Session Series – Episode 4 150 150 The Free Radicals

Session Series – Episode 4

As the calendar turned to October, typically a wet and soggy month, the forecast continued to show sun with just enough rain and cool temperatures to provide the best conditions of the year. To take advantage of this, we threw a party with bikes, bonfires and beers. Inviting 12 of our best friends was a no brainer and a great way to say thanks for a kick ass season!

This year is one we will cherish forever and none of it would have been possible without the help and support of our friends. A huge shout out to Jon, Ashton, Benny and the whole crew from Smith, without you, we would have given up on this dream last year, gotten other jobs and lived the rest of our lives wondering ‘what if’. So, thank you. We also have enormous gratitude for all our local homies, in your absence, life in the RV would have been a damn sight harder, smellier and way less fun.

Session Series – Episode 3 150 150 The Free Radicals

Session Series – Episode 3

Summer in Whistler always slips away too fast, but fall in the Sea to Sky is something every mountain biker looks forward to. As moisture returns to the ground, the skies clear of smoke and the crowds dissipate, locals are rewarded with the best conditions of the year. Yet when snow came in September, it seemed like the fall riding season was over before it ever really started. In a panic, we turned the RV south toward America in the hopes of delaying winter just a few weeks longer. Huge ups to Graeme Meiklejohn for this one!

Session Series – Episode 2 150 150 The Free Radicals

Session Series – Episode 2

Summer treated the Free Radicals to desert like temperatures and tan lines on par with the most leathery of roadies. Navigating Whistler this time of year can be near impossible when everyday is someone else’s Friday. Luckily, after one too many brannigans, the boys were able to escape the madness and found themselves deeply immersed in the mountains. Shoutout to Dave Kenworthy for helping with this beauty!

Session Series – Episode 1 150 150 The Free Radicals

Session Series – Episode 1

Spring is a natural time for celebration, and this year we had lots to celebrate. Will’s hand was successfully re-attached to his arm, Mark was finished working in the Polar Vortex of Prince George, BC and after 4 years of full-time service, the increasingly unreliable van, Elaine, was swapped out for a bougie 1991 21ft Gulfstream RV. Shout out to Vince for the steal-of-a-deal. Oh, did we mention the trails in British Columbia are in all-time condition.

Free Candy Tour Episode 7 – Irresponsibly Ambitious 1024 683 The Free Radicals

Free Candy Tour Episode 7 – Irresponsibly Ambitious

Elaine’s recurring malaise had been “fixed” at least four times already this year.

Each cure had come with a corresponding revelation—“It’s a carb tuning issue!” “She’s tuned fine, theres just a clogged jet!” “No, it was a tuning issue after all!”—accompanied by a short period of improved performance. Invariably, Elaine was dead on the side of the road again before long. Such was her state in early October, shortly after Will left the four day party that is Trans Cascadia.

Ironically, Will was on his way to Hood River to film a video about Elaine breaking down. Back in early September, our friends at Specialized had hit us up about filming a video with Outside Van, a high-end Sprinter conversion operation in Portland. As residents of very much not top of the line (and frequently non-operational vans) we didn’t require a whole lot of convincing to go see how the other half lives. The concept we developed for the video was to simulate Elaine breaking down again and have the boys from Outside Van rescue Will and show him around the Portland area. Its hard to say if this was the vehicular equivalent of calling “last run” or if it was just a matter of odds, but we didn’t have to simulate anything. Will got a late night tow to the Outside Van shop the night before filming was scheduled to start and slept in the parking lot.

It was a fitting way to conclude our year long “Free Candy Tour” video project. From the beginning, the whole process was a series of near disasters and dumb luck. The EWS registration system crashed at the beginning of the year, which meant that instead of racing the first half of the season, as we had planned, we had more time to film. Shortly thereafter, the guys at Freehub approached us to take on another video project while we were in New Zealand. In hindsight, losing our race entries was the only reason we were able to complete the irresponsibly ambitious production schedule we had laid out for ourselves and return home from New Zealand without being completely broke.

Almost immediately after returning to North America, I fell off a two-foot-high bridge and put myself on the disabled list for the remainder of the season. With four more videos to film and increasing support for the series, the timing felt heart breaking. However, it corresponded with Simon, our original filmer, coming to the realization that he had miscalculated his budget and would have to stay home in Australia and work for most of the North American summer. Again, apparent bad luck saved us and my injury gave us a de facto, one-armed replacement filmer.

