As Marcelo Gutierrez won his second consecutive Garbanzo win last night, we take a look back to 2010 when we took on the fearsome downhill epic
As I rolled to a halt, and collapsed over the bars — lungs burning, arms pumped solid and wheezing like a sex pest — I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked round at a family of overweight Texans leaning on the barriers that separate Whistler’s adrenaline junkies from its obese tourists.
“You need a medic, son?” the father asked. I looked at his massive gut spilling over the fence, noted the irony and, with an unusual measure of reserve, gasped, “I’ll be alright, thanks.”
I’d just finished my first timed practice run of ‘Garbo’, or the Monster Energy Garbanzo DH race course, to give it its contractual title, the infamous top-to-bottom race down the entire Whistler Bike Park that’s held during the annual Crankworx festival. Coming into Skier’s Plaza, I’d stopped the Moto Timer strapped to my bars on 15-49.
So, effectively 16 minutes of cardiovascular meltdown, accompanied by a year’s worth of close calls and near disasters, that culminated in sailing off the final GLC drop so far from my intended line that I nearly ended up on the lap of some unsuspecting diner on the GLC terrace.
Muldoon and I had arrived the previous weekend, and spent the first few days acclimatising to the park, getting reacquainted with our old favourite trails and exploring some of the new ones that had sprung up since our last visit. It never ceases to amaze me that, no matter how frequently you ride here, you’ll never run out of new things to tick off.
As the week began to slip away, big trucks were crawling into the resort with increasing regularity and the foundations of an extensive tented village started to spring up all around. Crankworx was winding up, and the time for carefree lapping was drawing to a close. It was time to get serious, and learn the course on which we’d be racing. And at 12km long with 1,036m of vertical drop, there was certainly no shortage of track to digest.
In shorthand, the course was as follows: Original Sin, Blue Velvet, In Deep, New Joke, No Duff, Duffman, Golden Triangle, World Cup Singletrack, Ho Chi Min, Heart of Darkness, Longhorn, Monkey Hands and the GLC Drop to finish.
In longhand, it was a chaotic jumble of rocks, roots, stunts, ladder bridges, rock rolls, jumps, cambers, dust, berms and even a few annoying little climbs that would almost certainly inflict copious unwanted pain on all but the fittest of racers.
There’s no way I can do justice to a course of this length so, to get a better idea of what it’s like, I urge you to watch the headcam footage from Marcelo Gutierrez’s race run, a ride good enough to win the Pro Men.
Our first run down the track brought reality crashing down all around me. The course was not only sponsored by Monster, it was a monster. I couldn’t begin to imagine how I was going to remember which way it went, let alone race it.
And riding non-stop? At something approaching 10/10ths of my ability? How the hell was I going to survive this? Time for a consolatory trip to the Gone Bakery and some serious reflection…
Smoothie as sandpaper
Over a smoothie and a Caribbean chicken sandwich, I realised I had a mountain to climb, or in this case descend, and there was only one way I was going to get down in any kind of respectable time.
I needed to pull out a consistent run, carrying as much speed as possible, at a pace I knew I could sustain for 15 minutes. I would need to work out all the lines that I could hit without unnecessary risk. I had to know where to rest and where to get on the gas. This was going to be a race where tactics and preparation would be as important as outright speed.
With renewed energy and purpose, we headed up the long Garbanzo chairlift once again. We stop a few corners in, as the trail begins to reveal its many faces, and begin surveying the ground, getting up close and personal with the dirt, eyeing up where people have gone before and watching the problems that other riders seem to be getting into.
Almost immediately it becomes clear that most people ride like sheep — in the wheel tracks of the riders before them — but there are alternatives, such as using the outside bank to set up for turns and straight-lines that seem to open up magically before us.
Corner by corner, straight by straight, we pick our way down the course, shaving potential seconds off our run times here and there. There are numerous blind crests into roots, rock gardens, ladder bridges and between narrow gaps, and we learn exactly where to be over all these potential hazards.
By the end of the afternoon, we have a racing line for the entire course and, more importantly, we seem to be able to remember it. With something to aim for, all the other distractions on the trail melt away into our peripheral vision. Tomorrow, we’ll go for a full timed run, but, with a few hours left until the park closes, we reward ourselves with a few lazy laps of A-Line.
The familiarity, the lethargic body inputs and the smooth dirt mentally and physically massage away the day’s earlier efforts. On the second lap, we drop into Lower A-Line and I take the split for the rock drop. As I land, a blur of blue and white rips across from the alternative line that feeds in from the right.
It’s one of the Chain Reaction team. He hits the big tabletop before the double berm and pulls a huge moto whip. As I hit the lip, I detect a presence close behind. The breath is hot against the back of my neck all the way to the bottom where the unknown Chain Reaction rider has pulled up.
