Monday, September 26, 2016

2016 Racing

Concise reports? Go read my other blog for those. I can't help but get long-winded on these, but these reports also help me remember lessons learned from season to season, and re-live the excitement years later. Enjoy.
 
Summary

This season started out on the slow side for me, or, at least it felt that way. A lot of that probably stemmed from a lack of motivation and a lack of snow in town over the winter for consistent mid-week activities. My fitness was heavily skewed toward big weekend days on split planks in the backcountry, and even still, a warm spring curtailed April missions, leaving me even more bitter and reticent to get on a bike. Suffice to say, I felt the weakest at the start of the riding season as I ever have. The fact than, that I finished as strong as I did, was pretty awesome.

I credit some of this to age and base mileage; but I also credit this to having some great friends and “frenemies” that lit the fire in me to get over it and get on with it.

One of the most remarkable things about the racing this season, aside from the great courses and weather we had (only one race where it actually rained), was how unbelievably competitive the Expert division has become. Within the main pack, there was consistently anywhere from 5-10 riders all finishing within 90 seconds of each other. In almost every race, one dab, or just the lightest ease of power, could cost a placement. It just felt like really raw racing where the results were totally up in the air every time, and it fired me up in a way I haven’t felt, probably since I got back into racing a couple years ago.
 
Arctic MTB 5 (Didn't race, only a day before the Soggy Bottom, but I did design the course!)
 
Photo R.G.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Trifecta Season Finale

Thursday Hill Climb

The course this year tossed in some of the rooty connector single track on Spencer to ensure the race wasn’t simply a pure test of legs and lungs. Rain the previous 36 hours that really didn’t end until about 3 hours prior to race time left sections of the course smeared in axel grease mud, and other sections slick as black ice. This would be a common theme in all three races.

I had been racing with a Maxxis Ikon 2.2 rear tire most the season, but the day before, tossed on an Ardent Race with EXO sidewalls (for Girdwood on Saturday). The former tire corners better at speed and have less rolling resistance on hard pack or soft/loose over hard, but the latter has slightly toothier knobs that hook up better when conditions are wet.

The race was pretty lightly attended. The experts, masters, and single speeders all went off in the first wave making for a slightly more confused start. I was really nervous about the slick double track on Double Bubble and hung back until we shot out the hairpin corner, then started to pick up the pace. By the time I was up the first pitch on Spencer, the race was basically settled. Andy sat about 10 seconds in front of me the whole climb, Clint rode my wheel for a bit in the lower half of the climb, but as we neared the upper section of Hive, he slowly slipped back. I felt like Andy was gauging my pace, if I had come after him I felt like he would have responded, and I was looking for about a 90% effort at max, so it didn’t make sense to explode myself chasing him down. Last year’s hillsclimb was far more riveting, with Nathan, Clint, and I battling the whole way up.

I didn’t want to go too hard, certainly not as hard as I’d pushed last year where we raced Thursday but had Friday off. The mud definitely helped to dampen the effort too.

I still tasted some blood in the parking lot at Prospect, so, that’s good, right?

Photo: G.S.


 

Friday Short Track

Short races are not my bag, but wow, this was embarrassing! My plan was to basically sit in and chill out, save the legs for the big day in Girdwood the next morning. Despite a forecast for clear skies, instead a saturating and misty fog clung to Anchorage until noon, and the clouds didn’t really part in earnest until mid-afternoon, leaving the course nice and slick. The expert race started late at 8:20 PM, along with the masters and single speeders. The start was chaotic, but after only 3 laps I was in the back. I really wasn’t comfortable with pushing it too hard for fear of wiping out, and people were fishtailing everywhere. Warming up I’d watched two sport riders eat it hard.

Anyway, around 20 minutes into the 30 minute+ race, Nick and Fred West, who had both been trailing me all race, finally passed.

As we came through the start finish, we were told we were heading into the bonus lap.

I thought this meant we had two laps to go, given the time. I stuck with Nick and Fred through another lap. Then in the following lap, I made an attack on a short climb to sneak into a section of rooty single track. I backed off a titch through the roots, and then as we entered the final stretch, I threw down what I’m quite sure was the best sprint of my life.

I came across the line, and despite seeing gray, noticed there was no one around…

Then Nick and Fred buzzed by and let me know we were still going.

Doh!

I was completely gassed, and rode the final two laps basically in an extended warm-down, getting second to last place. I only earned 1 point in the race. From a strategy perspective, I shouldn’t have raced! Oh well, I’m sure there’s something to be said for doing types of racing you aren’t good at…or whatever.

Photo: O.L.

 

Saturday Alyeska XC

Last year’s Alyeska XC race was easily one of the most challenging and fun courses I’ve raced in AK. This year’s course, though shorter in distance (3 miles a lap), was much harder, and was comparable to some of the more challenging courses I’ve raced on the rocky and hilly east coast.

A clingy morning fog in the Girdwood valley ensured conditions remained slick.

The course started with a road climb up Chair 3, then descended the Blueberry Pancake trail, climbed some muddy switch backs, before hooking onto a road to the top of the halfpipe, did some off-camber stuff and wall rides down slick grass in the halfpipe, traversed the slick and rocky Winter Creek connector trail back to the chair three area, and climbed X-Mas in July trail, before descending Big Spruce back to the start.

I brought the Yeti with me and planned to pre-ride the course on the hard tail, and make a game-time decision on what to race. I did go down on Blueberry during my pre-ride on a wooden wall ride, but the section had a ride around. Conservative riding on the descents would be mandatory for anyone: Too much speed, and tires would instantly slip out on the slick ramps. Meanwhile, with three climbs per lap, I felt the hard tail would be the better steed. No one would really be able to make a lot of time on the descents, but there was plenty of climbing.

This year’s turnout was rather small for all the Trifecta events, and this included Girdwood. That’s really too bad, this race in particular was certainly hard, but as said, it also more closely resembled actual XC racing as one would find Outside of AK, rather than what is usually available here.

The experts went off, and it seemed like one of the most relaxed starts ever. Will, Jason, and Jamie went off ahead like the three amigos, and I sat a little behind them and a little in front of a second pack, no one was really pushing it too hard.

About halfway down Blueberry, Alex Wilson caught up to me. I offered to let him around, but he declined, and waited until we started up the Chair 7 climb. Alex stayed in front of me until we closed out the first lap, where I passed him headed back up Chair 3 road; Andy was 10-20 seconds back through the first lap.

On the next descent down Blueberry, I again heard someone catch me, but when I glanced back expecting to see Alex, it was Andy.
 
Photo: R.G.
 

Andy, Alex, and I rode together for the majority the laps 2 and 3. Occasionally one of us would ride a little stronger in one section or another, but we’d quickly group back up. Andy commented at one point that it was pretty nice to have a good group to ride with, and I agreed. As an example, on one lap, going up the Winter Creek trail, Alex had just caught back on, and Andy and I let him thru. He was riding the tech stuff much better, so it was perfect to have his wheel to follow. We were all pushing each other along.

On the third lap climbing X-Mas, Alex finally slid back far enough that he never caught back on.

As we entered the final lap, I expected Andy to push the climb. He had been jabbering on most the climbs to this point, where I had no such spare oxygen for that nonsense! As expected, he came around. I had no interest in chasing his wheel.

If Andy hadn’t been holding my wheel on Blueberry descent the previous two laps, I would have raced him to the top in hopes of putting some distance into him during the descent, but that clearly wasn’t happening. Even then, we had two more, much steeper climbs to follow before the lap closed out. Andy was riding really great, even in the techy stuff, and my only gun in this race was climbing. Trying to out climb Andy seemed like a sure bet I’d lose!

In the end, I think this is one of the very few instances where I will say, I should have raced the Yeti. The thought of racing that bike in 90-120 minute XC races crushes my junk. The hard tail is much lighter and in most cases plenty competent to hang on through descents and then take time on climbs.

I don’t know that I would have ridden the descents significantly faster on the Yeti, but they would have smoother and taken less out of me, no question. I actually rode Blueberry later that day on the Yeti and it was an entirely different experience.

The Yeti is obviously not as sprite a climber as the hard tail, but my hard tail is geared high, and that can work against me on longer steep climbs, such as at Alyeska. This course had 2 significant steep climbs, plus a section on Winter Creek with a steep, rocky and slick climb. A lower gear range, wider tires, and some squish would have actually made the steep climbing easier – I also verified this later in the day on the Yeti. So, while I would have been pedaling more weight with the Yeti, my legs wouldn’t have been straining as hard.

Also, this late in the season, my legs are in good shape, and a couple extra pounds of squish on a techy course was not going to be a major impediment.