So what was our big takeaway from the year? Something about perseverance in the face of adversity? Well, probably more accurately, it would be that being wildly underprepared and having little to no idea what you’re doing won’t necessarily stop you from doing it. I can’t recommend putting your life savings on the line due to our advice, but if you’re reading this and want to do something that you’re not sure you’re qualified for, maybe try just going fast and pulling up. That whole “If you want to make yourself do something, start telling people you’re going to do it” thing is true too.

Also, if your carbureted van is having intermittent power loss issues, try upgrading your fuel pump.

Free Candy Tour Episode 6 – Full Dust Warfare 1024 683 The Free Radicals

Free Candy Tour Episode 6 – Full Dust Warfare

Oh shit. Will must have had a mechanical.

It was stage one of the Revy 3-Day Heli Enduro, and as Will rode by me I was sure something was wrong with his bike. After shattering my elbow in May, I had spent the summer on the side of the trail, watching my friends ride with a camera in my hands. By September, I had developed an eye for all the subtle cues in Will’s riding form. I knew what he looked like when he was spent and focused more on fantasies of pizza than the trail, when he wasn’t stoked and was just phoning it in, and when he was riding to the best of his ability. The Will that had just ridden by looked like he had engaged cruise control.

Will is decidedly on the beefcake side of the spectrum for a mountain biker, and possesses determination and a competitive streak strong enough to match his biceps. He is the type of rider who, no matter how bad his hangover is, how injured he is, or what’s broken on his bike, is going to ride flat out through sheer force of will. His riding style, historically, is reflective of this physique and mental fortitude.

While some good riders are described as fluid, Will typically resembles a Class V rapid more closely than a gently flowing stream. He smashes down trails with the volume knob turned to eleven, as though he is trying to use his bike to shatter the ground. Audibly breathing, veins bulging out of his arms, his every movement of the bike is done to the absolute max. His lines, while undoubtedly fast, often appear risky and energy consuming. As an onlooker, it is hard to fathom how he can maintain his pace and energy level for more than a few turns. As a general rule of thumb, I’ve found that the more exhausting and frightening it is to watch Will ride, the faster he is going.

My only conclusion when Will passed me on stage one was that he had given up. I couldn’t hear his breath or see his veins. He didn’t appear to be trying to rip the bottom bracket out of his bike with his pedal stroke. After the rest of the field went by and I hiked back to the van, I prepared for bad news. Maybe he had been nursing a cracked rim, or had bent his derailleur beyond function. Will greeted me at the van with a cold bubble water and a grin. He was sitting in third.

For the next two days, it was this calmer, more composed Will 2.0 that I watched ride. It looked like he had made peace with the trails and decided to let them live. He carried speed naturally, without any undue violence. His heart rate appeared visibly lower. When I watched his footage back, the number plate was the only thing that gave away the fact that he was in a race run. It was as if he had dialed the volume back to nine and as a result was going faster than ever. When Sunday evening came, Will held onto third and took his spot on the podium.

It is hard to pinpoint what exactly prompted this change in Will’s riding. He’s been riding a shorter travel bike than earlier in the year, and maybe that has forced him to tone down his aggression. Maybe its just down to hours on the bike and something just clicked for him.

The atmosphere that Ted Morton created at the Revy 3-Day undoubtedly deserves partial credit. Ted claims to have organized the race in order to show all his friends his favorite trails in Revelstoke, and this motivation was certainly evident throughout the weekend. In place of breathing exercises and visualization at the stage starts, there was lots of joking and psychedelic consumption. It was easy for the racers to forget they were racing, and as was evident in Will’s case, sometimes this is exactly what’s needed to go fast.

Regardless of the cause, it is a unique and special experience to watch your friends grow. I felt a strange pride seeing Will’s progression. When you’ve been riding for as long as Will has, big leaps in speed or ability come rarely, if ever. It was probably a subtle, maybe subconscious, change in his riding approach, but the resulting change in pace and style was dramatic. While being sidelined with an injury sucks, I’m glad I got to witness it.

