The BC Bike Race has it all. End of story. Except obviously not because there are continual tweaks, adjustments, and a relentless pursuit of the perfect week on trails that thrill, please, and surprise taking place behind the scenes.
Started in 2007 to showcase perhaps the rowdiest and toughest region of trail in North America the “BCBR” has grown into a monolith of the global stage racing world. Its reputation is one of excellence in singletrack application, and I set out to find out if this reputation is still earned. As it returns to the interior coast of Vancouver Island I set out to get a feel for just why so many riders descend into base camp every year and why this event looms larger than almost any other in the mtb community.
Let me preface with this, registration is open as of this publishing and the race deserves your full attention if you’d like to participate. A year spent honing technical skills and building mountain bike fitness will double your grins on the rooty, rocky, and purpose built singletrack.
It could take a rider a lifetime to sample all of the riding terrain of British Columbia. There is a tremendous bounty of bike trail and not all of it is easy to navigate or suited to XC/XCM bikes. So the BC Bike Race comes into its own as a means to experience the prized trail in a curated and competitive environment. This concept doesn’t need any salesmanship to this audience but if it appeals to you then know that the format is executed to perfection at BCBR. Schedules are disclosed ahead of time and available, things occur on time, and the process flows smoothly around the rider with ample extra curriculars; ready for them to dip their toes or jump in completely. With the exception of the trails that is; those – everyone enjoys. Meals are first class, varied, and prepared by a local chef crew that left nobody hungry. Tent village is a strong feature of BCBR that is both visually striking and also enriches the experience. While short term rental options exist I found the tent situation to be suitable even in a week of extra warm weather. Air conditioning isnt common in rentals within the region anyhow.
Enough gushing, lets get to the dirt.
This years event showcased 4 quality zones of terrain on the interior coast of Vancouver Island. Firmly in the rain shadow these trails offered those classic forested views of loamy dark dirt and wood feature but also fast, dry berm tracks with major rock features as fixtures. Maple Mountain and Mt Tzouhalem, Cumberland forest, Campbell River XCO trail and the Nanaimo steeps were all showcased this year. To say that the trail quality was high is an understatement. Every trail builder should partake of these trails. Purpose built climbing trails serve to access back country bombers and front country flumes. The trails clearly withstand substantial use by locals and travelers alike better than nearly any trails I have sampled in any ride destination region.
While the stages for 2023 were’nt long by distance standards they packed a punch that had every rider fulfilled by finish line. The sharp end of the race was blistering this year with 6 past winners and multiple XCO world cup athletes eager to put it to each other in the back country. Weekend hero riders were treated to a race-at-your-pace environment enabled by zone starts where riders could move up throughout the week as their performance permitted. Several age group categories as well as a very healthy duo contingent are all available at BCBR.
The most fascinating thing I encountered in at the 2023 BC Bike Race was the consistent employment of quality singletrack. An entirely singletrack prologue allowed riders to twist the screws for seating. Following that up repeated singletrack heavy days delivered such a wide variety of trail that was clearly organized by riders for riders. The variation of each day permitted every rider at least one day to show their strength. The natural ups and downs of the Maple Mountain and Mount Tzouhalem were a delight and put riders right into the mix. With interspersed flow of trails like Solar Coaster and Double D riders had opportunities to get their WHOOPS on. Challenging the flow however was traditional grade A British Columbia tech. Maple Syrup, Bonanza, and Field of Dreams brought the expected chunk to the table. For riders who can alternate between “low and fast,” peaking-and-pushing their way through enduro lines on “small” bikes and all out throttling this first region sampled was fantastically fun.
After three days of Maple and Tzouhalem in Crofton the show was on the road to Cumberland via Nanaimo. The Nanaimo stage hosted out of Vancouver Island University was a wild ride. Early onto the rocks to break things up this singletrack heavy stage showcased some of the steeper terrain of the week. Trails like Gatekeeper, Rollercoaster, and Shenanigans were all out gravity fed fun; throwing riders off rocks and berms built to perfection. Finishing on flowy Simpsons themed (yes as in Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa) trail close to a coldwater lake the Nanaimo day was rocket fueled fun to bridge zones.
Cumberland awaited as riders packed up from Nanaimo. This quintessential British Columbia town with a serious biking habit was a tremendous host community. Riders had ample morning coffee shop options (in addition to the quality local brew provided by Bean Around The World roasters) and plenty of lunch options. Cumberland was a wonderful host community but let me assure you their mild Canadian manners let the trail do the talking. Fitting for the week the Queen Stage may not have been intimidating on paper however in person it had teeth. Using the lauded Sobo No Michi purpose-built climbing trail to access the higher reaches of the region this stage saw nearly endless technical ups and downs that spread riders out and allowed the racing to really take place. Field of Dreams, Trent Canyon, and Blue Collar trails all challenged riders technically and physically. After many hard pushes and certainly a few cracked egos left on the trail riders descended for miles back to basecamp. Are you sensing a trend here?