Would it have made a difference for the final result? I don’t think so. Andy was just putting in a solid race all around; but maybe I would have ridden my lines a little cleaner and more confidentlay, allowing me to hold better gaps in some places, making the race a little closer.

What ifs.
 
My training partner.
 

Arctic MTB Race 6

What made this race so cool was that Bernie was visiting, and took second in the sport mens race! Bernie hadn’t raced a mountain bike event since doing an Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference race in fall 2006 at Plattekill back when we were all racing for Skidmore. Bernie is often my confidant when it comes to racing, and a few weeks before his visit he asked whether there would be an XC race during his stay, and if so if we could do it, as he’d heard so much about racing up here from yours truly.

The answer was obviously yes. Bernie had some typical “roadie” issues early on in his race (dropped a bottle, came unclipped, etc) but got his act together and ended up passing nearly the entire sport field and taking a sprint for second.

Team photo

The race went well for me, but was pretty damn exciting thanks to some moose.

With Bernie in town, I rode a bit more in the days before the race than I probably would have otherwise, but was glad to see from a fitness perspective, that it didn’t appear to have much effect.

The course is one of my favorites, taking off from the stadium and going down Northwest Passage and an associated climb back out, with a very healthy dose of roots.

The race was pretty unsettled off the start as we shot into single track early on, but once we got down into the gravel pits and meadows, the second pack group started to form up. We had myself, Charlie Renfro, Clint, Owen Ala, Lee, Megan, and Andy.

I drilled the climb back up and took over the lead. I tried to call out the slick corners on the double track on the way back to Middle Earth, but Owen went down pretty hard at some point. I basically lead this group through the entirety of the first lap.

Through the stadium, Lee took off and disappeared, and Charlie came around and lead through back down NWP.

Photo: G.S.


I came around on the climb, and the group started to thin out some. I think we lost Charlie. Owen gave me a run on the climb, but was timid about the next section given his fall last time.

About mid-way to Middle Earth we encountered a cow and calf. The cow ran down a trail behind us and the calf ran out in front of us. I briefly hesitated but Clint commented we better go for it. I was really nervous the cow would turn and chase the group, now chasing her separated calf, but she didn’t seem to care at all and eventually the calf bolted off the trail.

About a minute later I saw a second lone cow, standing off the trail in the woods. I figured she was weary off all the bikers and was staying off the trail. “Good,” I thought.

I again lead through the second lap. My gaps would open on double track and sections of roots, fading on other sections of STA.

As we climbed up Bolling Alley back to Mighty, Clint, who was right on my tail, sucked up a pin flag into his rear derail with a loud thwack. He dropped off.

When we crested the climb I asked if anyone knew if he was chasing back on or if he was screwed. No one knew. If he was chasing, I wanted to slow down the pace for 30 seoncds give him a chance to catch back on. I know that’s a really roadie move, and maybe if it wasn’t the last race and he wasn’t right on my tail, I would have shrugged my shoulders, but if he wasn’t down and out, I felt like it would be better let him clip back on.

Turns out, we would get the opportunity anyway.

Through the stadium, Megan took off and attacked.

She dropped the group on the way to NWP, though I chased her down through the meadows and the group essentially reformed, with Megan leading off the front by about 5 seconds.

Back up the climb and on the way to Middle Earth, the lone cow moose came out from an intersection charging for Megan.

The chasing group let out a collective yell, and the moose changed and charged toward the group, letting Megan through.

What ensued was a 3-4 minute Mexican standoff between a bunch of lycra-clad bikers and one seriously ticked moose. This was the lone cow I’d seen the second lap, and I’m really sure this was the same moose that ran me over in May. What moose is willing to charge a group of this size? Any normal “wild” animal would have fled with so many amassed and yelling at it.

At first I was near the front of the melee, but already having earned my moose print badge for the year, and feeling my adrenaline surging, I stepped back and begin to look for a way through the woods.

While we were stopped, Charlie and Clint caught back on, and Lee, who I guess missed a turn and fell behind, caught up too. Charlie and Andy nearly missed getting kicked as they tried to go around the moose through some woods, but the moose was having none of it.

Eventually we were able to sneak by her, but it was an uneasy truce.

I was feeling pretty drained from the moose encounter, and all her fake charges, and fell back a few placements to recover.

I got my strength back and passed Charlie and Clint, but never caught back on with Andy or Owen. I think they both had a lot more leg than I for the last lap, and despite the moose, I’m not sure I could have fended them off.

Who knows. I really hate that moose though, one way or the other!

Arctic MTB Race 4

Another race on Hillside, but a brand new course; the long hillside climb was broken in half by throwing in a flowy break mid-way, and used the Gorge Trail for the upper decent. This course was also super heavy on single track.

I felt good going in, a morning rain shower tamped down what had otherwise been very dry and loose conditions, and despite smoke drifting through town from the nearby McHugh fire, air quality was good.

After the DDXC disappointment, I was as angry as the residents of the dozen or so yellow jacket nests that lined this course.

The two ~5-minute climbs, and the short steep uphill punches found on the descent, suited my strength. In pre-riding, I felt like I could hit the two climbs at near-full strength, without worry of blowing up, and that I should hammer every little steep punch. Also, this time, I was going to stick with the sprint. Period.

We lined up, the lead group took off, and I tagged on and held their pace until we rounded the first switchback on Drone.

I’d built a small gap in front of the second pack, didn’t feel too bad, and was ready to detach, but not let up.

I kept the power on high through the first climb and at the least sustained or slightly built a gap. As I expected, the flowy break allowed the group to just about catch me before we began part two of the climb up Hornets Nest.

Again, I dug deep.

I didn’t feel like I had a big lead at the top, but I think I may have put some distance between myself and the rest of the group in the final part of the Hornets Nest climb. Despite my fears that I would get caught on the descent down the Gorge Trail, when I glanced back heading up the straightaway on Wall Street on Spencer to see if I was getting chased down, I didn’t see anyone.
 
Photo: J.E.
 

I think the group probably began to fracture on the climb and ensuing rooty descent, but a smaller group did make some progress on the rest of the descent, as coming through the start area, I looked back and saw a few people pursuing. I quickly ratcheted up the pace back to Drone.

I used a cheering spectator at the top of Drone to mark a 20-second gap for whoever was behind me, and realized, with plenty of climbing left in the lap and the race, I was going to really build a lead if I drilled the climbs again, which I definitely did.

Lap 2 was my strongest run. About halfway up Hornets Nest I caught sight of a rider ahead. I didn’t recognize him, but I knew he was not someone I usually saw in these races, and it lit the fire in me. I had to catch him.

Near the top I caught the rider and he promptly let me by.

The rider, Mark Iverson, would later tell me he’d gone out too hard and dropped from the lead pack. He latched onto my wheel as I passed and held on through the rest of the run.

I didn’t think much of it, it’s easy to hold someone on a descent, but having Mark behind me lead to my best descent for sure. I figured if he was hurting on the lap 2 climb, he would probably drop once we started climbing again.

Back through the start, I threw a few glances back, but this time, didn’t see anyone chasing.

Mark came around as we headed up Drone, which confused me a tad. Not knowing who he was, I wondered if he’d blow up in front of me or what. I never saw him again as he built an ~30-second lead by the finish.

Meanwhile, my pace was beginning to show for the effort. I wasn’t tanking by any stretch, but I definitely didn’t have the same kick I’d had in the previous 2 laps.

Headed up Hornets, I saw Megan briefly on the switch backs below. To my relief, she wasn’t towing any of the boys. As it turned out, Megan was basically going the same pace the whole race, but just couldn’t close the 10-20 second gap to my wheel.

The lap closed out without event, easily one of my best races, ever. 

This race came after a block of high-mileage riding, and I knew it would be my last race for a while. I’d felt good on the previous Hillside race, but was disappointed and confused that when I finished I still felt strong, indicating I didn’t really dig deep enough; I didn’t have that feeling this time, there was no question, I used a lot of matches the first two laps and was glad to have built a nice lead for the final lap.

After getting completely dropped in DDXC and never having a chance to chase back on, I went back to my old strategy sprinting off the start and chasing the lead group. I was glad to see my lungs were there for the effort, as much as it sucks. I spent a lot of the race by myself in no man’s land, well behind the lead group, and just a short ways in front of the second pack. Chasing Mark and then having him on my wheel through the second decent was a huge boost, but throughout the whole race, I was aggravated as hell, and might as well have had 5 people on my wheel along with a pack of wasps. Every time I heard a bell it lit me up, even though I think sometimes that damn bell was just my own!