Free Candy Tour Episode 5 – On Island Time 1024 692 The Free Radicals

Free Candy Tour Episode 5 – On Island Time

Mountain bikers, by and large, approach vacations differently than the general population.

Our breed tends to place traditional activities like relaxing, drinking frozen cocktails by a pool and taking guided scenic tours low on our list of desirable vacation activities. Meanwhile, hitting that new jump line in the bike park or finding a sweet new loamer from the latest viral video are typically at the top of the list.

We choose destinations based on the number of trails, not climate or nightlife. Trip planning usually involves creating an unrealistically tight itinerary, based around fitting in the maximum number of new trails and riding takes precedent over sleeping. An average Joe might return from vacation a little sun-burnt but well rested. We often return covered in fresh scabs, possibly with one or more limbs in a cast, and more exhausted than when we left.

This June, our crew abandoned this typical mountain biker mindset and took an approach more akin to that of a suburban family of five. The drought and corresponding heatwave in British Columbia were sucking any semblance of energy from us and making it hard to think about much besides getting out of the dust and submerging ourselves in water. So, we decided to do what a typical group of 20-somethings without serious bike riding addictions would do.

“You guys want to go to the beach?”

None of us had been to Quadra or Hornby Islands, or spent much time on the eastern side of Vancouver Island. We knew next to nothing about the riding in these places, and for once, this wasn’t the major draw of our trip. In fact, we knew very little in general about these destinations, but based on our understanding of the word island, we were pretty sure there would be beaches. Watching our t-shirts soak through with sweat was the deciding factor.

These coastal islands proved to be an ideal locale for our foray into a more traditional vacation. An atmosphere of supreme tranquility hit us in the face as soon as we got off the ferry in Nanaimo, and a few days into the trip, we were so relaxed that we were almost asleep. This island phenomenon can be hard to explain but is immediately noticeable to anyone who visits. As hip-hop artist 2 Chainz would say, it’s a vibe.

At first, figuring out what to do with ourselves between naps was a challenge. Without our usual tick list of must-hit trails and a carefully planned riding agenda, we felt a bit aimless. This freedom, however, allowed us to explore the trails and communities at a much more casual rate.

The riding we found throughout our trip was surprisingly good and was made all the more enjoyable by our lack of expectations. Each naturally-formed trail double and perfectly shaped corner that we came upon provided a pleasant surprise. Most trails were relatively short, climbs were mellow and lines were less committing than what we are used to at home, leaving us with plenty of energy to slice through turns and pedal back up for as many or as few laps as we pleased. The fact that we weren’t riding ourselves into a hole with an overly-aggressive riding schedule meant that we woke up each day rested and ready for more.

After ten days of island hopping, we came to the conclusion that taking a normal-person vacation every once in a while is a recommended maneuver. For a mountain biker, the islands off the coast of British Columbia are a great location to dip one’s toes in the waters of such vacations, so to speak, because they offer a compromise between relaxation and enough trails to keep you from going stir crazy.

The beaches though? It turns out that in BC the shore is generally pretty rocky and the water is pretty cold. You can still set up a beach chair, enjoy the views and get a sunburn.

Free Candy Tour Episode 4 – Arm Pump and the RV Game at Trans BC 1024 692 The Free Radicals

Free Candy Tour Episode 4 – Arm Pump and the RV Game at Trans BC

Two days before the start of Trans BC, the boys found themselves even more homeless than usual.

While I was sidelined weeks earlier with a broken elbow, Mark, Will, Vince and Remi were driving through the night to Trans BC’s starting point in Fernie, BC when things took a turn for the worse. Sometime in the middle of the night, deep in the mountains of interior BC, Elaine’s carburetor deteriorated from her normal, finicky temperament to a monumental meltdown that would change the course of the week. All thoughts of actually racing went out the window as the goal quickly became simply making it to the starting line.

After some roadside tuning, done mostly by braille in the dark—the kind that’s only possibly in the middle of nowhere—they were able to limp the rest of the way to Fernie. However, with no chance that Elaine could complete the race’s journey to Revelstoke in her current state, the boy’s chances of being able to race looked grim.

As they were scrambling to figure out a means of transportation and accommodation for the week, a mysterious, mustachioed racer named Duffman was facing a different problem. Duffman had just driven up from Colorado in a Toyota Dolphin RV named the Odyssey, and his plan was to have a local flame drive the Odyssey down to Revelstoke to meet him after the race. However, upon arriving in town, it began to appear that his prospective driver was abandoning their pre-arranged plans, and Duffman was left trying to figure out how he was going to get his RV to Revelstoke.

