Monday, July 30, 2012

Spoiled Sandwich: Part II

Ute Valley Pro XCT: Colorado Springs

This is where the meat went bad.  In retrospect, judging from the blood, maybe it was just a little undercooked. In any case, it didn’t go down well.

I did this race on a whim.  I happened to have the Saturday of the event off of work; away from the beer temple, which is normally where bad judgments are made.  Fortunately, these bad judgments just lead to more beer drinking, not pain.  This race was part of the Pro Tour, which only consists of 5 events all summer, and the only stop in Colorado.  It was a chance to see the top U.S. pros in the sport compete at the highest level, and race the same course as them.  I barely made it down to Ute Valley Park in time to pre-ride the course, about an hour before my race would start.  Apparently, in my quest to become a pro, I still haven’t figured out how to use an alarm clock, or just disregard it.  In actuality it might take just as much discipline to ignore the annoying morning rooster than to get up at 5am, and I shall convince myself of the former.  The course was a 4.5 mile loop, consisting of everything from tight twisting singletrack, sandy sections, loose rocky sections, technical slickrock climbs, fast descents through rock fields, and one very technical descent that drops about 30ft down rock faces.  This was definitely a course I could’ve spent a whole day pre-riding, not only because there are so many lines to choose from, and finding the fastest is not easy, but also because it is extremely fun!  Welcome back to REAL mountain bike racing!  This course trumped all others I had been to previously.

The race began in an odd fashion.  The Pro Tour is run by USA Cycling, whom also supports the up-and-coming juniors in the sport.  This meant that they are given precedent and start at the front of the hundreds of other Cat1 riders.  Organizers also decided to start the singlespeed field with the 40-49 age group Cat1 riders.  This was very odd, as we are usually started directly behind the pros.  So for the first time I was downwind of about a hundred stinky sweating bike-fiends.  It wasn’t the smell that bothered me so much as the standing around for so long in an old-guy stew.  Each group was started in 30-second waves.  Our wave, like the rest, started with fury.  In a race this short, 4 laps of the 4.5 mile course, it is basically a sprint the entire way.  As we made our way up the first climb, about ½-mile long, I realized I would have some competition.  I was back in third for about ¼-mile before heading up front. The exertion made me feel like I was going to lose my lunch, pushing with all my effort and lung capacity.  At the top of the climb came an extremely fast descent, which made its way through a blind rock section.  Right before this section, as I feathered my brakes, I was passed by a singlespeeder who not only didn’t touch his brakes, but proceeded to air out the entire section altogether.  He knew something I didn’t, or just had bigger balls; maybe both.  Shortly thereafter came the nasty descent down 4 or 5 rock faces.  As I, along with just about everyone else, slowed down and picked our lines carefully,  the same singlespeeder took a different route, passing about 6 riders where there was no line, not slowing down as he Geronimo-ed down and off the rocks.  It was an impressive display.  I wasn’t worried about his crazed antics, as I knew I could catch him on the climbs and flats.  Sure enough I caught him, but I was too swept up by a fast singlespeeder.  This was all before hitting a long stretch of climb of roots, rocks, and steep and technical slickrock.  Upon hitting this section, I saw about 30 riders ahead, all struggling to make their way to the top; mostly the juniors.  And this created a big problem for me and the rest.  I made it up without putting a foot down, but with about half the speed as I would’ve liked.  At that point I and the singlespeeder ahead made sure to get around a lot of the traffic.  We pushed on through the first lap, and he gained a little gap on me as I struggled to pass riders in bad spots, where he seemed to know where to push and get ahead and where he could tone it back a bit.  But going into the second lap we had some clear air and now we could really push.  I was feeling good in 2nd place and confident that I could catch the leader.  Then, about a third of the way through the 2nd lap, my contact decided to migrate away from my eyeball, and jump for freedom.  Luckily, in a heroic snatch, my eyelid caught it and hung on.  I decided, remembering how fast and dangerous some of the descents were, that I had to stop and try to put it back in. As I stood on the side of the trail, dry dusty contact in my mouth, trying frantically to put it back in my bloodshot eye, I was passed by many-a-steaming mountain biker.  Finally I got back on the bike, but my mind and moral were not back in it yet.  I was discouraged, knowing in a race this fast that it would be difficult for me to regain some of the spots I had lost.  But I kept pushing on, and eventually got back to full form, passing riders and feeling that I was making some good progress.  Then came the third lap, and ugliness ensued.  I had just passed about 10 riders on the nasty uphill slickrock slog, and began one of the fast and sketchy, pick-your-best-line, descents.  I was going along at 20-some mph, flying through rock fields, launching off of boulders and such.  Then came a set of stair-step boulders, about 1ft drop each.  I launched off of the first but somehow caught my front wheel at an odd angle on the second, which catapulted me through the air, leaving bike behind.  I got up quickly, noticing that nothing was broken besides my bloody shattered sunglass (not a good sign), and began, very slowly, moving again.  There was pain all over, but surprisingly none of it was too terrible, considering I had just taken the hardest spill in my mountain biking career.  After this incident I totally conceded.  I felt extremely shaken up, and couldn’t care less about racing anymore.  I finished the last lap-and-a-half at a snail’s pace.
Sketchyness.  A lot steeper and hairier than it looks.

