The Transrockies Challenge. If you’ve been mountain biking for any length of time, there’s a good chance you’ve heard that name before. The name is synonymous with stage racing in North America, and for good reason. It was one of the first, and most iconic, mountain bike races on the continent. It blazed a trail for other stage races that would come along as the sport grew in popularity.
Today, the Transrockies Challenge, created by Transrockies Inc., is no more. It has been replaced by another stage race — Singletrack 6. Singletrack 6 keeps the multi-day mountain bike stage race format of the original Transrockies Challenge, but many other aspects of the race have been modified. These changes came about as the result of shifting rider preferences and increased access to top-quality riding, made possible by a boom in interest in mountain biking.
The event is still sought after by people looking for adventure, community and the opportunity to push their limits.
Today, the lifecycle of what began as the Transrockies Challenge and modified to the Singletrack 6, continues to unfold. The race can be seen as a mirror of mountain biking as a whole. From the sport’s humble, experimental beginnings, through to the rapid changes in technology and the progression of rider ability.
Mountain biking is still changing at breakneck speeds, and Transrockies Inc. has adapted its flagship race to keep pace. But through all of it, some things have remained the same: the event is still sought after by people looking for adventure, community and the opportunity to push their limits.
The Rocky Mountain (bike) way
Back in 2001, there were only a handful of mountain bike stage races in the world. La Ruta de Los Conquistadores and the TransAlp, both started in the 1990s, were two of the more well-known events. In North America, nothing existed that even came close to the scale of these events. But that all changed in 2002 when one of the creators of the TransAlp decided to bring mountain bike stage racing to the Canadian Rockies.
“What they were trying to do was take the TransAlps concept and bring it to North America.”Aaron McConnell
The new event would be seven days long and named the Transrockies Challenge. It would traverse the Canadian Rocky Mountains. And while many of the lessons learned from operating the TransAlps could be transferred over to the Transrockies, the rugged and remote Rocky Mountains presented many challenges of their own.
Aaron McConnell is the president of Transrockies Inc. He didn’t join the team until 2004, but he was in contact with the organizers from the very beginning and aware of those challenges.
“What they were trying to do was take the TransAlps concept and bring it to North America. But in TransAlps you could go town to town and there’s always trails and roads connecting multiple options to all the communities. In the Rockies it’s a little bit different, there aren’t that many towns. So, they had to create the format around wilderness camping,” remembers McConnell.
Racing into the wilderness
The entire event, riders included, would have to move from stage to stage through the remote backcountry. Things like tents, showers, catering and massage services all had to be arranged in remote locations. Organizers had to figure out what kind of vehicles would be best suited for the terrain. Routes had to be planned and permits obtained. The tasks were daunting but McConnell notes that in 2002, a race like this was a new and exciting prospect.
“It was something that was an interesting take on the sport and if you look at the original Transrockies Challenge it was all point-to-point, camping based, crossing the continental divide. It was quite an impressive idea to be able to traverse the Rockies on your mountain bike.”
And while the idea was certainly impressive, it would be difficult to put it into practice. There was no precedent for mountain bike races that required this type of logistical planning.
If you build it, they will come
The difficulties facing the Transrockies Challenge weren’t only logistical. Mountain bike stage racing was a new sport in North America and when it first began, convincing people to commit to a race across the continental divide wasn’t easy. Very few people had ever done a race like this before.
“It wasn’t like you could talk to your buddy who did it two years ago and say oh, what do I need to know? People were kind of just learning that stuff on the fly,” suggests McConnell.
But after a couple of editions of the race people became more comfortable with the format. What began as a barrier to entry into these races soon became a major attraction for people looking for adventure. McConnell believes it was the rugged and remote nature of the race that drove an increase in participation.
“You have the whole wilderness aspect of it… which was quite interesting. People seemed to latch onto that idea quite strongly early on,” he says.
Adventure wasn’t the only attraction. Riders also wanted to test themselves both physically and mentally. And at seven days long and over 500km in length, the Transrockies Challenge was just the race to do that.
