Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Racing 2013

I can’t get enough. I need to read reports. I need to see strategy, and when the day finally comes along, it’s all I can think about.

The funny thing is, I hardly do any of it compared to when I lived back east, nor do I try to do it right.

When I race these days, it’s an excuse to do a really fast group ride, where someone else determines the route, and it's OK to push really hard and try and leave everyone else behind. Then, after, we have some fun and hang out, high on the endorphin rush.

If I had a single focus this season, it was the Arctic Bike Club’s Kincaid Series XC races, of which I raced five of the six in the men’s Sport division with a group that ranged in size from 15-30. Turnout, for these races was generally pretty high, record high in the beginning of the season as I understand, and the sport division grew fiercely competitive by the season’s end. The result could best be described as addictive racing.

Races were held every other Tuesday starting the first Tuesday in June through August 13th

Each course was a little different, and usually featured a mix of technical and rooty single track, smooth fast single track, and ripping fast double track. The specific mixture and amount of climbing varied in each race, keeping it fresh, and giving riders with stronger suits in certain areas a chance to excel not just in specific sections of a course, but also a chance to get a leg up in some races compared to others.

I started the season really strong and came in with good condition. Race 1, which was probably one of the easiest of the season as far as how hard the course was (in my opinion) didn’t feel like very much of a race for me. The first “choke” was actually a steep double track climb that had a rather long lead up, allowing the pack to first string out, and then blow itself up. I found myself at the front, and soon enough in the lead, not too far into the race, and felt like I coasted into first with a near 30-second lead over second place. A tough corner helped to throw several racers off, including myself, so I stayed hot on the pedals for much of the race, worried I might have lost a position; and I managed to rock my saddle backward, making it only partially usable.
Channeling Marco Fontana's saddle-less third place ride in the 2012 Olympics.
The saddle issue was probably more of a gift though, as it forced me to stand up and power more than anything else. It was also my first chance to really try out my new Scott Scale 910, and I was very pleased with the rig’s performance. 
The ease of the win would set off a season-long dilemma on whether I should move up to the Expert div (the local races offer three categories, Expert, Sport, and Beginner; as well as a Masters category for riders over 40 and a “short course” offering that might be sort of the old NORBA equivalent of the “first timer category.”)

Race 2looked to be another easy win as well, right from the outset. Turnout was again strong, and the course, though it featured more single track, didn’t seem particularly challenging. I liked this for the first two races, as I think it helped set the season off on a slightly more positive note than might have been the case if these races were suffer fests that just crushed people's souls. Many racers still seemed plenty challenged by these courses, so really, my assessments were just that…mine.

The course was really fast, and conditions were starting to dry out quite a bit thanks to a lack of rain and record heat. Cornering was optimal, and I was hammering.

Midway through lap 1 I was holding a steady gap on second place Zach Huff and Masters division champ, Darin Marin. Even though the two were not technically racing each other, every time I looked over my shoulder, they seemed to be duking it out, attacking the heck out of each other and trying to close the gap on me, causing me to hit the gas every time I sensed a surge.

As we closed in on the end of the first lap, the course went through some twisty, rooty stuff.

I had thought I heard a weird noise from my rear tire earlier in the race on a sharp corner, and it did seem soft. As I steered though a 90-degree twist on the roots, my rear tire let out a belch, and went nearly flat.

Darin and Zach quickly slipped past.

I pulled out a CO2 cartridge and shot air into my tire as a few other riders went by, though I knew not all were Sport. As the tire inflated, I suddenly decided I didn’t want to over inflate it, so I pulled the nozzle off.

Big mistake.

The tire still didn’t have enough air in it. I took off as the course made a horseshoe through the Kincaid Stadium, and went to climb a steep embankment.


The steep slope was too much and the tire belched again.

Now I had insufficient air in my one and only CO2 cartridge to fill the tire. I thought the race was over, and stood still for a second. Then I remembered I had a pump in the car, and I was a fairly short jog to the start/finish, so I figured I would at least ask if I could use a pump or not. Of course, any jog in cycling shoes with a bike is less than ideal. When I got to the timing area I asked the race director, and learned that in fact, the race provided neutral support in the form of some pumps and tools.


I pumped up the tire and headed on my way, having been passed at this point by all 29 of the sport men.

While I raced at a conservative pace, out of fear of burping my tire again, I was able to climb my way back up to 6th place.

The fact that I pulled this off, and didn’t even feel like I was giving it everything I had on pace, only further influenced my thinking that I should move up to Expert if I placed top three in the next race.