This was my ugliest race yet.  This was the most fun and most real race yet.  Such is the duality of mountain biking.  Sometimes you don’t have the best day RACING, but the RIDING can be incredible.  Sometimes everything goes wrong, but it can still be fun.  I realized the next day that I had split my helmet almost in two, and had suffered a minor concussion.  But still, what a fun race venue.

Later on we watched the real spectacle, the Pro Men race.  They were spectacular to watch, a real eye-opener for me.  They attacked the sketchy descents and boulder sections without remorse.  They didn’t even think to touch their brakes.  They picked the smartest and fastest lines, and barreled over everything in sight.  It was clear that they knew the course well, but more than that it really showed their expertise in bike-handling and ability.  There is something special about the top-level mountain bikers, in that the highest level roadie couldn’t hang on a course like this.  It is an awesome mix of power, endurance, speed, skill, ability, and BALLS!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Spoiled Sandwich: Part 1

Who doesn’t like a good sandwich? And who doesn’t agree (carb consious freaks aside) that the best part of a good sandwich is the bread?  The innards can largely be forgotten about; at least that’s what I’m trying to convince myself of.  So even if the mayo is rotten and the cheese is moldy, you can still eat the bread, right? 

Last month I competed and completed a three-week sandwich of events.  The bread was good, and the meat was bad.  I should’ve used bacon; it never gets old.  It started off with a foray into New Mexico for the Mountain States Cup Chile Challenge event.  The next week was the Pro XCT race at Ute Valley in Colorado Springs.  I ended it off with an amazing adventure to Crested Butte for the Fat Tire 40, also part of the Mountain States Cup Series.

Chile Challenge, Angel Fire, NM

Angel Fire is a very interesting place.  It’s a small ski resort town high in the mountains of northern New Mexico.  There isn’t much to the town besides the ski hill, some resort lodging, and a delicious indigestion inducing “authentic NewMexican cuisine” restaurant that serves up gut-bombs all day long.  This was my introduction to the MountainStates Cup Series, which differs from any other racing events I have been to.  It is largely focused on the gravity crowd.  The series meanders its way across the mountains from one ski area to another, making sure the adrenaline junkies are well-fed.  I saw all of the big bikes, baggy shorts, and full-face helmets that my heart never desired.  It was a zoo of brightly colored uniforms all buzzing about and funneling into one orifice like hogs at the feeding trough.  The orifice was the one lone ski lift, which would subsequently digest them in an upwards direction, and poop them out at the top, only to see the sludge make it’s way back to the bottom and be eaten again.  It was quite the disgusting display of coprophagia. 
Feeding Tube

In all honesty, the bikes are pretty cool, and these guys are way more skilled (or stupid) and daring than I will ever be.  I am also not afforded the ability to smoke cigarettes and booze it up the night before races, so it goes.  I did, in fact, attempt my own downhill glory run on my meager 4-inch travel bike.  I painted up a t-shirt with all of the brightest colors of clashing neon, threw on my baggiest shorts, drenched myself in the smell of last night’s spent vodka container, and attempted to fit in whilst standing in line for the lift.  I think I overheard someone behind me say “I can smell an XC pussy from 100 yards away through a pack of Marlboros”, but can’t be sure.  I have to give these guys some serious respect.  If their downhill “runs” are full of fiber, consistent, and smooth, mine resembled an explosive case of diarrhea and gastrointestinal discomfort. 

