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Samurais endure one of hardest races yet

Technical climbs take their toll on field of riders

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The 2004 Samurai of Singletrack took place in the most miserable September weather that Whistler can experience, with rain and wind soaking the riders to the bone on the very first climb. Still, despite the fact that the 2005 ride was cool and mostly dry – perfect weather for an epic bike ride – the consensus at the finish line was that this year’s race was the hardest yet.

The Samurai took place on Saturday, Sept. 17, with a field of 110 riders starting in Whistler Village and making a 625-metre climb up Whistler Mountain to the Raven’s Nest area. From there riders descended through the Whistler Mountain Bike Park on No Joke, Duff Man, Golden Triangle, Lower A-Line and, after a short climb back up, Heart of Darkness.

From there the trail crossed over to Blackcomb, ascending on service roads to a new trail called Hey Bud just below the top of the Excalibur Gondola. Hey Bud was probably the most technical descent of the race, with steep, rooty sections and exposed log bridges over creeks.

From there the trail followed Lost Lake trails to the exit of Comfortably Numb, a 24 km trail that riders rode backwards to Young Lust. From there riders headed back to Lost Lake on the Green Lake Loop before crossing the highway into Cut Yer Bars, Emerald Forest and the first part of A River Runs Through It.

The last 10 km of the trail included a section of the Rainbow Flank Trail to Whip Me Snip Me, then on to Danimal, 99er and more Danimal before descending the last part of Industrial Disease to the highway, and the final few hundred metres of riding to Alpha Lake Park.

All told, this year’s course was just over 60 km in length, with a total vertical gain of close to 2,500 metres.

Whistler’s Greg Grant held the lead for most of the race, riding on a front wheel he bent out of shape in a pothole on the second major descent. He had about a seven minute lead on Andreas Hestler heading into the Green Lake Loop section, but Hestler’s experience allowed him to close the gap to just two minutes heading back into Lost Lake Park.

Hestler, a former national cross-country champion and World Cup racer, managed to close the gap at the entrance to the Emerald Forest trail, and had almost seven minutes on Grant by the time he got to the finish line in 5 hours, 2 minutes.

"This has got to be one of the hardest races I’ve ever done," said Hestler. "I consider myself a good technical rider, but I’ve never had to do that much technical riding in a row.

"I couldn’t find my rhythm – I had a pretty good crash on Thursday, and it really showed up today. I was on the ground a lot."

Hey Bud was the most technical riding of the day, but for sheer difficulty Hestler said he met his match on Comfortably Numb.

"Hey Bud was hard, but it didn’t have the constant, in-your-face challenge of Comfortably Numb. It was rough the whole way, it didn’t let up and I couldn’t get a flow going. It always felt like I was in the wrong gear."

Happy to put that behind him, he started to drop the hammer on Green Lake Loop, gaining five minutes on Grant. After making his pass he kept looking over his shoulder for the young rider, and didn’t relax until the hike-a-bike on Danimal – riders can pass you going uphill, he said, but everybody hike-a-bikes at the same speed.

Although he has been racing competitively for almost 15 years, Hestler is enjoying mountain biking more than ever. He still enters a lot of demanding races, like the Trans Alp Challenge, but he no longer races on the World Cup.

"The courses are boring, everyone is too serious, and there’s not enough singletrack," he said. "It’s great to go back to the fun events, like the Samurai and the Cheakamus Challenge."

Hestler has now won this month’s West Side Wheel Up and Samurai, and will be facing some of the top cross-country riders in Canada this weekend in the Cheakamus Challenge. If he is successful, and claims his third consecutive Cheakamus Challenge title, he will have won all of Whistler’s fall events.

Greg Grant crossed the finish line in 5:08. His wobbly tire didn’t affect him too much, "but it got a little sketchy on the fast sections, I didn’t know where I was going."

Matt Ryan was third, one minute back of Grant. At one point he was about five metres back on a hike-a-bike section in Danimal, but couldn’t catch Grant on the descent.

"I’m really happy with my race, everything went according to plan. I started out slow and coming into the Green Lake Loop I started to get serious. It was a little late I guess, and Grant didn’t blow up like I expected, so the best I could come was within a few seconds."

During the Comfortably Numb section, Ryan and Dave Burch "traded crashes" – one rider would pull ahead, crash, then the other rider would take the lead until they crashed.

Burch was about three minutes back of Grant in the River Runs Through It section, but bonked on the climb up the Flank Trail. That left fourth place wide open to a very calm and relatively clean Matt Bodkin.