Double Down XC

A new event this year, this race was held on a weekend and featured longer distances than week night races: 3 laps to complete about 25 miles for the experts.

The course was pretty good, and dove deep into some of Kincaids rooty hell holes, including the Hammerman trails.

The biggest challenge for this course in my mind was the curt start that dove into single track pretty quick and didn’t break out for a while.

My plan was simple, use the same strategy I’d been using the previous two races, let the first lap go out hard, get dragged along, keep the legs spinning consistently, and go find people to chase down.

We did a quick lap around the stadium to spread out, but it didn’t matter much, just as the main group made it out onto the first short break of double track, it turned out that the lead group had made a wrong turn, and things balled back up as we re-entered the singletrack.

I’d lost sight of Nick and Clint, who I hoped to keep a visual on, but wasn’t too worried, we had a long way to go and I felt good.

The Hammerman rooty trails were awful, slow, tedious, but mostly uphill, meaning the hardtail wasn’t a disadvantage. The biggest struggle I was finding with trail conditions was the occasionally dry and loose conditions on otherwise fast and firm that made cornering inconsistent.

It wasn’t dry and loose that got me though. A lengthy section of course went over Jodphur Loop trails. Read: road biking in the woods.

Coming into a corner I had this brief thought that maybe you always have when you corner at 25MPH, “I hope I don’t go down.”

It obviously doesn’t happen 99% of the time, but this time I went down, hard. The trail was like black ice, my front tire went out and I was on the ground before I knew what happened. Jessie was on my tail, and as I rolled, I saw the profile of her front tire out of the corner of my eye, lined up for my head.

She had a split second to decide whether to ride over me or go down as well. Thankfully she chose the latter option, and thankfully, she wasn’t banged up.

The impact was a good one for me though, and I hit my knee hard enough it hurt to extend and retract.

I hobbled away from the corner to avoid causing a pile up. People were blowing by. I looked over the bike, tried to slow my mind and make sure I didn’t panic and jump back on only to crash again because my brakes or bars were askew. Everything was still good though, so it appeared.

I was raging pissed off at myself and freaked out. I got on the bike and started to soft pedal, my knee was killing me, my head still spinning.

I realized maybe a drink would help: BLEEP!

I was smart to check over the bike, but I failed to notice I’d lost my bottle in the crash. I was far enough from the crash site I didn’t want to turn back, but the laps were long and the day was hot. I was not thrilled about riding the next three miles back to the start without water and getting dehydrated in the process after my experience in the 6-hour race. I rode on in a small group that included Megan, who tried to instill some positive thoughts, even though I was pretty ticked with myself.

When we hit the start area I snagged my staged bottle and headed back into the woods.

The next thing I knew I was riding down Middle Earth…the wrong way.

Of course, even after I suspected I’d made a wrong turn, I wasn’t completely sure until I did the math in my head.

Great.

This race felt as good as over to me. My best bet would be to maybe chase my way back up to Jessie and the group I’d been with right when I crashed. I rode alone the entirety of the second lap, but I think after I rode through the crash site again, and saw my bottle off in the alders, my head leveled back off, and I stopped pouting and started riding. It didn’t take too long into the third lap before I passed Megan, and not long after caught up with Jessie and the rest of the group I’d been with.

Jessie was crushing it, and stuck my wheel through a 1/3 or more of the lap. When I came by the crash site, out of water, and not having seen anyone off in the distance to chase down, I figured I’d better make a quick grab of my lost bottle. The quick stop allowed Jessie to catch back on for a bit, but once we rolled into the final climb, all the adrenaline from the crash was bubbling over and I pedaled about as hard as I should have been the last two laps to the finish, disappointed with the way things turned out.

The takeaway here was a good one though, bitter as I may have been about it. I’d been enjoying the change in strategy this year from past years, chasing my cohort down as the race went on instead of fleeing them off the start. The chasing option is mentally easier, I paced a bit easier in the start, didn’t get stressed or gassed in the sprint, and used the distant figures of other racers as the fire for my legs as the race went on. The problem: it left no room for error. These races are too fast, and the guys I race against are only going to get caught with a lot of effort. Biffing a corner may mean never seeing them. In the sprint-and-flee situation, if you screw up, you may just end up with them, and can then try to get away, or at worst, get passed but not end up nearly as far back.

Arctic MTB Race 3

The first of three races held at Hillside this season. Despite an overhyped weather forecast for heavy downpours and flood watches from the incredibly-off weather guessers, at most, the bone dry and dusty trails saw a quick shower mid-race, and otherwise cloudy and cool temps: perfect.

I felt really good going into the race, and was jittering with energy all day. As expected, the race jumped out hard.

In keeping with my strategy this year, I just rode the first lap at pace, knowing that I would get pulled along by the collective momentum of the group a little faster than normal.

I was feeling really good about the course, and had a new strategy for the descent: don’t brake!

The standard Hillside course is one of the few I know of that you can lose on the downhill: and I have, several times. The descent beats up riders, particularly those on hard tails, leaving them strained to attack on the rather direct main climb. I think between doing the 6-hour race helped me a lot, but even more was spending an afternoon doing consecutive laps (4) on this course.

Photo G.S.

I noticed when I was riding the course consecutively, that toward the end of my ride, while my times on the climb were gently slowing down as my legs fatigued, my overall lap times were actually decreasing, as I got faster on the downhill each lap. It wasn;t because I was developing some inside edge on the downhill though, I was actually getting tired, and was thus relaxing. Basically, I’ve always tried to ride strong and decisively on this descent, but it turns out, it’s better just to let go, not just because it’s faster, but because it’s easier. I was working less, meaning I had more energy for the climb.

On race day, I finished off lap one and caught a glimpse of both Nick and Andy D down the straight away of the gasline. That was a good sign in my mind, though I specifically avoided reacting.

Part two of my plan was that, as in the past, I expected to mostly be alone in this race. I would be hard pressed to use other riders as motivation to chase riders, instead, I would use the course and the clock to launch attacks.

The main climb, though fairly direct, isn’t all that steep. The steepest pitch actually is right at the base going up Drone Lane, and then one or two short pitches along the way. It’s still a climb though, and can lull you into a steady pace if you let it.

Photo G.S.

I marked two sections along the way up where I planned to launch 30-second all-out sprints, regardless of who else was around.

I flirted with this strategy a little bit last year, and found it to be fairly effective when I’m alone in no-mans land.

I was able to pick off another rider using one of these attacks as I headed up the second lap, though Nick and Andy had disappeared, as expected.

Sure enough though, back at the base of the second lap, there they were again. I was gaining on them on the descent, they were gaining on me on the climb, but the delta was in my favor with this course.

I employed the ghost attack method again going up lap three, and as I topped out, closed the gap first on Chris Jung, who I think Nick had just come by. I followed Chris a short ways but slipped around him, and within 10 seconds of dropping into Lama, had caught Nick.

This is where I made one major mistake: Nick asked if I wanted to come around, and I declined. I was thinking about what a good race we’d had at Race 2, and I figured I’d let him pull me through a little more of the descent and then come around. I should have just come around right then when he offered though, as a short ways after we came up on another rider, and we couldn’t really pass on the narrow trail. Truthfully, he wasn’t slow either, but in this case, I could definitely descend faster than both Nick and the other rider and was losing valuable seconds for chasing down Andy D.

Eventually both Nick and I passed when the trail opened, and we finished the descent.

Unfortunately, at the base of this lap, Andy wasn’t off in the distance down the straight away providing a target, though Nick was just seconds behind me.

I had one more part to my plan for the day: go deep on the final 1/2 mile on Double Bubble’s steep climb on the final lap. Nick gave me a good chase to the base of the hill, but I was able to open up the gap going up the steep pitch.

Though this wasn’t as close and confined as the last race, that was to be expected, and I was super pleased with how this race went, for one main reason: after years of getting walloped on the descent, I was able to take three positions on the final descent instead of getting passed.

Last year, I decided I would try to use my climbing legs and punish some of my cohorts by digging relentlessly deep on the climb, challenging them to hold on. The simple problem with this strategy is one of basic math. The climb takes me anywhere from 11-13 minutes, the lap takes 27-29 minutes. That means one spends the greater portion of this course going down or traversing. I was getting caught on the second part every time, leaving me to instead hang on to riders who were going faster than I wanted to, while I worked too hard on the downhill, diminishing my abilities to return the favor on the comparatively shorter climb.

My only question about this year: when I finished, I felt really good, like, I wanted to hammer another lap. On the third lap climb, I did think about throwing in an extra attack, but decided to stick with my plan. The fact that I had this thought though, on a climb, three laps in, was noteworthy, and told me I left too much in the tank.

