The Test of Metal. A race that has eluded me year after year. Twice now I have signed up, and both times I bailed due to injury. This year I was determined to race, partly because I hate wasting money and wasn’t about to throw away another $100 due to my gimpy hamstring, but also to finally see what all the fuss was about.
I am told that a good start at the Test of Metal is key. The race begins with six kilometres of road, most of which is climbing, and getting out ahead is necessary to avoid the inevitable congestion on the trails. The start line was packed full of bikes and I delicately squeezed into a spot on the edge of the 3 – 3.5 hour grid, trying not to domino the throngs of bikes around me. Possibly a little ambitious of a target time, but I wanted as good a start as I could get. After a few announcements and a moment of silence, the horn sounded and we were off.
A thousand riders set off down the Sea to Sky highway en masse, weaving their way to climb through the Garibaldi Highlands neighbourhood. I focused on moving up before everyone funnelled into the first section of trail. Cheering crowds lined the streets which helped distract me from my increasingly burning legs.
It was a steady grind out towards Alice Lake through Dead End Loop and I found myself with a good group where the pace was perfect for me and nobody was held up. Leading up to Rob’s and Clif’s Corners was where the fun started. The flowy bermed corners were a blast until I caught up to the riders in front, and had to keep my speed in check. No biggie I thought. We’d soon hit a logging road with enough room to pass before heading into Roller Coaster where the crowds were out in full force egging riders on to go faster.
After refuelling in the feed zone, I hit the monotonous climb of Nine Mile Hill trying to focus on anything but my legs, or on how badly I had to pee, but pretty soon it was all I could think about. I rode with my buddy, Darryl, which helped distract me until he was hit with bad leg cramps and needed to slow down. When I finally reached the top of the climb I decided I couldn’t wait any longer and dashed into the trees for a quick nature break, then it was straight into the Ring Creek Rip, a fast, flowy trail and with nobody in sight I was able to fly. I figured it was clear sailing for the rest of the race until I reached Powerhouse Plunge, a notorious bottleneck due to a slightly steeper grade. People were off their bikes and scattered all over the place. Fortunately, everyone was cool about moving off to the side for passing racers, and I was able to stay upright and weave through the chaos.
In contrast to my previous races, the Sunshine Coaster and the Nimby Fifty, I felt good for the majority of the Test. That’s not to say that I wasn’t hurting, but it was a different kind of hurt. For the first time I was able to race in the moment without worrying about if I went out too hard earlier, or about what was to come. I raced as hard as my legs would allow, and knew I would deal with whatever lay ahead when it happened. Part of what helped was the crowd. Costume clad cheering squads, kids banging cowbells, people with stereos…all helped to keep me going. More than once I was able to high five a cheering gorilla, which was enough to put a huge smile on my face.
My race was not without drama. As soon as I exited the Powerhouse Plunge back through the feed zone, my inner thighs started to seize. The emerging cramps were so intense that my face did little to hide the pain. “Just keep pedalling, don’t stop” came words of encouragement from the crowd in the feed zone, obviously used to seeing riders in the same predicament. I was about to get off my bike to stretch when Sven Sturm, organizer of the always awesome Vanier cross race, ran up and told me to eat and keep pedalling and the cramps will go away. He ran with me, pushing me up the hill then grabbed a gel out of my jersey pocket, opened it, and handed me water. I slammed down the gel and water and spun my legs and sure enough, the cramps subsided. If I had cramped anywhere else in the race, I would have been off my bike rolling around in pain, but this act of kindness and the electricity of the enthusiastic crowd in the feed zone helped me pull through. These are the things that made me love the race.
Thankfully, I was able to keep the cramps at bay as I headed into the Crumpet Woods, the final trail section of the race. I made a couple passes on the short climb and then I was on my own for the final run through the forest. Signs teasing “Free Candy” and “Free Tequila” were hung from trees and as tempting as both were, I kept going. Back on the pavement for the home stretch I glanced at my garmin to confirm that I was way under my target time. I joined another racer and we alternated towing each other towards the finish line, crossing at 3:33. I was aiming for anything sub four hours and was more than happy with my result.
Leading up to the Test of Metal I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had heard that it was a glorified road race and too congested to be much fun. Perhaps I was lucky, but this wasn’t my experience at all. I had a blast on the trails and the cheering crowds helped to keep everything fun. With a thousand people consistently selling out the race each year, I’m clearly not the only one that feels this way. I’m looking forward to next year’s event now that I have a target time to beat.