20th Cheakamus Challenge cause for celebration

Fall classic marks two decades of beautiful suffering in 70-km race

The corridor's annual celebration of the best in mountain biking pain and pleasure is turning 20 on Saturday (Sept. 19), as the Cheakamus Challenge fall classic mountain bike race returns to mark two decades of torment and triumph in some of the world's most stunning terrain.

Over its 20 years, the 70-kilometre race between Squamish and Whistler has taken more than 13,000 riders through the steep climbs, fast and flowing singletrack, swift descents and spectacular sights that characterize the Sea to Sky country trails and scenery.

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Race director Grant Lamont, describing the course for the uninitiated, said Cheakamus Challenge riders can expect a race full of tough stuff that just keeps getting tougher.

"The main thing that they can probably expect is a long, hard race that gets more difficult as you go along. (There are) fairly steep climbs through the canyon to begin with, but beautiful - incredible scenery. Make sure you take a look around in the canyon while you're going," Lamont said.

He also cautioned riders to take care in the sections on the Sea to Sky Highway, asking them to obey volunteers and traffic marshals and keep their ears open.

The challenge begins at the Squamish Airport at 10 a.m., followed by a first half largely featuring open doubletrack riding. The riders will plunge into the world of steep climbs and speedy singletrack along the Cheakamus River before climbing up to Tunnel Vision and its spectacular sights.

The climb to Big Timber follows, culminating with the rollicking ride downhill to the finish line at Dusty's in Creekside. This year, the course leaves out the pass through Trash, which organizers said is in a construction zone and needs work, and substitutes in a new stretch of the Sea to Sky Trail that will bring the competitors to the Whistler Athletes' Village site.

"We just cut out Trash, and that's really just added a section of the Sea to Sky Trail into it. So really the course has been shortened, I'd say, by about five minutes," Lamont said.

Lamont said he's hoping to have between 350 and 400 riders out for the main event and the Cheakamus Lite, the 40-kilometre spinoff race added in 2005 to serve as a challenging and interesting introduction to the tough parts of the full course.

The Cheakamus Challenge has drawn many of Canada's best bikers into its ranks over the years, with Roland Green, Ryder Hesjedal, Geoff Kabush, Kirk Molday, Andreas Hestler, Bruce Spicer and Max Plaxton having claimed men's titles and multi-winner Alison Sydor leading the way on the women's side. Leslie Tomlinson, Trish Sinclair and Nordic skiing star Nikki Kassels are among the other women's winners.

Plaxton, winner of the 2006 and 2007 Cheakamus Challenge titles, has confirmed he'll enter this year's race, Lamont said, as has last year's third-place finisher Kevin Calhoun.

Whistler's Matt Bodkin managed to claim victory in 2008, surviving the brutally cold and rainy conditions to finish the race with a time of three hours, 30 minutes, 42.06 seconds.

Lamont said there isn't a course-record time for the race, since the conditions can vary so much - "sometimes it's hard and fast, sometimes it's wet and mucky," he said.

"Probably the fastest I've ever seen somebody do the course was Roland Green in probably about '98 - he was just flying. He won by about eight or nine minutes," Lamont said. The world champion and World Cup winner "just really wanted to prove something when he got back here, and he just it was scary," Lamont added.

This year, with the forecast tentatively calling for much better weather than last year, Lamont is concentrating on making sure there will be plenty of water for participants to guzzle, though riders are supposed to provide their own food and water.

"It looks like we're going to have good weather for it, compared to last year, (when) it was a pretty harsh day, and added a lot of wrinkles to a lot of faces," Lamont said.

Presented by Santa Cruz Bicycles, the Cheakmus Challenge will open for registration on race day at the Squamish Airport at 7:30 a.m., and the race will begin at 10 a.m. sharp. The Cheakamus Lite is scheduled to start with sign-on at noon before the gun goes at 1 p.m., at the Whistler bungee bridge opposite the Whistler Olympic/Paralympic Park turnoff.

Volunteers are welcomed and appreciated. Contact Lamont at gjlamont@gmail.com if you want to help stage the ultimate fall classic. For more information, check out www.cheakamuschallenge.com.

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