Evan Guthrie embraces winter to become a better rider
Could the most Canadian of season build a better base for summer riding?
Fall had settled in to B.C.’s Okanagan Valley. The Interior was swept with wildfires earlier in the year, but rain finally arrived and temperatures dropped. Evan Guthrie was walking across a mountain slope on a short hike from his cabin. He had left home before the dawn, lighting his way with a headlamp for roughly 30 minutes before the sun came up. Wearing jeans and a plaid jacket, he was watching the land around him for signs of movement. Aside from the wind in the trees and the light crunch of each footstep, there was silence.
Guthrie was hunting—deer mostly, sometimes moose and the rare elk—as he does most days during the fall. It’s an important time of year for the professional mountain biker with hard work that prepares him for the coming months, not just on the bike, but in all aspects of his life. He harvests food. He cuts, splits and stacks firewood. There’s maintenance on his cabin and his truck.
While many cyclists head to warmer, gentler climates to prepare for their next season, some Canadians recognize just what they have at home, their cold, snowy home. It offers a mix of sports for cross-training, provides a mental refresher and engages muscles that go untended in cycling-specific workouts. This land can make cyclists more well-rounded athletes. Guthrie and other Canadians, such as Catharine Pendrel, Evan McNeely and Svein Tuft, have embraced opportunities presented by the most Canadian of seasons, winter, and all that it has to offer.
“It’s a non-competition time of year. I’ve never really taken much of an off-season, like a full off-season,” Guthrie said. “Sometimes it’ll be a week where I do a lot less exercise than the rest of the year, but to me the fall season is one of the best times. It’s a mental refresher time where I can stay true to my normal being and just be incredibly busy and fill every second of every day.”
Most days start out with a hike up the mountain to hunt. Sometimes, Guthrie will sit down in one place, but more often than not, he’s hiking for three hours in a big loop before returning home. By mid-morning, he’s out for a bike ride or working out at the gym. In past years, Guthrie spent his afternoons and evenings in school, preparing for the days after his professional riding career comes to an end. For the first time as an adult, Guthrie isn’t in school full-time. Time no longer needed for studies has been gobbled up by other tasks.
In 2013, Guthrie and his father started working on the cabin Guthrie now calls home. Finished in 2015, the building is outfitted with a wood stove as the sole source of heat. That choice means a lot of work each fall preparing enough wood for winter. “I never measure in cords,” said Guthrie. “Last year, luckily, I had lot more solid rounds that I’d put in over chopped wood so it just burned slower and longer. It was a long winter, so I used more wood than normal. I try to make sure I have eight to 10 pickup-truck loads of firewood.”
Collecting and preparing firewood is a matter of striking when conditions are right. The forest fires that swept through the B.C. interior this past summer forced a no-motor ban in at-risk areas. Guthrie and his father had to wait to be able to drive their trucks out to harvest wood. Working together, they fell, bucked and cut trees into logs that they then stacked to dry out for a year—a process called seasoning. Then they split and burn the wood.
“Collecting firewood is a great workout,” said Guthrie. “We cut trees into 6′ lengths and either deadlift or carry them on our shoulders through the bush to the truck. Running a chainsaw can also be tiring. Then comes cutting the wood into small pieces, chopping it and stacking it for winter use.”
All of this harvesting work helps strengthen the core and upper body, areas that can often get neglected in a sport where big legs and lungs are the top priorities. Lifting, turning, carrying and splitting wood helps shape muscles vital for technical riding skills. Last winter, Guthrie didn’t do as much strength training, with obvious results. “My technical riding this past year maybe wasn’t quite as strong,” said Guthrie. “I don’t think you should be feeling the upper-body effects on a cross country race because it’s not that demanding of those muscles, but I was feeling that sometimes.”
The work in preparing firewood for winter isn’t something Guthrie typically quantifies or tracks as part of his workout routines, though he knows those hours of effort bolster more formal training sessions. “If you are bending over and leaning over and stacking wood for an hour, you’re going to get a better workout than spending 10 minutes doing crunches in front of the TV and it’s going to feel like a lot less effort to do that,” said Guthrie.
When winter settles in, the work continues. Guthrie clears the yard of snow by hand, even though an ATV and plow would make faster work of things. Big snowfalls mean clearing the cabin roof of snow, a job that can only be done by hand. Beyond cycling on the trainer and weight training, a mix of cross country and backcountry skiing provide ways to enjoy the winter outdoors.
“It’s more about taking advantage of your environment and making the most of it, because yeah, you could ride the rollers for a steady, four-hour ride, but honestly, who wants to do a steady, four-hour ride on the rollers? No one,” said Guthrie, who often joins Catharine Pendrel and Keith Wilson, passionate nordic and backcountry skiers, for sessions in the snow.
“The first time we skied together I drove out to Kamloops to do a couple of days with Catharine and Keith,” said Guthrie. “We were on skate skis and we went out and it was supposed to be an easy ski. Catherine and Keith were just jib jabbering away in front of me and I was behind hoofing it, working as hard as I could. I’m not going to say I’m a good skier now, but back then I was straight up maxed out and they were doing their steady mellow ski.
“It’s not as enjoyable in the beginning because it’s just so damn hard. We can all fake other sports for a certain amount of time with our fitness, but it’s taken me 10 years of cross-country skiing to get OK at it and not bend a pole every time I ski.”
The mountain-man lifestyle Guthrie has developed was part of what inspired the concept of “Camp Guthrie,” a seven-day training session with friends and teammates coming out to stack wood, ride bikes, go hiking and running, and experience a fun week of athleticism that is a bit beyond the norm. The first edition was held in 2014, and included friends who worked in seasonal industries during their winter down time. The group spent more than 20 hours out snowshoeing, skiing and enjoying the snow in the mountains. In the fall of 2016, Guthrie invited fellow mountain bikers Andrew L’Esperance, Haley Smith and Catherine Fleury to join him for a week.
“We were all tossing the idea of going to California or Moab or something, do a week of riding, and I didn’t really want to go,” said Guthrie. “It was also prime hunting season, so I said, ‘You guys just want to save on rent and just come stay here and we’ll do a week of riding?’ It was awesome. We rode the same trail once in nine days and I took them on everything we had to offer here. It was a bike-oriented one for sure, but fun trail bikes, not just the XC death weapons.”
Once winter settles in on the mountains that line the Okanagan Valley, Guthrie will continue to head up the slopes from his cabin. He’ll leave behind his hunting gear, and use backcountry skis to “earn turns” in the powder blanketing the area. “Backcountry skiing is quite muscular and keeps you at that low endurance zone,” said Guthrie. “It’s similar to mountain biking where you reap the benefits of working hard on the way up by enjoying the downhill.”
You can also see the diversity in Guthrie’s training in his riding. During the past year, he shifted his focus from solely XC to racing in the Enduro World Series and select XC races of different lengths. Heading into his second year as an independent racer, he’s confident that his efforts off the bike will help make him a more well-rounded athlete.
An extended version of this article first appeared in Dec. 2017/Jan 2018 issue of Canadian Cycling Magazine (8.6)