The Final Test 

Squamish Test Of Metal has defined mountain bike racing for over two decades

click to flip through (7) PHOTO BY REBECCA ALDOUS - Racers head down Highway 99 at the start of the Test of Metal on June 18.
  • Photo by Rebecca Aldous
  • Racers head down Highway 99 at the start of the Test of Metal on June 18.

At the crack of 11 a.m. – the most civilized hour in mountain bike racing – between 800 and 1,000 mountain bikers were rolling out from the Brennan Park Recreation Centre in a massive mass start.

The top riders started to jockey for position almost immediately, revving up legs that would average over 25 km/h on a 67-kilometre course that took the fastest male racers around two-and-a-half hours. (Full results on Page 44).

Meanwhile, the riders at the back, stomachs full of butterflies, were just hoping to make the course cut-offs, to survive the harrowing corners of the Powerhouse Plunge, and to get to the finish line in one piece. With rain looming large in the forecast it wouldn't be easy.

In between the two groups you could find a sea of coloured helmets and jerseys, a travelling bike parade with more than $2 million of aluminum, steel, carbon fibre and rubber on display. Goals for the mid-pack ranged from personal bests, to winning and placing in age categories, to beating friends to the finish line.

This roll-out has been one of local mountain biking's most iconic moments for over two decades, but this — the 21st edition — was the last. The Test of Metal organizing team is calling it quits after this season. No more Test. No more OreCrusher, GearJammer, or Just Another Bike Race (JABR).

It's the end of an era for an event that predates the inclusion of mountain biking in the Olympics, hydraulic disk brakes, carbon-fibre frames, tubeless tires, the rise in 29-inch wheels, followed almost immediately by 650B (27-and-a-half-inch) wheels, drop seats, and hundreds of other developments in the sport. And while the focus of mountain biking may recently have shifted to freeride, downhill and enduro formats in recent years, the Test of Metal — a classic cross-country marathon — has never failed to sell out. One year all 800 spots were snapped up in less than 15 minutes.

It's also a race that's been amazingly consistent over the years, tallying 67 km in length with over 35 km of single-track and 1,200 metres of leg-cramping ascents. There have been some minor course changes and additions over the years as Squamish has grown and the trail network has changed, but by and large the race has offered the same challenge year after year. When Geoff Kabush set a new men's-course record time of 2:29:45 in 2010, he was riding basically the same course he rode to win the race 13 years earlier in 1997.

Going out with a bang

Cliff Miller has been at the helm of the Nesters Market Test of Metal since the second race in 1997, taking over from founders Ray Peters and Kevin McLane.

The Test itself first started on the Sunshine Coast in the early '90s, moving to Squish for the Brodie Test of Metal in the Alice Lake area in 1994 and 1995. The following year, 1996, was the first official Squamish Test of Metal in its present distance and form.

"Ray Peters and Kevin said they couldn't do it again (after 1996), so I put my hand up," said Miller. "I had no idea what I was getting into."

In 1996 there were 450 riders in the field. The second year (Miller's first as the manager) they added another 150, and the third year they upped it again to 800.

The event sold out fast, and in one year the registration system crashed because of the overwhelming demand. Riders would work together, crowding around computers and laptops, to try to get through the online system before all of the spots were snapped up. Meanwhile the Test of Metal organizers would sit at the pub and watch in awe as the race filled up.

In recent years, in a bid to keep the local content high, the organization started to host an early registration event for up to 200 riders before opening it up to everyone else.

The organizers decided to register 1,000 riders in total, counting on around 25 per cent of riders to drop out before race day for various reasons.

The only exemption to the registration rule are licensed riders, who can pretty much show up on the day of the event and get in — one of the reasons that most of Canada's top Olympic and World Cup riders have made appearances at the race over the years

The race management is 100-per-cent volunteer, says Miller, with proceeds going back into the trails and Squamish Search and Rescue. Total contributions to date are more than $200,000, not including this final year's donation.

