The short story for racing 2014 was making the move from sport to expert. A group of us, I call the cohort, held up in the sport division last season, even though the time gaps between the cohort and next group of finishers was strong enough to indicate it was time to move up.
We stuck it out because we were having too much fun.
Last year in sport, we were racing for top placement. This year in expert, we were racing to not get the bottom placement. The key word though, is that we were racing. The same fierce competition that drove us last season, was alive and well, even with an additional lap.
If anything, the consensus from race 1 on seemed to be that the extra lap just made it that much better. There was more time to dial in the course, more time to chase people down, more time to stick it out and survive. Our move up also helped to add energy to the tail end of the expert division, as a few veterans noted.
On a broader scale, I think the big story of the season was the continued growth in popularity of mountain bike racing in Anchorage as part of a much larger growth in popularity in cycling in Southcentral. The initial races featured record turn outs, and even later in the season, when turn out typically declines, participant numbers still would have set records any other year.
Race 1: I was probably more nervous about this race than any event I’ve done in a long time. In retrospect, it was silly, but I really wasn’t sure how I was going to hold up with the additional lap; how I was going to deal with the scrum; and of course, there’s just first race of the season jitters.
The course was, as is common for the first of the season, fairly mild.
Climbing was light, and there was a good mix of trail types.
The scrum had me pretty freaked out. In sport, I had a simple strategy: crush everyone from the line.
Occasionally, a few other racers would give me a run, but I always had the lungs and legs to drop them, and thus avoided any mishaps or crashes in the scrum.
I knew I was going to have to stay calm and steady off the start, and try to pick off weaker riders later…if there were any.
The race definitely felt a little chaotic, but one thing became really apparent: I wasn’t racing sport any more.
Sport gets a lot of different ability levels, and as such, how racers handle the stress of the scrum varies. In this case, even though the pace was intense, no one was being stupid.
I found myself on Dannelle Winn’s wheel. A known entity, I knew she was especially steady safe, and fast, so I locked on and took the ride as she navigated her way through the narrowing line of riders into the first stretch of single track.
“Hey, this is kind of awesome!” I found myself thinking.
I’d forgotten, that while the scrum is stressful, it’s also a quintessential part of the race.
Just before we entered the single track, Dannelle waved me through, and off I went.
The rest of the race still had an air of chaos to it.
The cohort was totally mixed up, and we were new entities to some of the veteran racers. Clint and Mike had somehow got a better lead out, but I reeled them both in. I think at about the time I passed them, Luc passed all of us. I assumed he was racing expert, so when he passed, I tried to latch on. His pace was way too fast for me to hold though. As it turned out, he was racing sport, and so he had in fact caught all of us with a 2-minute gap. I think he was coming off whooping cough too.
By lap three, I was passing some veteran expert riders just as I’d hoped.
It was interesting though. There were a few people I passed in this race, particularly early on, who I had routinely passed when I was racing sport. I noticed they were hesitant to let me by, and I found it somewhat entertaining, given both that it was early in the race, and that when I passed them the previous year as a sport rider, they were typically happy to let me through.
All in all, I came away from the race with any fears assuaged, and a positive outlook for the season to come.
Race 2: This was one of the most challenging courses held at Kincaid in the series. It featured a lot of climbing and a lot of technical single track. This was the only race based at Jodphur, and it went white hot out of the gate.
Although there was a descent double track lead out, the peloton devoured it quickly, and the race came to a grinding halt as riders were forced to transition from a 25 MPH pace line to the rock garden on Tower of Power.
The roots and rocks continued as the course followed the old Hammerman Tri trails, before taking off into a burning, long climb up to the other side of the park.
Mike entered the single track on my tail, and we passed a few riders who were stopped by the roots, before we became stuck behind a rider I don’t know.
He was on a full suspension bike, but was taking sloppy lines. I should have told him to let us by, but watching his lines, I assumed he was going to biff it at any second, so I waited. He never did.
Eventually, we hit a short section of double track, and he let us by.
Unfortunately, somewhere in those roots, I dropped my bottle.
It was pretty hot, and I knew I wasn’t going to survive the race without water. I was suddenly pissed I had not left a spare bottle near the start/finish.
Fortunately, a lot of others dropped bottles too, and I would benefit as a result.
