A Knife to a Gun Fight | Mountain Sledder
Haigen Pavan
February 7th, 2022

A Knife to a Gun Fight

The “440 Guys” Bring Old Iron to a New Kind of Backcountry Race

The Callout

It was Tuesday night, and I was two beers deep watching the Oilers lose when my phone buzzed. The text asked if my son Jake and I were signed up to race in the 2nd running of the Riley Suhan Backcountry Race in Golden, BC, or if we were just big talkers? Challenge accepted; I asked my wife if I could borrow my man card for the weekend and proceeded to sign up.

There was just one problem.

We had sold our PRO-RMKs in the fall, leaving us little choice but to drag out matching millennium-era vintage Ski-Doo MXZX 440s—sleds that had been relegated to prairie dirt clods and drift busting for the last 20 years.

But the sleds were ready. I recalled doing both top-ends and new belts about a decade ago and the 10” suspension is so stiff that the factory shock oil was probably still fresh. Good to go. The trailer hitch on the bumper of my sled had hauled dozens of cords of wood—perfect, it would stay.

I taught Jake all about dropping air density, mains and needles. We maxed the TRA clutch clickers out at 6-out-of-6. Then, once we loaded the sleds and tucked in the extra canvas of our old 165” Pro covers, we were ready to hit the road.

Riley Suhan Backcountry Race

We arrived at Mountain Motorsports in Golden just in time to experience the most engaging rider meeting ever.

Team captains (consisting of pro riders and racers with quick finishes in the first annual race last year) picked random teams of four. Everyone was meeting new friends with the same love of the mountains, and we proceeded to bond over braaap and brew. The event MC, Dr. Poz, kept the mood light as he covered safety and plans for race day.

After the meeting we went to the pub for supper, but being the only racers there it was clear that everyone was taking this race pretty seriously.

Race Day - A Knife to a Gun Fight

The next morning we were greeted by a clear sky as teams gassed-up and headed out to Quartz Creek, the backcountry venue for the race.

The Quartz cabin area had been converted into the pits, and more than 70 nervous racers lined up to get their timing chips and pre-race squirts out of the way. Lots of beautiful iron awaited a chance to run. Turbos, superchargers and remote reservoirs were everywhere.

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Competitors and spectators alike gathered around the "pits" at the cabin.

A leisurely sight-in lap revealed a course that wound through the alpine with long pulls, drops, sweet doubles and a homeward tree section that snaked back to the cabin and the finish line. Part hillclimb, part snocross and using a whole mountain, this incredible concept might just be the dawn of a whole new sport. Hillcrosscountry? The name still needs some work.

Racers started launching up the course with Jamie Pukas taking advantage of a fresh track and laying down a smoking lap of 6:44. Meanwhile, Jake and I talked about how to take advantage of the attributes of our sleds. The minimal horsepower and traction should be less tiring. Low, wide and heavy meant fast going downhill and corners were stable. But face it, we were screwed—the next shortest track was a 146” and the next oldest sled was still on warranty, while our sleds were more dated than some of the racers.

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The Riley Suhan Backcountry Race has no classes; everyone races the same course and it all comes down to time.

Runs progressed throughout the day and while we waited for our shot at the course, we met racers from as far away as Idaho and even Sweden. We all seemed to be having a great time, like some family reunion that was just for crazy uncles and aunts.

The Course

Jake’s run started horribly when he got swallowed up by a huge trench on the first uphill that claimed quite a few victims. He got unstuck and put his head down to help his team’s overall time. I looked at how close my running boards were to the snow and vowed to stay out of the holes.

I recalled doing both top-ends and new belts about a decade ago and the 10” suspension is so stiff that the factory shock oil was probably still fresh. Good to go.

I was the last to go on our team and tried not to get spooked by the stories of how the course was breaking down after 70 racers. My run was off to a good start as I sidehilled around Jake’s trench. The little 440 stuck at 8500 rpm and the 121 x 1 1/4” track made it up everything the course threw at it. By then it had clouded over and my navigation cost some time, but I was still rollin’.

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A group gathers at one of the many prime spectating areas in the alpine section of the course.

The Fingers section was particularly cruel as each descent was followed by a 180˚ corner and back up again. But as I dropped back down to the Old Cabin—which I have known since it was just The Cabin—I started to make up some time. Crossing the flats, over the double jumps and through the rhythm sections felt like I had unhitched the old plow horse and smacked it on the ass.

Riley Suhan Backcountry Race Featured_
Haigen Pavan
The author unleashing the full potential of the 440 MXZX over double jumps and rhythm section.

The wide front-end railed the corners and weaved through the bomb holes of the tree section like a champ. We came through the timing at 8:33. A long way off the sixes of the leaders, but even still there were 23 guys slower than a 52-year-old on a 440 with a trailer hitch.

MXZX vs 850

As I headed to grab a Pozburger, a huge cheer went up. Riley Suhan has just laid down a 6:34. That kind of talent might just get him noticed one day.

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If Suhan had any nerves at the start line of his own race, they didn't show.
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Suhan, en route to laying down the fastest time of the day.

After Party

The windup at the Dugout Bar was almost as epic as the race itself. Dr. Poz handed out trophies and cash to the podium teams and swag to almost everyone. All disagreements as to who got what were settled as logging town tradition historically dictate—arm wrestle! Great fun and attitudes prevailed well into the night.

Riley Suhan Backcountry Race

On the way home, the recently christened “440 Guys” reflected on how awesome and rare an event that Riley, SledGolden and the entire community had put on. Talk swirled about 800 cc motor transplants and 2” tracks, but I doubt anything could have made our trip more fun than it was.

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Author Gregg Emmerling and his son, Jake.

Watch out next time Suhan, we might just bring new belts.


– Gregg