"This thing has never been a money-maker for me or any of the test pilots," says Miller. "The first year I took over we were on Ray (Peter's) deck, and Stewart Kerr was there. He said, 'I'll make you a deal — I'll come onboard and help with the accounting as long as you never draw a salary. The day you give Test of Metal Incorporated an invoice for your salary, I'll give you one as well — and my bill will be much bigger than yours.'"

In the more than 20 years since that moment, Miller, his management team of 12, his 35 test pilots and a core of more than 300 volunteers have made the race happen every single year. It was widely recognized by riders as one of the best organized events in cycling, with incredible support for the riders before, during and after the event. Whether you need a mechanic on course or a massage at the finish line, riders were assisted the entire way.

But even the best things must come to an end.

For Miller and Kerr, the conversations about making this the last Test of Metal started over this past winter.

"We all decided that we were all getting older, greyer and wrinklier, and we said, 'hey, let's go out like (2016 Superbowl winning quarterback) Payton Manning and not like (former NFL quarterback) Brett Farvre.'"

There was some talk about handing the legacy over to someone else, and there was definitely interest, but in the end Miller and his team decided that any new event organizer should start fresh to ensure that the next generation could put its stamp on the race.

"There have been a few people that have approached us, but in the end we decided to let it go," Miller says. "The biggest reason for that is that Stewart and I feel we owe it to everyone who has been with us for a long time now, and put so much time and work into it, to go out on a positive note and leave the legacy a positive one — versus someone taking over and maybe running the event into the ground. We don't want that to be our legacy. It's going to be a blank page for whoever steps up next."

While there's no shortage of energy around mountain biking in Squamish, Miller wishes his successors all the best, But he says it won't be easy to replace the Test.

"We're lucky because we've been around for a while and people know us and generally support us," he says. "I couldn't image trying to start something like this without all that goodwill we've built up over the years, and all the volunteers that come out year after year. There's a lot of work involved in something like this. The red tape with the Ministry of Transportation alone could be overwhelming, although for us it's a bit more routine by now."

Miller says he imagines that a lot of smaller events will emerge, at least in the beginning, including events like enduro races that are popular these days.

He can't put an exact number on it, but Miller says it takes thousands of volunteer hours to stage the race. On race day alone, almost 300 volunteers put in anywhere from four to 10 hours, and in some cases more. Managers and test pilots have put in hundreds more hours in the months leading up to the event.

"I'm just really grateful for all the work that people have put into this event over the years," he says. "It's been pretty special for all of us."

The Hardest Year?

Miller says there have been a lot of difficult years on the Test of Metal race course. One year the temperature hit 35 degrees Celsius, and riders were "dropping out like flies" with heat exhaustion and cramping. In other years it can be cold and wet, generally resulting in more crashes and, in some cases, people pulling out with early symptoms of hypothermia.

But if there's one year that stands out as the hardest, it's 2007. Not only did it pour rain from start to finish, over 200 cold, wet and muddy athletes were badly sickened after the race — 18 of them ill enough to go to the hospital where they were tested, and confirmed positive, for campylobacter bacteria. The incident prompted an investigation by the BC Centre for Disease Control that later went national, then international.

"The report ended up going to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, and from Atlanta to Glasgow, Scotland, for a world conference on emerging infectious diseases," says Miller. He laughs, "I guess no publicity is bad publicity, but it's crazy to think of all these doctors from around the world assembled in a room learning all about the Test of Metal."

The specific cause was never identified, but with all the rain and puddles the most likely culprit was horse or animal feces mixing into the mud and splattering on the riders.

One last lap...

There are dozens of riders who have ridden the Test of Metal almost every year since its inception.

One of those riders is Whistler's Tony Routley, who now rides for Team Whistler. This year marked his 19th Test of Metal appearance, after missing the first year and one other year with a broken knee. He finished 18 of those 19 events, pulling out one year with a massive mechanical failure, but otherwise has mostly won or placed in his age category.