Mike was still racing on his heavy full-sus Intense, and when we hit the big climb after the roots, I think I dropped him.
I can’t completely remember what happened next, but I know somehow, part of the cohort reformed as we approached the end of the last lap. Luc, who had bumped to expert now, Clint, and I were bunched together, I don’t think Mike was in the mix, but maybe.
All I know, is that it felt like deja vous to race 4 of last year, where we were hauling down this same stretch.
This time though, it was I who slipped out of the group and turned up the gas.
The problem was, I needed water, and I was going to have to stop at least once.
I had seen so many other dropped bottles in the first lap, so my plan was to grab the first bottle I saw, then switch it when I found mine.
I saw one off the side of the double track that I had seen the first lap, so its owner had not reclaimed it, and I felt no guilt grabbing it.
Clint passed me as I was stopped, but I’m a stronger technical rider, so I reeled him back in quickly as I kept my eyes peeled for my own bottle. I never saw it, perhaps it was picked up as well.
The next two laps, Clint and I yo-yo’d.
In the process, we started picking off a few riders.
Josh Smith had dropped from the main pack on entering the roots on the first lap, but made a pass sometime later in that lap.
For the rest of the race, as Clint and I battled, we kept him in sight as he threw glances back and stayed hot on the pedals.
As hard as we tried to catch him, we couldn’t, but he proved to be a great rabbit.
About mid-way through lap 3, we came across Ryan Greeff, who was bonking. Clint had a gu flask, and slowed to pass it to him.
I slowed and sat behind them, OK with the camaraderie.
After a few seconds though (I’m sure it was like 10),the adrenaline kicked up as it appeared the two were chatting.
“Let’s go here boys!” I yelled as I came around them.
I put a few bike lengths gap into Clint, but suddenly felt bad. I had lost my bottle earlier, and wondered if maybe Ryan had too. I sat up and turned and asked him.
Nope, he was good on water, and Clint reeled back up.
The race was back on.
In the end, I was able to fend Clint off through the rest of the final lap, but it was ridiculously hard.
My legs were screaming going through the rooty stuff, and though the hard tail almost always proves to be the right steed for Kincaid races, I was at my limit.
The rest of the cohort was very close behind, and came in like bullets out of a gun into the finish.
A single bad line or a pedal dab could have separated a placement for all of us.
Race 3: Probably the weakest course of the season for me.
The course actually had a lot of climbing, but it was spread out in the form of numerous short and sometimes steep pitches, never sustained.
There was also essentially no old school root sections.
Mostly though, what made this race a bit less exciting to me, was that I was alone pretty much for the whole of it. Clint was out, Mike was having bike issues, and the rest of the cohort seemed to be a no-show. Participation seemed a bit low.
The course started with a brutal and steep climb above the soccer stadium up the Lekisch Trail, before dodging into one of the only semi-technical sections of sandy bluff-like trail.
The race went off about as expected, with the steep climb serving to separate out the group pretty easily and making for a fairly hassle-free entrance to the single track. I found myself on Danelle’s wheel, and happily stuck there as the pace ticked up and the trail narrowed.
Danelle is a force to be reckoned with, and when another racer bobbled off the trail in front of us and tried to re-mount, she hollered, and he waited. Had he remounted in front of us, he would have brought everyone behind us to a stop and we would have all ended up running.
She waved me through when we re-emerged on double track, and I was again grateful for a solid and safe lead through the scrum.
The race’s main obstacle seemed to be that it’s high speed made hitting intersections tricky.
The only competitors I really saw were those who missed a corner and had to back track.
Rob Cushman had that problem, and came up behind me at some point. For a little bit, I was able to keep him in sight, but he slowly pulled away. The biggest surprise was when Phil passed me going into lap 2. Phil, single speeding, had started 2 minutes behind me, but was able to reel me in in one lap. That was really impressive. I regretted not sticking his wheel. He was hauling, and only had one more lap to do, but in retrospect, the course was the type that even if I had blown myself up hanging onto him and had to survival ride lap 3, it still would have been fast.
That’s the way it goes though, you always think you can push harder after the fact.
I ended up finishing 3 minutes behind Rob, and was a little less than 3 minutes ahead of the next racer, all by myself, and feeling pretty lonely.