While this course sometimes gets some grief for being rather hard, not to mention repetitive (it’s been raced every year since like 2009), I think it’s one of Anchorage’s best, both for its challenge, but also because you know you will see it again, so it serves as a good benchmark.

6 Hours of Kincaid

This really wasn’t much a race, so much as a training ride, for me. I had my head pretty well set on riding in circles in Kincaid for a day, and a 6-hour ride was just what I needed. The course was actually better than it looked on the map, not necessarily fun, per se, but hard. In 10 miles the course sported 1,000 feet of climbing, plenty of hell hole roots, and for what it was worth, felt like it was climbing the entire time (It was uphill both ways!)

Other than the first lap, where a group of various different race categories stuck together, I was pretty well alone. One other 6-hour rider hung onto my wheel through the first half of my second lap, but ultimately detached.

Photo L.F.


Other than that, the only other riders I saw were briefly upon being passed or passing, and Ryan Greef, who was racing the 12-hour solo. He and I started 5 laps together, but he would hammer impressively ahead, stop for a break at the start/finish, and then take back off. He was killing it, and put in a solid effort to win the 12-hour solo race. Very cool.

For me, the event was about time on the hard tail and time in the saddle, but it also became a strange lesson in hydration.

Obviously, in 2 decades of riding, I have run out of water just a couple times, and suffered from dehydration. As a dumb kid riding through sweltering summer heat, it was standard operating procedure to run out of water and go dizzy until I finally found a spring to scoop from. Drinking water from giardia-filled Vermont streams was a dumb idea.

While such mess-ups are rare now, I know for a fact I drink less on the trail than most my peers; I have no idea why, maybe all those dehydration rides as a dumb kid?

Photo: L.F.

In this case, being breezy and cool with a chance of showers, I figured I would ride 2 laps per bottle, with my bottles staged at the start/finish for easy snagging.

I had more water just a short ways off course at my car should I need it.

The plan worked the first two laps, as it was still cool and I started well hydrated, but entering lap 3 with a fresh bottle, I realized I was actually quite thirsty, and was halfway through the bottle before I was halfway around the lap, leaving only half a bottle for the next 1.5 laps?!

I eased my water intake but quickly became dehydrated.

Photo L.F.

What was different in this event, compared to say, some long ride, was that I was trying to maintain a set pace. My first two lap times were just shy of an hour (55 and 56 minutes), and that meant I could do 6 laps before the cutoff, IF I didn’t significantly change my pace.

As soon as I got dehydrated though, my body responded. My muscles got heavy and stiff and stuff started to hurt like it shouldn’t have.

My body rebelled like I’d never felt it. Everything started to hurt. The nasty root sections inspired dread. I was eating well, but now my food was tapping out my water.

With my pace dropping, going off course to re-fill the bottles meant I might not make the cutoff, and could miss a lap

Fortunately, Meredith came by to cheer for me during lap 4, and re-filled my bottles, allowing me to do one bottle per lap for laps 4, 5, and 6. As evidence for the effect of dehydration though, my lap time crashed from 55 and 56 minutes the first 2 laps, to 64 minutes the third! I recovered slowly, getting my lap times back down to 60 minutes,

By the time I closed out lap 5, I had 65 minutes left to the cut off and had some energy to spare for the final lap, allowing me to squeeze my lap time back to 59 minutes for the final lap, which I was really happy about.

Despite the idiot move on water, the event was exactly what I wanted and needed, and I think it set me up for future races.  

Arctic MTB Race 2

Feeling much better for this race, I expected the weak point to be strength, less so cardio. Compared to the previous course, which was a bit long, this one was only around 3.5 miles in length, so an extra lap was added, making it a 4 lap race for Expert. The course was a 5/10 on climbing; heavily front-loaded with double track in the first half, and heavily tail-loaded with roots and single track in the back half.

Still not wanting to fully commit my lungs, I avoided the opening sprint, with the plan to reel in my cohort and increase my pace as I chased them down, a reversal to my typical “strategy” in these races.

The first lap went out hard, per expectation, and though it was very fast, I spent much of the time chasing others, particularly Ethan Lynn and Nick Blades.
 
Photo: J.E.
 

I overtook Ethan early in the second lap, and shortly after caught Nick and Megan Chelf. The three of us formed a group through the remaining double track and charged through the back-half singletrack. As we entered lap three I cranked the power through the double track, and noticed a long way down the open trail, Clint Hodges.

The fire was lit, as we entered the rooty single track I could see the gap closing, and it only motivated me further to keep driving the pace.

About ¾ the way through the lap, going under the lower tunnel, I gave it one more boost and we overtook Clint, who I think happily latched on.

We now had a group of 4 charging hard through the course, and were rapidly lapping numerous other racers, possibly from our race but I think mostly from other divisions. I was super impressed with how awesome each and every one of them was; as a group of three, and then four, all the other racers happily pulled off and let all of us pass as a group (whoever was first always said “three through,” or “four through.”)

Of course, chatty Nick didn’t seem to appreciate my hard pace as he still had oxygen to say hello and wish them all luck!

Into lap 4, I had a problem. While I might have been wise to get off the front and let Team Revolution do some work, it seemed questionable to let one of them off the front, more to the point, why should they? They were 2 and I was one. I could let perhaps one of them around, but I didn’t want to let them both around. I decided to stay in front and charged hard into the double track where I seemed to have more power anyhow, as we went into lap 4.

We had a really cool moment as we approached the A-line B-Line option presented by the course (Middle Earth or Second Breakfast, respectively). Seeing another racer who wasn’t Expert just up ahead before we hit the split, I assumed she would veer down Middle Earth since it was shorter, and faster. I assumed the group would want to do that as well, but I didn’t want to risk entangling our group on a descent with a slower rider, and there was no reason we couldn’t do Second B-Fast if we all stayed together. Between gasps I pointed out the rider in the distance and said “lets go right” (Second B-Fast). Nick could see the situation and agreed. At the last second, the girl ahead went right, down Second Breakfast!

“”Left! Left! Left!” I gasped, scared we’d lose someone to the slower right hand option.

Everyone caught it though, and the group remained intact. I would have been annoyed at both myself, and the situation, had someone been messed up by that, despite the honest intentions of the whole group. Instead I was stoked.

We hammered on.

I knew Nick and Clint where scheming. Every time we hit double track I did what I could to keep them from slipping in front of me before we re-entered single track.

Finally, Clint stuck a quick inside move on a short section of double track. Nick joked he was a jerk for cutting me off, but to Clint’s credit, he made it count, and slowly built his lead, though the rest of us were just seconds behind. Climbing Bolling Alley, I hoped to claw him back and make it a sprint finish.

We ended up behind another racer on the climb though, and perhaps despite good intentions, when the rider pulled up to let us by, he only let Nick by, and without warning dropped back into the trail, causing me to nearly knock into him. Both Nick and I said something to him, and then I had a little more to say, which he really didn’t appreciate. The trail opened as the climb ended and I took off, fuming. With less than a half mile of gradual descent and then flat to the finish, all I could do was damage control.

Despite the late foul up (it does happen, and I didn’t feel like I made the situation any better by my own actions), this was an incredibly good race. I had an absolute blast hammering around with Megan, Nick, and Clint. After not feeling too great the previous weeks, it was nice to have a performance I was happy with. Looking at our times, we were only a handful of seconds away from reeling in two other Experts, and with such a powerful group pushing the pace, likely would have with just a bit more time. In all, five Expert men finished within only 50 seconds of each other: that’s why you pay money for these events, in my mind.

Arctic MTB Race 1

A non-event for me. I had a virus in the top of my lungs and couldn’t really breath. My legs seemed to work OK, but overall I felt more out of shape for this time of year than I have in many years (2011?) and the course was mild, so I signed up knowing I would never be able to open it up, but that the course would be a good one, at over 6 miles per lap. It was at the time, likely the hardest ride effort-wise I had yet done on my hard tail, and to an extent, all season.

Photo: G.S.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Soggy Bottom 2016


Short version.

I finished in fourth (again) in 9 hours 53 minutes, accomplishing my goal of cracking 10 hours, and frankly, doing better than I anticipated, given the actually soggy conditions this year. That being said, the trail and weather could have been a lot worse, so I’m thankful.

Also on the awesome front: Meredith, riding the 85 mile Petite. This girl had never ridden more than 20 miles at a shot before this summer. She killed it in her first endurance event, 9:06! Look for her in the 100 next year.