Saturday morning was the XC race.  The course, pre-ridden the night before, was a 5.5 mile loop, which basically went straight up the ski hill for the first 3 miles, then turned around and went back down for the rest.  The course was as close to 100% singletrack as you can get.  Some parts of the climb, especially the tight switchbacks, were very steep as it meandered its way 1500 ft up the mountain.  The payoff for all that hard work was some of the most demanding, fast and furious, bone-jarring, carpel-tunnel inducing downhill singletrack I had experienced, as well as some of the most fun.  It basically paralleled the downhill trails, and even incorporated a few of them.  It was rutted, root-filled, and dusty, using all of the 80mm travel my fork could muster.  Actually, I don’t think my White Brothers Magic 80 was performing well, and only giving me about 60mm travel.  Quite harsh on a real downhill descent.

On Saturday morning we all gathered, a hundred or so caffeine riddled goofballs wearing spandex, squirting energy gels down their throats in the hopes that it will be enough to propel them to 26th or so place in a race that nobody cares about.  Last minute nerd-sessions about tire pressures and the like were executed.  I was somewhere in there, mentally and physically.  The last of the mornings flatulence was wafted upon the riders behind me, and we were ready to race 3 laps, 16 or so miles, and 4500ft of climbing.  We were all started off in one large wave, with the pros given about a 30ft advantage.  This would eventually cause a slow-moving train once hitting the tight singletrack.  There was a small, maybe ¼-mile starter loop before hitting the real trail, designed to “spread us out”.  Unfortunately for me, this “spreading out”, meant “falling back” on one gear.  There was a ridiculously steep incline that saw my cranks come to a stop and feet hit the ground.  As I pushed my meticulously designed and detailed pile of steel up the next 10 feet, I had the odd illusion of being passed by waves of giddy riders.  There was no illusion.  Somehow I had missed the SS-only shortcut that I usually use to cheat my way to the front.  So upon hitting the singletrack I was somewhere near the back.  This worried me, as it could mean the difference between the post-race glory of a free keychain bottle-opener, and having to open up my beer with my teeth. But now on the climb, I knew I could make up some serious time, if only I could make my way around the many riders ahead.  The entire first lap climb was a matter of sitting behind riders, sometimes 3 or 4 at a time, passing, catching up to the next, passing, and so on.  I was pretty sure that I had taken the lead in the singlespeed field, but I was determined to race the others because of the small number of singlespeeders.  In this context, I still thought I was a ways behind.  I reached the top with a little bit of clear air, and prepped myself for the beating that would ensue all the way back to the start/finish.  As I went bumping, bouncing, braking, squabbling, squirming, slipping and sliding my way down the singletrack, using all of my bikes suspension, or lack there-of, and hoping that I had remembered to tighten this-or-that bolt, I felt that I was actually making decent time.  But those thoughts were pushed aside by the sound of riders coming up behind me and going by.    

This was quite frustrating, as I felt properly “in the zone”, possibly descending faster than I ever had before, but being supremely limited by my bikes ability to do so.   I was caught by 4 riders on that first descent.  On the second lap I was able pass all of them again, and earlier than I had done so in the previous lap.  This was good.  It meant I was making up more ground on them on the climb than they were putting on me on the descent.  I had a lot of clear air on the second lap, huffed and puffed my way to the top, and began another tumultuous descent.  I now know what shaken baby syndrome feels like.  In all honesty, it’s not that bad.  It puts you into a coma-like state (small headache involved), as adrenaline continues to pump through your veins.  If only my parents had properly prepared me for this, I wouldn’t have again been passed by two riders on the downhill.  Come the third and last lap, I caught one of the riders at the beginning of the climb, and the second somewhere in the middle.  I knew that if I pushed I could put enough gap on them to not get caught again.  Easier said than done, whilst squeezing every last bit of energy and motivation out of the mornings Clif bar breakfast.  It was another round of head-banging and forearm fatigue from a constant handful of brakes.  I was pushing harder, taking more risks, and feeling faster than I had before.  As I got closer to the end, I had that familiar sound of flying dirt and squealing brakes make its way back into my consciousness, and with about ¼ mile to go, on the wide-open field that made its way through the start/finish, spinning my small gear out of control, I was passed again.  I still did not know where I had finished relative to the rest, but was happily informed by a bystander that we were among the first finishers.  Come to find out, I finished 1st in the Singlespeed Open class, and 3rd overall in all Cat1 times.  I missed out on 2nd by a mere 3 seconds!

It was a fun day with some great racing.  It was a great introduction to some REAL mountain bike racing, which exploits the limits of your equipment, your skills, physical strength, endurance, and agility.  Everything was tested, and this is what mountain biking should be.  No more bore.
Apparently they forgot to include the proper instruction manual with my "victory prize" keychain bottle opener, as the day's only injury would be the result of a fumbled bottle-cap prying attempt.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Battle the Bore.. or was it Bear?

Ahhh.. the Bear.  Bear Creek park, a test of dirt road riding, savagely open and tame meadows, lung-trusting climbs, and the most technical descents an 80-year old on a hybrid could handle.  Lets not forget the scenery.  Set in an open meadow outside of Denver, still far enough away from the mountains as to not discourage the altitude-reluctant and technical-averse roadies from showing up, Bear Creek unfolds with spectacular views of hills to the West, where someone may encounter mountain bike trails, the beautiful traffic fiasco known as Denver to the East, and a man-made reservoir, or shall we call it the Beer Pond, worthy of even the highest grade of midwestern hilljack, and the lowest grade of beer, diseased fish and flatbottom boats, right on site!!  Man, what a wonderful place.  And in case one lap of the 10-mile loop weren't enough to seal the deal, the "deal" being one made with race organizers in which you trade legal tender for the promise of 4 hours of pain and saddle rash and disguised by the coolers of free beer at the finish line as being a good time, we would do 6.  If there ever were any real bears that lived here, I'm sure they got bored and left.  In retrospect, maybe I should have shown up with a fiberglass canoe and a case of Schlitz.

Instead, I came to race mountain bikes.  Being one of the stops of the Rocky Mountain Endurance Series I was persuaded (apparently by people who were reluctant to tell me how stupid a race it was) to do this race, after winning the last event (SS Open).  In my commitment to the uninspired, I passed up two real mountain bike races, both set at great venues.  The first weekend that they tried this race, which got cancelled midway through the first lap as the rain poured - the two trees on site tried valiantly to fend off the onslaught of heavy rain, but lost - and trails muddied, there was a Mountain States Cup race in Salida, CO, which was surely a "real" mountain bike race.  The reschedule was the day after a race at Buffalo Creek (don't get Bear and Buffalo confused; Bear meat tastes like rotting dog anus, Buffalo is delicious.) which happens to be a favorite venue of folks around here.

Race recap: I got my ass kicked by some faster riders.  Well, that's not the whole story, but is a good lesson to learn; a healthy acknowledgement of defeat.  In reality I hung with the lead group of 4 riders, me being 5th, for the first lap and some of the second.  This lead group included some pros, ex-pros, and a pesky squirrel.  At the start of the second lap I assumed the lead after a short intense climb, for all of 15 seconds, until pro Cameron Chambers showed his open meadow prowess and took off, followed by two others.  I tried to keep up, but hindered by a small unit (by unit I mean gear inches, but other references may apply), I sat back, legs spinning out of control, watching the others disappear into the smog.  From that point on I was largely on my own.  So the rest of the race it was a story of being swallowed up by riders who apparently figured out that with the addition of multiple cogs, coupled with some other foreign devices which allow for positioning the chain on said cogs, you can go faster.  I think they were cheating, but didn't get the chance to look at the rule book after the race amid pouring multiple beers down my throat.  I was dehydrated.
Thinking about what shade of white I would paint my room with.

In all seriousness though, I learned a few things.  First, I need to get stronger and be able to push a bigger gear if I want to compete with the top riders at venues like this.  Second, I won't ever compete at venues like this again.  Third, squirrels are fast, but are not endurance-oriented athletes.