"I was hoping for third, but I’m really happy with my ride. My goal was to keep up with Ozzie Matt (Ryan), and I kept pace through Comfortably Numb but when I stopped at the barbecue he got away from me. That was a mistake, because I rode alone after that until Matt Bodkin passed me on Whip Me Snip Me – then it all went to shit," said Burch, who finished fifth.

"I faded a little. Everybody has their low points in a race like this, but mine hit me on a key climb near the end of the race.

"I wish we could have an all downhill Samurai."

For Bodkin, everything went according to plan. "My plan from the start was to ride really hard on the first climb, then sit back and ride within myself. The course was really good – it was a lot of climbing but the (course) conditions were perfect," he said.

Bodkin’s favourite part was Comfortably Numb, where he hit a good rhythm and made up some time on the lead pack. "I’d never ridden that trail in that direction, and it was kind of fun. The rock faces were all ride-able, and you had to walk up some sections, but after the helicopter pad it was mostly downhill. You still had to be on top of things because of all the roots, but it was a really fun, kind of technical ride."

In the women’s race it was a close contest. Nikki Kassel had the lead for the first part of the race, but was passed by Joanna Harrington and Lesley Clements in a technical section after Comfortably Numb.

Clements kept the heat on Harrington, and was just seconds behind when they got to the descent on Danimal where Harrington, a strong technical rider, at last pulled ahead.

"I’m pretty sore," she said. "It’s really hard to race something like that, for that long, and stay in front when you have someone coming right up behind you.

"Comfortably Numb wasn’t too bad, there was a lot of hiking, and that route through Cut Yer Bars was pretty hard. By the time I got to Danimal I knew I was close to the finish, and I knew (Lesley) wasn’t going to catch me once I got to the top of the last climb in there."

Harrington won the West Side Wheel Up the week before, and is once again establishing herself as one of the top local women after spending a few years starting up Fineline Ride Shop in Function Junction. She also gets some support from Gary Fisher Bikes, and is excited to be back racing.

"For a few years I didn’t do too much in the way of racing, and concentrated on the shop, but it’s good to be back racing. There are some pretty good girls out there, and we’re all capable of winning on any given day, so it’s a lot of fun," she said.

Harrington crossed the line in 7:06, followed by Clements in 7:09 and Kassel with a 7:37.

According to organizer Tony Horn, 105 of 108 starters finished the race. Two pulled out with injuries, including one helicopter evacuation on Comfortably Numb, but both riders were well enough to attend the after-party at Teppan Village.

The other non-finisher decided to pack it in after a series of serious mechanical problems.

The last two riders finished in about 12:20, over an hour after it got dark.

Horn estimates that five bike frames were broken, at least two of them beyond repair. Dozens of chains were snapped on the technical climbs, several wheels were wrecked in the same pothole on Hey Bud, and flats were par for the course.

"People were cursing my name out there, but it’s the same every year," said Horn, who co-organizes the Samurai race with Ru Mehta. "I think it was a great ride, the weather was perfect, and the volunteers were just outstanding – they were cheering loud all day, and I think they probably cheered louder for the 100 th rider than they did for the first."

This was the fifth year out of seven for the Samurai, after which point the riders that made it through all the events will get an Ultimate Samurai award. Coming into this year some 54 competitors have participated in each race.

Horn doesn’t have next year’s course finalized, but says it will run over two days, Sept. 16-17, and that there will be some camping involved.

Samurai Awards

At the after party, Horn presented seven special awards:

The Oldest Samurai Award went to Gary Baker, who was riding in his first Samurai at age 67 – one of three 60 year old riders taking part in the race this year. More impressive, Baker was one of four Samurai racers who got out of bed early on Sunday to run the 10 km route of the Terry Fox Run. The others were Keith Ray, Ted Battiston and Marla Zucht.

The Keanest Samurai Award went to Terri Ross, who was also riding in her first Samurai. "She was an ex-Teppan chef who works at Samurai Sushi, and decided she had to do it and she was great. She had a great time," said Horn.

The Happiest Samurai was Nicole Heisterman, who finished fourth among the women but had a smile on her face the entire day.

The Most Determined Samurai was Jay Houlding, who broke his frame at the point that held his seatpost on Comfortably Numb but rode the rest of the race anyway – standing up most of the time. At the finish line he threw his bike into Alpha Lake to show his frustration.

The Most Helpful Samurai was Pat Bourgie who led the first aid effort for the rider who was evacuated from Comfortably Numb with a possible spine injury.

The Strongest Samurai was Paul Fournier, who rode the entire race with his thumb immobilized in a hard cast. Fournier is also still recovering from a serious July 2004 car crash.

There was no trophy for it, but the unofficial Last Samurai Standing award went to Chris Susko, who was the last person to leave Moe Joe’s after the dinner at Teppan Village.

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