday to do as we please. Someone floated the idea to charter a sailboat for the afternoon. After a couple calls, we found a boat with some open spots for the group. Our 70-something-year-old skipper was a gracious host, taking us up and down the coast with views of the famous final stage. He even showed up Brendon and I, who were flipping off the side rail of the boat, by flipping from the center of the boat over the steal cable. Yes, us 30-something boys got schooled by an Italian grandpa skipper. All in all, this rest day was a nice change of pace compared to the normal rushing around to change tires and tune the bike after a long practice day. Most of the factory riders don't have to worry about things like this, but as a privateer, you are your own mechanic, you are your own shuttle coordinator, and you are your own cook. Kate and Chris Ball, along with Nathalie, if you are reading this, I think we would all appreciate more events with a rest day like this one!
Alas, the bittersweet final race of the season. After seven EWS starts prior to this one, my goal was to not only finish, but to finish with no mechanical failure or spectacular crashes. I have learned the diverse variables one faces throughout the duration of these events is a delicate balance. I struggled with some final race nerves and abnormal fatigue on the first two stages, but did manage to properly gear some tricky climbs and save a few potentially big crashes. I was teetering on that fine line of control without exceeding it. I played it cool on some higher risk sections, like the top of stage 2. Stages 3 and 4 were exceptionally special. Both descended different ridge lines with full exposure and stunning views to the surrounding towns. Paired with some of the best trail we had, the pleasure of riding this year made it hard not to enjoy. When you are having fun, you ride faster; when you ride faster, you inherit some risk; when you pull it off, there is no better feeling in bike racing. These last two stages brought me back to that high you can't buy. I had finally done it - a race with no major offs and no mechanical failure. The results of these events often tell a very different story from reality. This race was far from my best result and even further from what I am capable of on any given stage, but it will be a special one to look back on after this long season of intense competition.
Now that the season is over and I've had time to reflect on the whole experience, there is so much to say. However, I would like to simply recall some words of wisdom from a Pinkbike article written earlier this year by Mike Kazimer: "Racing introduces all sorts of unknown elements, forcing your brain cells to fire in new ways as the flood of information that comes with riding unfamiliar terrain at a high level of exertion is processed. It's a trial by fire method of progression, and when those endorphins are flowing you may find yourself riding sections of trail that didn't seem possible." Kazimer goes on to make other key points regarding why someone should try racing such as, the people you will meet, the motivation you will gain, and the fun you will have. There is no better analogy for my sentiments on racing or any new opportunity in life.
...and now I get to enjoy the best season of them all, the fall.