The Inaugural BCBR Gravel Explorer: More Than a Bike Race
What a week.
“Race” is but one of the words I would use to describe the experience, the inaugural edition of the BCBR Gravel Explorer, a 5-day gravel stage race weaving through picturesque Penticton, Naramata and East Kelowna put on by the organizers behind the iconic BC Bike Race.
Back in February, I decided to sign up for and train for said Gravel Explorer with the goal of completing it as my first bike race.
The insanity of that objective didn’t become clear until it was mostly completed.
Here’s the week by the (Strava) numbers: Five days, 319.57 km—or 20h36 minutes—in the saddle— 6,130 m of elevation climbed, and a hell of a lot of exhilarating mountain biking parcours. The week also included my longest bike ride ever (100km, ridden on an epic frosty fall odyssey on Wednesday). None of that would have been conceivable but for the time I put in the saddle this year. Starting with very short Peloton rides in February, I gradually got braver and stronger, and took things outside on the gravel bike as things got warmer, ending up with a total of 4,291 km so far on the year (that translates to an average of 182 km/9h52 min of riding time on average per week, since early February). For seasoned cyclists, these are not big numbers, but they are monumental for someone who started from scratch, fresh out of the hospital and a decade putting in long hours behind a desk.
At the end of the week, I ended up on the podium, coming in 3rd place overall in my age category. The women who came in ahead of me put in jaw-dropping performances, and standing next to them was actually a bit surreal.
The week was intense. Every single person there was, in their own way, deeply intense. You have to be to do something like this. Classic Type II fun.
It was also humbling. Gratifying. Inspiring.
It was one of those experiences which exists within itself, suspended in time and space yet deeply transcendent.
A couple of days removed from the week, and reacquainted with a cell phone for the first time since mine was unintentionally sacrificed to a logging truck on Wednesday, I’ve had a chance to digest enough to be able to put a few words down.
Others in or peripheral to the race have done a better job than I could recapping the days’ various action (race or course wise) in photos or words (Deon Nel and Chris Stenberg were both out on course taking astounding photos and videos which truly capture what it felt like out there) or putting out the kind of deep words that come from intense, solitary thought (RJ Sauer, a documentary journalist who took on the added challenge of bikepacking, is putting out a fantastic series of observations.) Cycling publications have also covered the pointy end of the race.
But these are the things that really stood out to me from the back end of the pack:
The folks behind BCBR Gravel made every single person—first to last—feel included and welcome. That’s no small feat for a race which attracts actual professionals and more casual adventurers alike. I was dead last on Day 4 due to some pesky digestive issues—no one gave me any kind of a hard time about it, at all, despite many people standing in the cold rain waiting for me to literally heave my body through this damn course. Lots of smiles on faces and good cheer all week—what a fine bunch of people.
Sometimes our heroes turn out not to be larger than life if we ever get to meet them in person. Cory Wallace has been a hero of mine for years, long before I ever got a gravel bike or conceived of getting one. If you don’t know who he is, look him up. He embodies the spirit of adventure on his bike more than anyone out there, and he shares those adventures generously. He is also a fiercely fast dude on a bike. Cory took the overall men’s title at BCBR Gravel, and did so handily. When I got to the finish line on Stage 5, Cory, who had finished about an hour before, was standing there and congratulated me. Talking to him for a few minutes was one of the highlights of my week. The guy had no obligation to be hanging around, but there he was, spreading good cheer and congratulating random cyclists in the peloton. Just a genuinely nice dude. He is racing the BC Bike Race this week; send him some good vibes.
There are some really, really fit people out there in their 50s and 60s. Like kicking everybody’s ass fit. I had this discussion with so many other riders throughout the week. Seeing it happen—seeing people 20 or 30 years older than you just take off up a hill and sustain that pace for hours, when you know how fit you actually are--it just goes to show that life doesn’t end at 25. Life doesn’t end because of a career, or kids, or obligations. Age is not a limiter when it comes to adventure.
I can’t stop thinking about my bike and all I want to do is get back on it. In my mind’s eye, I am suspended in the silent expanse of an empty forest service road at 1400 meters, fingers and toes not quite numb, tires whispering on the wet gravel below, lungs and eyes open, filling with cold air and an explosion of primary, crunchy yellows and reds.
Deeper in my mind, plans, percolations. Crazy rides I want to do by myself and with my husband. Trying to organize a North Okanagan gravel race, or series of rides to get people further afoot on their gravel bikes.
The fact that I think I can lead a group ride on a bike is a testament to the power of the Gravel Explorer.
I can hardly wait to do it again.
Photo: Deon Nel Photography (check his amazing cycling photography work out on his Instagram page!)