Hot On Your Heels: The Race With Training Wheels
by Jan Redford
It’s a hot, sunny day in Squamish, BC, and I’m straddling my bike on the Ring Creek North Forest Service Road at the base of the Half Nelson Trail, anxiously awaiting the start of my very first mountain bike race–the all-women’s Hot On Your Heels (HOYH). I’m surrounded by 111 other women of varying shapes, sizes, and ages. At fifty-two I’m one of the oldest, if not the oldest here.
I’m not sure how I’ve managed to not participate in one single race in all my years of biking. Many of my friends race, and every time I go cheer them on in The Test Of Metal, or some other grueling sufferfest, I get a surge of inspiration and tell myself, “Next year!”
But here, with this crowd, it’s hard to be too nervous. I’m surrounded by poufy blue tutus, fuzzy pink angel wings, boas and pearls. The Lumberjacks–Holly, Hannah, Jane, and Mel–look sexy in plaid tops, suspenders, and tight denim mini-skirts over chamois liners, with little stuffed beavers strapped to their handlebars. My friend Theresa and I… not so sexy. We’re wearing flower-covered plastic shell bikini tops from the girls’ section of the Dollar Store over our pink tank tops. Instead of doing whatever one is supposed to do before a race (hydrate? carbo load?) we spent the morning covering our skin with temporary flower tattoos and performing unsuccessful emergency surgery on my flying rubber chicken when it lost its squeak. Our chickens are now strapped–limp and silent–to our handlebar stems.
“Low on intimidation, high on fun,” was Melissa Sheridan’s intention, the HOYH’s founder and director. Melissa, 36, a mortgage broker, volunteer, and avid mountain biker living in Squamish, also runs the SORCA (Squamish Off-Road Cycling Association) cross-country Toonie races – bi-weekly, testosterone-charged races that tend to get very competitive. “I noticed the number of female riders was always so low in comparison to the men,” she told me. “I know many women who love to mountain bike but they weren’t coming out to the Toonies.” So she created Hot On Your Heels–sort of a mountain bike race with training wheels–hoping it would ease women into the racing scene. More importantly, HOYH is a fundraiser for Go Girls!, a program offered through Big Brothers, Big Sisters.
Go Girls! is an eight-week group-mentoring program for girls ages 10-14 offered by BBBS. It revolves around three themes: active living, balanced eating, and feeling good about oneself. The girls get together once a week for two hours and resolve issues together as a group about body image, social media, bullying, healthy relationships – anything that crops up in their lives. http://www.bigsisters.bc.ca/en/Home/mentoringprograms/GoGirls.aspx
“I didn’t think of Go Girls! at first,” Melissa told me. “I just wanted to do a bike race–and then I thought because I do BBBS it’d be the perfect connection because it pushes so many of the things that we as women mountain bikers love: a healthy lifestyle, active living. So I put the two together and I’ve been getting amazing feedback.”
Amazing is an understatement. This year, only its second, the race sold out in eleven days after registration opened up. Melissa didn’t have to search for sponsors, they came to her, and the all-male volunteer positions are in such demand, Melissa could probably charge for the honour.
One of these volunteers, the race official (looking anything but official in his skin-tight, black and gold Lycra wrestling one-piece), now stands on a rock above the chatting, laughing women with his arm raised. “Three, two, one!” he yells as his arm drops to signal the start of the race. It’s hard to tell if anyone’s heard, but yes! There they go, the first wave, heading up the hill in a huge clump. I almost feel sorry for them, these first wavers. Barely a tutu amongst them. Yes–somewhere in that group are the three women who’ll own the podium, but at what cost to their Total Fun Factor (TFF)?
We’ve been divvied up into three waves, which will start five minutes apart. In the first one, we have the women who actually stand a chance of placing in the top three. I, not being one of them, but still wanting to push myself, chose to go in the second. The Lumberjacks intend to max out their TFF, so they’re in the third wave, aka the “party” or “comedy” wave.
