Brimacombe Ski Hill. July 21, 2018
When the CN railway cut a ribbon of track across the Canada, they connected the web of low lying areas with a path that had the lowest grade.
Substance Projects did NOT cut the El Bandito course by connecting low lying areas with a path that had the lowest grade.
They connected low lying areas with the path that had the highest, gnarliest, and toughest grade they could find.
In my mind, I imagine Dan Marshall (head of Substance Projects), standing at the bottom of Brimacombe Ski hill, designing the course, “So, the race will start here at the chalet, and instead of rolling north down that hill, let’s go around that copse of trees and up that ugly gravel access road to the top of the ski hill…”
And after settling on that route, deeming it adequately ugly, and ignoring the path of least resistance in favour of the path of most resistance, he stood atop the ski hill and said “Okay, what is the worst road off the property? Oh, there it is, right at the bottom of that other ugly, deeply rutted gravel access road…and hey look, there’s a bunch of asphalt chunks littering the route…”
And when he stood at the bottom of that ugly hill, he used his internal barometric pressure sensor to find the lowest area of land, and the worst possible route to get there, and took a course directly there.
“Okay, where is the highest point of land with the steepest slope to get there? Ah, there it is. ..”
He did this, about a thousand times during his scouting missions for the race, and the result was an absolutely horrible wickedly hard bike race of sheer beauty.
Breathtaking scenery, breath-taking climbs, and all that gravel that he could find in between. El Bandito is one beautiful, tough race.
It’s also one of my favourite races of the season (although I think every race is my favourite).
- The course (lots of gravel, lots of road, farm access paths, BIG hills, and Ganaraska Forest), and the perfect bike (a mountain-road-gravel-bike, of course)
- The people (Dan Marahall AND Substance Projects AND Dan’s mom and dad)
- The racers (So many pals at the race)
That course though. I hate it so much that a I love it. What, it’s complicated.
I get it. Riding it tough, racing is tougher, and an epic ride isn’t meant to be a gentle roll. If we wanted that, we’d shove a folding bike into our trunk, and ride to the ice cream stand on the boardwalk and back (not that there’s anything wrong with that). So, when a race is called El Bandito (the name literally means “the thief”, and it’s smack dab in the middle of the Northumberland Hills (the area actually has the word “hills” in it, we’re not in for a fun day of gentle riding.
True story: somewhere near the end of the race, after the Ganny had spit our exhausted bodies out of the forest, I actually cursed Dan Marshall aloud when we hit the bottom of yet another climb.
Substance Projects gave us three options for this year, the second running of El Bandito: 40k, 70k, and 140k. I did the 70k. Honestly, I scouted parts of the long course with Dan the year before, and some of the stuff in the 140 was just a bit too gross for me. Between the sand along the powerline, having to ride through waaaay more Ganny, and the sheer time it would take me to finish the course, it was enough for me to opt out of the big kid distance.
I’d like to say I HAD to choose the shorter distance because I wasn’t recovered from my 100k at the Epic 8 Hour the week before (but I actually sort-of/kinda was almost recovered), or I’d like to say that I was just too tired because I’m not sleeping lately, but really, 140k is just a really really really long race, and I think it’s still a bit out of my comfort zone. I said comfort zone instead of ability because I’m starting to realize that my realm of possibility on a bike is pretty vast. I’m realizing that I probably COULD do the distance, but it would be super tough, it would hurt (like, a lot), and it would definitely take a different mindset prior to the race. Also, I’m pretty sure Dan and his crew wouldn’t want to wait 11 hours for me to finish…
Plus, looking forward to the race at registration, I thought 70k would be a fun rip.
I was wrong. It wasn’t fun.
A bandit wields a six shooter and steals loot from a steam coach while masked with a bandana. El Bandito wields the power of hills and steals power and resolve from cyclists (who should be wearing a mask because spandex).
And since El Bandito is Spanish, I think it says “ai ai ai” while doing so.
My blog was a twitter (a-blog’er) prior to the race from people using search engines to try to get a handle on the race, and the big question seemed to be: Is the course hard what bike should I use which tires do I need?
A complicated question with a complicated answer.
- The course is awesomely ugly and climbs every beautiful damn hill in the area…
- Ride the bike you brung (because it’ll be the ideal bike at times, and not-so-ideal at other times)…
- Your tires will always be the wrong ones, so you might as well use what’s in the bike.