Mark and Will had met Duffman the year prior while racing in South America, and aparently, something in their interaction had given him the impression that they would be good candidates to transport the Odyssey. Further more, that it would be a good idea to let them live out of the RV during the race. Relieved, they transferred their bikes and belongings into the Odyssey, stashed Elaine in Fernie and settled into the luxurious comforts of a mid-1990’s Japanese camper for the week.

Now at the starting line, the original challenge of the Trans BC was still to be overcome. The race itself was brutally awesome. Every day, at least one stage was legitimately scary and the transitions left the field increasingly shattered. The arm pump that resulted from a week straight of 15 minute descents left the boys feeling like they were struggling to hang onto fifth gear of a 450cc dirt bike as they dropped into the final stages of the race. It was proper mountain biking.

For her part, the Odyssey performed flawlessly. She was a little down on power as she pulled into Revelstoke, but so was everyone else. Thanks to the support and somewhat misguided trust of their friends, and the loyal performance of a twenty-year-old engine, the boys managed to hang on for the race. Will even finished with a respectable top ten result.

After handing the keys back over to Duffman and exchanging a grateful high five, there was only one challenge left: figure out how to get Elaine out of Fernie.

Free Candy Tour Episode 3 -Fading Sanity and a Three-Winged Chicken at the NZ Enduro 1024 687 The Free Radicals

Free Candy Tour Episode 3 -Fading Sanity and a Three-Winged Chicken at the NZ Enduro

There comes a point toward the end of any road trip when both the passengers and the vehicle begin approaching a state of disorder, both physically and emotionally. This is the point we are at as we arrive in Havelock for the NZ Enduro. Combined with three days of torrential rain, any aspirations of “racing” are replaced with mere survival. We make it through the event by any means necessary: tripoding, scootering and flat out walking.

After the race, we explore the steep trails, lush forests and diverse bird populations between Havelock and Nelson. Our birding is amateur at best, but we do manage to identify a three-winged chicken in the takeaways section of a Nelson grocery.

The four of us have been traveling in a van that has three seats for the last month.

Mark has developed a close working relationship with our van’s engine, meaning he is able to keep it from stalling randomly on the highway, and has thus established himself as the full time driver. For the rest of us, the game of Shotgun has become a very serious matter, and maintaining a clear set of rules has become crucial to sustaining any type of civility.

The rules are simple: call “shotgun!” and the front passenger seat is yours. However, at least one other person has to hear you call shotgun for it to count. The first person to hear it called will then usually call “middle,” claiming the third front bench seat, and the unlucky remaining individual will be relegated to sit in the back, awkwardly lying on one of the narrow bed-benches and cut off from the conversations and views of the front seat. Lastly, anyone can re-appropriate shotgun any time that the van is vacated by jumping in the front seat and yelling, “snake!”

Shotgun rights last all day, so the first person up each morning will normally wake someone else up by loudly claiming it. Will and I sleep three feet from each other in the back of the van, while Simon and Mark sleep in tents, giving the two of us a clear advantage in the morning.

By the time we leave Queenstown, NZ and start heading north for the NZ Enduro in Havelock, the snake rule is being enacted regularly and has been expanded to cover nearly any situation in our daily lives. A certain impatience and feeling of desperation has descended on the group, mostly due to our constant proximity to one another and the fact that daily tasks take us four times as long as they should. As a result, virtually anything has become fair game for snaking: unattended cups of coffee, personal snacks, music selection, clean socks.

Our increasingly frequent and absurd snaking has become a sort of sport to us and a form of entertainment. Snaking the coffee beans that someone just ground for themselves, for instance, results in maniacal laughter and distracts us from the fact that we’ve been waiting for our second cup for over an hour.

It’s not until we arrive at our friend Harry’s cabin, where we’re staying during the race, that we realize how insane our behavior has become. Personal boundaries and respect for customs like shotgun are essential for basic human society to function, and through an abuse of snake we’ve let life in the van descend into chaos.