As for the flat, it was one of many lessons learned on using tubeless tires, which were new for me this season. The thinking there was less than positive, but bike issues are a part of racing, especially in mountain bike racing, and I’ve long ago accepted that.

Race 3 and I was ready to make a come back. The course featured more technical sections and climbing than the previous two. It also started with a steep climb that choked down fairly quick to some rooty single track, that included a run up that was guaranteed to be the site of a big pile up.

The start was one of the most competitive I can remember, with several racers I wasn’t familiar with slamming it hard out of the gate.

I hit the front pretty quickly though, and avoided the pile up and chaos. Mid-way through the first lap, I had dropped the entire group. Realizing that the win was all but in the bag, I dropped it down a notch and started racing conservatively, knowing the biggest risk was another bike issue or a crash. I caught up with an expert racer and paced with him, feeling very confident as we neared the end of the first lap.
Coming through a fast intersection I nearly missed a turn, but thanks to my adopted pacer, only had to slow down and wheel back around into a section of technical rooty single track.

All of a sudden, Darin, women’s Expert Jessie Donahue, and a rider sporting cotton shorts and a t-shirt blasted out of the woods and  into the intersection. I slipped in behind Darin as Jessie let me in, and noticed that the cotton shorts rider behind her had a Sport number on his plate.

At that second, Darin had a spectacular crash over a root at high speed, where both he and his bike did a complete summersault, but somehow, both managed to land on their feet and rubber-side-down, respectively. I don’t know how he did it, nor do I think he did either, but Jessie and I were cheering as we blew by.

Back to racing, I hit the hammer, realizing that I had dropped my pace too soon and was now going to have to fight for first.

Eventually, the cotton shorts rider slipped past Jessie, and the race was on. This unknown rider turned out to be particularly strong on the fast single track and the climbs. My ears were tuned as he faded and surged in different sections, and I attacked on the technical single track and the open double track, as these seemed to be weak points for him. I was able to partially shake him mid-way through the second lap, but instead of backing off, I held steady, and then gunned it to the finish, scared he was storing a surge attack for the uphill finish.

Such was not the case, but I learned soon after that this cotton-wearing rider was none other than Luc Mehl. Luc is an incredibly accomplished backcountry traveler and racer. His resume is impressive to say the least, and his cotton attire is a testament to his laid back personality.

I caught up with Luc again later that week for a ride, and learned he didn’t know that we were riding for first, but thought instead we were fighting for something like 5th. He was pumped for a re-match at race 4.


But the good news was, even though I wanted to move up to Expert, I suddenly had a good reason to stay in Sport. Luc wasn’t interested in moving up. He doubted, as I did for myself as well, that with an additional lap, there would be as much racing so much as riding.

I think, in the end, this was proven to be less of a concern than we both believed, but so it goes.

Race 4 was hands down the toughest course of the season. It featured a heap of climbing, several steep run ups, and lots of technical single track.

It also came three days after the Fireweed, where I had ridden about 90 miles in the form of a 40- and 50-mile leg on a two-person relay team. The Fireweed was a blast, and it elevated my form, especially my road form, but despite my best efforts to recover and flush out my legs after the event, I was hurting on race day.

I warmed up by pre-riding the course as I usually did. The pre-ride gave me a knowledge boost and a proper warm up prior to the starting gun, but this time, I really wished I hadn’t. Seeing the course hurt me, both physically and mentally.

I don't know if the boys smelled blood, but the race went hard off the gun. I made it out front, but I didn’t drop the pack as I had in the previous three races. We tore into some sandy switch backs early on, and I slipped out in a corner, shouting loudly out of fear I would cause a pile up.

Fortunately, Clinton Hodges III was behind me. He shouted encouragement and I got back on my way; but now he was right behind me and I couldn't shake him. My cornering felt sub par, and I needed to breath a bit, so I told him to scoot up so I didn’t hold him back. He and Darin shot off the front. I kept up with the two as we made a long climb to the bluff trails, acquiring a wasp sting right on the bridge of my nose along the way.
Just before we got to the bluff trails, I noticed a group of Sport men were closing a gap behind me. This group consisted of Mike Kelly, Luc, and John Trimble. Darin and Clint disappeared after we a run up into the bluff. After getting thrashed on the bluff, Luc, Mike and I began to hammer double track and fast single track back to the start/finish. I was doing a lot of pulling and couldn’t shake them, nor reel Clint back in. As we swung onto the final stretch of double track that lead into the start/finish, Mike made a big attack.