Five minutes later the race official once again raises his arm. “Three-two-one!” The second wave is off! Theresa and I start to pedal up the road. Very slowly. In fact, if we were going any slower we’d fall over. It’s all rather anti-climatic. We turn off the road onto the Legacy Trail, a single track climbing trail. We pass a few women, then finally accept the pace. There’s no hurry. We chat with the riders in front and behind us. No one’s on my back tire, trying to pass, screaming, “Rider up!”
The reason for the relaxed, friendly atmosphere is that HOYH is an enduro-style race, the new craze in the mountain biking scene, which means we won’t be timed on the uphill and cross-country sections, and we won’t have an overall time; we’ll just be timed on three downhill sections.
Though there are very few races like HOYH in BC, Melissa got her idea after participating in a similar women’s-only enduro three years ago in Whistler–Betty vs. Veronica. “It was very long, very hard, and very competitive,” she told me. “I was exhausted coming over the finish line. The trails were hard. I was walking quite a bit. Not that girls can’t do it, but it should be fun.” Melissa decided her own race would challenge women, give them something to train for, but would ultimately focus on fun.
Melissa didn’t strike me as the hard-core mountain biking type, but gauging from the trails she can ride, I knew she is just that. She’s small – not much over five feet – but strong-looking, with short brown hair brushed to the side, minimal if any make-up, and a big smile. She has a fresh, girl-next-door look, and it didn’t surprise me she’s an active volunteer in the community.
For the past eight years, Melissa has volunteered for Big Brothers, Big Sisters (BBBS) and she’s been with the same little sister for six of them. Her thirteen-year-old Little Sister is being raised by her great-grandmother; she doesn’t know her father and was taken from her mother at age three. “She’s at a delicate age,” Melissa said. “She knows that other lifestyle. She sees her mother often enough to know she doesn’t want to follow down that path. I like to think I’m a good influence.”
Her “Little” participated in Go Girls! Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds, and loved it so much she wished she could do it a second time, but due to funding constraints, the program was a one-time experience. So Melissa decided to use HOYH as a fundraiser. Last year Melissa raised $1,500. This year she wants to double that.
“We are building self-esteem and confidence,” Ann Marie McKenzie, the program manager for Big Brothers, Big Sisters for the Sea to Sky and Sunshine Coast told me. “We don’t prescribe. We are empowering them to walk away with the tools to make healthy, informed choices for themselves. So we’re not saying: don’t do drugs. They themselves will say, ‘I don’t want to do drugs because I value myself and I respect myself and I feel good about myself.’” The girls take a final survey, and they always say, “What we need is more Go Girls!” They want to come back.
“We are so blessed to have Melissa,” Ann Marie said. “Because of HOYH, and knowing that Melissa is out there supporting us and is going to carry on this fundraising event, now I can offer them another Go Girls! in the same year. I’ve expanded it to 10-14 year olds and I’ve told those who have already participated they can come back. We don’t turn them away.” Which means Melissa’s “Little” was able to do Go Girls for a second time this year.
Back at the race, Theresa and I are still climbing. Up, up, up we go, on the expertly-graded switchbacks of the Legacy Trail, soaking in the views of Howe Sound and the coastal mountains, until we’re swallowed up by the forest. We continue through dark, mossy trees, crossing bridges built of hand-hewn cedar boards that take us over streams reduced to trickles from a summer of relentless heat. A half an hour later, after we’ve covered five kilometres and gained 230 metres of elevation, we reach the top, where we join dozens of women in line for the first timed downhill section–Angry Midget.
As we wait, race officials let riders loose on the downhill in thirty-second intervals. There’s a lot of chatter and laughter, and a bit of jockeying for position, but not much. One rider tries to budge ahead of us in line. “Just because I’m old doesn’t mean I’m slow,” I want to say, but I can’t blame her for trying. I, too, would like to get ahead of the rider in front of me, but what would I say? “You look like you’ll be slow, can I jump the line?” Seems pretty unsportsperson-like.
