Waking up at our basecamp on the McKenzie River at Belknap Hot Springs was chilly this morning, but the incredible feel of being surround by tall old growth trees and the sound of the rushing river made for a true wilderness camping experience.
All five stages in the Old Cascade Crest Network today were completely new to the event – and required a lot of pedalling. This yearlong project for the Trans-Cascadia crew allowed the race to add the 17.8 miles with 3,667 feet of climbing and 5079 feet of descending.
Stage 8 started with a climb towards Browder Ridge where the mature timber gradually gives way to open meadows along the ridgeline where – had the clouds lifted at all -racers would have had views of the surrounding volcanoes. From there, the stage dropped promptly down Gate Creek Trail for a sporty descent to a challenging final plunge.
After a short shuttle, racers arrived to Crescent Mountain for stages 9 and 10. The South Crescent trailhead required some effort as it was a roughly 1 - 2 hour climb. Racers were promised a reward of sweeping meadow vistas just before the summit, but all were happy with the stunning and misty old growth forest along the way. Stage 9 sent racers down the north side of the mountain. This ‘dark side’ delivered consistently fast speeds into turns that felt handmade for mountain bikes, despite the vintage of the trail. That said, not all the corners were easy to make – at least not a mach speed.
Joe Lawwill was following Mitch Ropelato when things went sideways (literally) – and then down. Mitch describes what happened:
We drop in and I was hauling ass, it was a little bit too fast for the conditions, but it was working out. Then we come into this one section – my glasses are all muddy, and Joe’s catching all the roost off me so he’s double as muddy – and all of a sudden I just see left! I lock it up and slide around the backside of the berm and park it into this tree off the trail and was like ‘saved it!’ Then I go to warn Joe and I look behind me, as soon as I look behind me I just see him on front and rear brake. He can’t go sideways because I’m standing right there – and he probably should have just ploughed me, I would have fallen over into a tree and I would have been fine, but he just locked up the front and rear and skidded off into the trees. He looked like E.T. taking off, it was insane, and he just flew through the trees and out of sight. I was like ‘oh my god, he just died. He’s dead. There are a million logs out there – he must have landed on one and it shanked him and shish kabobbed him and he’s done!’
I was like “Joe, are you okay?” And he yelled back “yeah, I’m fine!” And I was like “no, are you sure? Like are you really okay? That was the gnarliest crash I’ve ever seen.” And he was like “yeah, I’m fine.” So I run down and he’s like trying to hike out and the first thing he says is “well this is really going to hurt my time” and I was like “dude! You almost just died.” So I pulled his bike out and set his levers straight and he kind of shakes it off and he’s asks if his bike is good to go and I was like “everything looks right.” And he just grabs it and takes off sprinting.
The rest of the day, I was like, ‘you know what? I like the slower speeds.’ I made all the turns and just like chilled out. Yeah, it kind of freaked me out.
“I may have scarred Mitch for life,” says Joe showing off what could be bear claw marks in his leg. “I was following him, it was extremely muddy so I could barely see as it was, a switchback came up on us quick, he tried to stop for it and I was too close so I had to go around him, but it turn out that trail turned into a cliff. I went through trees and branches. It went dirt, sky, dirt, sky, and I ended up on my feet. Everything worked, so I started climbing up. And then I got stuck in the tree climbing up so Mitch helped me get the bike. By the time I got up there I was like, well I only lost a minute, I’ll keep going and a few minutes further into the run I was like ‘wow, my leg really hurts’ and I looked down and it was pouring blood down my shin. But I finished so it was okay!”
Mitch and Joe weren’t the only ones who got hung upon the quick left after the neutral zone. Brian Lopes took a tumble there and Geoff Kabush managed to park into a tree to avoid going over the side. “The section was really high speed” says Geoff, “and I was just having fun – those switchbacks come up quick and I wasn’t able to quite get it slowed down to turn so I ran into a tree a few feet off the trail that stopped me and I was able to climb back up. I lost about 10 or 15 seconds – no big deal, we got a lot of time out there on the trail today.”
After a mid-mountain pause – which was needed for most to gather their composure by the sounds of it, Stage 10 was a playful rip down to the creek.
Stages 11 and 12 were off the mountain on South Pyramid Creek Tail. The course meandered down the creek with a short neutral climb for a chance to regain any lost composure before dropping back in. Following a quick transfer up road, racers continued on the quite physical South Pyramid Creek Trail through an ever-changing landscape and finally onto the fast bench-cut section to end the day!
“It’s nice to do some new trail again” Geoff is the returning 2016 Trans-Cascadia champ. We got out there! I’m interested to look at a map afterwards to see where we actually rode. It’s amazing these trails feel like we are in the middle of nowhere, but they are so buff.” Geoff’s strength with pedalling came into play today as he closed the gap between him and Chris Johnston; who is currently in first place.
“I still have the lead by seven seconds,” Chris said at dinner. “Today had some really pedally stages. They were super physical, lots of ups and downs. Today was super wet and the conditions made it really hard to go fast; just sort of hanging it all out there to try and stay on the track to go fast. It was awesome just to keep that margin small because I knew Geoff would have a strong day with those two long stages and it’s awesome to still be at the front!” And while Chris was focused on keeping that lead, the beauty of these stages wasn’t lost on him. “It was amazing, the forest in there and the climates you go through, different forest, just incredible, so cool to ride out there.”
For Josh ‘Loosedog’ Lewis Trans-Cascadia is a completely different event than anything he’s done before. “It’s wicked laid back – exploring America in it’s autumn colours is so nice, it’s like the perfect picture. It’s a whole different experience. It’s so sick, I must say everyone behind the event is killing it. There has not been one upset – like the food and everything is dialled, fires at all the starts. It’s like convenience all the time. If you ever thing ‘I need’ or ‘this would be nice’ it’s already there.”
Racers experienced some true northwest weather yesterday, but at the end of the day there were nothing but smiling – albeit tired – faces and loamy bikes.