Despite a slower start to this season, my legs felt good for the effort, and had it been dry, I would have been shooting for sub 9:45. I kept my feed and water strategies essentially the same this year, but employed a way faster turnaround method at the check points by simply swapping packs, and kept all my food onboard the bike in a Revelate gas tank bag. Definite success.
 

Crossing the invisible finish line in Hope, 9:53. Photo: C. Renfro

Long Version

I knew the soggy was going to be cold and gray this year. Obviously, I didn’t really, but sometime back in June, I just had this feeling it wasn’t going to be hot and sunny like the last two years.

To an extent, I hoped it would be a little cooler, and somewhat wetter, than the rest of our summer. I rode the course, sans the road leg to and from Hope, in mid-July during an extended heat wave. It was incredibly hot and dry, too dry, sections of trail were loose like I’d never seen.

On that ride, I did 96 miles (9 shy of the actual course length) in 9:40. My pace was good, but I was in no particular hurry at the Cooper and Devils trail heads where I met Dave – who was generously supporting both myself, and Jessie and Meredith that day. My transitions were close to 10 minutes that day as I leisurely chatted, and I stopped a couple times on the ride to chat with others. Still, it was a good sign that things were shaping up. I knew aiming for 9:45 on race day if conditions were similar was a good goal.

I would reiterate here from other years, the best way to train for an event like this is not actually doing 8-10 hours rides. Most my long rides are 6 hours or less, but I don’t stop. One or two rides in the 8-10 hour range over the summer is good for mental training, but pushing a faster pace and not stopping for breaks on 4-6 hour rides is far better training.

Anyway, my predictions on the weather were unfortunately correct. About 2 weeks out, the hot and dry pattern started shifting. Just a week out, the initial onslaught of rain had done little to the bone dry trail, but the weather guessers promised steady rains in the days preceding the race, and on race day itself.

Sure enough, it started raining Thursday, and it looked like it might not let up all weekend.

I set the no-go mark at 1.5” of rain in 48 hours as the cutoff. For comparison, 0.75” in a similar timeframe would have been the mark for riding the trail in general.

By Thursday afternoon, the rain gauge in Cooper was already at .75” with no apparent end in sight and I basically said I was out. It let up that night though, and Friday it really didn’t rain.

Meredith was committed to riding the 85 mile Petite, come hell or high water, so I was going regardless, whether to ride, or to support her.

I swapped out tires on the Yeti, loading my standard front tire, a Maxxis Ardent 2.25” on the back, and putting an Ardent 2.4” on the front. Normally I would run a 2.2” Ardent Race or even a 2.2” Ikon on the back.

I knew traction was going to be essential in the trail’s peanut butter mud compared to any weight savings or reduced rolling resistance.

We made the final preparations on Meredith’s bike that afternoon, and got everything ready.

I was back in.

I slept with ear buds that night to be sure if it started raining I wouldn’t hear it and let it pervade my restless sleep, but there was no mistaking the steady thrum on the roof when I awoke to the 4:30 gloom of the belching alarm.

Mentally, I was out, again.

Still, I checked the rain gauges…only a quarter inch.

When we pulled into Hope around 7:30, the off-and-on rain had just barely stopped.

I set up Meredith’s bike, got her all checked in and signed off.

Oscar, Nick, and Clint came over and hassled me to suck it up and ride.

I didn’t want to talk too much about not racing. No need to spread my negativity to others, right?

With Meredith good to go, I walked to the beach and stared at the radar, and toward the Pass, and thought about it.

Some little sucker holes were showing up, and the radar promised that at least for the next 4 hours, it really wasn’t going to rain.

Both Meredith and I had put towels in our checkpoint bags so if we decided to bail out we could sit on the towels in someone’s car. I figured if I got to Cooper and the trail totally sucked, I could always bail. Likewise, if the weather flipped on the way to Devils, I could just quit and ride straight to Hope. This is an easy day and event to bail on.

I knew if I didn’t race though, I was going to be way more ticked off. The worst thing that could happen if I rode, was that I would be ticked at trail conditions and quit; that was far better than the alternative of being ticked off for the next 365 days that I didn’t even try.

I looked at my watch, it was 7:56. I waited 4 more minutes, and went and signed in.

What a massive amount of mental energy just to race.

The biggest takeaway: I need to pick another event Outside, a 50-100 miler, with enough girth on either side of the Soggy, to race as well. It sucks to have all your eggs in one historically wet basket.

I got some encouraging grins and more hassling, but my attitude remained quite dark, even on the start line.

Off we went.

There was no neutral start to Res Road, and things were pretty road racy to the trail head, definitely much faster than last year.

Once we hit the trail head, I fell back into position.

Adam, Chuck, Brian, Kevin, Owen, and Chris all disappeared ahead of me, and I slowly passed relay riders.

The trail was wet and muddy where it normally is, but overall, a lot of sections that could have been muddy seemed to have been too hard packed to let any water permeate.

Basically, one could literally say about the entire course, “if you know how bad Res gets when it’s wet, it could have been worse, a lot worse.” There were some really lousy sections for sure, but I think standing water was more pervasive than actual mud. As the day wore on and the weather held, the trail actually improved.

Just a little over the pass, descending into a mist, I caught what I’m pretty sure was another relay rider, when: Bam Hiss!

He was the first victim of many I would see during the day to have their tires shredded.

A combo of bad luck, slippery rocks, and perhaps insufficient sidewall protection would send many riders to the side of the trail during the day to fix flats.

I ran higher pressure than normal. My traction on slimy rocks sucked, but the tires had a bit more bite in the mud, and better resilience to sliding off the sharp-edged rocks. It’s also not a bad idea to invest in fresh treads for this event either.

As I passed Devil’s Junction, Chris was off to the side of the trail, also fixing a flat.

The descent was just a hoot through the slimy rocks…and I was definitely worried about uphill traction on the way back up, but it was otherwise uneventful.

Once I hit Juneau Lake, the good times and drier trail conditions came to an end. The stretch from Juneau Lake to Bean Creek Junction is a ditch. I hate it.

I came around a corner on the shore of Juneau Lake and saw Brian, soft pedaling, riding his rim. Bad luck struck again for him in this event, two years in a row. His race was done.

I pointed out at least he wouldn’t have to ride through this swamp again and he laughed and wished me luck.

A minute or two later I heard what I thought was Brian, splashing behind me, which sort of surprised me, given his lack of a tire. When I looked back, it was Chris.

I let him around me, but his pace seemed just a titch faster than mine so I latched on.

We ended up riding together to Bean Creek Junction, chatting the whole way, mostly about racing and riding hard tails (which he was on). The conversation and company was immensely helpful in making this boring stretch of trail go by quicker.

Compared to other years, this race was crazy social for me. I would ride with three others before reaching Hope, compared to riding almost entirely alone last year.

I pulled away from Chris as the trail began it’s descent to Cooper, but I figured if things worked out, he’d probably catch me on the way back up, and I might be so lucky to have someone to chase/ride with back through this same stretch.

Unfortunately, Chris flatted again about three miles above Cooper and had to jog down and fix the tire at the check point. He was still able to finish though.

The Cooper check point felt chaotic. Little Gus and grandma Carol were standing at the trail head, and when I called and waved to Gus, he came gliding along with me on his strider to the support area. Obviously, being a Reimer, he was hauling right along, when suddenly he face planted!

Fortunately, also being a Reimer, I think he puffed the grit from his little face and puffed more at the indignity of having such a public wreck, but he was up a second later.

The Susitna Bike Institute provided neutral mechanical support at the checkpoints and start this year, and I found their service to be excellent. I had hardly pulled up to the table where Carly and Ted greeted me, before one of the mechanics rushed over to see what my bike needed.

Truthfully, all I really needed was an extra hand to hold the bike, and some mental focus, but I felt a little overwhelmed, despite the simplicity I had in mind for my transitions.

I had 5 things to do at the checkpoints this year:

  • Shove a snack in my mouth and take a few swigs of water
  • Pour water on my drive train
  • Squirt lube on my chain
  • Empty the wrappers from my pockets
  • Switch backpacks

I rode the first leg with my camelback on, loaded with 1.5L of water, a spare tube, pump, and an old Voler vinyl shell.

I gave Carly a box that contained another camelback backpack with the same contents (sans the shell); as well as a third bladder filled with 1.5L was water. I would trade out backpacks in Cooper, and Carly would simply put the fresh bladder in the first pack for me so I could swap back out again at Devils. The only thing I could have done better was perhaps throw my nice rain shell in one of the packs so I didn’t feel obliged to swap them. That being said, I never wore a shell once, and had it been sunny, I would not have taken it at all. It was kind of just there for superstition.