The closer to the front of the line I get, the harder my blood pumps. I’m sure my heart rate is higher now than it was when I was ascending. The intoxicating mix of terror and anticipation I get from mountain biking seems heightened because it’s a race. What is this love/hate relationship I seem to have with competition?
“That’s a question I get asked all the time,” Melissa said. “Why don’t girls want to race? Why don’t they want to push themselves? What is it? And I still don’t know what it is. Because I’m the same way. Before a race, all day while I’m working, I’ve got butterflies. I tell myself it’s just a Toonie! But I can’t help it.”
My friends’ attitudes toward competition seem as diverse as our personalities.
My race-buddy, Theresa, 48, said, “I’m afraid I’m too competitive, that I’ll push myself harder than I should and crash.”
Hannah, 39, one of the lumberjacks, does not like the pressure of someone right on her back tire. “I’m the same way on the Sea to Sky Highway when I’m driving,” she said.
Jane, 46, another lumberjack and an excellent technical rider, said, “I like to compete with myself. It’s a personal challenge, a fitness goal, so on the day of the race, I don’t like to let myself down. I’ve put so much time into it.”
Melissa said we judge ourselves too harshly. “We don’t want to be last. With guys it doesn’t seem to be the same. We’re so hard on ourselves.” But she also mentioned that when she’s out biking and sees a woman doing something hard it gives her incentive. “I think, ‘How do I get to be as good as her?’”
In reality, we’re all proof that this fear of competition is surmountable. Val, 45, who placed second in HOYH last year, is in the first wave again this year. In spite of the fact that she’s been competing very high up in sports her whole life, she admitted to feeling intimidated in the first wave. But it doesn’t deter her. “I like pushing myself. I wanted to see where I am in the pack. It lets me know where my skills are at.”
Holly, 48, is quite comfortable with competition. Now, that is. “There was a time when I was racing and someone was behind me and I immediately got off my bike and let them pass, and it was in stupid places where I couldn’t get back on my bike. So now I say to the person, ‘Do you want to pass, no or yes?’ They have to tell me or I’ll keep going. Next level up is ‘You have to get in front of me in your own damn way.’”
Hannah noted, “It’s all about confidence. It’s all about your ability as a rider. You practice the trail, get to be a better rider, then you get more competitive because you realize you have a chance of riding it well.”
Holly added, “Eventually there’s someone in front of you that’s slowing you down and wow, you never thought you’d get there.”
Fifteen minutes pass, one rider after another dropping into the trail, till finally, the girl in front of me is gone, and I wait my thirty seconds, shaking with adrenalin.
At this point, I must confess that, in spite of my aversion to racing, I seem to have a competitive streak that borders on obnoxious. In fact, one of my friends noted that my “pre-riding of the hills was quite obsessive” for this race. I can’t help it. I know I’ll never own the podium, but I want to see how many young whippersnappers I can beat. To be in the top twenty, for me, would be a win.
Finally, the volunteer presses the timer and I’m off! I point my bike downhill and negotiate the first steep switchback, my tire almost sliding out on the dry, loose dirt.
Angry Midget is the steepest, most technical of the three timed downhills – twisty, turny, bumpy, and fast, and in this heat, the dirt on the trails acts like millions of tiny ball-bearings. But I know each corner like the scars on my legs.
Part way down I catch up to the rider in front of me, like I thought I would, and we exchange polite words, negotiating when might be a good time for me to pass. I slip in front of her on the inside of a steep switch back and keep going. We yell “thank yous” and “have funs.” Life is so civilized in the second wave.
Not so much in the first wave. Val told me later, “There was this one girl. I was hot on her heels for a long time, saying, ‘Mind if I pass you?’ She wouldn’t let me pass. I finally did and she was really pissed off. She didn’t say anything, but I could tell.”
I come to a spot where you can take a long, meandering, time-sucking switchback that crisscrosses the slope several times, or you can take a steep, loose chute that plunges down the fall line. It’s easy to miss if you don’t know the trail. Two or three women are puttering across the switchback; one has actually stopped and looks lost. With a twinge of pity, but not enough to stop me in the middle of a race, I drop into the chute and keep going.
