XWA is a bikepacking race on the Cross Washington Mountain Bike Route. The 684 mile ~48,000' Route is comprised of singletrack, dirt roads, and a little pavement. Although the Route travels through remote areas, there are many resupply opportunities. The Route is physically and mentally challenging, and is also considered a test of the rider's bikepacking kit and gear.
Troy Hopwood, who created both the Route and the race says "XWA started as my training routes for the Tour Divide. Then when we almost lost the Palouse to Cascades Trail I decided I wanted to do something to drive usage. This then motivated me to create a cross-state route."
One key point about bikepack racing is that although competitors can take ditch naps as needed, they can also use any resources, like motels or convenience stores, that are available to the rest of the competitors. For example, the front end of this year's race arrived in the North Bend area in dreary rainy Juneuary conditions. Several of the riders decided the best course of action was to sleep in hotel rooms rather than continue riding in the rain in the dark, or camp out in the rain. In the midst of a demoralizing technical snafu, third place finisher Daniel Perry said the dry, comfy break completely rejuvenated his mental state. The next morning he pedaled away from the hotel ready to blaze the remainder of the Route.
I connected with four of this year's participants, each with differing levels of cycling and competitive experience. If this kind of event intrigues you, their varying perspectives will help you understand what you'd be getting into if you decide to toe the XWA line in the future.
Look for a future post about gearing up for bikepacking.
42-year-old Valerie Kato, who is married to 2019 first place finisher Josh Kato, finished 7th overall and was the first female finisher. Of the participants I spoke with, Val has the most experience with this kind of race, and with riding off-road east of the Cascade Crest. Her previous experience included competing in the 2014 Tour Divide, and last year she and Josh competed in XWA on a tandem. For observers watching the race flow on the Trackleaders website, Val was an inspiration.
Based in Cashmere, to get ready for XWA 2019, she took advantage of the dirt and gravel east of the Cascades, and her proximity to the east side of the Route:
"I did a lot of fat biking last winter on snow, mostly in the Winthrop area. In the spring I started gravel riding. I think spending a lot of time riding, and doing long climbs, is important. There are big hills around Cashmere/Wenatchee including Rock Island Grade (which begins at mile ~425 on the Route) is one climb I did, and I also rode Harts Pass in the Winthrop/Mazama area."
"I also think cross-training is important. I run 4-5 miles 2-3 times per week, and I do plyometric exercises and just a touch of yoga on occasion. I did a few long rides, including the Route section from Wenatchee to Cashmere as a 'shakedown ride' to be sure my gear was right and everything fit."
"Mostly I try to keep it fun, if you are going to spend hours and hours training it should be fun."
I asked Val to talk about the high points and low points of the race. She only remembered some low points: The rainy night in North Bend, climbing and descending Colockum Ridge (the descent is so technical that it demands constant attention), and an unnerving incident with a rancher "in the middle of nowhere" near Ritzville that compelled her to ride to a different location than she told the rancher, which led to her feeling geographically disoriented the next morning.
Although you wouldn't know it now, second place overall finisher Thomas Baron says that he was "the fat kid in school." His transformation to fit recreational athlete initially came about when he discovered a passion for mountaineering. He ultimately dropped out of school to climb full time. He later connected with cycling as a way to stay in shape when he started a computer science (desk) job at Amazon. Thomas raced one full season of cyclocross but quickly burned out and hasn’t raced since. He also tried one road race, but promptly decided it wasn’t for him. His brief experiment with 'cross and road racing taught him that he prefers to ride "whenever, in an unstructured way."
Thomas' years of mountaineering experience meant he came to XWA as a competent camper, with plenty of experience traveling light and efficiently. East of the Cascades while pedaling through difficult mud, his chain got caught in between the bottom bracket and chainring. Thomas quickly made the repair, rode through the night, then caught and passed Daniel Perry.
Also based on his mountaineering experience, he knew there would be a low points during XWA. To get through low points as a mountaineer, he practiced strategies like walking 100 steps before resting. For XWA he decided he'd need to periodically reset his goals. At the starting line his goals were to finish, then to finish competitively. As the race progressed he reverted to smaller and smaller goals to get himself across the finish line. Like Valerie, Thomas experienced difficulty with the Colockum Ridge descent, and he even crashed. After the crash he felt like quitting, but he nursed his wounds and just kept on pedaling. His persistence paid off.
"Bikepacking has been a natural progression for me. Last year my 'A' race was Dirty Kanza, which was a fantastic experience, but only a one-day race. I spent 6 months thinking about and preparing for something which was over in a day. When setting goals for 2019, starting to enter multi-day events made a lot of sense, and doing something local and off-pavement even more so. I found the time spent on the XWA course very rewarding."
To get ready for XWA Daniel didn't follow a specific training plan.
"I just rode my bike a lot, mostly on gravel, and mostly longer endurance rides. I avoided high-intensity riding such as road races. I took these as opportunities to test gear or strategy so hardly any ride was with the same equipment or had the same goal."
