Fraser River Gravel
How does an elite UCI Continental Team respond when the season’s race calendar is cancelled in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic? In the case of Canadian women’s team InstaFund La Prima, if you can’t race then you go riding. And after waiting until lockdown restrictions permitted, they did exactly that. Swapping road bikes for a gravel variant before heading off to explore trails alongside the Fraser River in their British Columbia backyard.
Reflecting back on what inspired this adventure - with fellow teammate Gillian Ellsay adding her own reflections - team manager and racer Isabella Bertold describes a day spent riding gravel, swapping stories and reaffirming a connection with nature that many of us have similarly experienced over the past few months of lockdown.
Leaving the bubble of their team camp for the first race of the year in California, Isabella recounts flying home to Vancouver with her teammates and discovering a world wearing facemasks. With lockdown now enforced and races being cancelled, initially the hope was that things would start to improve after a hiatus of a few weeks. But as it gradually dawned on the team that nothing was going to happen for the foreseeable future, they took the decision to call a halt to the rest of the season.
"When the season ends in the Fall, you go out and have fun rides with maybe a few goals to keep things interesting. So during the lockdown, I guess I took a similar approach and went back to basics. And with the races being cancelled and not needing to train so specifically, I had more time to slow down and explore."
“It seemed sensible,” explains Isabella, “to take a step back as a team. It’s difficult to maintain fitness for a return to racing when there’s no way of knowing when this will be. So with this refocus on 2021, we had a sense of pressure lifting and we could, instead, look forward to just riding our bikes for the next few months.”
With professional cycling teams around the world devising new ways to engage with their fanbase during lockdown, Isabella noted the interest in virtual racing and the number of high-profile everesting attempts but decided to take a different approach and look to her immediate surroundings for inspiration.
“Calling a halt to the season, you realise that it's OK to go out and explore, and if you're having an off day, then it's fine. And we did consider virtual racing but then discovered that only one of our roster has a smart trainer because we prefer to train outside whenever we can. So I kind of looked around for ideas before landing on the Fraser River which historically has been an important lifeline for the province of British Columbia.”
"I was super excited when I heard about the Fraser River trip. I hadn't visited in such a long time and it turned out to be a really fun day with super nice gravel—almost like compacted dirt with a thin surface that proved really fast. And riding in the river valley, you kind of feel small and insignificant in the shadow of those mountains, their sharp peaks towering above you with a covering of wild sage at their base like a carpet of green. At times the gravel trail was high above the river so you could follow its course as it meandered along the valley floor."
Aware that the river continues to be affected by climate change and residential ingress, Isabella felt that by riding the route, the team could celebrate its beauty, encouraging people to visit but also bringing some awareness of current issues which might help foster a desire to protect the region for future generations.
“Our ride was only 60km from start to finish, but that still took us just over six and a half hours because we kept stopping to watch the world go by. At one point, we even found a mountain bike park on the side of the trail and decided to give that a go for a little while”’
“So rather than racing together,” Isabella continues, “we used the time to have fun, enjoy the beautiful surroundings and reflect on why we ride. And it really brought home how the bike is such an incredible tool for exploration in that it allows you to experience your natural environment first hand but with a really low impact.”
"As cyclists we're so dependent on our natural environment that if climate change continues as it is doing, then it's bound to impact on how and where we can ride. So spending a day by the Fraser River was incredibly special because we were far from our usual urban environment and really immersed in all this natural beauty."
Since completing their ride, the gravel bikes have continued to be popular, Isabella describing how her teammates take turns so they can all experience riding trails and exploring their immediate locality. Whether the team runs a gravel calendar next year in addition to their UCI road races is still under consideration, but plans are in place to enter some online events through fall and into the winter.
“Virtual racing looks really fun,” concludes Isabella. “But, for now, our riders are using this time as more of a mental break than considering it as purely training.”
"As a team, we don't get a whole lot of time to ride together outside of the races. So for this trip, we were just there to have fun and chat away—a long day but a nice escape, in one sense calming but leaving you energised at the end because it was so enjoyable."