Three things were different about this race, in order of significance:
It was held on a Thursday not a Tuesday;
It was held at Hillside on the State Champs course;
And unlike most races where I race in any condition from rested to completely destroyed, this one, I tried to prep the legs and mind for.
With the SSWC taking place over the weekend, the race was called the unofficial pre-lude, and moved to Thursday, and the Hillside, to avoid overcrowding the Kincaid trails with the Mighty Bikes program.
The change in venue was for sure welcome. Hillside is my home turf, and the course has a reputation: lots of climbing and technical/rough descending with a huge amount of single track.
I decided, and the weather obliged, that I would avoid putting in a long Kenai ride the preceding weekend, and would instead focus on the race. That week I rode the course a lot, but kept my rides short, with small intensity bursts intermixed.
I had it dialed for sure, and my confidence was high. I had ID’d clutch points, and maneuver areas.
For whatever reason, my legs were not getting fired up as the day neared. I don’t know if maybe my body overreacted to the reduced load, or it was just forcing it on me (mid-season slump).
It was really cool to not have to drive to the race, as I just rode the 5 minutes over and signed in.
I met up with Chuck, who was up for SSWC, and we warmed up. I didn’t feel spunky, but my legs felt like they could come alive, and I was counting on that.
The start took riders up a short but decently steep grade across the lower slopes of Hilltop on a gravel service road. I knew this was going to string the group out. The course than hair pinned and flattened out to traverse back across the ski trails, and into the single track. From that point on, the course was almost all single track, and there would be very limited passing opportunities until less than mile from the start/finish.
During the pre-rides, I knew what my limit was on the ski grade climb, and I knew that the strategy would be not ride backwards too much on the grade, and then hit it hard as soon as possible after the hairpin while others were still recovering.
That plan went brilliantly. I was able to hold on the grade, listening as breathing got deeper and deeper around me.
When we came out of the hair pin, a lot of people were as expected, just trying to recover.
I was on it.
Mike was just in front of me, and kind of soft pedaling like several others.
“Common man, we’ve got to go,” I said between breathes as I passed.
As my back wheel passed his front, I glanced back: “seriously.”
He responded, and we charged into the woods.
The maneuver was good, we boosted past a few riders that might have been hard to pass on the narrow trail ahead.
In front of us was a trio of powerful legs and lungs: Ethan Lynn, Andy Duenow, and Will Balcao.
In front of us was a trio of powerful legs and lungs: Ethan Lynn, Andy Duenow, and Will Balcao.
They seemed to be working together, and were very slowly pulling ahead.
I was sticking to my own plan and putting the screws down on this first lap more than usual.
Mike hung on, though I knew he had not warmed up well, and the pace was hurting him.
We topped out, and began the descent. Mike again stayed on my wheel, and I talked through the hardest corners that I now knew like the back of my hand.
We were riding well, and when we got back to the bottom, we had made time on the trio in front of us. Perfect.
Mike pulled up along side, and we briefly discussed strategy. We had to hit the next lap hard and keep the pressure on the trio. We had made ground on them during the descent, and both Mike and I do better on rougher courses, so if we kept at it by lap three, we would have them within striking distance.
That’s about where the plan stopped working for me.
Mike pulled up to lead the next lap, but for some reason, I didn’t stick his wheel as we headed back up the ski hill.
I caught back up again in the single track, but when we began the second descent, I couldn’t hang.
My legs were starting to get tired.
Shortly into the beginning of the second descent, we began to lap racers from other categories. In an effort to keep the groups spaced, 3-minute gaps were used instead of the usual 2 minutes. Combined with the hard course, this was probably too much, and left beginner and some sport racers too close to the experts. That being said, it was something everyone had to deal with, and most everyone cleared out the way as soon as they practically could.
Though I had felt like I was suffering during the climb on the second lap, at the bottom of the descent, I seemed to have recovered and gained ground, and my legs felt OK again. Mike had passed Will, and the two were well within reach.
I hit the grade and attacked.
My chain dropped.
Mike and Will disappeared around the hair pin. I jumped off and tried to pick the chain back up with the crank.
It wouldn’t catch.
I turned around. Chet Ferhman, who had been just a little ways behind me since the start, came by.
I started running and spinning the crank, still not catching. Another rider was closing in now too.