It’s Chris Kovarik, and I look around to see that my shadow for the last three minutes has been team manager Nigel Page. It’s a scenario that’s repeated several times during the week, as I find myself behind Brendan Fairclough, then Matt Hunter.
Such is the beauty of Whistler during Crankworx; what other sport could you end up following one of the world’s best down the most famous track in the world? Rossi at Donington? Hamilton at Silverstone? Lance on Alpe d’Huez? Not in a million years.
First thing on the agenda for Saturday was to sign on and pick up our numbers. This would be the last, symbolic act in our transformation from mere tourists to downhill racers. Yesterday, we had developed the mindset of the racer — studying lines, learning the track and debating tactics for the race — now we had the number board to prove it.
I was enjoying this new sense of purpose. For the first time in 10 years of going to Whistler, I wasn’t just aimlessly hitting trails. I’d learned more about the terrain in a day than I had in hundreds of runs. Now it was time to put that knowledge to the test: my first full timed run.
I decided that it would be pointless just to cruise down, and that I’d need to put in a realistic effort to see how sections flowed together and how fatigue built up towards the finish. My aim was to keep a pace that was about 75 per cent of what I could achieve riding short sections in isolation.
Pedalling away from the lift station, my heart rate rose far quicker than I’d anticipated, and by the bottom of the first chute across a wide ski piste I was already at my anaerobic threshold.
I was hitting all my lines, but the little voice in my head that kept saying ‘the clock’s ticking’ was making me push harder than I’d expected.
Case in point: coming into a fast, brakes-off bit of needle-threading through a corridor of trees, half-buried rocks and tree stumps, before the climb up to the viewpoint on Original Sin, became a pedal-clattering, mech-scraping collection of brown trouser moments.
The climb itself — which I’d elected to run, by leaping off my bike at the steepest point, cutting across the corner and jumping back on cyclo-cross style — took my body into debt over the top, meaning I had to hang on for grim death down the following sketchy slickrock and shale chute down to the Treetop Fort as my body recovered.
The further I got, the more ragged I became. My feet began to splay on the pedals from repeated dabs. I began to sit down more as my leg strength deteriorated. I was breathing so heavily, people were giving me strange looks as I rode past, and I could feel my triceps beginning to harden with the onset of arm pump.
Hitting my lines wasn’t a problem, but I was becoming more and more of a passenger with every second. But I was ticking off my big worry points — the whole of In Deep, the flat-out, dust-sprinkled slickrock of Duffman and the off-camber braking bumps on Monkey Hands.
Only the drifting right turn into the GLC drop to go… coming in fast… can’t risk braking on the loose marbles… too far to the left… ohhhh shhhhh! I just caught the edge of the landing, mowed through a few metres of grass and rejoined the trail, uncorking my last few gasps to sprint across the line and hit the button on my timer.
I stopped the clock on 15-49. Last year’s winning time in my Master Men 30+ category was 15-58. So once I was lucid enough for the time to sink in, I was quietly pleased with my run.
Still, best not get too carried away, as last year was wet, which would add considerable time to the results, and to bring me back down to earth with an uncomfortable bump, I recalled that Gee Atherton got down in 14-20. Gulp.
That night, I slept pretty well. Partly thanks to the strawberry and melon Sake Margarita from Sushi Village, and partly because, although the following day’s race would be tough and riddled with possible places to puncture, rip a mech off or crash, let alone make a mistake, at least I knew that I could get down, I knew the pace I could sustain and I knew roughly what time I could achieve.
Under a cloud
From the moment I opened my eyes that Sunday morning, I knew something was wrong. The early morning shadows on the wall had disappeared and I no longer had to squint when I looked through the crack in the curtains.
For the first time since our arrival, the unbroken sunshine and oppressive 30 degree heat had packed up and gone home. I got up, walked onto the deck of the chalet and looked up at the spot where the summit should be, but saw only cloud. Cloud of such shade and density that it could only mean one thing — rain. This was not in the plan.
The course would be hell on a stick in the wet, especially as everything would be covered in a thin veneer of slime as precipitation mixed with all the dust. At least it wasn’t raining down here. I crossed my fingers that only the very top of the hill would be seeing this moisture.
Sure enough, drops only began to splatter the canopy of the chairlift about halfway up the Garbanzo zone. It was still dry, dusty and potholed on the lower mountain but up here it was considerably colder — well over 10 degrees cooler at a guesstimate — and the rain was coming in on the wind in a sequence of squally showers.
We had about half an hour at the summit before our race runs, Al being two places before me on the start sheet, so we joined the silent merry-go-round of racers pedalling in circles to stay warm. I took the opportunity to walk a few metres into the course to check out the conditions. Beneath the thick canopy of the forest, the course was holding up well but out in the open muck was flying everywhere, coating goggle lenses and obscuring vision.