Like years past, I had a snack for the transition (some type of fruity/sugary Kind bar) a water bottle to take a few swigs from, a jug of water to pour on the drivetrain, and chain lube.

Unfortunately, I tried to do everything at once, so chaos ensued. Carly and Ted were great though, and the mechanic was ready to take my bike and tune it if I had wanted. Everything was good, but I asked him to give my fork’s rebound a click as it was feeling a tad slow, which probably seems simple, but in such an addled mental state, was huge for me. I think he scrubbed my chain with a brush too, which might not have been needed, but was nice that they were there to do.

I was glad to trot away back to the trail.

This year, I was also careful to jog very slowly in short gentle strides through the parking lot.

I noticed in years past, the climb out of Cooper was unreasonably painful. Thinking about it, I think I damaged muscle tissue running too quickly in the parking area. The descent is long, and body position is relatively static, allowing tired muscles to tighten up. Then all of a sudden you jump off the bike and slam muscles through motions they haven’t done once yet all day? Ya, that’s probably not a good idea when you spell it out, huh? I’m going say, it probably made a difference, the climb wasn’t that bad this year.

I was still really nervous. The trail was slick, the brush high, and an accident with a descending rider seemed very likely.

I rang my handle bar bell incessantly, and again, it worked. I feel like every rider in the race should be required to use one, they cost $10 and weigh 5-10 grams, but dang they get heard. Bear bells are maybe helpful for slower-moving hikers, but are worthless for oncoming riders.

Descending riders were remarkably respectful; many of them came to a full stop, which, though not always even necessary, is still greatly appreciated.

The shining moment though, was seeing my girlfriend, Meredith, leading Jill and Amber down to Cooper. She looked great, confident, and strong, in good company.

Before this year, Meredith’s longest ride was 20 miles. She’d worked up to 65 this year, and has been racing the XC races in the expert division, but this ride would be her longest yet. She had learned as much as I had probably learned in years of riding in a matter of months, sometimes the hard way. It was really paying off.

As I pedaled on, I was so proud of her, and I wondered if she would continue to ride with Amber and Jill, and if they would try to convince her to go for the full 100 with them.

She had a chaotic turn around in Cooper and lost the two (they thought she had already turned around and was ahead of them). Otherwise, I think she would have gone for it with them. Next year, expect a packed and strong women’s field in the 100.

The sun came out on the way to Devils, and I felt great.

This was the worst leg for me last year by far the last two years.

Not this year.

Just as I started hiking up the switchbacks on the summer cutoff above Swan Lake, I heard something behind me, and saw a Revolution kit through the branches.

“CLINT!” I yelled in shock.

No, it was Oscar, racing on a relay team with Pete and Janus. He was hoping to sneak up on me and ask to pass, like he did in the 24 hours of Kincaid.

Failed in that joke, I had good company for the annoying hike-a-bike section, and made sure to return some of the ribbing he gave me in the morning.

The sun was out, I was halfway through the race, and the last stretch of lousy trail lay just ahead. Things were looking good.

I really didn’t want to dab or get knocked off my bike going over the slippery rocks on the last pitch of the south side climb, so I kept my pace slow and steady, leaving my rear shock open through the rocks to ensure my tire stayed glued to the trail.

No problem, never dabbed once.

I rolled through Ryan’s bacon station where I’m pretty sure I got heckled for not having bacon or whisky in my nutrition plan. I love the Devils Pass cheering squad, mentally, they break through the pain wall for a second.

Devils Junction, enroute to Devils Pass, the whisky/bacon/cheering squad. Photo: W. Ross.
 
Anyway, I was on a mission, I was closing in on Kevin and Owen. Riding through Devils Pass, I could see them less than a minute ahead.

Devils was raw, a stiff headwind the whole way down to the brush line and a cold misty rain in the alpine. The descents to both Cooper and Hope featured convenient tailwinds this year (don’t ask me how the winds split in Res Pass, but I see this often up there), meaning you could stay warmer on the way down, while staying cool on the climb. Devils felt harsh comparatively, but it’s also fast and short and I knew I just had to get below the thermal layer; good motivation to ride harder.

One definite advantage to being so far up front in the pack, I was only concerned about three uphill riders: the Team Speedway relay rider (the only relay rider in front of me), Adam, and Chuck.

I was actually surprised to see how close I was to the latter two. I also noticed Adam looked a bit rough, but Chuck looked good.

This was going to be a good race for Chuck, and I wondered if he’d catch Adam on the way to Hope. It’s a funny thing to have two of your best riding partners going head to head. It’s hard to know just who to root for.

Anyway, once I saw Chuck, I shut up and went into stealth mode.

I caught Owen just above the bridge at the base of the main descent.

He didn’t look good.

He stuck with me though, which surprised me once we began the steady climb from Quartz Creek to the trailhead.

If he was suffering, why was he fighting to stay on for this relatively short climb to a check point?

We caught up with Kevin within ear shot of the road, and positions 3-5 all rode in together.

Craziness.

I felt charged, and figured the best bet was to rush Kevin and Owen and give them no rest.

Ted grabbed my bike, and this time, I nailed my transition.

Mouth stuffed with the remnants of my snack, if I was turned around and ready to roll in any more than three minutes, I’ll be surprised. I signaled my number (my race plate was heavily spackled in mud and my mouth stuffed) to the surprised timer.

Owen must have jumped, and was back on my wheel at Quartz Creek. Kevin caught up as we began the climb in earnest.

Owen was possessed it seemed. For someone that looked to be at the end of his rope, he was digging deep on the climb, and latched onto relay rider Janus, who passed all three of us.

I asked Kevin if he wanted to come around, but he said he was good. We rode together to the end of the rock gardens, around mile 7 or so.

There wasn’t a lot of extra oxygen for conversation, but it was nice to have two sets of eyes going up the climb. More than once I put my head down to dig into a pitch, only to hear Kevin whoop at an approaching rider I might not have seen. Again, descending riders were super awesome and respectful.

I was also bit more hesitant to ding my bell on this climb with Owen just out front. I didn’t want to give him too much leverage on his lead.

Above the rock gardens, the misty Pass in front of us, we could see Owen about 30 seconds ahead.

I knew Kevin had to have a stronger pace in his legs, and told him to get after it. Third place was on the line.

Kevin took off and slowly built a lead. I watched Owen briefly try to latch on, but quickly dropped off.

I caught Owen a few minutes later just above the Devils Junction.

He latched onto my wheel and hung on as we tore along the rolling trail in Res Pass proper.

I really don’t know for sure where I dropped him. I was too nervous to look back until practically Fox Creek.

Eventually, I did glance back along one of the straightaways and didn’t see him.

On the opposite side of Res Creek, my legs were really starting to fade. I’d hammered all the short climbs between East Creek and Caribou, but I was struggling with the short canyon climbs now, and cursing them.

Fortunately, I still had ample power for the flats.

When I hit the road, I hung onto the underside of my bars and powered time trial style to Hope, happy to see I was amazingly going to crack 10 hours.

I passed the start, and I guess not surprisingly, felt completely overwhelmed. I dug really deep the last hour.

I rode back to the start line and got a high five from Kevin. I asked how long he’d been in, and he said two or three minutes.

I thought he was being nice, he had a beer in hand, I figured he had to have been there for longer, but was really surprised later to see he was dead serious.

It was a solid ride, a solid race. I didn’t feel like I had a whole lot more I could have done on the last leg.

 

After thoughts:

The two backpack system was awesome. I will surely be doing that in the future.

I also used the gas tank bag on my top tube to carry all my food. This meant less hassle at the transitions, and less hassle digging in jersey pockets. The waist straps on my packs cut off access to the pockets, sometimes making them hard get into.

I also had a realization during the Double Down XC race this year that a crash could make it hard to access jersey pockets, something you won’t realize until it happens, but could have a big effect.

I carried three gluten-free Honey Stinger Waffles, four non-caffeinated Cliff Shotbloks, and two caffeinated Shot Blocks. Like last year, I saved the caffeinated stuff until the last leg to avoid getting strung out. I have not been using caffeinated nutrition this summer while riding either.

The reason I used the GF waffles was not nutrition, but consistency. The GF ones seem to be less prone to crumbling or breaking, and frankly, a bit more tasty. Don’t expect to see me on a GF tear here, I just found them more reliable.

I ate all three waffles (one per leg), 3 non-caf blocks, and 1.5 caf blocks, plus a Kind bar at each check point.

My feed frequency has stayed the same, approximately 100 calories approximately every 45 minutes starting at 90 mins, alternating between packs of blocks and waffles, and making use of slower sections of trail (short climbs) to get my feeds.

