Ladies DO Dumbo

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The seed was planted this winter. My girlfriend from Cochrane called and we got on the topic of staying in shape as the days shortened and the mountain bikes were put away. We giggled about how easy it is to just hibernate in a pair of sweats that are a couple sizes too big, and she suggested we sign up for an event that would hold us accountable to stay active and train when our motivation dipped with the temperature.

I asked what she had in mind (this is the same friend that has suckered me into running half marathons). When she replied with a 344km bike packing race, laughter filled the phone. At least it was on a bike I suppose! I’ve been a mountain biker since I can remember but I have never bitten off such a feat before and I wondered if this was an attainable goal...

Truth is, not being certain if its attainable is what makes all challenges worthwhile. So, after much deliberation, I too signed up for the Dumbo portion of the Lost Elephant. Over the coming months, I mentioned the bike race to friends. Some laughed out loud as I initially had. Some seemed intrigued but sat on the fence. But then there were Beverlee and Christine – they signed up and showed up.

As crunch time approached, the questions grew in my mind. My best pal who had suggested the race ended up having to pull out as some big life events got in the way. We had planned to take our time and enjoy the experience. I was now left questioning my training and preparedness to keep on pace with Christine and Beverlee. Maybe I should pull out too?

But my husband encouraged me to carry on (sometimes those special people in our lives know our strength better than we do), and I decided that quitting before I’d started was a poor way to go. Christine is not new to bike packing and had a goal of accomplishing the distance in 2 days. Beverlee, turning a youthful 50, wanted to prove that age wasn’t an obstacle. I was in it for the story, the photos, and to see if I was capable of keeping up with these two at an ambitious pace.

At 5:30am on July 24th, we unloaded our bikes from the truck and lined up with others to embark on the Dumbo alongside those going for the longer distance Jumbo version of the race. Nathan gave us the GO and we were off! Our brains and legs were still waking up, so we started off slow and steady on the lovely Isadore Canyon trail. As we crossed the highway and headed towards Fort Steele, our first decent had me feeling rather precarious with my seat post high and rear shock locked out (I had selected my Juliana as my steed). This definitely wasn’t mountain biking!

Along Coopman Road to Highway 95, I lost my breakfast bar. My bear spray was returned by a Jumbo racer. Others lost items and readjusted their loads. Re-strapping. Re-packing. We took the opportunity to refine our packing techniques before embarking on our first climb. After a quick pee break and a snack, we were onto Wildhorse Road, considered to be one of the two harder sections on the race. At least we were getting it out of the way soon!

It wasn’t as gruelling as I’d anticipated as the pace remained slow and steady. Somewhere around kilometre 25 a bighorn sheep came charging towards us, thankfully turning to bound up a sidehill and keep us under a watchful eye. Two minutes later, 3 more sheep came charging in. Wildlife encounters such as this are a photographer’s dream, and I was grateful to be able to capture the magnificent strength and beauty. We continued on, coasting down wildflower-lined gravel roads, the wind in our hair. Bike packing isn’t so bad! Not so bad at all!

The fresh morning had given way to hotter and steadily climbing temperatures, so when we laid our eyes on Whiteswan Lake it was no question when Christine asked if anyone fancied a dip. Swimsuits and towels are luxuries not afforded the limited space of bike packing, so skinny dipping it was! I had considered keeping my shammy on, thinking it might provide some refreshment as the pedaling continued, but Christine quickly informed me that a wet shammy would do me no favours. Beverlee and I, being newbies to the bike packing world, were appreciative for the tips. Our overheated bodies were rejuvenated by the fresh, crystal blue water and ready to take on the White River FSR.

The smoke in the air didn’t seem to bother us, and stunning views of fireweed- covered hillsides made it easy to focus on the positives. There were endless opportunities for photos, and while we snapped some, the camera came out less and less as we approached the next pass, which was rumoured to test our womanhood – the dreaded KoKo Claims. If you have heard of KoKo Claims, you know the nickname it’s earned.

If you have not, here is not the place for me to tell you. Research it, and let me assure you, the nickname is 100% appropriate. We decided dinner at the base might provide the physical and mental energy boost required. Thanks to Purcell Outdoors in Kimberley, I enjoyed Pork Jambalaya prepared with my JetBoil, and we took some rare time to revel in our surroundings.

Time stops for no bike packer though, and in order to reach Elkford by nightfall it was time to get pedalling again. It may have been a turtle’s pace, but we were pleasantly surprised that the first section was rideable! Until it wasn’t...

The grueling hike-a-bike began, made all the more tortuous by the relentless mosquitoes and horseflies. Thankfully, they seemed to find Beverlee the most appealing, leaving Christine and I to focus on the boulder field we were navigating. Some ascents required an inchworm technique – push the bike slightly ahead, hold the brakes, precariously reposition yourself to push the bike a smidge again, and repeat. And repeat. And REPEAT. Profanities were uttered.