During XWA, Daniel experienced both lows and highs.
"A low moment was trying to reach Ephrata after riding through the night past Wenatchee. It was cold in the morning when I reached the first of about 6 stream crossings. They were deep enough I wasn’t sure I could ride through, and it was cold enough I wasn’t interested in wading. It felt like it took FOREVER to find a way around! I knew there was ONE on course, but I was unprepared for these."
"A physical low was trying to reach the town of Ritzville after dark after riding straight through the night from North Bend. It was everything I could do to stay on the bike and keep pedaling; everything hurt and I felt like I could barely get enough breath to move forward. On the edge of complete exhaustion. I made it, but those last few miles were the single hardest effort of my life."
"I experienced many high points, but I think the best was on the last day: the gravel road turned off through farmland, across a stone bridge over a creek, and to a gate with a herd of cows on the other side. It reminded me of my childhood on a dairy farm. There was a nice breeze, a bit of shade along the trail beyond the gate, the cows ran away in excitement, and that was where I began to smell the Idaho pines. The trees in Idaho have a particular smell and this part of the course is where it became apparent. I knew I was getting close to the finish and I felt incredibly happy in those moments."
Young Yakima-based Ethan Washam was the least experienced of the competitors with whom I spoke.
Ethan grew up in the Carolinas and learned to bike as a kid with his mom. When he got into college the light bulb off went about how efficient bikes are for long distance human-powered travel. He bought a road bike and was doing 20-30 mile rides on weekends, which evolved into (non-competitive) bikepacking. He even tried to ride the Palmetto Trail on a single speed.
Although he did put in quite a bit of effort training and trying to get ready for XWA, he admitted the race blew him away, and he ultimately withdrew. Despite not finishing, he felt welcomed by the XWA community.
"With bikepack racing being such a new concept it makes joining and taking part in a race feel comfortable from a social perspective. There aren’t unspoken rules, rigidly accepted traditions, and social barriers between riders. Instead I felt welcomed to participate even on old steel framed mountain bike and no formal bike racing experience."
Ethan did have a somewhat formal training plan for XWA, and he got in 3-4 training rides with 12th place finisher Pete Dougherty. Having a training partner was a revelation: "When you are out there with someone else, it creates an intimacy that most of life lacks."
Unfortunately, the gravel roads near Yakima were snowier than usual this winter, which forced him to push out his training calendar. And being newer to training and competition, his hard work turned into knee pain that forced him to stop riding for two weeks. But, he saw his body changing. He was able to do new activities he’d never done before. He entered Yakima Greenway's Gap2Gap multisport event, and he placed 5th: “I felt like I unlocked something new in myself.”
During the first day of XWA, Ethan felt he was doing pretty well, and was in the top 10. Then, at about mile 70, he suffered the low point in his race when a branch or stick got caught in the rear derailleur, and bent and broke a spoke. To get a repair, he needed to get to Port Angeles 30 miles away. He rigged the injured bike as a single speed, and he was able to pedal and hike-a-bike it to Port Angeles. At a bike shop in Port Angeles he thought “this bike race is over for me,” but he was able to get enough of a repair to keep racing.
About 2 days into XWA he heard someone call it an “ultra,” and it dawned on him that he was in the deep end of the swimming pool.
Despite feeling like he was in over his head, he experienced a few highs.
"Halfway through the race I passed through a tunnel (Snoqualmie) and on the other side is a guy with a camera taking a picture of me. It took me a moment to realize it was a good friend who had followed my tracker and waited 3 hours in one spot just to say hi. I was on cloud 9, I even think my pace picked up by a few mph."
On day 5, as he worked his way up the big Colockum Ridge climb, pain in his quads force him to walk. Then, within 100m of the top he felt a big tailwind that pushed him out of Wenatchee and down the Route.
The final mental blow happened on the last day and made him decide to quit. Camping on the final night he didn’t set up a tarp, and he woke up in a puddle. After only 3-4 hours of sleep, he got back on the bike, but his chain kept dropping, and there was a demoralizing headwind all day long. He called it quits before doing the final "victory" lap.
"XWA was so difficult for me...I learned a massive, exponential, amount."
Ethan thinks it will be at least two years until he considers attempting it again.
XWA 2019 Results
1 Josh Kato 3:13:27
2 Thomas Baron 4:10:40
3 Daniel Perry 4:11:26
4 Richard Lyman 4:13:27
5 Aaron Boatman 5:02:11
6 Nat Henderson-cox 5:04:03
7 Valerie Kato 5:04:50
8 Kyle Strohl 5:07:14
9 Justin Short 6:09:19
10 David Whitlock 6:09:33
11 Aharon Elston 6:10:37
12 Pete Dougherty 6:15:22
13 Jason Marley 7:08:03
14 Jenevieve Heim 9:11:13
15 Jason Mathews 9:12:11
Did not complete the “victory lap” loop:
-Dan Van Atta