Not to be type-cast though the BCBR organizers threw in a delightful curve for riders to recover and enjoy a little more pace. A Campbell River day excursion for stage 6 was pretty welcome after 5 days of rough stuff. The “classic XC” stage didnt disappoint in the least. Riders rolled a hearty gravel portion out from the staging area before “immersing in the green room” on ribbons of dark dirt. With about 1/3 the standard issue vertical/mile this stage was a crowdpleaser and allowed riders of any skill level to rocket through the landscape, and what a landscape it was! The lush forest was punctuated with remote lakes and rocky bluff riders blasted through like a scene from Star Wars.
Wrapping up the week was one last foray into the Cumberland highlands. One more welcome lap up Sobo No Michi climbing trail brought riders to the cant-miss Vanilla trail. The endless flows, dips, table, and rips brought riders nearly back to camp before diverting to the “somewhat spicier” Blockhead and Bear Buns then roosting into high speed Scat, Brat, and Bonestorm. A dust-splosion of woops and yawps awaited in the final miles of the final stage of the BC Bike Race. Riders crossing the line were greeted with one helluva “stage 8” party atmosphere as they collected their belt buckles and finisher T-shirts.
While the medical team took their sigh of relief at a week of work in the flesh the beer garden buckled up for business. The hospitality of the organization was on full display as racers packed up and packed on to wrap up their week to the sound of live music and DJ action late into the night.
The 2023 Race
2023 was almost instantly declared the “fastest BC Bike Race ever.” A brief look down both men’s and women’s reg and it was clear that the racing would be brisk. In the women’s race the field was stacked with talent and experience both across a couple of disciplines of sport. Last years winner Sandra Walter was joined by perennial favorite and past winner Katerina Nash as well as Caroline Dezendorf, Amity Rockwell, Lauren Cantwell, Becca Fahringer, Evelyn Dong, Syd Schulz, and relative newcomer Eva Poidevin. While some shuffling certainly took place it was all behind the epic fitness of Katerina Nash. Recently crowned Queen of Downcountry, Evelyn Dong put up a strong fight with some stages battling hard with Nash but ultimately bringing in silver. In the waning stages Canadian Eva Poidevin stormed to finish strong and bring herself into bronze.
Men’s Racing was both thrilling and at times exhausting. Both as a personal participant and also one reviewing daily results the margins were slim through until nearly the end of the week. Six former winners were in attendance, retired World Tour athletes, Enduro champions and more all participated in this years BCBR. Lifetime Grand Prix contender Andrew L’Esperance was joined by World Cup athletes Quinton and Peter Disera, Kiwi Craig Oliver, Cory Wallace, Ryan Anderson, Remy Gauvin, Carter Nieuwsteeg, Mackey Franklin, Rob Britton, Geoff Kabush, and Stephen Davoust. An early lead by Quinton Disera was ended on stage 3 as heat stroke on stage 2 took its effect, and that wouldn’t be the end of the heat! Kiwi Craig Oliver quickly picked up the Rapha golden leaders jersey. L’Esperance put in severe efforts in Nanaimo and Cumberland stages 4 and 5 to bring the gap down. Oliver carried yellow through until Campbell River where an all out assault by L’Esperance and Peter Disera would put in a bit of buffer on Oliver and the rest bringing L’Esperance into yellow which he held until the finish, albeit ceding stage wins to Peter on 6 and 7. Comments throughout the week showed that none of the racers in the top ten were “safe” with pedals on the gas each and every day. Reports of 310+watt normalized days every single day were common.
After a week on the trail and in the tents its easy to see why so many riders love the BC Bike Race; and why so many return every year. On my shuttle ride into the first base camp I shared my row with a rider wearing BCBR shorts, shirt, and even tattoo. As we talked I found that this was the only stage race this rider had ever done; albeit 7 times. My early dismissal was perhaps a result of having done a lot of stage races and seen a lot of events in action. But as I spent the week amongst this rider and hundreds more I did indeed come to see the fanaticism was earned. BC Bike Race leaves an indelible mark on the memory. It captures all those things we love about stage racing here at Marathon MTB – incredible and challenging curated singletrack, between the tape simplicity, summer camp atmosphere, and high end touch points that rivaled even the best cycling vacations. While I found that the stages were a little short for my personal taste that was almost a value in retrospect. Because of the short stages we had an exceptionally high pace, which through caught breaths is really a blast. Also because of the short stages we had ample camp time to visit the waters of the pacific or a local lake to cool off and find local eateries for a cold one and a nice meal. I recognize too that some riders needed all the extra time they could get during these stages because the technicality really was very high – all to the BCBR’s credit.
So there is no question to me that the BC Bike Race earns its reputation. Its an ever evolving archetype of stage racing whose presence in my mind elevates North American racing on the whole, and Canadian in particular. Ill certainly be back to sample the BCBR again in the future and cant recommend it highly enough for the traveling earth roamers who like to spice up their racing experiences.