Text and photos by Cory Ostertag
“Full gas ‘till Elko. All I need to do is get to Elko!”
These words I kept repeating to myself to stay motivated and to keep pressure on my pedals. I tapped out a tempo rhythm that was reflective of an effort I’d do during a four hour training ride, not on day three of a 1000km bikepacking race with nearly 200km yet to complete. As I exited Cranbrook, the last resupply point I would have access to, my lead over 2nd and 3rd was slim, and getting slimmer. I could sense Damian and Andy approaching and foolishly I was checking trackleaders far too frequently to see how much distance they were covering compared to me. “Full beans to Elko! Elko is my finish line”.
The finale of the BC Epic 1000 race route stretches fifty kilometres from the small mill town of Elko to the finish line in front of Fernie’s City Hall. It follows a circuitous path which includes the bone-jarring Wigwam flats and a deceptively long traverse across the backside of Mt. Broadwood. I knew that if I reached Elko with any distance over the next rider, I would likely be able to roll into Fernie in first place. This notorious section of trail is disorienting under the cloak of darkness and as rough as it gets; better suited for a quad than a mountain bike. Gravel bike? Don’t even think about it. If I get to Elko, my win would be safe. Nobody rides “fast” after Elko.
Rewind two and half days, and there we were, fifty or so smiling bikepackers all caffeinated, clean, and aboard heavily laden bikes of all varieties ready to roll out for the annual BC Epic 1000. Although young as far as bikepacking races go, the BC Epic has established itself as THE race to do in British Columbia. It spans 1000km from Merritt to Fernie and is composed approximately of 50% rail-to-trail (including the well known Kettle Valley Railway), 10% singletrack, 10% highways, and 20% forest service roads. This was the 2nd year in a row that I would be lining up for the Grand Départ. Prior experience is priceless in these sorts of races and I am looking to leverage this to better my 2021 finish time of three and a half days. This year would be very different in several ways. While last year saw soaring temperatures eliminate any alpine snow, it also forced three-quarters of the field to scratch. This year’s field would be stronger and more motivated. As for weather, a cold spring and late snowstorms in the Purcells meant that deep snow lingered on higher mountain passes. In order to avoid the snow on Grey Creek Pass, an optional lower elevation reroute was offered by Lennard Pretorious, the unofficial course director. but this came with a hefty 50km distance penalty. As you would expect, route selection was the hot topic at the pre-race dinner table. Who had the latest and most accurate trail beta? How much walking in snow would one tolerate? Does taking the reroute equate to a “clean run” and a genuine BC Epic?
The hodge podge of racers and happy-go-lucky tourers rolled out of the sleepy downtown at exactly 7am following a group photo and Lennard’s classic cursory pre-race instructions. As we approached the first rise leaving downtown, while most riders were distracted making new friends and reconnecting with old ones, two unknowns attacked and sprinted away from the group. This is exactly what every ultra-racer and coach warns against doing. “Surely they wouldn’t last… would they?” The rest of the group brushed it off and continued to roll forward with us “pointy end” racers organically distancing ourselves from the rest of the pack through the rolling terrain. By the time we hit gravel we were a group of six, methodically moving forward and dropping each other systematically and without sympathy. “Sidewall slash? Bye! Stomach Bug? Good riddance. Lack of fitness? Maybe see you in Fernie!” By the time we arrived in the first trailside town of Princeton at KM 115, I was left with one other racer, Damian Parlee of Victoria BC, while the two early attackers remained out front.
Damian and I had different refueling plans. He opted for a quick stop at the gas station while I hit up the river bank to filter some water and eat a packed sandwich. 5 minutes. It was early in the race, but I know that consuming “real food” whenever possible pays dividends over the long haul, and truthfully, I prefer riding by myself. I was glad to let him go even if it meant I was on my back foot chasing. A few minutes later I would pass early attacker #1 like he was standing still, as expected. But where was early attacker #2? As if he was still ahead!
