They've been beaten on by the heat and slapped by rain. Smoke from nearby forest fires has choked them, tree roots and tire ruts have floored them. One year, race volunteers were taping intravenous bags to the side of a trailer truck to care for all the dehydrated bodies in the finish area. ("It was like an apocalyptic movie," an observer recalled.) Another time, three-quarters of the field hiked their bikes up an avalanche chute only to realize they'd gone the wrong way.
Then there were the two Costa Ricans who were so determined to win they pulled away from the pack and almost pedalled head-first into a bear. That never happens to Lance Armstrong.
Then again, the TransRockies mountain bike race doesn't come with paved roads, big-time support staffs, millions of dollars and all the other trappings of the Tour de France. What the TransRockies boasts are narrow trails over sky-punching mountains, logging roads, blown tires, worn brake pads, exhausting climbs and perilous descents, wildlife and danger aplenty. Think of it this way: The TransRockies is to mountain biking what Evel Knievel was to motorcycling.
Little wonder that whenever Kris Sneddon readies himself in the start area, his stomach rolls into a knot.
"You always have to respect the mountain," says Sneddon, the Victoria-born co-winner of the 2008 TransRockies. "If I'm not nervous beforehand, it's usually not a good sign."
Welcome to the sport of endurance mountain biking, where nervousness and fatigue are a twin state of being. For nine years now, people from Australia to Venezuela, New Zealand to Ireland, have been coming to southeastern British Columbia to ride the wild range and experience its intoxicating lure. For some entered in Sunday's opening leg of the 2010 TransRockies, the goal is to survive - with all body parts intact. Most, though, will be racing full-out against rival two-person teams for a share of the $30,000 in prize money.
What confronts them is a 399-kilometre trek that begins in downtown Historic Fernie, goes along the Lizard Range of the Rockies, north to Elkford, across the Great Divide and eventually into Canmore, Alta. History and Mother Nature have shown this will be no stroll in the park.
In 2003, wildfires in B.C. caused breathing and rerouting difficulties for the competitors. The next year featured rain and mud. In 2007, mountain bike designer/pioneer Keith Bontrager was so dehydrated by the heat he had to be taken to a hospital. He was one of many sprawled riders. If that wasn't bad enough, organizers rejigged the course in 2008 and made it even more punishing, with more uphill sections. That was the year the leaders went off course and the followers followed.
"We hiked up an avalanche chute and realized we went the wrong way," said Vancouver's Stefan Widmer, co-winner of the 2009 TransRockies. "We had 400, 500 people coming up the hill behind us."
They were not happy.
This year's course has been shortened in length but not so in the climbs. The third stage - 65 kilometres from Elkford to the Etherington Creek campground in Alberta - features an ascent of more than 2,000 metres. It's also well off the maps, which is why organizers have a rescue helicopter at the ready, in case someone needs help getting off the mountain.
"We're pretty excited about the third stage," TransRockies spokesman Paul Done explains. "We cross the Continental Divide and we've got a new path over the top, perhaps as high as we've ever been. It's pretty remote."
The TransRockies event, North America's finest, is the brainchild of two Germans, Heinrich Albrecht and Chester Fabricius, who fathered the European TransAlp race in 1998 and wanted to promote mountain biking worldwide. Their quest led them to Calgary businessmen Kevan MacNoughton and Aaron McConnell, along with Travel Alberta. The initial investment was roughly $500,000 over the first four years of the event.
While the European races go from one town to the next, it was decided the TransRockies should take a removed path so it could highlight the topography and mountain vistas. Racers compete in several classes (men, women, combined age, mixed) and are sheltered at night in tents. There are banquet-style setups for food, a trailer with 20 portable showers, tents with bike technicians, massage and physical therapists. The social element of meeting and chatting with other enthusiasts has heightened the TransRockies' popularity and made it more than just a race for world-class mountain bikers.
"It's a great event to be at, whether you're trying to win or just trying to finish," says Magi Scallion, the 2009 women's co-champion from New Brunswick who now lives and works in Canmore. "It's like summer camp."
Scallion admits she first thought of the TransRockies race as something less flattering: a summer camp for loons. She was an accomplished athlete who had competed for the Canadian national cross-country ski team. She had also trained as a runner and ridden bikes. She liked the competition aspect, but the idea of going hell-bent on knobby tires along back roads used by logging trucks and all-terrain vehicles seemed far too radical.
It was an opinion honed during her volunteer work at the 2007 TransRockies.
"My first year volunteering I was, 'These people are dumb. Why do it, especially on a bike with all that extra equipment?'" says Scallion, who despite helping several crash victims was eventually talked into giving it a spin. "I'd just quit elite level cross-country skiing and liked big adventures in the mountains so I tried it, gradually."
By 2009, Scallion was more than hooked; she and her younger sister Kate were women's open champs. Now Scallion can't speak highly enough about navigating a rocky path while sneaking a peak at the scenery around her.
"I love the narrower trails, more rolling, up and down with nice corners, interesting riding," she says. "What's horrible, for me, is big wide open dusty fire roads. Canadians, we want variety and views. We want to look around and say, 'Wow!'"
The wow is the why for mountain bikers, even those out to win the TransRockies 3, a three-day event that is easier on the body and better suited to the top Canadian and U.S. bikers looking to race at the world championships later this month in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Que. Pushing himself beyond the brink of his abilities is the closest Widmer can come to answering the question he's heard countless times: "You pedal a bike up and down mountains for seven days in a row? What are you, a masochist?"
"You're so completely physically and mentally exhausted that every year there are moments when you say, 'This is the last race for me.' Then the mind forgets the bad things and the next thing you know you're signing up again," Widmer says with a laugh. "You look back and it really feels you've achieved something massive. That's why I do it."
"It's hard to explain," Scallion adds, "unless you've ever been at a point in your life where you're so hungry and tired and the only way to get through it is to get somewhere. It sounds extreme and unwelcoming but that's what brings people together in this event. You're out there biking and it's … amazing."
Painfully, awfully, respectfully amazing, and that's why so many stomachs curl in anticipation. The mountains loom, the wilderness beckons. More than 200 racers from 20 countries are about to seek utopia in the high heavens. Does it get any better than this? Only if the bears stay away.