We weren’t granted any reprieve on the descents, as they too were navigated on foot. Daylight was fading and we were trying to move fast. This was definitely not a place to hike with limited vision and setting up camp was not possible in this terrain. Spotting a skinny trail to the side of the unforgiving boulders, Beverlee muscled her bike down the hill, but inevitably was reduced to pushing again. There was simply no other way.

When we finally reached the bottom, we rigged up our lights and got moving, descending down a dusty, rocky double track. My front brake seemed to need a bleed, requiring me to pump the lever before providing unreliable stopping power, but here it gave up entirely. Rear brake locked up, I found myself about to kiss a boulder, and when I caught up to gals descending into Elkford, I made no mention of the front brake or my bloody shin. With street lights guiding us and buttery smooth pavement beneath our tires, the conversation turned to deciding where to lay our heads for the night.

Despite having packed and prepared to camp, it seemed silly to forego the comfort of beds. I made an executive decision and began calling around to inquire about lodging and book us a room. One of us slept well, two of us tossed and turned, and 5am came incredibly early.

Thanks to our gear prep the night before, we were in the saddles by 5:30, headed for the Elk Valley Trail. The temperature was just right, and again, the smoke wasn’t too bothersome. Although tired from the day before, we enjoyed the scenery. This section was mostly singletrack – fun, well-built trail, that as a mountain biker I would have thoroughly enjoyed. Loaded up with gear, and with heavy legs and exhausted spirits, it was, well... less fun.

Upon reaching Sparwood, we hit up the A&W, devouring breakfast sandwiches and greasy hashbrowns, with some extra to-go bags to appease our anticipated starvation later on down the trail. Fueled up, we got back on the trail and it wasn’t long before the punchy little climbs and meandering singletrack began to take their toll. Christine forged ahead like a machine, with Beverlee on her rear tire, and I was increasingly disheartened as the gap between us grew. Alone with my thoughts, it was difficult to remain positive.

I was finding descents to be challenging without my front brake and really didn’t want to continue another 130km without it. We called ahead to a bike shop in Fernie to see if they could squeeze in a quick brake bleed for me. They said I could leave it with them and they would try to fit it in. I can’t say that the thought of the break that would give me wasn’t appealing! It would mean our goal of two days would likely be out the window however, so I said no thank you and we carried on.

Christine and I discussed the rest of the route which was to be primarily gravel roads after Fernie, and decided it wouldn’t be too unreasonable without the front brake. In a last ditch effort, we hit up Gear Hub, only a half block off our route, and they said they could bleed my brake. We thanked them with Fernie’s finest (beers from Fernie Brewing) and paid our bill, ready to carry on with full stopping power.

And on the topic of stopping power – I had devised a plan and laid it out for the girls. Not wanting to hold them back, I told them they should continue on at their faster pace. I would enjoy an evening in Fernie and finish up on my own tomorrow during the cool morning. Yeah, that didn’t go over. I must say now how grateful I am that they didn’t simply say, “alright, see ya!”. Together we set off to finish the last leg, which we thought was supposed to be an easy section...

Gravel roads during the heat of the day can drain your energy like nothing else. At this point our moods were beginning to resemble the profile of the race course – a lot of ups and downs. Through the cuss words, tears and laughter, we powered on with snack breaks and creek stops providing some relief. We hoped each climb along the Bull River Road was our last. A stop at the Jaffray corner store provided some much needed supplies to re-energize us mentally and physically for the home stretch and a daunting cross on Highway 3 to Wardner. It was all the power our legs had to hammer across the bridge feeling like we could be taken out by the vehicle traffic before we were back onto trail and rail beds for the final 42 kilometres.

Now when you’ve already come 302km, you would think that the last 42km would be nothing, but those were some of the most testing turns of the pedals. Not even the prospect of the finish line could buoy us as we contorted ourselves into new riding positions seeking any relief possible for our saddle-weary lady bits. Night began to fall, lights faded and died, and we kept it tight to light each others path, literally and figuratively. When we reached the final 10 kilometres on the Isadore Canyon trail, where it all began some 40+ hours prior, we saw a light ahead.

Lo and behold, it was Christine’s partner Mat B (co-owner of Bootleg Bike Co in Kimberley) and his crew with snacks and encouragement in abundance. I hadn’t cried yet, but this gesture of kindness and support brought a tear to my eye. The finish line in sight and the hum of pavement now under our tires, we headed over to the Commerce to be greeted by our crew showering us with celebratory beverages.

3 gal pals, 344km, 1 day and 18 hours and 30 minutes. And all the others that made it happen – event organizers, spouses, family, friends, fellow competitors and businesses along the route. I leave the experience changed and inspired - in awe of our accomplishment, grateful for our loving support system, and ready to take on the next challenge.


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