Penticton, KM 230. A&W operating drive-thru only, and damn the line was long. Plan B: Starbucks Frappuccino, Subway sandwich and chips. Trackleaders hasn’t updated and it looks like Damian, myself and Andy Ward (aka crazy attacker #2) are still in town. I’m an opportunist and hit the road as fast as I can after 20 minutes of stopping time. Managing time at resupply points is critical. It’s tempting to sit down, doom scroll, chat with locals and decompress after a 200km push, but this is where races are won or lost. The clock doesn’t stop and every minute of time without forward progress adds up.
I hit the trail again, meandering through the vineyards of Naramata. This section of Kettle Valley Railway is heavily used by wine bloated tourists, sunburnt ebikers, and bleary-eyed bachelorettes. I blow by them all, indifferent to the beauty of Okanagan lake. I have places to be. A few minutes into the climb I’m surprised to find Damian stumbling out of the trees (his tracker hadn’t updated, so I was led to believe he was still in Penticton). He remounts his carbon-fiber gravel bike and admits to me that he thinks he was suffering from some minor heat-exhaustion and feels unwell. We ride together momentarily until his legs cramp up and I pull away. A few minutes later I come across Andy, who appears to be in good spirits and relaxed, sitting next to the trail eating. I can’t help but be impressed by Andy. He attacked the race at KM 0 and was able to maintain that lead until I passed him at KM 270. I realize that not only is he crazy, but strong! As I narrowly entered the race lead heading into the first night, I’m cautiously optimistic with the race situation. On one hand, it’s about to be a long dark night, and between the three of us I’m the only one familiar with this section of trail and sleep deprivation. On the other hand, between Damian and Andy, I knew I’d have my work cut out for me. Both are evidently strong and riding for the win. “Full gas ahead”.
One of the advantages of being on record pace was hitting Myra Canyon in the fading light of day. This famous section of trail was dark when I travelled through it in 2021. I couldn’t help but let my pace slow momentarily as I snapped photos as I wound my way across the 18 historical trestles. For better or worse, I no longer had cellular service and was unable to check the race situation on trackleaders. I’d be riding to my own rhythm for the night.
Fortunately night one is uneventful. I go through a few wardrobe changes as the temperature drops and my feet get soaked from riding through standing water. I’m joined on the trail by nocturnal creatures; rabbits, frogs, and skunks a plenty. Every so often I’m startled by sounds in the bushes. I genuinely enjoy riding at night, but I still can’t help but be a little fearful of what lives beyond the beams of my front light.
I roll into Grand Forks twenty-four hours after the start in Merritt. That’s 500km in 24hours. Not bad, “I’m flying” I think to myself, fully knowing that the second half of the race is harder and slower. I finally have cellular service and check trackleaders. I’m disappointed, but unsurprised that Andy and Damian are only about one hour behind me. Regardless, I take a lengthy break to resupply at Petro Canada and enjoy a sit down meal and hot coffee at A&W while my socks dry in the sun.
Onwards towards Christina Lake and Paulson Summit. The flowy section of trail leaving Grand Forks feels effortless; a stark contrast to 2021 where temperatures approached 50˚C in the afternoon sun. This is where the wheels came off my ride last year and I had to rent a hotel room for the afternoon. I do a quick calculation. When factoring last year’s stop in Christina Lake, I’m nearly 12 hours ahead of my previous time! I pause to plug in my headphones ahead of the 35km climb over Paulson. This is the first time I listen to music during the ride. I typically find music distracting from the task at hand. It only takes one ill-suited song to throw off your mojo, so to speak. I listen to classics from the ‘00s – M83, Foals, and Minus the Bear. Time flies.
Castlegar, KM 610. Pharmasave. Jerky, ginger ale, corn chips and figs. I’m desperate for ice cream but they don’t have any. I sit on the sidewalk and eat as much as I can as the elderly pass by looking at me in disgust. 20 minutes.
The Columbia Trail connects Castlegar to Trail, running alongside the Columbia River. This is a section that racers love to hate. In previous years Lennard warned prospective riders that the trail is slow and technical, taking most people 4 hours to complete the forty kilometre stretch. I doubt this section of trail is used by anyone other than BC Epic riders as the flora is so overgrown the trail is almost indecipherable. The late snow melt brought an extra challenge this year. The mighty Columbia River had swelled beyond it’s banks and sections of trail were covered in thigh deep water. Despite the obstacles, I actually enjoy the Columbia trail. The technical singletrack rewards those with mountain bike skills, and the undulating terrain provides a welcome reprieve from the monotonous railgrade gravel grinding. I complete the Columbia trail in just over 3 hours; a small victory.
