Grueling new mountain bike race tests racers' friendship, physical limits

Rob Robson knows the secret ingredient to better living: a seven- day, arduous mountain bike ordeal that taxes every sense and muscle to its limit.

"If you're not totally happy with your life, do something you know you can't do," Rob says, following his advice with a gulp of Moose Drool beer. "Training for this reminded me what I'm about, brought order to my life, gave me a second chance."

And reinforced his respect for his friend, Eric Shekter.

"I wouldn't do this race if he didn't talk me into it," Rob says, grinning.

Rob, 46, and Eric, 45, are about to head to Fernie, B.C., for the second annual Transrockies Challenge. The Aug. 10-16 race is the mountain bike world's answer to the grueling Eco-Challenge.

Up to 700 cyclists will cover 375 mountainous miles, sometimes carrying their bikes up hills too steep to ride. They'll climb about 40,000 feet in seven days, cross the Continental Divide three times and power past three mountain passes.

They'll face rocks, mud and weather that could swing from heat to rain to accumulating snow. They'll fight exhaustion, hunger, dehydration, hypothermia and the urge to give in.

And they're paying $1,000 each for the privilege.

"I like to find challenges," Eric says.

He found the race in a mountain bike magazine last fall. Organizers created the Transalp Challenge six years ago and decided last year to offer a North American event.

The Transalp takes riders from Germany to Italy over some of the Alps' most rugged terrain. It began with about 300 participants. This year, 6,000 riders applied; 5,000 were turned away.

The first Transrockies attracted the same die-hards who compete in Transalps, Ironman, Eco Challenge and Iditabike (really -- the Iditarod on mountain bikes). Eric was intrigued.

He'd ridden, mostly recreationally, for 12 years and discovered mountain bikes accidentally. Eric, who installs phone systems, helped a man with voice-mail and the man gave him a $200 Mongoose bike as a thank-you gift.

"He's crazy. He got right on it," says Debbie Shekter, Eric's wife.

Eric skied, played tennis and had done gymnastics as a kid. Everything he loved about athletics came together for him as he bounced down a dirt trail, dodged stumps and flew over gnarled roots on a mountain bike. He couldn't get enough.

He met Rob in 1996. They were each crazy enough to mountain-bike after an ice storm among the dozens of downed trees in the snow near Hayden Creek.

"I thought no one else could be around," Eric says. "Then he came out from behind a tree. We've been friends ever since."

"I should have ridden away," Rob says, smirking.

Rob owned a dental lab in Hayden Lake. He used to race mountain bikes. He was a high-speed, short-distance rider. Eric was a distance fanatic.

Rob showed Eric tricks to riding faster. He taught him to train on narrow single-track paths to develop balance and to handle obstacles with power in slow-motion. Eric worked on Rob's endurance. Both grew stronger and leaner.

Eric's 42nd birthday in 2000 pushed him to race for the first time.

"My dad died when he was 42," he says. "I wanted to do something to celebrate not being dead."

He signed up for a 100-mile race through Leadville, Colo., and the surrounding Rocky Mountains.

"Leadville was when he changed," Rob says.

The race awakened Eric's appetite for new challenges. He and Rob rode off-road from Hayden to Wallace. They rode to Silverwood over 35 miles of single-track trail and up 25 miles of steep hills. Sometimes they carried their bikes.

They biked all winter and in rain and mud. The thrill included brutal weather as well as monstrous terrain.

Both men kept journals. Eric recorded highlights of each ride. Rob jotted down what he saw and how he felt. He liked reading over his journal to see how he'd developed.

The Transrockies Challenge came to Eric's attention when he was more than ready for a new test. But he couldn't enter the race alone. Transrockies requires cyclists to ride in pairs for safety reasons.

Eric asked Rob to join him.

"It was perfect timing for me," Rob says. "I was in a midlife crisis. I needed to ride a chip off my shoulder. I needed something insane."

They began training at Hayden Creek at Christmastime. It was 20 degrees.

"I knew I would crack into a million pieces if I hit anything hard," Rob says.

They bought backpacks for the gear they'd need -- tubes, pumps, water, tools, a safety kit, rain pants and jacket, safety blanket, waterproof booties, long-fingered gloves for icy temperatures, and bear repellent. They carried the packs on their backs every time they rode.

No matter the weather, Eric and Rob cycled 35 or 40 miles four days a week and up to 100 miles on Sundays. If Rob couldn't make a ride, Eric went alone.

On one of those solo rides on Canfield Mountain in March, Eric hit a tree when his back wheel collapsed. His bike was totaled.

"I called Rob at 10 at night and said, 'Come and get me,'" Eric says.

His hands were hurt from trying to brake and his chest hurt where it smacked the tree. He had to untangle himself from the wreck and walk a mile to a parking lot where Rob could pick him up.

"Up till then, it was a source of pride that I'd never injured myself badly enough not to ride the next day," Eric says. "That one kept me off a bike for 24 hours."

The bike he climbed back on was a 24-speed, full-suspension orange Santa Cruz that begged for some rough terrain. Rob hopped on his 27-speed, red, white and black full-suspension Specialized, and they headed back to Canfield Mountain.

Rob cracked a kneecap on a rock a month ago when he flew over his handlebars. He wouldn't see a doctor.

"I'm not going to hear him say I can't race," he says.

His knee aches, but Rob figures he can tone it enough to make it through the Transrockies. He and Eric have pedaled 3,700 miles since Christmas. They're not about to quit now.

They admit to a few difficulties with each other. Eric dislikes the sleeveless workout shirts Rob wears. Rob hates Eric's glaring white socks. That's the worst of it.

They'll race in Canada as a masters team -- the Smashed Potatoes. A men's team -- Fran Cote and Bret Dickey as Micromedia Productions -- is entered from Spokane, but few other Americans are among the competitors. The Transrockies is too new to the area.

Rob and Eric would love to win, but mostly hope to finish. Even if they don't finish, they've already collected heaps of benefits. They're fit, healthy, focused and fulfilled. Their friendship is deep and lasting.

"There are times I regret being hooked to Eric. He's punishing," Rob says. "But this was a healthy way to handle a bad time. It's great getting in shape at my age."

For more information, check out the Transrockies Web site.

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