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  • Meg Pender

I'm Fine - A Chilcotins Bike Trip

Riding along the rocky ridge, with a scree slope on one side and a 75-degree drop down the loose rocks on the other, I repeated my new mantra, "It's ok, you're fine, it's ok."


It wasn't the strongest or most creative mantra, but it was the best I could muster, with my fear of heights, lack of technical riding skill, and extreme self-doubt starting to cloud my vision. I'd flown into the middle of nowhere with a bunch of experienced mountain bikers, and my only way out was to ride down the mountain with them. I had no time for fear and doubt, "it's ok, you're fine, it's ok" was the best I could rally, and it was technically true; it was ok, I was fine, it was ok.



I like to say yes to things. Well, usually, I like to say no, then very quickly change my mind. That is how I ended up in the middle of the Chilcotins with a pack of enduro racers and bike shop pros.

Flashback three months, I was working on a massive video production contract that was ramping up and up. Working 80+ hours a week, there was no biking and little sleep – burnout was imminent. This is when my local bike shop owner, Grant, sent me a message on Instagram. "Hey Meg, you wanna work in a bike shop?"


So, in the middle of July, when the mega project ended, I went from working seven days a week to two shifts a week at the shop. A few days before my first shift, Grant messaged me again, "This might be a bit preemptive, but do you want to come on our staff trip to the Chilcotins in September?"


At this point, it was the middle of July, and I had barely ridden my road bike, let alone a mountain bike. I responded to Grant almost instantly with, "I'm not a good enough rider; no, I can't." Then I realized I was the only woman who had ever worked at the shop (even though I hadn't started yet), and I couldn't be the only person not on this staff trip. I took a deep breath and messaged again a heartbeat later, "ok, I'll come, but I'll be slow."


For the next two months, I rode as much as I could. The terrain available to me was the flowing single-track of the Cowichan Valley. By mid-summer, the local trails were dry and worn in — perfect for flowy, insecure riders like me. I watched videos on technique, I rode features over and over again until I could handle them, and I tried to build some bravery along with endurance. I went from zero to somewhere in the middle in two months.


On a Saturday morning in early September, the Cowichan Cycles gang loaded up three cars and seven bikes (and riders) and took off for the Chilcotins. Winding through the wilderness beyond Whistler and Pemberton, the road into the Chilcotins is loaded with switchbacks, narrow passes, and sweeping vistas. The final leg of the journey is along Carpenter Lake for nearly 50 kilometres. The landscape quickly changes from the wet and green coastal mountains to the Chilcotin Mountains' dry, sandy, and bright jagged peaks.


Our mission was to get to the Tyax Adventures base camp on Tyaughton Lake in the morning. Then, we would take two seaplanes up to Warner Lake. From Warner, we would put our bikes together and ride 40 kilometres back to base camp. Easy.


After travelling all day from Vancouver Island, we camped at Mowson Pond Recreation Site for the night, just a few kilometres from the seaplane launch site. In the morning, the gang got up, and we slowly started to get ourselves together. Food, tools, bolt check, tire check, who's got what, where's the thing, are we ready? Not really, but ok.


We'd need two float planes to transport all of us and our bikes up to Warner Lake. Every second of the flight is stunning. The mountain terrain of the Chilcotins is absolutely nothing like Vancouver Island's mountains -- they're brown and barren, spiky and steep. The lakes are a bright, glacier blue, and from above, they look like they're connected by ribbons of blue rivers. Every minute that we flew further into the mountains, the heavier my organs felt. The further we went, the longer I would have to ride home. After 15 minutes, the plane landed on Warner Lake, a brilliant blue and freezing cold lake 1,850 metres above sea level. 


Generally, when in a group, I like to be at the back of the pack. Sometimes, it's because I'm the strongest on the trail, and I want to make sure we're all together (like a herding dog). Other times, it's because I'm the weakest of the group, and I don't want anyone to witness my struggle (like a wild animal). And on this trip, I was definitely the latter.


Almost the second the group took off, I knew I was in trouble. The large boulders and jagged rocks were nothing like the terrain I had trained on back home in Cowichan. Right off the bat, the course was steep. The trail was about 1.5 metres wide (of jagged, bouldering rocks and loose 'baby heads') and felt like it had been carved into a scree mountainside. On my left, I had the mountainside, and on my right, just a steep, slaggy cliff, and underneath me, I had two wobbly wheels. My mojo and any courage I had built over the past two months abandoned me to wrangle my fear and self-doubt alone.


Out on one of the first exposed ledge/side-of-cliff trails, my breathing became sharp, my hands tingled on my grips, and I couldn't focus. I was on the verge of a panic attack — on top of everything else, I am brutally afraid of heights. Flustered, my bike jutted and jolted over the rocks, and my cranks bashed and clanged against every obstacle. I lost my footing, pace and confidence almost immediately. Then, a thought beamed into my head, "You have no business being here."


It was just a flash of a thought, but I hit my brakes. I knew that for survival purposes, I couldn't let that thought take root. The only way was down. The guys had taken off like a shot (thankfully not there to witness my wild-wounded-animal-routine). I realized that no one expected me to keep up, but they expected me to make it. If I let negative thoughts in, I wouldn't just ruin the trip for myself and my group.


So I began my new mantra for the ride, "I'm fine, it's ok, I'm fine."


Over and over and over. My cranks still clanged against the rocks, and my body still felt like it was being tossed around like a rag doll, but my brain let in just one narrative, "I'm fine, it's ok, I'm fine."


So, the gang fell into a routine. We would ride, they would take off like thieves in the night, and wait somewhere 10 minutes or so down the trail. I'd catch up to them and tell them I was "doing great!" Then, they would take off again, and the cycle would repeat.


"I'm fine, it's ok, I'm fine."


The more we rode, the more it became true. The first 10 kilometres were terrifying, technical, and way above my skill level. But every time I looked up, I got to experience the vast mountains and valleys of the Chilcotin Mountains. The air was fresh, the sun was shining, and I was in the middle of the adventure I had wished for three months earlier when I was grinding away at my desk.


I only let someone ride behind me once, and I only crashed my bike once. Coincidence? It was a slow-speed bail; my tire hit an unassuming rock at the wrong angle, and I barrel-rolled off my bike and down the scree slope. With one hand, I reached for a sapling growing out of the rocks, and with the other, I grabbed the fork of my bike that was sliding away from me. I hoisted it up to Grant and said, "I just fell off the mountain."


"Yep, you did."


But I didn't die. After my fall, the trail gained more flow, and we rode along stunning ridges and beside rivers. As we descended, the landscape changed from barren rocks to a sparse fairy-tale forest of white aspen trees to the dense brown and green West Coast rainforest I am used to.


By the middle of the ride, I had forgotten my mantra; I left it somewhere on a mountain ridge. I was flowing, flying my way (still far behind the group), and the tingling left my hands.


We rode for eight hours, and by the end, I was feeling great. The last few kilometres were easy and smooth, and I rode with the guys instead of way behind them. The final kilometres of the ride opened into a wide forestry road that we whizzed down as a pack.


To my own humiliation, I am an incredibly easy crier. I cry when I'm sad, happy, anxious, and grateful. As we rode in a group down the dirt road to our campsite with the sky turning pink and purple above us, I tried to make sure the guys couldn't see me cry those grateful and accomplished tears, the only tears of the day.


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