How mountain bike racing became U of T’s fastest growing sport
On a sticky July day, two young veterans of U of T’s women’s mountain biking team are poised over bicycles in a campus gym, their trail-scabbed knees pumping hard.
“Everybody’s jockeying for position!” a trainer shouts. The women stand up on their pedals, imagining a scene from a race as they channel every last gram of strength into their legs. Their faces are flushed. Knees a blur.
They pedal as fast as they can, yet from the waist up they look almost serene. Their eyes are locked forward, scanning the distance. “You’re going around a corner and you see a huge mass of people,” the trainer yells. “You’re going to attack.” Their faces harden. Sweat starts to drip and pool on the floor below them.
Mountain biking is one of U of T’s newest varsity sports, and, since the late 1990s, has been one of the most successful. Formed in 1997 with just a handful of riders, the women’s and men’s varsity teams (who train, travel and compete together) have won five of the seven provincial championships held since Ontario university teams started racing each other.
And they’ve done it all without a coach. This fall Antonia Gawel (BA 2004 St. Michael’s College) and Alana Tintse (MSc 2003) – the two women pedalling like mad – will help lead the varsity mountain biking team as its male and female members together vie for a sixth provincial championship. They will teach the new riders how to negotiate rocks on the trail, how to hop logs, and how to move up through the pack. And they will teach them how to train their minds.
A few days later, Tintse is pumping hard up a hill, but this one is real and veined with protruding tree roots. The evening ride through Toronto’s Don Valley gave her some grief at first. She stalled up a long climb and had to walk her bike. She’s finding her legs now, anticipating the steeps and pushing her body forward. She cocks her wrists below the bars and pops up over every root.
At the top Tintse looks down. It’s steep and muddy with a short, low bridge at the bottom that crosses a boggy patch. “You want to see this at race speed?” she asks.
Tintse cranks hard off the lip and releases her brakes altogether, blowing down the hill as fast as she can – fast enough that a mistake would mean a certain, muddy crash. She planes through the muck. Sodden dirt and water rooster-tail off her rear tire. She clears the bridge at the bottom then uses her speed – she still has not touched the brakes – to barrel up the other side of the hill.
On the list of mountain bike racing’s requisite skills – even up above stamina, body strength, co-ordination and reflexes – mental toughness must surely come first. The sport is not like running, or road biking, where as long as you’ve got the legs and the lungs and the heart for it you can settle into a pack of fellow racers and cruise.
There is no cruise in mountain bike racing. You need those legs and lungs and that heart, plus you’ve got to know how to get through mud without spinning out. You’ve got tree branches slapping you and logs to hop over and ruts that will pull in your tires, all on trails that sometimes aren’t much wider than your shoulders are broad. Sharp downhill turns can cut visibility to a few blurry feet. You’ve got to anticipate climbs before you reach the hills – it’s too late to shift gears once you’re on them. Every revolution of your wheels brings a snap adjustment, a quick decision. If you misjudge a corner or steer too far off the trail and feel yourself falling, you’ve got to twist your feet out of your pedal clips and try to get the bike out from between your legs without hitting a tree or landing sideways on an ankle. And everybody – absolutely everybody – falls.
Racing boosts the pressure. You have to concentrate on what you’re doing, but heed those around you, too. Racing is often, arguably, tougher for women than it is for men, because in women’s mountain bike racing, there often is no pack. “There aren’t as many of us out there,” says Tintse. “You can go an entire lap sometimes and not see anybody.” When there’s no pack, there is nobody to pace yourself against. It becomes easy to ride too hard or too slow. And it’s easy to lose yourself in fear. Fear will hurt you. “If your confidence is off, you’re going to ride poorly,” Tintse says. “You are going to fall.”
And still somehow, racing, like riding, gets into their heads. For a lot of riders, when they get on the bus on the weekend and head north for the trail, or when half the team is standing at the side of the track holding out water bottles for them and cheering them on, it’s the social highlight of the week. And when they are racing, there are no essays or final exams or complicated dorm-floor relationships. There is only the race.
Tintse loves seeing herself improve. If she stalls on a hill or gets caught in a muddy rut, she’ll ride to the bottom again, remembering the second time to get her bike in gear, to balance her body forward and sink her wrists below the bars. She likes to push herself, to risk something with every single pedal stroke. So she races. “Racing is not fun,” she says. (She later amends that sentiment, saying, “Racing is not always fun.”)