I grabbed the chain and pulled it back on.
I was back on the pedals, but had lost 45 seconds at least.
Worse though, I lost the mojo.
Feeling that surge, feeling the race come right back into reach, and then having it disappear like sand through my fingers killed me.
I pulled Chet back in sight on the climb, briefly giving me hope of at least retaining my spot. I saw him glance back.
“I’ll get him,” I thought.
The final descent felt awful. For a course I’d hammered all week, I rode it like I’d never seen it.
My lines were terrible and my legs were exhausted.
When I crossed the line, I had given it a solid effort, but it just wasn’t enough. The chain drop was a blow, but maybe more so, was that I expected more out of myself in this race.
If there was one real positive outcome though, it was that Mike and I had worked well as a team.
He thanked me later for giving him the nudge and then leading through the first lap. I should have stuck his wheel when we went to take over on lap two, I still have no idea why I didn’t, we likely would have continued to sling shot each other.
Even though the course for this race wasn’t the most aggressive, it was probably my second favorite race of the year after race 2. This was the first race to feature an A and a B line option. The A line took riders down Northwest Passage, while the B line took riders a little longer down the more tame Middle Earth. I knew the whole expert div was going to take the A line, and I knew somewhere, someone was going down.
As usual, the race went pretty hard off the start, and stayed together as we entered the single track.
The A-line split came early in the course, and as expected, the entire group took it.
I was behind a rider I recognized as being strong, but not technically savvy. Mike was right behind me.
As we bombed into the descent, I watched the rider in front of me assuredly begin to skitter and wobble on the otherwise perfectly dry trail.
I worked the brakes and gave him space, and about mid-way down, he clipped his non-drive pedal into the side cut, blasting a cloud of dust into the bright sun.
I was immediately glad I’d given him the space and had time to react.
The course made a hard 180 and took racers out to gradual to flat double track on the approach to the climb up Arlenes Way.
I knew this was my window, and attacked.
Mike stuck with me, and we gained a few positions before hitting the climb.
Dannelle was next to me as we rounded a 180 early in the climb, and in my mind, I laughed somewhere inside as she squeezed me into the inside of the steep corner. I had a feeling it was intentional.
Chet was just in front of Mike and I, and we three more or less hung together through that lap.
The course basically felt like a never-ending gradual climb. We would enter some rooty single track, emerge on high-speed double track that would transition to short punchy climbs, go back into the woods, and repeat, at least three times, before finally crossing under the road and heading to Bolling Alley, and then Mighty Bikes back to the stadium.
Mike, Chet, and I were still together as we closed lap 1. I slowed and Mike came around to lead.
Mike, Chet, and I were still together as we closed lap 1. I slowed and Mike came around to lead.
I latched on, and Mike lead the three of us back into the single track.
Mike’s superior descending skills let us drop Chet on the A line, but Chet made up time on the climb.
“It’s all fun and games until the climb starts boys!” Chet said as he caught us.
Chet started to pull up, and I latched on. Mike could not respond in the moment.
Chet and I began to attack each other.
These were slow attacks in some ways. Each of us would try and slowly over power the other on the unrelenting climbs and slip away. Peripheral vision was key.
Was Chet standing? Ya? OK good, then I’ll stay seated. No! Snap, peg it.
Neither of us was really gaining ground on the other as each time the other tried to pull away the other would mark it, but we reeled in Simon Lynn in the process, who briefly joined our fray.
On another steep pitch, Chet slowly pulled ahead. I dismissed this as another soft attack, and focused instead on passing Simon, who was downshifting and appeared to be spinning up a cadence of 120 RPM.
“He’s cooked,” I thought.
I wish I could do that. Simon pulled up on me and I could not latch on.
Suddenly, I realized I was the one feeling cooked, and Chet and Simon built a small gap as we went under the road.
Mike caught me as we approached the A line on lap three, and at the bottom, we worked together.
The team work was excellent, and with one last big pull from Mike, he got me to within striking distance of Chet and Simon.
I went for the jump, but Chet responded, keeping the gap open between us as I chased. He and Simon had a really good race with Simon pipping Chet by 2 seconds, and they were able to put some distance between us. I came in 23 seconds later, with Mike making up ground at the end, and coming in 9 seconds after me.
