The Gravel Explorer XLT ticked over the halfway point during Rapha Stage 3 as racers climbed away from the shores of Skaha Lake in Okanagan Falls for a “classic gravel kind of day.”
Changing of the seasons
Racers would start in Okanagan Falls, climbing all the way up into the surrounding mountains for Rapha Stage 3. Described by many as the smoothest route yet, epic mountain scenery awaited along the Okanagan sun-soaked route.
After the major climb of the day, expansive views of mountain meadows greeted riders in Vedder Meadows, with tinges of autumn reds and yellows starting to show at higher elevations. One of the fastest and flowiest descents yet dropped riders back down to the shores of Skaha Lake for a perfect beach day finish.
Now onto the racing!
A new stage winner emerges in the Open Men’s Race
In a stark contrast to Stage 2, the leading trio in the Open Men’s race would stick together throughout Rapha Stage 3.
With only 5 minutes between Rob Britton and Andrew L’Esperance in the GC, the battle for the top step was far from over, and after a brief neutral roll-out through the quaint town of Okanagan Falls, the racing began with earnest at the base of the Weyerhauser climb.
The men’s podium from Stage 2 would stick together on the nearly 24 km climb, with Cory Wallace joining L’Esperance and Britton as they went blow for blow, reaching speeds usually only reserved for the flats while climbing grades upwards of 10%. Nobody was able to make any move stick over the nearly 1,400 metres of vertical ascent, and the trio crested the climb to Solco Lake together.
They remained together through the rolling traverse towards Vedder Meadows before starting the fastest descent of the Gravel Explorer yet. High-speed corners opened up towards epic lake and mountain views, but with seconds at risk for the GC, the trio of riders weren’t taking in the scenery.
Still together during the downhill finishing straight, it was a fast and furious sprint for the stage victory, with Wallace taking the win ahead of L’Esperance in second, and Britton in third.
“I had a big gear, so I was feeling pretty confident,” Wallace said. “But you still never know what can happen, so I was pretty excited to take the win.”
Amity Rockwell nears a stage victory
The Open Women’s race during Rapha Stage 3 stayed closer together than Stages 1 and 2, as Amity Rockwell started to find the pace to stick with Cynthia Frazier, the winner of the previous two stages.
Frazier and Rockwell rode much of the day within minutes of each other. After the major climbing ended, Rockwell closed the gap to Frazier in Vedder Meadows. Was Rockwell finally feeling recovered from tackling the BC Bike Race less than a week ago?
Catastrophe almost struck on the descent as Frazier and Rockwell rounded a corner on the descent and nearly ran into a herd of cattle.
“Yep, I almost hit a cow… It was pretty scary!” Frazier said.
Whether it was adrenaline from the near-miss, or just the feeling of great racing legs, Frazier started to open up a small gap on Rockwell on the flatter sections of the descent. That gap remained as the descent turned steeper, and would ultimately stay that way through to the finish.
“I could only push it so hard on the descent,” Rockwell said when asked about the sweeping high-speed corners perched above Okanagan Falls. She would roll across the line only 11 seconds behind Frazier, the smallest split between first and second yet.
The spirit of gravel isn’t always about going the fastest
While the racing at the front of the Gravel Explorer keeps heating up, some racers are just here for the adventure as they explore the finest gravel routes the South Okanagan has to offer.
“I love eating candy and I love going down hills. This event is awesome!”
Those were Rachel Wills first words as she crossed the finish line today. Coming from Oak Harbor, Washington, Wills is here to experience a new place to ride.
“Today’s big descent was the best yet,” Wills said, speaking of the sweeping, fast, classic gravel that deposited racers back in Okanagan Falls after the high point of the day. “I love visiting different areas of the world and seeing the different terrain, and the Gravel Explorer routes are some of the best I’ve seen yet!”
Easton Stage 4 promises a new experience
With the Gravel Explorer over halfway completed, Easton Stage 4 promises to showcase even more South Okanagan diversity. Starting from Twin Lakes, riders will tackle 46 km of unique terrain going from desert to forest while testing the limits of what a gravel bike can handle.
Don’t let the shorter distance fool you – there’s still 1,320 metres of climbing on tap, and more of a fun-yet-rugged gravel and singletrack mix.
There’s more than just a scenic route to look forward to – autumn in the South Okanagan is legendary, and for good reason. There’s nothing but sunshine and more temperatures in the mid-twenties awaiting racers as they near the completion of the 5-day Gravel Explorer XLT.
With two stages to go, is there time for Rockwell to find her legs and pull off a stage win? Will Wallace repeat a strong showing with another stage victory? Will Britton challenge L’Esperance for the overall?
Stay tuned for Easton Stage 4 to find out!