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Mountain bikers get southern exposure at nationals

While the rest of the country races, the Yukon Cycling Team trains … a lot.All that practice is important, but it’s competition that…

While the rest of the country races, the Yukon Cycling Team trains … a lot.

All that practice is important, but it’s competition that pushes athletes to the next level.

The riders of Team Yukon got their season’s first real competition at the Tim Hortons National Mountain Bike Championships, on July 15 and 16 at the Sun Peaks resort outside Kamloops, BC.

“They’re going in cold, to the biggest race of the year, while everyone else has raced a full season up to this,” said Yukon mountain bike coach Derek Crowe. “For the Yukon kids it’s the number-one race, for the rest it’s number 12.”

For a team with very little mountain bike racing experience, the results are impressive.

“We’re the dark horse,” said Yukon racer Heather Enders, who took a bronze medal, Yukon’s top finish, in the senior expert women’s division.

She added that while other provinces’ riders may have dismissed her team, she was not intimidated. “I knew I was at that level, and I could compete with them.”

Enders’ strong start put her in a good position, but she had trouble with the more technical sections of the course. “I wasn’t smooth,” she said. “The smoother you are the faster you are, it’s experience and confidence.”

After three laps of the tough six-kilometre loop, she finished just two minutes behind the winner, and teammate Allison Furniss was right on her heels, finishing fourth.

“Heather, she’s amazing,” said Grant Owen, team Yukon’s head coach. “When she was on the podium, she was halfway between absolute elation and tears — we were all screaming for her and she nearly started bawling.”

It was emotional for Owen as well. “As a coach it’s so exiting to watch; sometimes I have to put my sunglasses on, because I get teary eyed. It’s so exiting to see them do well.”

Enders hopes to move into the top level, the senior elite division, in the future. Meanwhile, Owen wants her to get some real racing experience. “She’s not ready for senior elite yet; she’d be racing against Olympic athletes,” he said.

In the junior expert division, David Greer posted a 14th-place finish, in a strong field of 23 riders.

“There’s probably two or three people in the Yukon that could beat David Greer, and he came 14th, it shows how fast the field really is,” said Owen.

The finer points of a mountain bike race become clear with experience, and Greer learned a valuable lesson in his first big race.

“He had no idea how to start, but he had every idea how to race,” said Crowe.

“The start of a mountain bike race is so fast, it’s a sprint off the line, usually to get to the single track.”

“Greer comes off the line and he’s last, right at the back of the pack — it’s technical singletrack, rockier than anything in Whitehorse, and little bits of doubletrack that are always climbs — and he worked his way through the field.”

Crowe added that a strong start would have put Greer in the fifth- to ninth-place range.

Greer will get a chance to improve his finish. He stayed in BC, and will compete in the final two Canada Cup races in Whistler and Mount Washington, with Yukon teammate Daniel Sessford.

Sessford is the exception on Team Yukon. He’s spent the last two summers in Quebec, gaining a lot of experience in competitive racing on the Canada Cup circuit.

He met up with the rest of his Yukon teammates for the nationals. “It’s nice to be able to travel with other people this year rather than being by myself for the whole time,” said Sessford.

It’s a hard grind for the 20-year-old racer, but his bronze at the Canada Games last summer is proof that he’s doing something right.

“You don’t see his name in lights very much right now, because he’s just jumped to the next category (senior elite),” said Owen.

“He’s racing against professionals now; they make a living racing mountain bikes. They go as fast uphill as they do going downhill. It’s blazing fast, and amazing to watch.”

Sessford started strong in his race, but got caught in a big crash before the first technical section.

“Since the course was a difficult one with not much for recovery, my plan was to try and ride a consistent speed, increase it each lap and hopefully be able to catch people as they faded throughout the race,” he said via e-mail.

“In the second lap I started to feel the effects of the course. I wasn’t fading but I could definitely tell that this course was physically harder than any course I’ve raced so far this year.”

Sessford finished in the middle of the pack, 29th in a field of 63 racers.

The last two Canada Cup events are a good chance for Sessford to share some of his hard-earned knowledge with the junior Greer as they travel together.

“This is something new, and we really want to encourage it,” said Crowe. “We have an experienced racer, riding with a younger, less experienced racer.

“They’re traveling together, competing in these races, and passing on the knowledge - that’s about the only way we’ll make medals in the Canada Games — we can’t lose that experience and knowledge.”

With the road cycling nationals in Quebec this year, Team Yukon’s focus was on mountain biking. “It’s just too expensive to do both,” said Owen.

The team will continue to train and compete in local competitions, and work toward next year’s Western Canada Summer Games, in Alberta, which includes both mountain and road events.

“I’d like people in the Yukon to understand how good some of these local athletes are, there are some very fine, national level athletes here,” said Owen.

“The focal point of your life is cycling, it’s a huge commitment.”