The race felt competitive.
I liked the dynamic Mike and I had formed. It really felt like we were sling-shotting each other around the course, keying in on our individual strengths to pull the other through, and battling with those around us.
It was a big improvement from the ho-hum Race 3, and disappointing performance in Race 4.
Race 6: I almost skipped Race 6. The previous two weekends had featured a strong ride in the Soggy Bottom, and then a really fun 96 miles in the Hatcher Pass Epic, respectively. My legs were feeling pretty tight, and despite the fact that I had only intended to do a light ride the night before the race, the trails on Hillside were so good, I had trouble peeling myself away.
It rained Tuesday, although there was promise that the rain would stop by race time.
Prior to the race, I debated my options: bail, go like normal, go like hell and explode.
The series points are totaled by tossing out the lowest finishing result score from the 6 races, and since I had already raced 5 events, and my points in each race were so consistent, there didn’t seem to be much to be gained or lost by racing as far as a series standing went. The good news was, I had a good hold on 9th place in the series, which honestly, I was fairly proud of. While I had indeed been racing to not get last place in most events, it seemed inevitable that I was going to DFL in this one.
I warmed up in the rain. The course was a pretty solid mix, and the end sections featured a good bit of roots, which promised to be extra slippery in the rain.
The coupe-de-grâce was an ~100 foot, ultra-steep, wet, grassy climb back to the stadium.
When none of the cohort showed up, I realized my fate was sealed on getting DFL, so I opted for going hard and then going home.
My plan was to redline and stay as far up front as I could until I threw up or blew up, and then bag it. I’d get a good work out, get some experience in a different group of riders, and if I made it through one lap, that would be good.
As promised, the rain let up by race time, although the course was pretty slimey.
The race went out with a grassy lap around the stadium before heading into Mighty Bikes.
I hit it hard, and as the group went through the stadium, I moved up a few places, and found myself a few positions up in the pack compared to usual.
The pace felt break neck, but I don’t know that it was so much that the leaders were pushing; more that mid-pack was sticking to them.
I was excited to see how the race would play out now. I didn’t know how long I could last, but I was curious how long anyone else could.
Unfortunately, after a season of no major mechanical issues, barring a dropped chain, my luck caught up. I burped the front tire on a corner going through toilet bowl.
I lost too much air to keep riding, and jumped off into the bushes to get out of the way. The Expert div flew by in a second.
With only 1-minute intervals between waves, as opposed to the normal 2, the fat bike/single speed div came by next.
All things considered, I managed to get the tire re-inflated pretty quick, and was back on the trail about mid-way through the sport div.
Dave Donahue, who we would later learn was riding with a broken bone in his hand, rode past just as I jumped into the saddle to catch on.
My confidence was a little low through the next few corners, but Dave is a smooth rider, so it was easy to chase his lines.
I had to rethink my plan a bit. My original plan was foiled and I considered just dropping out at the next junction.
There was no chance that I would catch up with the expert div. It was always possible that someone else might have a mech too and get held back, but then again, maybe not.
The one upshot, was that there was a lot of riders in front of me, and I would probably feel like I was at least chasing with the sight of others down the trail, even if I wasn’t actually racing them. It was the motivation my legs needed to keep going.
What I will say for sure, is that chasing down some of the sport riders was not an easy task. I was really impressed by how strong the majority of them were. All the same, I had no problem passing when I caught them, as all yielded when asked, even though I always said, “take your time.”
The last lap was pretty quiet through the first half with all the other riders off the course. Then I heard some whooping ahead.
If there was one real saving grace of this race, it was finally getting to see the Jessie and Megan show.
These two have been having an epic season battling it out and whooping it up on the trails.
I understand that during SSWC one rider told them: “You two have a way of crushing souls, but you make people feel alright about it.”
I didn’t even think I would see these two, but within the last two miles, I had reeled them back in. It still took forever to pass them. When I did, Jesse was leading Megan by 5-10 seconds, but as they hit the final pitch, Megan pipped Jesse, and then gunned it to the line.
For me, it was nowhere near as dramatic a finale as the previous season, and though I wished I’d had the opportunity to test my red line limits, I was still glad I’d finished the race.
I'm bummed I'll miss the state champs, but I already can't wait until next year!