Routley was surprised to learn that this would be the last year for the event, but understands why the organizers want to go out on top.

"Why not? They put a huge amount of work in this over the years, and created probably one of the best mountain-bike races in the province, if not all of Canada," he says. "They left some pretty big shoes to fill."

Routley was only starting to get into mountain biking the first year he entered the race at 40 years old, and he admits he had no idea what he was doing.

"I have never cramped up so badly in my life ever, before that or after that," he says. "I was laying on the ground at one point, a cramped-up, awful mess. I have no idea why I continued to even ride a bike after that."

Routley says he didn't really understand race nutrition or the need for electrolytes, and had to learn everything the hard way.

As for his astonishing number of appearances, Routley says he didn't start out with the intention of riding the Test of Metal almost every year. It just sort of happened.

"It was the biggest race of the year, all the people I met cycling were doing it, and there was a lot of camaraderie in the sport, which I liked," he says. "After doing it once, and getting over my cramps and suffering, I got talked into entering it again. I had to avenge myself, so to speak."

The first year he was about four-and-a-half-hours — a respectable time for a recreational rider with intense cramping. The second year he knocked a full hour off his time and felt good all the way to the finish line. That's when he was hooked.

"That kind of got me going. I was also riding with my son Will at the time — Loonie Races and that kind of thing — and he wanted to do the race that year as well, so we made it a father-son kind of thing. It's great to go riding with your kid, and Will was always fast. Around then I also started to look at the other riders and their times, and I'd be saying, 'If he can do it in 3:15, why can't I?'"

Routley has broken the coveted three-hour mark a few times, the last time in 2014. He wanted to do that again in the final race, but the weather and course conditions did not cooperate — although he did finish first in the men's 60 to 64 age category by almost 13 minutes.

"Even one small mechanical can throw you off, and if it's wet or cold then you're going to be a little bit slower. Some of my favourite rides were the years when it was wet and nasty, the course is still a lot of fun in those conditions, but you're never as fast," he says.

One of Routley's Test of Metal highlights, and the reason he says that so many local riders have gone on to bigger things, is the fact that Canada's top riders always come out to race.

"These days Will is a professional road cyclist, but riding the Test of Metal as a junior probably played a part in that, as well as a lot of other kids' careers," says Routley. "You can come out to the Test and race against the country's best riders, guys like Kabush and (Andreas) Hestler and Chad Miles. The kids can compare their splits against all these top riders, and I think they get a boost from that."

For Chad Miles, a former World Cup rider, Whistler resident, and a two-time Test of Metal champion, the Test was always one of his favourite events. The atmosphere was just different, he says.

"I'm sure you'd hear the same thing from everybody, even the last-place riders, that it's the community support behind the race that really makes it," he says. "All the fans that come out and line the roadways, and come out to cheer everybody on, that's always the coolest part. All these volunteers, hundreds of them, coming out year after year and making it fun for everyone."

Miles also loved the mass start roll out, and the annual singing of the national anthem.

He says the race was always pretty tight until Jack's trail, at which point the lead pack would break up. He liked to be in front before the climb up 9-Mile Hill (actually only about 12 km), and was fit enough to be in that position twice — 1998 and 1999.

The Test of Metal also marked Miles' last official race as a pro in 2003. "That was not a good day for me, just the effects of being over-trained and having a bad day on my bike. I realized I just didn't want to do it anymore, the desire to race was gone," he says.

But while the Test of Metal was the last race of his career, he did come back to ride the course one more time in 2010 for the 15th anniversary. All the previous winners were invited to that event. Miles said he showed up with baggy pants, hung back from the lead pack, and enjoyed the trails.

"That was a whole different experience, which I think would be a Test of Metal highlight for me," he says. "There was no pressure, and the course was as fun as I remembered."