I probably could have used at least one “bonus” feed somewhere in there, or have taken my first feed after 60 minutes, as it seemed my pre-start snack was insufficient. If the Yeti could conveniently carry a water bottle, I’d definitely carry just a titch less water per leg in my bladder and use something like diluted Gatorade to help with said “bonus” feed.

Lacking this option, I’m not sure exactly where I’d throw in this bonus feed. I’ll have to think about it.

I also might have liked a high-caf gu, like a Cliff Mocha Shot, for the final 10 miles of the last leg, instead of another shot block.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Singletrack Highway: Mountain Biking from Seattle to Anchorage

I’ve driven to Alaska twice, first in 2008 to get up here, then again in 2011 to move a friend up. Both times I took the Cassiar Highway, and both times I had to do the trip in a few days.
The route is amazing, it has always been a dream to do the trip with a little more time, and of course, a mountain bike.
In late March, Adam shot me a message seemingly out of the blue, asking if I wanted to drive a new mini-van from Seattle back up to AK and go mountain biking  in the spring?
The timing could not have been better. A planned April ski-week was looking like it was going to get busted by a major heat wave, and I couldn’t do both trips in such a short span – Adam’s trip turned out to be the silver lining of the bagged skiing.
We had one week to pull the trip off, and we opted to go May 7-15 for scheduling reasons. This could be a bit early for such a trip most years, but low snow and a record hot spring across most the route meant basically all the riding we planned to do would be in.
Along the way we rode Bellingham, Whistler, Pemberton, Williams Lake, Burns Lake, Smithers, and Whitehorse. We discussed putting together a list of positives of each area we visited. So for the short version of the trip, here it goes:

 Bellingham: Awesome rainforest riding, easy to navigate, good graduation between trails. It appears that their harder trails have ride-arounds of their bigger features (which are big), so you could dabble on the black diamonds and find a challenging ride while working up the skill to hit bigger features piece by piece.

Whistler: Common, this is no fair to anyone else on the list. Everywhere should strive to be like Whistler. Anyway, what impressed me most, was the incredibly defined evolution of riding. The green trails would be great if you’ve never ridden a bike off pavement, the blue trails have more furniture and features to learn on, but they are a reasonable progression for someone with more than the basic skills and fitness, with occasional options to hit side features that are a bit more challenging, and the black trails will work over experienced riders and make them ripped and skilled.

Pemberton: My favorite trails along the trip, Pemberton trails are about a half notch harder than Whistler. Don’t go here unless you’re strong, know how to handle a bike, and don’t mind second guessing your skill level. It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden something rated blue that made me work hard, and I really think their blue trails meet the criteria for “trail” description. No XC here, but plenty of hard riding! If I could only ride one trail system for the rest of my life, Pemby would be a top pick.

Williams Lake: Lots of trails and an easy to navigate trail system. Williams Lake has done a lot to develop their systems, and despite not having a ton of different terrain to work with, they have made the most of it.

Burns Lake: Burns gets the best package deal, hands down. They have a free, clean, basic campsite – maintained by the local bike trails assoc – at the dang trail head, they have riding for every skill level – and it’s used by every skill level too with people way outside the typical cyclist stereotype making appearances, they are in the middle of absolutely nowhere, their trails have great flow and are marvelously built with a lot of dirt work and furniture to handle sometimes less than ideal hydrology, and they were hands down the easiest trail system to navigate. They have new trails in the works, and I look forward to visiting again!

Smithers: I got mixed reviews on Smithers before I went, and was told there was no riding there for an XC/trail rat.
Dead. Wrong.
Smithers has world class, rugged backcountry singletrack, and I desperately want to go back. Our only problem, we were there too early in the season and our hoped for routes were still snowed in up high. At least we got a taste.

Whitehorse: Whitehorse has tons of riding and great weather, plus, their trail networks are a short pedal from the loads of cheap and free camping in the area.

 
The long.
OK, so that was the short.
The longer version: we landed in Seattle on a sunny Saturday and the car salesman picked Adam and I up at the airport in the pimp’n new Sienna mini-van and drove us north to the dealership through heinous Seattle traffic. We had planned to ride in Seattle, but quickly decided we had already seen enough taillights, and built our bikes up in a back corner of the lot and headed north. A few hours and more traffic later, we were getting an earful of advice from some friendly riders at the trailhead of the Galbraith system on what to ride. They were supremely stoked on their trails, and pleased we’d ditched Seattle. So were we! The trails were really narrow, and surrounded by tall, thick-trunked conifers. We easily stitched together 2 hours or so of blue trails, briefly dabbling on some black trails, without too much map consulting. I won’t say these trails were my favorite of the trip, sometimes they were so ridiculously tight and narrow and I felt like we were poaching hiking tracks, but I’d definitely like to re-visit. Ideally, we might have synced up with a local, who could have taken us on the advanced trails at speed without us having to worry if that was a bridge up ahead, or a ramp that ended with a 5-foot launch.
We split Bellingham and made it over the border, putting us in striking distance of Whistler the next day.

The handoff

Galbraith trails


Whistler
Right, so this is one of the great Meccas in the world of mountain biking, easily top 5, maybe top 3. We easily could have spent most of the trip in the surrounding area, but the nice thing is, it’s not too long a drive north of Seattle, it wouldn’t be hard to re-visit. We had picked out the trail, Comfortably Numb, as the main target, and were interested in Kill Me Thrill Me too. We scoffed a bit at the advised 3.25 hour ride time on Comfy– clearly the uphill bike-pushing enduro bros had put a drag on the average ride time on this trail.
WRONG!
Comfy Numb was 3.5 hours of some of the hardest riding I’ve done since I left Saratoga Springs, and the similarly aggressive Stables trail system. Actually, I felt like I was in Stables most the time, except for that whole, huge snow-capped mountains thing. The riding was straight up hard, across the board, and never relented. Every foot of progress was made difficult by features, and the trail climbed and descended relentlessly. On the main descent at the end of the trail, I had to stop two or three times – yes, on the downhill – to take a moment and recover!
I think, however, in total, there were only 3-4 features on Comfy that neither Adam or I felt we could not ride.
Once we finished off Comfy, we didn’t have a clear plan. Kill Me seemed to involve a road ride to complete, and the weather had called for thunderstorms in the afternoon. It was still nice out, but I was certainly feeling worked, and the thought of spending another 3 hours on Kill Me, especially if it began to rain, was not appealing. Instead we rallied a fairly fast loop on the Lost Lake blue trails. It was nice to finally open the bikes up a little bit and pedal, but after Comfy, these trails were the numb ones, boring in perspective. Then we hammered the gravel grind Green Lake Loop trail back to the car, sliding into the trail head just as the rain and thunder began! In retrospect, we should have started in the Village and warmed up on the Lost Lake trails, then ridden Comfy. Hitting Comfy with cold legs was extra tough.

Dark woods on Comfortably Numb

Dork. Look, I'm even wearing baggies!


Pemberton
Hands down, I had more fun on the Pemby trails than all the others. We rode part of the NIMBY 50 loop, including the Nimby trail, and then Middle Earth, which switchbacked relentlessly for something like 3,500 vertical feet or some such business through a huge variety of forests on a challenging trail. A Kiwi ex-pat named Grant blew by us on the climb and we latched on to follow his wheel as he lead us up Nimby and told of us the race they’d soon have on the trails he was preparing for. I was so jealous. We split at the top of Nimby, climbing further up the Middle Earth Trail, before charging back down Rudys. Rudys was probably my favorite trail of the entire trip, incredible flow with non-stop trail features that made me wonder when the last time was that I felt so pushed by a trail only rated as blue? Next we dropped down a black called Rusty Trombone. There was debate about maybe going down Overnight Sensation next door since that’s the race route, but anyway, Trombone was good enough. There were probably a half dozen features we walked. Part of the challenge however, wasn’t just the features, but the very dry and loose trail surface. We were surfing a lot on the steep trail and it made it tricky to confidently roll into the steeper features. Next we headed over to the Mosquito Lake trails, which had a lot of promise, but turned out to be a bit of a mess to navigate. Pemby could use some improvement on that front, and I hit a wall on patience with the constant map checking (which btw, the paper map is out of date) and app checking, all the while, feeding the namesake insect of the local lake. The long grind of a climb and descent was so satiating, and my hunger was satisfied. My only other comment for Pemby: you guys have some hardcore trails, but what’s up with the names? Don’t answer that, I get it, a bunch of dudes, in the woods, for a long time. Seriously though, sorry to unleash my middle-aged dad, but the trails are really BA on their own, world class, they don’t need lame names that a group of 13 year olds and The Donald would think were cool, or appropriate.