The third wave is much more charitable. Holly told me when she came across the same confusion, she stopped and gave the riders directions.
In almost the same spot, Melissa, who had been up all night organizing the race and only got four hours sleep, had a bad crash (yes, she rode her own race!) She flew over her handlebars and scraped her face along the trail, jumped back on her bike and kept going. At the bottom of Angry Midget, a volunteer laboured over her face, cleaning, icing and bandaging and wanted to get a van up the road to take her to the clinic. “No way; I’m finishing my race!” said Melissa, and off she went, with her face swelling up like Rocky coming out of the ring.
This tenacity of Melissa’s is one of the spin-offs of racing.
Val, referring to her highly competitive days of university rowing, told me, “You build up this ability to deal with pain, more than you thought you could. You learn that kind of stuff in sports. No way you can push yourself to your physical limit and get through it and have it not help you in the future.”
Unlike Melissa, Theresa and I make it down to the bottom of Angry Midget comparatively unscathed, and start to climb the gentle grade of the forest service road toward the next timed section, with one quick stop along the way at the first station for a yummy combination of vodka spritzers and soggy bacon.
At the top of the next downhill, Pseudo-tsuga, we’re hosed down with soaker guns and attacked with silly string by more semi-clad male volunteers who are no doubt having as much fun as the women. There are thirty of them this year, but so many more are helping out unofficially that Melissa lost count. If you go on Facebook to the Hot On Your Heels page, there’s an entry that says: “Guys, if you’re planning on cheering on the ladies, we highly suggest you have a quick read: How To Become A Male Stripper.” Most of them seem to have taken the tips seriously.
We take off down Pseudo-tsuga in our thirty-second intervals for a fun, fast, banked downhill. I pass two riders on the way down (one may have had a flat) and clock my best time. At the bottom we head back uphill toward Your Mom, another downhill. This one won’t be timed though.
But first, we have to make it up Your Mom Hill. It is steep, gnarly and rocky, almost un-rideable (for mere mortals), but there is prize money to be split among the very few who make it. We see another station with snacks and beverages waiting for us at the top, along with more cheering, male, bare-chested volunteers. I’ve never made it up this hill, and I certainly won’t today; it’s littered with a gauntlet of rocks and sticks. Apparently the first women in the first wave made it to the top too easily, so the quick-thinking volunteers decided those in the second and third waves needed an extra challenge. Theresa and I make it a quarter of the way up, so the volunteers, to assuage their guilt, come fetch our bikes.
After a relaxed, swoopy untimed ride down Your Mom, we cross the Mamquam Forest Service Road. By now everyone is so spread out that Theresa and I find ourselves alone for a while, wondering if we’ve somehow missed a turn, but no, here’s yet another feeding station, with more beverages and food. You could take in more calories on this race than you burn!
We cross Darwin’s Bridge, grunt up a steep hill, then whip down the brand new Powerhouse Connector. I take a wee bit of a crash on the last steep, loose switchback, leave some blood behind, but not too much, and we continue up the hill toward another station.
And there, in the middle of nowhere… is it a mirage? How did they get a massage table up here? Before we can ponder the question too long, two half naked men with six-packs etched in black marker on their torsos are stripping off our camel backs to ready us for our massage. We protest. We are much too sweaty and smelly, they wouldn’t want to touch us, but they have already worked that one out. A sponge bath! The water is murky and grey. How many women have been here before us? How often have they changed the water? Have they changed the water? Before I can get too hung up on hygiene, two guys are washing my arms and legs then plunking me onto the massage table.
With my plastic flower-covered shells digging into my chest, I dissolve into my massage, then up I’m pulled and down goes Theresa and some other guy in tight bikini underwear continues to massage my shoulders. When the next group shows up, we are unceremoniously dumped. We pedal shakily away, rubbery and relaxed, a bit stunned at finding ourselves once again grinding uphill in the pounding sunshine. We climb the road toward the next timed downhill, Hoods In The Woods.
