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Elite riders ready to contest BC Bike Race

Each year the BC Bike Race attracts a handful of elite cross-country racers to challenge themselves on the singletrack during the seven-day journey from Vancouver to Whistler. In 2007 Trek’s endurance racers Jeff Schalk and Chris Eatough proved to be the heaviest hitters, controlling the race virtually from start to finish. Last year World Cup riders Barry Wicks and Kris Sneddon (Kona) had the strongest legs, and faced off against a larger smattering of pro riders, Eatough and Schalk included.

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By Fred Dreier

Barry Wicks (left) and Kris Sneddon come in as defending champions

Barry Wicks (left) and Kris Sneddon come in as defending champions

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Each year the BC Bike Race attracts a handful of elite cross-country racers to challenge themselves on the singletrack during the seven-day journey from Vancouver to Whistler. In 2007 Trek’s endurance racers Jeff Schalk and Chris Eatough proved to be the heaviest hitters, controlling the race virtually from start to finish. Last year World Cup riders Barry Wicks and Kris Sneddon (Kona) had the strongest legs, and faced off against a larger smattering of pro riders, Eatough and Schalk included.

But unlike South Africa’s Absa Cape Epic or the Trans Alp in Germany, the BC Bike Race does not lure the pros with big payouts of prize cash. In fact, the seven-day race features no prize money for pro or amateur riders.

The chance to race on British Columbia’s world-class trail systems, Wicks said, is enough to bring him back for more.

“The World Cup is very important to me. It’s what I focus on, but an event like (the BC Bike Race) is what mountain biking is really about,” Wicks said. “When you go ride mountain bikes with your friends, you’re not doing laps on a 6km loop. You want to shred singletrack all day, and that is what the BC Bike Race is about. I mean, we’re mountain bikers. This is what we love. Shredding sweet trails is beautiful, and there’s nothing better than that.”

Nash hopes to win the women's prize alongside Luna teammate Catherine Pendrel

Nash hopes to win the women’s prize alongside Luna teammate Catherine Pendrel

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Shredding aside, Wicks and Sneddon face a steep challenge at this year’s race, specifically from Canadian strongmen Chris Sheppard and Seamus McGrath, who are riding under the Jamis/Santa Cruz banner. The two Canadians raced together in the 2008 edition, however their dream of an overall victory ended just five minutes into the opening stage. While riding through a field of high grass, McGrath tore his derailleur off of his bike. The two-time Canadian Olympian fashioned his rig into a singlespeed, but after torquing his bike in a big gear for several hours, McGrath watched in horror as the lightweight hardtail’s carbon frame buckled under the stress.

The two DNFed the day, and their shot at an overall result vanished

“It was like being in a bad dream. Did that just happen?” McGrath said. “It was hard to swallow at that time, but at least (race management) let us stay in and fight for stage wins.”

McGrath and Sheppard went on to win three stages.

The two are both adamant that this year, the overall prize is definitely within reach.

“We’re two Canadian boys and it would be nice to win,” McGrath said. “These are our home stomping grounds. We’re going for glory.”

Looking to challenge the two top teams are Schalk and Eatough, who both come into the race having raced three rounds of the National Ultra Endurance series, a seven-race collection of 100-mile cross-country races. Schalk has won two of the three races, including last weekend’s Lumberjack 100 in Manistee, Michigan.

The Utah-based Monavie-Cannondale is also fielding a squad of heavy hitters. Bart Gillespie, who last year won the opening BC Bike Race stage alongside Jason Sager, is teamed up with Utah strongman Alex Grant. German cross-country rider Ben Sonntag, the two-time U.S. collegiate cross-country champion, will race alongside Matt Shriver, a member of the 2009 USA world cyclocross championship team.

Seamus McGrath (right) and Chris Sheppard would love to redeem themselves after a heartbreaking 2008 race

Seamus McGrath (right) and Chris Sheppard would love to redeem themselves after a heartbreaking 2008 race

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“The thing is there are seven days of racing, seven days of ups and downs and there is at least some point where one teammate is having a tough day,” Eatough said. “As a teammate, you can either help (your teammate) or make it worse. That is the trick of stage racing.”

The women’s elite race should boil into a battle between Luna’s squad of Catherine Pendrel and Katerina Nash and Maxxis-Rocky Mountain’s Lea Davison and Alison Sydor. Both squads come into the event never having raced together in two-person team events. Sydor holds the most respect in the multi-day races, having won the Absa Cape Epic, Trans Alp and Trans Germany races.

Davison has one multi-day race under her belt, Guatemala’s three-day El Reto del Quetzal.

Nash, who started her season late after rehabbing a knee injury, completed the TransRockies stage race last year as part of a split-squad team. Having the full support of Luna at the BC Bike Race, Nash said, will help her and Pendrel.

“It helps to have (the TransRockies) behind me because now I know what to expect,” Nash said. “Last year I was camping and supporting myself. It’ll be better to have more support at this race.”

The most compelling battle of the weeklong race could be in the mixed category, as Nash’s Luna teammate Georgia Gould will race alongside Kona’s cyclocross champion Ryan Trebon. The two will face off against Monavie-Cannondale’s Sue Butler and Byan Alders.

This year marks the first time the BC Bike Race will allow riders to compete solo, however organizers are adamant that the team competition will retain the prestige and attention of previous years. Opening the race to solo riders was aimed at boosting the event’s overall registration, as signup numbers lagged due to the down economy.

Eatough (right) and Schalk took top honors in 2007

Eatough (right) and Schalk took top honors in 2007

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The decision seems to have paid off, and organizers are expecting approximately 400 riders to toe the line on Sunday, with between 100-150 solo riders in attendance. The total number equals the race’s registration from 2008.

But whether racing solo or in a team, all riders face seven days of tough riding.

“It can actually be funny to watch some of the implosions that took place last year,” said Jeff Schalk. “There were guys who went and attacked their other teammates with other teams. Weird stuff like that.”

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