“There’s just so much more to a stage race than a single day race because you really get to know people over the course of the event.”Aaron McConnell
Riders are also strongly attracted to this type of race by the camaraderie they develop and share, both on and off the bike.
“There’s just so much more to a stage race than a single day race because you really get to know people over the course of the event,” says McConnell.
This is especially true for the camping format. Racers are living with and often riding with the same people over the course of a week. This forges some very special bonds between racers that can last well beyond the end of the race.
Mountain bike stage racing takes off
Add up all these ingredients: adventure, self-improvement, sense of community, and you have a recipe for success. And mountain bike stage racing became a great success. As racers became more familiar with stage racing, it inched closer to the mainstream and people started flocking to stage races in droves.
“It became a pretty compelling idea over a few years, to the point where stage racing…became the hot thing in mountain biking. Before that…24-hour racing was the extreme end of XC or endurance,” says McConnell, but it didn’t take long before, “stage racing took that position of being the exciting space in the sport.”
It became so popular that by about 2007, other events started popping up. Soon, the Transrockies Challenge, the race that started it all in North America, was just one of many taking place on the continent.
The only constant is change
It wasn’t just stage racing that was booming in popularity, mountain biking in general was becoming more and more popular every year. New and better trails were being built all over North America. Mountain towns were rebranding themselves as mountain biking destinations to attract tourist dollars as awareness and participation in the sport increased. These towns became mountain biking hubs with bike shops, hotels and restaurants, ready to cater to mountain bikers. Trail associations grew and with increased membership and budgets came more trails.
“It wasn’t everyone, but a lot of people were talking about better riding and really showcasing the best riding.”Aaron McConnell
As people were exposed to more and better trail networks, their preferences started to change. They began to expect higher quality riding, and stage racing wasn’t immune to these changing attitudes.
“[The] Transrockies Challenge was really about toughness in a lot of ways and the epic journey,” says McConnell, “but some of the riding wasn’t always that awesome.”
The Transrockies Challenge route took racers through spectacular settings, but most of it was on forest service roads, not singletrack. And this is understandable. It was difficult to link singletrack from point A to point B over such long distances and through such remote terrain. It still is. But the boom in trail building and the hospitality industry aimed at mountain bikers in western Canada (largely in British Columbia and parts of Alberta), had riders wanting more. This presented challenges for race organizers, but it also opened up new opportunities and McConnell and Transrockies Inc. were willing to listen.
It’s what riders want!
The race organizers wanted to find out more, so they began talking to riders. McConnell describes these conversations as similar to focus groups, and what came out of them was the idea that riders were looking for something different.
“It wasn’t everyone, but a lot of people were talking about better riding and really showcasing the best riding,” says McConnell.
As luck would have it, there was more great riding available than ever before. So, organizers began trying to incorporate more singletrack into the Transrockies Challenge and holding stages closer to mountain biking communities.
Enter Singletrack 6 – a different kind of stage race
In 2014, organizers of the Transrockies Challenge decided incremental change wouldn’t be enough to satisfy riders and the Transrockies Challenge was rebranded Singletrack 6. Along with the rebranding came changes to the entire race format. This new format would better integrate the multitude of new trail options and riding communities that had sprung up over the preceding years.
The length of the race was shortened from seven days to six and the format changed from a point-to-point route, to a series of loops. Each day would begin and end in or near a mountain biking community. This would allow racers to absorb everything the area has to offer.
Over the six days, the race would visit a number of different communities, allowing organizers to incorporate as much singletrack as possible into each day of riding.
“There’s a lot of pride around those trail networks so we thought it would be great to really showcase the quality of the riding in and around the communities, without the burden of having to try to link from community to community,” says McConnell.
Racing out of the wilderness
Instead of wilderness camping, riders would have the option of finding their own accommodation or choosing a hotel package offered by Transrockies Inc. (for an additional fee). This would allow racers to eat at local restaurants, visit local attractions and get the most out of their stay in each community.
Each year, different mountain bike communities are chosen to be part of the route. According to McConnell, selecting communities is based on “Where there are great trail networks. And then in any given year, we’ll try to put a collection of communities or networks together that make sense.”