After a while, we round a corner and there, in the distance, is another tent, and in front of it, three semi-clad guys, waiting to greet us. From here, we can see they’re wearing carpenter belts. Cute.
After almost three hours of racing, this has become the norm; we’re almost becoming desensitized to bare skin, bulging biceps, six packs, rippling quadriceps, and teensy-weensy bikini bottoms. Almost. But not quite.
As we crest the top of the hill, the guys turn around and we come face to face with three bare bums.
“OMG, what have I done!” This was Melissa’s reaction when she came upon the same scene. “I told them the night before, I said, don’t get naked, whatever you do, just don’t get naked, we can’t have nudity.”
Before we can fully process it all, our heads are doused with cold, wet sponges, (warning: riders put your cell phones deep into your camel back, wrapped in plastic), we are offered Chambulls (Champagne and Red Bull), and sent packing–up another hill to the entrance of Hoods In The Woods.
This downhill section is the one that most favours the cross-country crowd. More pedaling, some technical downhill, but a few short steep uphill bits for the stronger climbers. It is the most strenuous, and longest, of the three timed sections.
By now, we’ve been riding for about two and a half hours. We’ve covered twenty kilometres and climbed a total of 917 metres in the intense heat. With all the excitement of squirt guns, massages, naked men, Chambulls, vodka spritzers with bacon… we’re starting to feel a bit tuckered out. On Hoods, Theresa and I both clock our worst times. I hit a tree (well, more like nick it) lose my decal, and fumble around in spots I’ve never fumbled before, but we finally cross the finish line to a cheering crowd, have a photo shoot with a guy in tight green Diesel briefs, a Hawaiian lei, and a wig about the size and texture of a small sheep, then rush to de-stress with a bit of yoga in the sun in a field at Quest University.
The after party is held at the Squamish Golf Club. Melissa’s idea– to be hot on someone’s heels biking, then look hot in our fancy heels, (or in my case, flat, sporty sandals) isn’t working out too well for her. Unfortunately, there was that little mishap on Angry Midget, where her face encountered the ground.
“At the party I was – well this sucks, I’ve got this major fat lip,” Melissa told me. “It was so massive, so embarrassing. You can’t help but feel vain. When you’re trying to look cute as can be in your dress and your heels and get your hair all done… But Ann Marie from Go Girls! was there and she said, ‘Melissa! You do not feel that way! You’ve got major fat lip because you just raced a bike race. Because you are physically active and fit and that’s like a war wound!’ That kind of taught me a lesson. Here I am trying to raise money for a program that focuses on – if you get a fat lip, don’t be vain about it. I’m a walking billboard for that right now.”
When all was tallied up, Melissa raised $6,000 for Go Girls!, twice as much as she’d expected, and four times what she’d raised the first year.
“I won’t lie to you,” Ann Marie told me. “I cried. And I may have hugged Melissa several times.”
Me, I came in 24th – three minutes, eleven seconds behind the winner. I beat eighty-seven women younger than me. Not to sound competitive or anything.
I asked Melissa if she has any advice for women who might be nervous about going in HOYH next year.
“Well, a couple of beginning riders contacted me and I told them, ‘You definitely want to ride the whole course ahead of time. Don’t worry if there are parts on some of those trails you have to walk but you want to be able to ride 85-90 % of the trail. The main thing is to get out on your bike, get out for three-hour rides. You want enough energy at the top of Hoods.’” She added, “That’s the thing with enduros. It’s not the best cross-country rider, it’s not the best downhiller, you have to be the best all round rider. Time on the bike is the biggest thing.”
In Hot On Your Heels you can be competitive, or focus on fun, or something in between. Just pick your wave.
Next year’s race will be held on Saturday, August 2, 2014, with the after party at the Summit Lodge on top of the Sea to Sky Gondola.
Check out the HOYH website for more details: http://www.hotonyourheels.ca