Let me back up. Mike had so far placed fourth twice and fifth once in races 1-3. I was a bit surprised to see him hammering in the front suddenly. I was even more surprised when he attacked on double track, as he was riding an Intense Spider with minimal lock out or shock stiffening capabilities. His technical skills were strong, and he did well when the trail got tough, but this was hard tail territory. Up to this point, double track had been Mike’s nemesis, and as he powered past me, I watched his bike bob away in disbelief.

Luc latched on too, but my legs told me not to respond if I didn’t want to explode. The best I could hope for was that Clint, Mike, or Luc, was going to hit a wall on this tough course.

I brought them all back in sight a few times on the long climb to the bluff, but again, I could not close the gap, and they disappeared. I rode the rest of the race alone, wondering what was happening up there, and trying to give it some gas in the closing section in the hope that I would pick one of them off.

Nothing of the sort happened though. Mike was able to stay in front of Luc, and the two passed Clint.

Despite feeling pretty crushed physically, I was super stoked to see both Clint and Mike in the top three.

Clint had a tough start to his season it seemed, and as said, Mike was locking it down in 4th and 5th but seemed unable to break that position.

It was a turning point in the season for all of us I think.

I was gone for Race 5, working in Valdez. As with any good series though, the total is determined by throwing out each competitor’s lowest scoring race. Basically, this means you get a free pass for work, weather, or just a bad day, and helps to level the playing field a little bit.

Mike Kelly posted a win in race 5, and Clint notched third, but Luc was absent. Essentially, what this did, is make Mike all but untouchable for the series lead, and lock Clint and I into a battle for second in the overall series that would be decided in the final race, race 6.

This is one of the cool things about series racing, it changes the goals in a race and assigns targets and enforces strategies.

The race 6 course was a nice happy medium without a huge amount of climbing. The race launched from Little Campbell Lake, so there was no room for a big attack at the start or sprint finish at the end, and had enough techy sections and hammer head sections to keep everyone happy.

Turnout was a little light, but most of the major players were there for the Sport div, including Luc, Clint, Mike, and John.

Even though Mike and Luc were big threats in the race, my only concern was racing Clint. He was 15 points down in the series from me, so I had the upper hand, and the pressure was definitely on him. Clint is a smart racer and I knew he had to have drawn a target on me.

We took off, and the first choke came fast. Luc pretty much instantly disappeared, and we never saw him again. He ended up taking down the Sport div by two minutes, ending his season on a heck of a strong note.

Meanwhile, a battle royale of sorts broke out between Clint and I for second, in both the race and series.

I was able to stay in front of Clint through the entirety of the first lap, but he pushed me hard. Toward the end of the lap we hit techy, rooty single track, and I finally put a small gap between us.

I was able to make him work hard as we went into lap 2 to close that gap, and probably fended him off for at least half of it, hoping his legs would tire, but growing increasingly impressed with his stamina as he failed to disappear.

I knew that he knew he had to get in front of me before we hit the techy stuff that dominated the last mile or so of the course. Despite the battle going on between the two of us, Mike, John, and Darin managed to catch up about mid-way through lap 2, and shortly after, Clint made a soul-crushing attack to get a hole shot into a long section of fast single track. I couldn’t match Clint’s attack, but Darin went for it, and I grabbed Darin's wheel going in.
We all rode the section hard. My mind was shut down into intense focus, but I was stoked by Mike’s whooping behind me as he followed suit, and launched a table top.
We stayed within 5 seconds of Clint.

Exactly what happened in the last mile or so of techy single track is hazy to me.
I think Mike and I passed Darin on a short section of double track going into the techy stuff, then there was a brief tangle with an apologetic Expert rider who was struggling with the trail and held Mike and I up for a bit. Somehow, we re-closed the gap on Clint.
With an eighth of a mile of the finish. I was back on Clint’s wheel and ready to make what would have to be an aggressive attack on off-camber roots.

The opportunity presented itself.
I went for it.
Then I was skidding on my hip.

Mike and Darin rattled by me.

I tried to recover, but my riding went to the dogs, and I slipped out a few more times. Trimble passed by too, and I realized I was riding worse by trying to ride hard, so I rolled it into the finish.

In that moment, one could say the situation was sad, even heart breaking for me, and maybe it would have been, but the energy was just too high.
To have a whole season feel like it came down to a 20-foot section of roots and a risky move, that’s awesome racing, and that defines cross country mountain bike racing.

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