Trail, KM 650. Husky Gas Station. I get ice cream. Finally.
The paved stretch between Trail and Salmo is completely uneventful. My pace starts to wane until a pickup truck pulls alongside me and the driver cheers. I immediately recognize James from my spin in Merritt the night before the Grand Départ. James made the difficult decision to scratch from the race before it started and was making his way back home to Alberta. He passed me at just the right time. His words of encouragement were the tailwind I needed. A trail angel.
Salmo, KM 695. Subway. Tuna Sandwich plus a extra to go. 20 minutes.
The sun sets as I head north towards Nelson. I hit the 40 hour milestone and my thoughts turn to sleep. I know my wife and son are nestled in bed in their hotel room in Nelson (they are travelling to meet me at the finish in Fernie). It would be so easy to join them. A quick text and I could be sleeping at the Cloudside Inn, comforted by loved ones, but I know better and I have respect for the rules of the game. I skip Nelson and cross the BOB (Big Orange Bridge) enroute to Balfour. The sleep monster is nipping at my heels. The thirty kilometers of pavement to the ferry go on and on and on. I weave dangerously across the road and begin to see visions in the shadows. 42 hours of riding, and I finally make it. My goal was to reach Balfour to catch the 6:30am ferry. I make it there by 1:00am giving me ample time to sleep and recover, but also giving Andy and Damian plenty of time to catch up to me. 500 km in the lead and the top 3 are brought back together at the mercy of BC Ferries. Fortunately I would benefit from the longest rest, right?
Regretably I opted to leave most of sleep system at home to save weight. All I brought was my Bivy sac, some merino layers and a down jacket. The grass is lumpy and wet. The temperature drops to a mild 10˚C. Perfect sleeping weather when at home in bed with the windows open. Decidedly uncomfortable when sleeping directly on the earth. 4 hours of light sleep and rolling around later, I wake up to find Damian and Andy passed out nearby. “Great, I have company. At least there’s coffee here”.
We disembark in Kootenay Bay and Andy decides to hang back. Damian and I plug away at the dizzying grades of Grey Creek Pass. I have Sram Eagle gearing, 32-50. Damian was using gravel gearing, 38-46 (?). I’m shocked by his ability to turn the pedals over. He’s strong. Like a Sunday club ride, we enjoy eachother’s company chatting about our personal lives, bike racing, gear talk. Lots of gear talk. Eventually I mention the elephant in the room. “I guess it’s just you and me, 1st and 2nd right here. This is a race after all”. We talk about how race tactics don’t apply in bikepack racing. Nobody has the energy left to launch an attack. Eventually someone just fades away.
As we approach the summit we get our first glimpse of snow. As mentioned, the snowpack at the top of the 2000m Grey Creek Pass was on everyone’s mind. How bad could it be? How deep is it? How long will I be pushing my bike? It turned out to be not so bad. 17 minutes of pushing uphill on the Westside and 1 hour of pushing downhill on the eastside. Nothing compared to the challenges facing our counterparts in the Tour Divide. We rip the descent off Grey Creek. Damian descends like a demon. “Surely one of us is going to slice a sidewall”. We survive, tires intact. We were plodding along an FSR towards Kimberley when Damian spoke up, “you know that split you were talking about, where one of us fades away? I think that’s going to happen soon”. He was battling the sleep monster. Apparently my extra two hours of rolling in the grass had paid off. I tell a story to keep him engaged but no luck. He scoped out a shady patch on the side of the road and we said our farewells.