What is fun is being able to look back after a race and to remember the blind corners and the burn and the fight to push away fear and to say – as Tintse says after every race – I did that.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where and when mountain biking started. By the 1950s, riders in both France and the U.S. were tinkering with their bikes to withstand hills and trails. Through the 1970s, off-road bikers in Northern California built lighter, more efficient rigs, customizing their bicycles with flat handlebars and specialized gear shifters and fat, knobby tires that could grip a trail.
High-end bicycle companies soon took over where the sport’s pioneers had left off, appropriating stronger, lighter materials and developing specialized components such as front wheel shock absorbers and stop-on-a-dime (or at-a-cliff’s-edge) disc brakes. The bike companies made plenty of affordable, lower-performance models as well, and mountain bikes quickly caught on with the masses.
The International Cycling Union recognized the sport in 1990, organizing the first World Championship races that year in Durango, Colo., for both cross-country mountain biking, which the U of T team competes in, and for downhill biking, cross-country’s steeper, more extreme cousin.
Cross-country mountain biking became an Olympic sport in 1996 at the Atlanta summer games. Television and popular culture, newly enamoured of “extreme sports,” caught on. And soon, more and more cyclists – bikers such as Tintse and Gawel and a U of T student named David Wright – started to take things off-road.
Wright (BA 1998 Woodsworth College) had learned to ride in his hometown of Kirkland Lake, Ont., and was looking for people to cycle with on the trails around Toronto. In 1997, Wright and a couple of other students started the University of Toronto Mountain Biking Club. The club quickly became a team, and the team organized a race that year, open to students from across the province. “Thirteen people showed up for that race,” says Wright, who now works in the university’s marketing and licensing office.
The team made a point of being open to anybody who wanted to join. Then, as now, many of its members rode four or five or six days a week, combining full-speed trail rides (for technique) and 60- or 70-kilometre road rides (for stamina) with semi-regular spinning classes in the gym.
Yet the team has never demanded much of its members’ time; races, practices and weekend rides have always been optional. “We try to eliminate intimidation as much as possible,” says Gawel, the team’s outgoing captain. “Come on out. Ride. Have fun. Come race if you want to.”
In 1999, U of T made mountain biking a varsity sport. It seemed a perfect fit for the school; while bread-and-butter varsity sports have always been important to U of T, the university has made a concerted effort to find less traditional varsity opportunities for its students as well. So while there’s football and track and field, U of T also has badminton, figure skating and fast-pitch softball teams. “A measure of a great university is the number of these opportunities it provides and the range of opportunities it provides,” says Bruce Kidd, dean of the Faculty of Physical Education and Health. U of T recognizes 45 varsity teams, more than every other North American university but McGill in Montreal.
From the beginning, something about the team worked. U of T’s women’s and men’s mountain biking teams together took the provincial championships in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001 and 2002 (a university wins the cup by amassing points for how individual riders place) and team alumni climbed the ranks of the amateur and pro riding circuits. Earlier this summer, Gawel became one of Canada’s top-ranked women in the senior expert category of downhill racers; she now competes professionally. Tintse is working her way up on the Ontario Cup racing circuit. That’s not bad, considering neither of them had ever raced before starting university.
Interest in the sport continues to surge. Last September more than 100 would-be riders crowded the team’s early-season meetings. “We actually became a bit paranoid that we’d have too many,” says Gawel. The fall’s four scheduled University Cup races were major events. Fifteen schools sent riders to the first race last season. More than 120 riders – a quarter of them women – crossed the finish line.
This fall, trail-tested alumni such as Gawel and Tintse, and Adam Lucas, a speed-demon trainer and part-time student who also works as a locksmith at the university, will ease a fresh batch of riders onto the team. As in years past, the new riders will probably arrive with no racing experience. Many of them will not own race-worthy bikes. A few will never have trail-ridden before. They’ll do a weekend camp in September, plus frequent trips through the Don Valley, and down-and-up (and down again and up again) hills like the one Tintse conquered the day I met her. A lot of them will start to love the sport. Some of them will grow obsessed.
And every single one of them – even the experts – will work and fight to get their heads into the game. Half-an-hour into the Don Valley ride Tintse loses her balance atop a narrow, two-metre high bridge and falls. She breaks her $150 bike saddle, but otherwise, she’s lucky to be walking.
“I hesitated,” she curses. “You hesitate, you die.”
She rides for another hour that night, ripping up the trail on her broken saddle.
Chris Nuttall-Smith is a freelance writer in Toronto.