I circled the summit counting down the minutes until my run. The butterflies in my stomach were in full flight, swirling around like the moisture-laden clouds hitting the side of the lift station.
At the very last moment, I peeled off my jacket and stashed it beneath a hut, slotting into the queue of riders waiting for the off. Stationary and exposed, the cold ripped through my jersey. Waiting for the gun is always the worst part of racing.
The starter called my name and I ducked under the gazebo into the start position, pulling my goggles out from under my jersey, where I’d been trying to keep them dry. I put them on and instantly they began to fog. “Five seconds…” Beep, beep, beeeeep.
I pedalled hard out of the gate, perhaps harder than I’d planned, but hey, that’s the motivation that only comes with racing. The first tricky flat corners were dispatched better than I’d ridden all through practice, giving me an early confidence boost as I headed into the second, much rougher section of Original Sin. Rain had begun to penetrate the forest here, and there was a bit of extra slip as I jinked through the trees.
Original Sin opened out onto piste just before joining the loose rocky motorway of Blue Velvet, and as I barrelled towards Step-Up Island my goggles became pebble-dashed with grit. I cursed myself for not fitting a mudguard, and wiped my glove quickly across the lens, a smearing action that merely made specks into streaks.
Eye of the needle
Two trees, barely a handlebar width apart, mark the entrance to In Deep, and carrying speed over a latticework of roots through this eye of a needle is a worthy squirrel catcher.
Instinct told me to brake, but my head told me that skimming the roots was the safest way through. I kept a good pace into the big rock roll and a few cheers of encouragement gave me a welcome boost.
Look ahead along the ladder bridge, pedal across the piste and sweep tight to the undergrowth around the right hander before a quick pedal stroke to jump the wooden gap leading to the Triple Hump.
This imposing section of steep bedrock tumbles over three curved rollovers and requires a cautious approach before being fed into an armoured chute that bottoms suspension and buckles arms. There is a chicken run around the outside, but I choose the shorter, but slower, hard line.
Wrong decision, as it turned out, with every one of the top pros selecting the faster but longer route around the outside. Oh well, chalk that one up to experience.
The course reached a crescendo of difficulty for the next minute or so, as the loamy forest floor, slickened by rain and netted with polished roots, funnelled into a steep chute, peppered with rocks and roots and a nasty head-banger of a drop to flat.
Once you’d entered into this section, you just had to roll with it; there was no option to cruise. I made it through without a hitch, and sprinted up the 100m incline that leads into New Joke.
I was back in familiar dusty terrain from here to the finish, but my arms were locking up from my efforts through In Deep. Rods of steel seemed to replace flesh and bone, as I descended deeper into the lower park.
The speeds were rising, but my grip on the bars and ability to control braking inputs was ebbing away. I began to fear a big crash, especially as my, by now, two-finger braking consisted of clumsy tugs on the lever.
More people began to line the track, and their support helped carry me along. Into Monkey Hands: a plume of dust shadowed every move. Cut across the loose stuff, over the bridge and launch off the GLC drop to touch down on the flat.
I got straight on the gas and sprinted strongly across the finish line absolutely destroyed, but totally elated to have finished in one piece with a run that was as good as I could produce on the day.
I looked back at the jumbo screen beside the finish, showing the leading times. My name wasn’t top of the list, and quietly I was a little disappointed not to have claimed the hot seat, even if it was for 30 seconds.
But the chagrin soon turned to elation as I looked a little further down the scoreboard and found myself sitting in third. The time? 15-25, over 30 seconds quicker than I’d gone in practice.
Didn’t I say earlier that the most nervous part of racing is the moments before the start? Well, let me tell you, the next hour or so, spent watching hundreds of riders come across the finish line, felt like weeks.
There was certainly plenty of action to keep us entertained — every 10 minutes or so someone would get all squirrelly off the GLC drop, or even crash on landing, only for the rider behind to launch off the lip blind and land right on top of them — but my nervousness lasted until I safely knew the last Master Male had crossed the finish line.
I couldn’t believe it. I’d come with the hope of enjoying the experience of racing an epic downhill on the same track as the best riders in the world, and taking home some good memories and, perhaps, a respectable time.
Yet here I was, enjoying all of that alongside the chance to stand on stage with Pro Men’s winner Justin Leov, runner-up Chris Kovarik and third-place Sam Hill, as well as heading back to the UK with a heavy bronze gong with a big Crankworx logo cast onto the front.
It might be gaudy, it might be tacky, but I was chuffed with it and, like some Olympic hero, I wanted to keep it on for the entire flight home.