Sp’akw’us — the great mountain-biking challenge

The popular event offers 35- or 50-kilometre courses that soar 600 metres up

Squamish is known as the “Outdoor Recreation Capital of the World” – a modest claim in the province that once called itself the Best Place on Earth. And mountain biking may be the most popular of all outdoors sports around here.

For more than two decades, Test of Metal was the main mountain biking race series. When organizers decided to go out on a high note and call 2016 the last of their races, a handful of local riders decided to launch another signature local cross-country mountain biking event.

The Sp’akw’us 50 opened in 2017, welcoming both recreational and licensed riders. All 600 entries sold out.

For 2018, organizers are stretching the event into a two-day stage race, called the Sp’akw’us Challenge. Saturday, June 16, will be the Sp’akw’us 50, part of the B.C. Premier Series, sanctioned by Cycling B.C. Sunday, June 17, offers the Sp’akw’us 35.

Participants are invited to do a one-day race – 50 kilometres on Saturday or 35 on Sunday – or double their pleasure with a two-day endurance effort.

 Sp’akw’us means “eagle” in the Squamish language, and it is a fitting moniker given that riders have a chance to soar. 

The 35- or 50-kilometre courses rise about 600 metres from the Garibaldi Springs Golf Course and take in a vast swath of trails available in the Squamish area. Sp’akw’us organizers say the intensity of the route is a response to mountain bikers’ need for ever-greater challenges “We’ve taken the difficulty of the Test of Metal and increased it further by adding more trail,” says Dwayne Kress, race director. “Over time, the mountain bikes just got to be so advanced that we are currently riding bikes that would have been considered downhill bikes 20 years ago. These bikes have increased the range of trail that people can ride, so now people are looking for a bigger challenge.

The idea — and the trick to pulling off one of these events — is to create a course that people would ride if there were no race. It’s not something that’s replicated very easily; you need to have the natural terrain and creative course design.”

While the event is a race, competitiveness is more a matter of personal bests, says Kress.

“The challenge is more within them and not so much trying to beat their competitors to gain valuable points to get into the Olympic pool,” he says with a laugh.

The trails?

“They are world-class,” he says. “A lot of them have stood the test of time. They were carved out or created, very early in the Squamish mountain bike era and we’ve had some newer, extremely creative trails come online that have been borne out of people riding locally and then deciding to build locally. We get to have a mixture of some old school rough, rooty, crooked, nonsensical trails and some a mixture of these new, granite slab, ‘slow-y’ trails. You get both of them blending so well.”

Up to 900 riders taking off at the same time on Saturday (500 on Sunday), makes for an extremely fast start.

“We do mass start, and that’s obviously part of the challenge,” Kress says. “You’re going to end up with a bottleneck somewhere. The idea is to somehow create the front part of the course that gives the opportunity for a selection to happen as people either fall off the pace or just decides to pace themselves a little better.”

Sp’akw’us carries on a legacy of mountain biking in the area that is renowned worldwide.

When Test of Metal ended, Kress says, one of the major sponsors was still open to opportunity.

“Sean Daly from Nesters Market had mentioned to me that he still had a will to support mountain bike racing and that if anyone wanted to take that on, he would support that,” he recalls. Kress doesn’t regret taking it on, but he acknowledges that one his colleagues described it as “organizing a wedding every year” and, he admits, a few weeks before last year’s race, he had cold feet.

“You start to get scared of what’s inevitably coming at you,” he says. But the success of Sp’akw’us — and the races that came before — are a testament to the community.

“It’s a stamp of approval amongst a wide selection of mountain bike enthusiasts to be able to have an event run successfully for years and years, and years and then another one comes right in and build on that success, or maintain it,” Kress says. “It’s certainly an endorsement for the trails in the area and the town itself to be able to host an event like that.

A big part of the culture of our town is recreation, but mountain biking is probably the largest one.” •

Source: Dave Silver
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