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Racers from qathet region finish atop cyclocross standings at Vancouver Island event

“I can’t overstate how significant it was that we won. Our team had so many different ages and sexes, and it wasn’t just a bunch of strong 40-year-old guys. It had everybody.” ~ Powell River CX cyclocross racing team member David Opko

Members of the Powell River CX cyclocross racing team recently competed in the Cross on the Rock cyclocross series. The team received top standing in the 2021 event, which ran from September to November, with the highest individual rankings in three categories as of the final race at Beban Park, Nanaimo, on November 14.

Cross on the Rock is an annual series that started in 2003, primarily on Vancouver Island, which fetches daily race attendance in the high 300s.

However, the local team only started competing as a unit in the fall of 2019, when 50 riders raced at a cyclocross event at Willingdon Beach. 

Team member Justin Bailey said in previous years, there would be one to four riders competing in one to three races. Riders joined when it was convenient, and with fewer people making the ferry trip to the Island and unpredictable fall weather, it’s easy to lose the motivation to compete, he added.

However, this year was different. More racers and spectators made the trip and kept coming. Higher attendance and a cumulative point system meant the more races people attended, the higher the standing. This includes individual and team rankings.

“It’s just a little bit of consistency and a couple of strong, committed riders,” added Bailey. “It’s good fun.”

About cyclocross

Bailey said for him, cyclocross is a bit of a shoulder season sport, something to do when it’s not ideal for riding road bikes or when trail conditions aren’t great. But for riders who have been on their bikes all spring and summer, the conditioning and skills transfer nicely to cyclocross.

“Half the time, it’s just riding on grass and dirt,” said Bailey. “There’s really nothing too serious. So it’s pretty easy for people to get into. It’s pretty approachable, and kind of goofy, too.”

Most spectators can see 75 per cent of the course from a single vantage point, unlike watching a mountain bike race where a rider disappears behind evergreens or a road race where the best seat would require a helicopter hovering above.

Additionally, cyclocross is short, with races taking between 30 minutes to an hour. So once racers are through, they’re able to join other spectators in tents and around fires while cheering on the next group.

“My favourite part is just that it’s a big kind of group activity,” said Bailey. “You’re not just on your own biking. You’re always riding with people. There are always people around cheering. It’s different than any other bike race.”

Podium toppers

David Opko is an avid road and mountain biker who started racing cyclocross in 2014 or 2015, spending much of the year on his bike, upping his sprint training before the cyclocross races. He thanks Bailey and Taws Bike Shop for starting the practices.

This year, Opko and only three other racers landed a perfect point score; he ranked highest in his category overall (masters men, 55 and up). He said the reason he did so well this year was thanks to aging out of the 40-year-old group, where he struggled to maintain top-10 rankings.

“I knew I was in a group where I was competitive to win,” said Opko. “So I probably trained a bit harder this year, with that in mind.”

Besides that, the team element kept him coming out. He said there were days he wasn’t feeling great but knowing his wins would help with the team trophy was the encouragement he needed to race through windy weather bombs and torrential rains.

“I can’t overstate how significant it was that we won,” said Opko. “Our team had so many different ages and sexes, and it wasn’t just a bunch of strong 40-year-old guys. It had everybody.”

Eleanor Winchell is a 14-year-old competitor who tried cyclocross for her first time this year. After Bailey introduced training for cyclocross in the qathet region, she decided to give it a try.

With her family’s support, she competed in every race and ranked highest overall in the U17 intermediate women (ages 13 to 16) category, which assisted the local team to an overall victorious position in the series.

“It felt pretty cool to be one of the top racers,” said Winchell. “Just because I went in with no expectations, not really knowing how I was gonna do.”

A memorable moment, according to Winchell, was during a race that had a lot of steep muddy hills where she was one of the only women in her category who was able to make it up on her bike.

“So that gave me a pretty big advantage,” added Winchell, “and it was kind of like the start of my winning the races.”

From there, she took off, landing perfect scores.

Similar to Opko, Winchell was motivated to gain points for the team.

“It’s just a bit of extra motivation to push yourself during the race,” she added. “If I can get first or second, I can get lots of points for my team.”

She said she loved all of the support and the positive race environment, and is looking forward to competing every year, even if the sport is a little odd.

“It seems a bit strange when you try explaining it to other people,” said Winchell. “We ride around in circles on a grassy field. It’s kind of funny.”