Organizers are looking for communities that are relatively close together to make travel between each one simple. They are also looking for places that want to increase the exposure for their community and trail network, as well as reinforcing their reputation as a great place to ride.
Fun replaces suffering
In its current form, Singletrack 6 puts less of an emphasis on physical and mental endurance than the Transrockies Challenge did and more emphasis on riding great singletrack. At roughly 30-40km in length, the stages are shorter. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are easier. Singletrack 6 stages offer a different type of challenge: technical riding.
Unlike forest service roads, singletrack comes in a wide range of technical difficulties. For McConnell, determining how difficult a stage will be is all about balance.
“Every year is going to be a little bit different from that perspective. But we try to find a balance and not make the whole event super-challenging.”
Each community the race visits is different, but organizers try to make the stages accessible, challenging and fun for as many riders as possible.
“First and foremost, we try to be authentic to what the riding is in a community. It’s not like XCO racing. We won’t be afraid to put in a black trail, as long as it’s something you could ride on a XC bike,” says McConnell. “We won’t necessarily make all the courses rideable to everyone on a blue trail standard, but we’ll try to make them relatively accessible.”
This format has worked well for Singletrack 6 in the years since 2014, but there are still those who are nostalgic for the days of the Transrockies Challenge.
A trip down memory lane
In 2019, Transrockies Events Inc. decided to bring back the original Transrockies Challenge. It would return for a single season and be dubbed the Transrockies Classic. Event organizers were responding to interest from those who missed some of the aspects of the original race.
“There were a lot of riders that said they miss the camaraderie feel of the camping format. And some said that they miss the long days and remote mountain passes and that sort of thing as well,” says McConnell.
He sees the revival as a success.
“When we brought back the Classic last year, we saw people we hadn’t seen since the last time we did the Transrockies Challenge.” McConnell goes on to note that, “The people that came were super-stoked on it. For some, depending on fitness level, it was one of the hardest things they’d ever done on a bike. But that’s what some people are looking for, to really challenge themselves.”
Here today, gone tomorrow
Even with the success of the Transrockies Classic, McConnell still believes races like Singletrack 6 are the type of mountain bike stage races most riders are looking for. They prefer the type of fun Singletrack 6 offers over the type of fun found in the Transrockies Classic.
“People call it ‘type two fun’,” McConnell says of the Transrockies Classic. “Singletrack 6 is maybe more type one fun, super fun riding—in the moment. You’re working hard to get up the climbs but there is a lot of really, really rewarding downhill singletrack.”
So, for the foreseeable future at least, it’s back to Singletrack 6. But McConnell won’t rule out a return of the Classic at some point in the future; possibly for an anniversary edition. And who can blame people for not wanting the Transrockies Challenge to fade away forever? It was, after all, the event that got stage racing off the ground in North America.
Some things never change!
Whether you prefer the masochistic, type two fun of the Transrockies Classic or the exhilarating, type one fun of the Singletrack 6, both events share some core aspects that continue to attract people to stage racing: self-improvement, adventure and community.
Both mountain bike races offer vast opportunity for self-improvement. Your fitness will improve as you train and prepare physically in advance of the race. Over the course of the event, you learn a lot about yourself. You’ll get to know your physical and mental limits. And that it’s possible to push through those perceived limits to accomplish things you never thought possible.
These events also offer a brand of adventure you won’t find anywhere outside of stage racing. To race an entirely different course each day, for six or seven consecutive days, is really something special. This is true whether you’re suffering along a gravel road overlooking a spectacular valley, or racing down technical singletrack with white knuckles and a huge grin on your face.
“It really takes you out of your day-to-day life if you know that all you’re doing for the next week is riding your bike,” notes McConnell.
That adventure can also help foster a sense of community among racers. Each day is a new adventure and as soon as you finish one, you begin thinking about and planning for the next.
As McConnell sees it, “You get up in the morning, get to the start line, you do your race, you recover, you have dinner with friends, and you get up in the morning and do the same thing again.”
There is precious little time to think about anything else. And through it all, friendships become stronger and strangers become friends.
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