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By Martin Cleary
The mountain bike Cross-Country Olympic (XCO) race is a one-hour, wild-ride adventure, opening with a mass start, taking riders over exposed roots and rocks, handling tricky corners, climbing steep hills, zooming down hills and bears.
Bears? Yes, bears. You won’t find the loveable, large animals on all wooded trail courses, but Xander Woodford certainly had to be aware of bears when he raced a month ago at a Canada Cup race in Canmore, AB.
“There was a black bear near the course. It was out of the way, and the volunteers were there to deal with it,” Woodford, 17, said in a phone interview this week. “There were brown bears in the same area, but not near the race.
“(As a precaution), we had to carry bear spray on our bikes.”
Woodford shouldn’t have to worry about bears in his next race, when he joins Team Ontario for the 2022 Canada Summer Games, which run Aug. 6-21 in Ontario’s Niagara Region. The mountain bike races will be held at 12 Mile Creek, which is the responsibility of the Niagara Trail Maintenance Association.
The recent Nepean High School graduate will compete in three races at the Games with a rest day in between the XCO on Aug. 8, the relay on Aug. 10 and the sprint on Aug. 12.
“I was pretty surprised when I made the team,” Woodford added. “I didn’t think I would make it. There are a lot of strong people in Ontario.
“But I’m super excited. It will be a super fun experience with lots of good races against good racers.”
The Ontario Cycling Association named its mountain bike team following a pair of significant men’s junior races earlier this season. He placed ninth in a XCO race at the U.S. Cup in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and third in a Canada Cup race in Baie Saint-Paul, PQ.
“It (U.S. Cup) was my first race of the year and I didn’t know what to expect,” Woodford explained. “I did go out to British Columbia for one month of training. But I still wasn’t sure how I would do in my first race.”
When it comes to his first Canada Summer Games, Woodford is taking a conservative approach and not looking too far past the start line for any of his three races.
“I hope I can have a top-10 finish, maybe top five,” he forecasted. “I’m not sure about my competition as some are juniors like me, who I have raced against, and some are older, who I have not raced against.”
At last weekend’s Canadian mountain bike championships in Oro Station, ON., Woodford placed seventh in the men’s junior XCO race and third in the 30-team relay. At the 2021 nationals, he placed sixth in the XCO test.
Woodford started cycling on the encouragement of his father Michael, who was a notable Ottawa triathlete a number of years ago. Once Xander became familiar with the sport, he embraced three of its disciplines – mountain bike, cyclo-cross and road.
While he only does a handful of road races in a season and uses them as a training tool to develop his fitness, Woodford enjoys the fall and winter discipline of cyclo-cross, which allows him to ride over pavement, wooded trails, grass, steep hills and obstacles and requires him to carry his bike over muddy and challenging terrain.
Woodford has competed in numerous cyclo-cross races and is one of the best juniors in Ottawa. He enjoys racing hard for about 40 minutes through all kinds of weather and course conditions.
He started mountain bike racing about seven years ago through a program with the Ottawa Bicycle Club. He now competes for Ride with Rendall.
“I liked mountain bike as opposed to road cycling because you weren’t riding with a group and pedalling for four hours,” he explained. “You can go hard. There are more technical aspects to mountain biking and I like the technical aspects of it.”
Woodford does most of his training on the trails in Gatineau Park and occasionally in Kanata. He’ll practise anywhere from 90 minutes to four hours for six days a week. He is coached by former professional rider Evan McNeely.
For seven years, Woodford also was a competitive cross-country skier for the Nakkertok Nordic Club, but he retired after the 2020-21 season. He was an Ontario Winter Games bronze medallist and represented Nakkertok at the 2019 Canadian championships.
Also competing in cycling, on the road racing side, will be Ottawa’s Lucy Hempstead, 21. A former 400-metre/distance hurdler for CANI Athletics, Hempstead displayed impressive cardiovascular endurance when participating in an RBC Training Ground identification camp and was offered training opportunities and funding to try cycling.
The Canada Games mountain biking competition takes place from Aug. 8-12 and road cycling goes Aug. 16-20. Consult the full schedule here.
In the two weeks leading up to the start of the Canada Summer Games, OttawaSportsPages.ca will be profiling participating local athletes. During the Aug. 6-21 Games, we’ll bring you daily reporting live from Niagara Region. Sign up to receive our free Ottawa at the Canada Summer Games Daily Newsletter to follow along!
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Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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