“Full beans to Elko! Elko is my finish line”
Crankbrook, KM 900. A quick Frapuccino and Beyond Burger. 25 minutes. I’m plugging away at the final 140km. I’m checking trackleaders obsessively. Damian didn’t rest for long in that shady spot, and whatever he did, it was enough to come back stronger. He was hunting me down. I’m pouring every drop of energy into making it to Elko. I know that whoever makes it there first will win. The Wigwam flats outside of Elko are a terrifying ride in the daylight. Riding this trail for the first time in the dark is a dangerous idea. I’m really banking on my prior experience to get me through. I hit the first climb. My lead starts to grow. “It’s working!” 10km turns to 15km which turns into 20km. The gap balloons. By the time I peak out at the top of Lodgepole FSR (fun fact: Lodgepole is part of the Tour Divide route), my win is secure. I check trackleaders to find out that Damian hasn’t moved. I think to myself that he must be battling the sleep monster again and has decided to bivy for the night.
I storm into Fernie, stomping on the pedals the entire way. My knees start to ache from the constant low cadence jamming, but I don’t care. I’m about to win the 2022 BC Epic. I’ve been thinking about this race for a year. Since finishing the route 12 months earlier I’ve obsessed over every little detail with the dream of coming back and winning. All my equipment is optimized for this route. I’ve dialed my nutrition plan. I’ve followed my training plan to a t. I raced and won the only other Bikepacking race I’ve ever done in the lead up to this race as preparation. I’ve peaked, all the eggs in the basket, all in, whatever it takes. This was it, I’m the first person to reach the stone steps of Fernie City Hall! I WON!
And nobody was there…
But this is bikepack racing. Nobody is supposed to be there, and that’s totally ok with me. The satisfaction is internalized. I’ve conquered my fears, met my goals, and learned more about myself in the past 2 days 17 hours and 37 minutes than I have in all my adult years. The race is about self-discovery and the power of human and machine. And that is equally true for me as it is for those that finish the route in half the speed. Heck, even as I write this, one full week after finishing, there are still riders on course and ultimately they will achieve just as much as I did.
The following morning I wake up in a startle. “I have places to be; ground to cover” I think to myself. The hangover from these events is real. I realize i’m in a comfy bed in my Airbnb in Fernie but i’m too wound up to fall back to sleep. I check trackleaders. Andy, a Fernie local has just finished in 2 days and 22 hours. Congrats Andy. That’s an amazing first ride. You’re going to smash it in 2023. Then I realize that Damian’s dot still hasn’t moved from wigwam flats. Even if he decided to bed down for the night, it would be very strange for a racer to sleep through a sunrise. I suspect it must just be tracker issues. I assume he finished but his tracker wasn’t activated. I decide to message Lennard to put my mind at ease. That’s when I found out the unfortunate news that Damian didn’t make it to Fernie by bike.
Damian hit a rock at speed while navigating through the Wigwam flats outside of Elko in the dark. He was catapulted off his bike into a rock garden and fractured his scapula. He used his InReach device to send an SOS message and four hours later was rescued by Fernie Search and Rescue and brought to the local hospital. For four hours Damian waited to be rescued. He napped on the side of the trail in the dark with who knows what wildlife was lurking nearby. He’s not just fast, he’s tough as nails. I’m happy to report that Damian’s fracture was clean and his recovery should be straightforward.
It seemed trivial to reflect on my race strategy when my closest competitor was lying in the hospital, but alas, I couldn’t help but think about how my plan panned out. Bikepack races are won via a thousand little decisions. Each racer decides when to sleep, when to push, when to eat, how much to eat, what to wear, what sleep system to pack, how much psi to run, how many tires plugs to bring. All these decisions add up to a fast time, a slow time, a fun time or a bad time. I decided that Elko was my finish line, and that the route after that would be ridden with an abundance of caution. This choice, as well as countless others turned out to be the right ones for me this year and I’m damn proud of that.
Thanks Lennard Pretorious for being the mastermind behind the BC Epic route.
Thank you Scotti, Ernie and Brent from Leborne Coaching for helping reach my goals.
Thanks Panorama Cycles for the designing and manufacturing the ultimate backcountry cycles.
Thanks 7mesh for the most comfortable and highest performance clothing imaginable.
Thanks Precision Fuel and Hydration for keep me sustained and my stomach happy over 1000km.
Thanks Shelby and Julian for everything else.
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