Back down in Pemberton, we found showers in the shiny new rec centre and watched local kids tear it up in the bike park. In retrospect, I think we might have spent another day in Pemby and ridden Mosquito Lake with fresh legs the next day.
We were on the road that afternoon instead on the steep and winding highway to Lillooet, and onward to Mile 100 House area.
We found a place to camp on the shore of Lac La Hache, and temps dove to 26 degrees under the clear cold sky. The next morning we went to check out some low-key single track around Mile 108.


Such good trail!

OK views too.


The kids bike park in town.




 
Mile 108 is a social trail network and we relied on the app, but even then, most the trails weren’t shown. The system was small, and really old school. I really wasn’t into the trails at all. I’m sure they’re awesome to the local scene, but not worth stopping the car for on a long trip. Next we headed to Williams Lake, stopping in at the Barking Spider, the local shop, to get a little fresh sealant for Adam’s weeping rear tire, and a little trail beta. The staff was extremely nice and offered a route suggestion on their Southside trail system, which we headed on over to for the second ride of the day.
Unfortunately, less than halfway into the suggested loop, I broke my drive-side pedal off its spindle. I turned and high tailed it back to the van to get to the shop before they closed, but Adam continued to ride, investigating the rest of the South system. Even in my short 1.5 hour ride, half with a busted pedal, I still enjoyed the trails and liked how easy they were to rip.
The trails we saw were generally very smooth, there’s not a lot of a roots or rocks, though they tried to find some. Compared to the Mile 108 trails, they are vastly better, with good flow, and were easy enough to navigate. The advice from the shop owners on access was integral though, as you have to ride through a narrow, legal corridor, surrounded by no trespass signs, that would turn most people around. We planned to investigate the West Side trail system the next morning, but intermittent sprinkles that evening turned to a steady rain overnight, and puddles were forming everywhere.
We grabbed breakfast at the Gecko Tree – the best food of the trip – along with food for the road, and headed north to Burns Lake, where the weather forecasters promised the rain had passed.

 
We rolled into Burns Lake mid-afternoon Wednesday, and soon enough were pedaling up the road from town to the trail head. We set off on the BBC30, a 30KM marked loop that is the system’s showcase ride. It climbed the Razorback Trail, then descended Charlotte’s Web, before tying together a bunch of blue flow trails. Burns has got it all right. I mean sure, Whistler has it all dialed, but Burns, it’s in the middle of nowhere, literally, but somehow has put together some of the best trails, best nav, and best amenities.
Let’s put this in perspective: In 2011 I drove up with Rachel, we did the trip in three 16-hour days. Burns Lake was our first stop, and we opted to stay in hotels on the trip to get a good night’s rest and early starts in the mornings. Our hotel room in Burns Lake that night had strange, dried-blood-colored spots on the sheets (we slept on top of the linens in our own sleeping bags, thanks much), bugs crawling out the drains, and our neighbors were some loggers so drunk they could hardly stand – accompanied by a few lady friends of theirs of course. If you had told me then, that one day I would sing praises for this small community, and the mountain biking there, I would have laughed my head off.
Our accommodations this time was on the side of Boer Mountain at the trail head in a clean campground maintained by the mountain bike assoc. Much better.

 
The next morning we awoke to strong winds, clear skies, and warming temps. I had thoughts about riding the same loop, or a variation, on Boer Mountain, but we had begun to consider riding in Smithers. Beta about Smithers was that XC/Trail nerds would be disappointed, too “all-mountain,” but review of some of the trail descriptions told us otherwise. The likely catch was that most the trails we were interested in Smithers lead into the alpine, and it seemed likely they wouldn’t be in yet.
Adam had the logical argument that on a trip like this, it would be better to try. He could not have been more right. We rode some incredible backcountry trails as high as we could, and it was pretty spectacular, and just made me want to go back for more. The snow-capped mountains, narrow and rough single track, thick forests, and general quiet was a welcome relief after several days in the low lands.
Smithers is a drop dead gorgeous place, with tranquil green fields that seem to run right to the base of the wilderness peaks beyond. I’d probably pull up stakes to call a place like this home.
That night, we headed north, and ended up driving about half the Cassiar Highway, before finally pulling off at the edge of a random logging site to call it a night.

Outside Smithers




Rugged backcountry trails. Too bad we were too early for the alpine riding.


 
We were off the next morning for our only non-riding day, driving 7 or 8 hours the remaining distance to Whitehorse. The Cassiar is a beautiful road, but even in the 8 years since I first drove it, it’s changed. It’s now essentially entirely paved, and in general, the road condition was really good. There is also now a large utility corridor along much of its southern section. There was also much more truck traffic, though that could have been related to the active fires along the Alcan diverting traffic. It feels a lot less like a forgotten pocket of the planet than it did though. Nonetheless, along the way we saw something like 7 or 8 black bears, one grizzly, a caribou, and a couple moose.

Dease Lake area.

 
Whitehorse was hot, and dry. It’s become a fairly popular long weekend trip from Southcentral AK. We picked a long route on the east side trail system, and rode about 40 miles in 5 hours with a whole lot of stop-and-go map checking.
I’d heard a lot of good things about WH. Maybe I just had unreasonable expectations, but I thought it was fairly vanilla. In my mind, vanilla is not bad, but, its average. The trail network is extensive, no doubt; the summer weather is a good bit better than SCAK’s, and the trail app developed is pretty solid.
That’s about where my praise ends. Whitehorse, like Anchorage, is the hub, albeit a smaller one, and is pretty seedy. If someone told you they were coming to Alaska to mountain bike, hopefully they wouldn’t spend more than a day or two in Anchorage. It seems like the area beyond WH is begging for a backcountry epic, not just suburban spaghetti bowls. This is the wild north after all, right?
As for the trails themselves, ya, meh: trail markings could be better, and especially seem lacking due to the incredible number of social trails that randomly jut off. Despite having a good app, it’s hard to ride here without having to stop constantly to re-check your route. Worse, some social trails are obviously social trails and you can burn by, while others are heavily used and look like main trails. It’s clear to me anyway, the trails assoc should probably make their priority cleaning the rats from their barn. Sometimes, in smaller trail networks, social trails can help create some variations. For a place that boasts 100 KMs of trail, this isn’t really an issue, and in the process, the trails lack a clean feel. We had to turn around several times when we either chased a prominent-looking social trail thinking it was a main trail, or missed a junction of an actual main trail because it wasn’t marked and looked more like a social trail. It got really frustrating. Additionally, there was evidence of really bad behaviors everywhere, people seem to have no problem making their own cut offs of trail bends or cutting alongside intersections through the open woods.
My other issue with the trails: they’re doomed for erosion problems. The trails generally lacked switchbacks, and attack gradients steeply, frequently. Without much rock in the soil, this is going to go the same way it’s gone for every other steep trail ever built in the history of humankind: a lousy rut. Basically, it’s hard to see this and not think about how much work they will be doing in years to come to re-route and re-build since they didn’t do it right in the first place.
Lastly, Whitehorse’s trail rating system is pretty whack. The blacks seemed consistent enough: steep and rooty. The blues, basically meant everything else, from hybrid double/single track to “why isn’t this considered black?” I got the impression that three different people or entities had rated different parts of the trail system throughout their construction. When you look at a map, you have no way of knowing what you’re going to get out of a blue trail as a result. While I never felt outmatched…their blacks might be  Pemberton green…I was really unimpressed when I found some blue “singletrack” really wasn’t blue, or singletrack.

It’s a lot of harsh criticism I suppose, but I guess I really see the area as otherwise having so much potential and just not realizing it. I would still go back, but it’s a spring or fall destination for SCAK – going mid-summer seems stupid, our trails are much better, we just don’t have the weather.
Anyway we finished off our ride with the thermometer tapping in the high-70s, and thought we’d rinse off in the Yukon. Well, it may have been hot, but that water sure wasn’t!


The iconic Yukon Canyon trail, def a must ride, I enjoyed this a lot.



A bit later we were on the road, and made it over the AK border by 10PM. The next morning we were on the road a little after 5AM and back in ANC by noon. Adam and I dumped out my gear from the van, and he headed the final 2 hours to SOL. It was drop dead gorgeous in Los Anchorage, so I jumped on the hard tail and hammered the hero dirt conditions on Hillside, and despite feeling a little emptied from the long trip, quickly felt restored and glad to be home.

Haines Jct.

Well....it WAS clean.

7 hours to home.


What an incredible trip!