When we do arrive at Harry’s, however, there is an understanding that we need to try to follow more acceptable social customs during our stay, and all snaking is placed on hold. Harry doesn’t regularly share the back of a midsize van with three other guys, and while our standards of conduct have become subconscious by this point, we are vaguely aware that he should not be subjected to such savagery.

The race itself is a cold, wet mess, and we likely owe our very survival to the relative luxuries provided by staying at Harry’s place rather than in the van, where trench foot and hypothermia would have been near certainties. However, more importantly than keeping us warm and dry, the cabin restored a level of sanity to our crew.

For three days, we set down plates of food and drinks without watching them from the corner of our eyes. We take turns doing laundry, taking showers and using bike tools without wrestling matches breaking out. It is enough time to slightly rewire our brains, so that when Will calls shotgun as we’re loading the van to leave Harry’s place for Nelson, neither Simon nor I have the impulse to charge the van or yell “snake!”

Thanks for that, Harry.

Free Candy Tour Episode 2 – A Case of the Madness at the Trans NZ Enduro 1024 687 The Free Radicals

Free Candy Tour Episode 2 – A Case of the Madness at the Trans NZ Enduro

The Trans NZ Enduro provides everything you need for a positive racing experience: Party Trains. Off trail excursions, resulting in near death experiences. New friends and legends. Life management. Day drinking.

We also happened to be racing the course blind, which means no pre-riding, no practice logistics to work out, no real race strategy. There are no start times to rush to meet each morning, and each night, there is no helmet cam footage to review in preparation for the upcoming day. With no idea what terrain each day will bring, there is no pressure, regardless of current standings.

What there are plenty of, however, are moments. Moments of brilliance, when we link turns on unfamiliar stages perfectly, at a pace that is only achieved when racing. Moments of terror, when our calculations are slightly less accurate and leave our bodies and bikes tomahawking through the woods. And moments of intense gyration, when Paul “DJ Vandy Van” van der Ploeg gets ahold of the auxiliary cord at the after party.

It’s certainly madness, but it’s damn fun.

It’s 10 p.m. on day two of the Trans NZ Enduro, and we have just rolled in to what might be the only gas station between Craigieburn and Queenstown on fumes.

Mark is pumping gas, Will is attempting to return the windshield to a somewhat transparent state with baby wipes, and Simon is taking the opportunity to practice heel flips under the one flickering light in the parking lot.

After racing all day, we shoveled whatever food scraps we could find in the van down our throats and hit the road south for day three of the event in Queenstown. The drive, it turns out, is taking us roughly twice the estimated time, due to our van’s underwhelming top speed and the fact that we are now navigating twisty canyon roads at night.

For the past hour, Mark has kept one eye on the road and one on the gas gauge, while the rest of us have been tensely searching out the window for any sign of a gas station. The feeling of relief that our van has decided to come to a stop next to this pump, rather than somewhere along the side of the road from Craigieburn, is palpable, if short-lived.

As Mark hangs up the pump and prepares to get back on the road, he is greeted with the sound of a sputtering engine, a sound which is becoming increasingly familiar as our time in the van progresses. Our bodies weak from the day’s racing, we muster what remaining energy we have and throw our weight into the rear of the van, while Mark steers us back towards the highway and frantically pumps the gas pedal.

What feels like a mile later, the engine finally turns over and the van triumphantly lurches forward. We sprint along the shoulder to catch up and jump in. We are back on track to make it to Queenstown for day three of racing, but we still aren’t sure where we are sleeping tonight.

As we pull into Queenstown, the clock now past midnight, we stop next to a Spark box. These are like phone booths but with a Wi-Fi connection instead of a phone, and with no New Zealand plans on our phones, they present our only means of communication with the outside world. Simon messages a friend of his who is living in town during the World Cup off season, and he luckily wakes up and gives us the ok to set up camp in his driveway for the night. With the prospect of sleep now firmly in our sights, we once again push on the van and get it up to speed as Mark steers us towards bed.

What stands out most after an event like the Trans NZ Enduro is not the racing action, who made up time where, what skill set the tracks favored, who ended up on top (It was Pete Robinson and Mops, nice work!), but the stories that come from 120 people going on a week-long group ride together.

It didn’t take us long to learn that the best strategy for success, whether that is measured in the form of a results sheet or just an enjoyable week of racing, is to embrace the gong show.