I rode my 2015 Norco Threshold CX bike, with 33ml balding cyclocross tires. It was fast on the descents, easy on the climbs (although that’s relative), horrible in the sand and in the forest, great on my back and arms, and utterly useless on the asphalt chunks.
Looking back, should I have chosen a different bike?
If I had my way, I would have ridden a MTB at Brimacombe, a fatbike away from the property, a gravel bike on the first gravel bit, a road bike for the middle part, a fatbike for a climb at the halfway point, a road bike for a while, a gravel bike for the next part, a fatbike for the sand in the Ganny, a MTB for the doubletrack in the Ganny, and a CX for the other stuff in the Ganny, and then alternating between a road bike and gravel bike for the last part of the race, followed by a fatbike, and a MTB for the finish.
What, too much to ask for?
Oh, and my tires would have been…
Race Report: El Bandito 70k. Brimacombe Ski Hill. July 21, 2018
The race started at the bottom of the ski hill, rode to the top of the ski hill, and back to the bottom. After that one-two punch, it kept us on our toes with some very nasty gravel, a few loose hills, some more loose hills, and then a bunch of ugly road, followed by some more ugly road, some more even uglier road (all of it either a slow grind up, or a blistering rip down)….
After all of the ugly road, at about 30k, El Bandito kicks some dirt in our faces (literally) with a long punchy walk up boulder-strewn, rutted farm path, before a giant back hand slap of waaaaay more ugly road, and a continual onslaught of hills.
42k Aid Station: Fuel, rest, refuel, chat a bit, back on the bike.
Two really ugly road hills.
And then, out of nowhere, pretty much at the end of a driveway, the Ganaraska Forest rears its head for a long shot of access road that’s really just a pile of deep dry sand. Ugh.
50-something k Aid Station: Fuel, pickle, last gasps of breath before an almost final shot of ugly Ganaraska Forest double track.
The race literally slowed to a crawl for me at this time. I was in no mental or physical state to rip the climbs or descents, every root and rock threatened to bite my tires, and it was just unpleasant. And just as suddenly as the Ganny appeared, it disappeared, and the course was back on roads. I actually heard angels sing as I emerged from the forest.
Could have been delirium too.
After the ugly punches in the Ganny, the course kept at it with hill after hill after hill–at a time when we just needed to coast.
The last 6k of El Bandito was the same as the first 6k: the asphalt-chunk hill, and the ski hill climb and descent (in reverse), before the thief finally gave something back: the FINISH.
What, did I expect it to be easy?
End of Race Report
How did I ride?
Well, I was supposed to spend the day riding with a buddy (also one of the reasons I chose the 70 rather than the 140), and we stayed close to each other, jockeying for position in the first 15 minutes of the race, but then we got separated, and I rode pretty much the entire race alone.
It was a daunting endeavour at first, and looking at 66k of ugliness ahead, I was disheartened, but as I continued I made the best of it, and found the elusive peace that comes with a long solo rip. I can’t seem to find the time to ride much lately (unless it’s a race) so carving the time required for lengthy outing is a real treat.
It was pretty cool. I felt strong on the rolling terrain, and easily maintained a steady clip of 32-37 km/h; my body was tired and a bit spent, but still, my legs kept a constant churn; my bike was totally on point for the duration, the even though the climbs were long and tough, and the descents were steep and harrowing, it was all great fun.
The constant cadence, the stunning vistas, the physical exertion (yeah, that’s a good thing), and the perfectly natural mesh of bike and legs and lungs and heart and soul.
For a time, I solved the world’s problems, got a handle on MY world’s problems, and thought about all the stuff in my brain’s deep storage.
Maybe El Bandito means “therapist” in a different language.
My last few long haul races were a different animal altogether. There is no peace in an 8 Hour race, and whatever peace you can find is short lived because it’s punctuated by a lap every 45 minutes (also it’s just too much of a grind), and other races are either too jammed with riders, too short, or too something else. However, the peace that comes with a sustained solo ride is a tough thing to duplicate.
And it’s beautiful.
It’s one of the principal reasons I ride, and when it happens (all too rarely) it’s a real treat.
So, El Bandito may have robbed me of my strength and stamina, but it didn’t take my spirit. In fact, while it was scratching at my legs and tearing at my heart, I found way more in return.
And it happened when I wasn’t even expecting it.
Big Ring Entertainment shot a sweet video of the race. Here it is:
Thanks to Substance Projects, Cannondale, and Dukes Cycle.
Here’s a bunch of pictures I took at the race. They’re all captioned: