Saturday, January 25, 2014

Tacos and Cactus Ass: El Paso Puzzler

The 92Fifty’ Cyclery squadron took a winter hiatus to enjoy the warmth and sunshine of El Paso, Texas in mid-January.  The idea of actually mountain biking, on real, live mountain biking trails, had been haunting me for months; the thought of which nearly brought tears to my eyes.  Unfortunately, those tears were always dried up by mega wind gusts and cold days as I continued to crank out road miles in Boulder.  The realization that we’d be riding bikes in the desert under warm sunny skies was too good to be true.

Before going to El Paso for the El Paso Puzzler I had asked around about why it’s considered such a hard race.  Looking at the GPS files and finish times doesn’t make much sense.  There isn’t a ton of climbing for a 50-mile race, yet finish times were 4-5 hours for Pro riders.  I had heard that its “tough, raw” terrain, but not overly technical.  Something wasn’t adding up. 

Puzzler course and elevation profile.  Strava file.
92Fifty’ Cyclery pros Kyle “Ragamuffin” Taylor, Billy “Tennessee” Wood and myself pre-rode some of the course on Saturday afternoon.  We got a little dose of the pain that would soon be inflicted, all finishing our pre-ride with arms and legs cut up from brushing by any one of the various cactus and desert shrubs that have evolved to hurt/kill you.  What we gathered initially was the trails were rough, rocky, loose, off-camber, rocky, and rockier.  Even the smoother sections of trail were hard to rip through because of the kitty-litter-like nature, and most of the trails were a relentless onslaught of rocks.  That being said, none of us seemed too worried.  We were just happy to be riding our bikes!  And I was super excited to finally rip my new Felt Nine 1 on some trails.

"Puzzler" Mountain from Franklin Peak

Sunday morning was chilly, but once the sun made its way over the horizon the cold air seemed to vanish.  Properly fueled by coffee and my early morning jams (which the others didn't seem to appreciate for some reason), we were ready for the 8am start.  The start went off pretty fast down a ¼-mile long fireroad, with about 10 or 15 riders making a lead group.  Before long Kyle went up to the front.  Billy and I tried to chase, but I decided to conserve energy early and hang back a bit.  Upon hitting the singletrack, in which it would be impossible to pass for the next couple of miles, Kyle was still leading out a 7-man lead group, with me hanging in the rear.  I was content to hang back and gauge how hard the others were working.  The pace up the first climb to the ridge was fast but not painful, and we all crested it together.  On the backside descent Kyle was still out front.  I think this was a good move on his part, and something I was thankful for, as some of the riders with local trail knowledge may have otherwise made some valuable time on this section.  Coming into the Start/Finish after the 9-mile starter loop I was about 20 seconds back of the lead group.  The next loop contained the climb up to Mundy’s Gap, a 1600ft climb up loose rocky fireroad.  It was the biggest climb of the day and a section where the race could break open.  Going into it I was about 2 ½ minutes back of the lead group.  I stayed steady the whole way up, not trying to push too hard.  I passed Kyle a little ways up.  He was trying to conserve energy.  We were both banking on the lead guys to blow up at some point.  By the time I reached the top I had pulled to within 20-30 seconds of the lead group.  Then came the infamous descent of this race that includes the “rock garden”, basically a scree field ¼-mile long of head-sized loose rocks.  I probably didn’t ride it with the speed of others, but had a blast doing it!  The technique was: get behind the seat, let go of the brakes, and let the bike go where it wants; an out-of-control rock-skating session.  I’d climb Mundy’s any day for that descent! 

Rugged Mundy's Gap climb.
Billy Wood rock-skating.  Photo Credit: Devon Balet. Mountain Flyer Article
The rest of this 25-mile lap consisted mostly of rocky, slow-going, twisty, up-and-down singletrack that took you to the north end of the mountain, over the top, and back to the start/finish.  The next 2 or so hours felt like they took forever.  After the Mundy’s descent I started dealing with some major cramping, worse than I’ve had in years.  It wasn’t long before every muscle in my legs was seizing up with every climb.  The course was so relentless that eating and drinking was almost impossible.  I had run out of water and wouldn’t get a drink for about 2 hours until I reached the start/finish again.  In this time I took more cactus cuts to the arms and legs than I can remember, had an over-the-bars into a thorn bush, took a header into a cactus, and got thrown off the bike by another cactus that wasn’t moving when I put my shoulder into it.  I’m pretty sure it actually had arms and grabbed me and threw me off the bike.  I also think it kicked me when I was down and spit in my face.  This couple of hours was a game changer.  I was still pushing hard on every climb to make up time, but the cramping never relented, and the trail continued to eat me alive.  I wouldn’t see anyone the rest of the day.  I rolled into the finish in 5:10, 6th place pro/open.

The Puzzler was just that.  It was puzzling how riding 50 miles with mediocre climbing could take so long, and be so damn hard!  Having not ridden trails for over 2 months was definitely a disadvantage.  My bike handling skills were pretty bad, but I tried to stay strong mentally and physically throughout.  If you get negative on a course as relentless as the Puzzler it will eat you up.  It was a great early season mental and physical test that Kyle, Billy, and I are going to use to become stronger and more resilient for the year to come.   Apart from the race we were still so happy to be riding bikes by the Mexico border in January, camping with friends, and eating REAL Mexican food for days!  There was free beer and a taco truck at the finish line to properly forget the pain just inflicted and wash any sorrows away.  There’s seriously no feeling in the world like sitting around with friends after putting yourselves through such a test, drinking a beer, and talking/laughing about it all. The Puzzler race promoters are some of the coolest people you’ll ever meet, and we hung out by the fire until late in the evening, sharing beers, stories and laughs.  At some point before crawling into my tent someone threw a man-sized cactus into the fire.  Fitting.  I imagined it was the one that threw me to the ground earlier.  Cheers.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Looking Back at 2013

Looking forward by looking back.  I’m not always great at looking in the rearview mirror.  When there’s so much on the road ahead, who cares what’s behind you?  Well, in the case of my last year, I find it important to sum it up, learn from it, embrace it, be thankful for it, and use that to move forward.   When I look back at all the amazing things I was able to do in one short year, from the people I met and relationships built, to the journeys took, to the physical feats accomplished, it puts a smile on my face. 
The year started with me just having been upgraded to Pro by USA Cycling and obtaining my pro cycling license.  I knew it would be a growing year on many fronts.   I decided to race in as many different events, from XC to Ultra-endurance, in both singlespeed and geared, as I could get my hands on.  


After months of cold weather in Boulder, I had an intense desire for some warm weather riding.  Somewhere along the way I discovered Utah’s ICUP race series, which holds early season races in St. George.  On extremely short notice, I threw my stuff in the car and made the 10-hour drive to St. George (through a nasty nighttime blizzard in the mountains).  There is no other feeling in the world like stepping out into warm, dry, sunny, 80degree weather in March.  I was in heaven instantly.  The ICUP race was a blast, and I surprised myself with my level of fitness that early in the year.  I spent the next 3 days camping and riding in the warm sunny desert, and came back to Boulder recharged.


This was the biggest and most journey-filled month of my year.  I completed a month-long road trip; something I had been dreaming about doing for years.  The goal/reason: to mountain bike in as many new and cool places as I could find in warm weather while Colorado was enduring a late winter.  Through the warm and sunny desert southwest, to southern California, up the coast to Norcal and through the Sierras; it was a trip of a lifetime.  I still look back on that one month and can’t believe how many amazing places I went, unforgettable rides I had, and people I met.  Oh ya, I also did 3 XC races along the way.
Spring 2013 | My new trip on Spring 2013


The start of my “official” season.  I had already competed in 4 races, but all were looked at as training, experience, and to see where I stood.  In the middle of May was my first singlespeed race of the season at the Firebird 40, then 2 weeks later the Gunnison Growler 64 in which everything seemed to come together.


100-milers-a-too-many.  Only 5 days after the Gunnison Growler I was in Ohio getting ready to race my first ever 100-mile race, the Mohican 100.  It was a great experience.  Being my first ultra-endurance race, I undoubtedly had a lot to learn, and mistakes were made, but I left feeling overwhelmed by what I had accomplished.  I didn’t get the result I had wanted, but it was a great growing experience.  And hey, 15th place overall on singlespeed for my first 100-miler ain’t bad.  Two weeks after that I was in Michigan for the Lumberjack 100.  This was when things fell apart.  I think my body and mind had had too much from months of travelling, working, racing, training, etc. and it wasn’t my day.  This was actually a turning point in my summer, when I decided to enjoy riding more and forget about training for a little while.  Two weeks later I was back at it at the RME Snake River race at Keystone Ski Resort.  The race was “only” 54 miles, but with a ridiculous amount of climbing (~9500).  I finally got the win that I needed to boost my morale and get back on track.  Two weeks after Keystone was the big one that I had been looking forward to all year, the Breckenridge 100.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t my day.  It was the hardest race I've ever done, breaking me down both mentally and physically.  That was the end of my string of ultra endurance races for the year.  Because of financial reasons I decided to forego the Park City Point to Point.   In these two months of racing I learned invaluable lessons that will hopefully help me in the future.


The Boulder/Front Range floods changed everything for cyclists on the Front Range.  The epic flooding left ALL of the roads in the Boulder foothills damaged badly or completely destroyed.  Trail riding options were little to none.  Basically all of my training and riding was literally washed away.  September is usually a month when I plan on getting out for all those pleasure rides, high country adventures, and daily rides without a training plan in mind, after a long season of racing.  It also turns out to be a hugely productive time when I can normally get stronger after a summer of wearing myself down.  Unfortunately this year I spent much of the autumn inside with no riding options available.  It was a hard time, but not nearly as hard as losing your home and belongings.  Like those that lost everything I was intent on rebuilding and coming out stronger.

In Retrospect

2013 was definitely a learning year.  Sometimes I learned from the pain, and other times from success.  I learned that I love the 50-60 mile distance, where I can exploit some XC-racing speed along with some endurance, and struggle with 100-milers.  I learned that too much travel, especially without any support financially or from a team, will wear you down mentally and physically.  I learned that relationships inside and outside of this sport are the key to happiness and success.  I am fortunate to have met some amazing people inside the sport in my short stint as a mountain bike racer, and will hopefully use these relationships to better myself and give back to those that have helped me get here.  I am also very lucky to have a group of friends and family that, although sometimes not understanding why I do it, give me their support regardless.  The most important thing I learned from an entire year of racing, riding, traveling, working, training, stressing, winning, losing, hurting?  I am more motivated to ride my bike and dream about it now more than ever.  My love and passion for mountain biking continues to grow so big, and I’m going to use that to make 2014 the best year yet.  Cheers.

Monday, January 13, 2014

2014 Competitive Schedule

It's that time of year again.  The beginning of a new season is upon us, and figuring out (or trying to) what I'll be doing (racing), where, and when is a cool feeling.  Planning adventures for the year is exciting and inspiring.  Especially as I sit here in Boulder, wind whipping and gusting at 50+ mph outside, after months of cold weather, wind-impaled, and generally uninspiring trail-less riding.  Things I considered when trying to put together my schedule for 2014: location, competition, and fun factor.  I have learned a lot in only 2 seasons of racing.  Last year I (unknowingly) got burnt out physically from so much travel while trying to balance work and life and fun.  For 2014 I will be trying to stay closer to home and take advantage of all the amazing racing that happens in the Rocky Mountain region.  I'm always wanting to push myself to new levels and be competitive with the best, so finding those events that tout high competition was also a consideration.  Last but most importantly, a kid's gotta have fun!  I'm not into racing my mountain bike just to say I did.  The best races are always the ones that are the most fun, whether you place 1st or 50th.  A few that I'm super excited about are the Firebird 40, High Cascades (hopefully), Breck Epic, and Winter Park 50.  This list is very tentative and will undoubtedly change and be added to.  I'm hoping to find one odd-ball "adventure" style race to throw in there as well.  Pisgah, Shenandoah, something in B.C.??  I can't wait for the fun to begin!

2014 Competitive Schedule:

January 19:  El Paso Puzzler 50

March 15: True Grit Epic 100

April 27: Whiskey 50 (tentative)

May 17: Firebird 40

May 25: Gunnison Growler

June 14: Bailey Hundo

July 4: Firecracker 50

July 12: Breck 68

July 19: High Cascades 100 (tentative)

August 10-15: Breck Epic

September 13: Winter Park Epic 50