Putting Squamish On the map

Squamish's evolution from a logging and mill town to its current designation as the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada was made possible by events like the Test of Metal. Destination mountain biking is now a multi-million-dollar economic driver for the district, while Squamish itself is recognized as part of a larger, internationally famous mountain-bike corridor that runs from the North Shore to the Sunshine Coast to Whistler, Pemberton, and the South Chilcotins.

Local Squamish trails are also featured in events such as the annual BC Bike Race, which last year played host to riders from 36 different countries.

Mayor Patricia Heintzman says she is sorry to see the Test of Metal and Test of Metal Series go, but is confident that other events will rise up to fill the event calendar.

"The (Test of Metal) has been foundational in creating that mountain-bike development engine we have here in town," she said. "I was part of the Test Pilots for about 10 years until I was elected to council, so I know the race really well. The volunteer power and the vision of the organization has been first-rate because of people like Cliff Miller, Stewart Kerr and John French. They put a ton of energy into this because it was their passion.

"They really put mountain biking and Squamish on the map, brought a lot of new people to the community, and created a buzz around the potential of tourism and mountain biking's growth potential. It's been huge."

That said, she also understands why the founders moved on. "It's been the same people for the past 21 years now, and there's a feeling that the new generation needs to create an event in their image that's tailor-made to the industry out there today. It's evolution. I think other events will come up in the Test of Metal's place, and certainly mountain biking is a growing concern here that won't stop anytime soon."

While the District of Squamish (DOS) won't be running any events itself, Heintzman says they will be supporting new events in other ways. For example, each year the DOS provides a grant to the Squamish Off-Road Cycling Association to help build and maintain trails. Last year's grant was $60,000.

"They do a great job, and leverage that money three- or four-fold in terms of the amount of volunteerism they generate," she says. "It's money well spent."

The DOS also includes cycling in its annual transportation budget, which includes bike lanes and paths, and other cycling infrastructure. "We absolutely see the value in it," adds Heintzman.

As well as funds, the DOS also has a full-time staff person dedicated to supporting events. That role includes working with and assisting new mountain-bike event producers to help them navigate the municipal and provincial approval process.

Heintzman says she expects that new events will be announced soon, and she's excited to see what's next for the town. Squamish has a good variety of trails, she says, but more importantly has "passionate people championing the development of the sport."

Yet another proud legacy of the Test of Metal.


Inside the Numbers

The 2007 Sea to Sky Mountain Biking Economic Impact Study found that the Test of Metal contributed around $400,000 per year to the local Squamish economy, including room stays, money spent at bike shops and restaurants, and more.

The course record for men was set by World Cup and Olympic racer Geoff Kabush in 2010, completing the 67-km course in 2:29:45. The previous record was set by Max Plaxton, also an Olympic and World Cup racer, the previous year — 2:30:15.

The female pro elite record was set by Catharine Pendrel, the 2010 overall World Cup winner and 2011 world champion. She crossed the Test of Metal finish line in 2:45:45 in 2011, beating her previous 2009 record by five full minutes.

The Test of Metal course is famous for some of its more difficult sections — like the climb up 9 Mile Hill (actually around 12 km of solid climbing) followed soon after by the descent of the Powerhouse Plunge. The steepest section of the Plunge has about 225 metres of descending over 1.75 km — an average 13-per-cent slope.

The entry list to the Test of Metal is a who's who in Canadian mountain biking. Past racers include Alison Sydor, Leslie Tomlinson, Pendrel, Wendy Simms, Sandra Walter, Erin Chorney and Linda Robichaud on the women's side, and male racers such as Kabush, Ricky Federau, Neal Kindree (Squamish local and five-time winner), Plaxton, Kris Sneddon and Chris Sheppard.

The race was been a family affair in the past. In 2006, siblings Neal Kindree and Meaghan Kindree finished the race on top of the pro elite male and female categories. The last race was won by Quinn Moberg, who started racing the course as a junior.


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