I learned a few things this weekend. First and foremost, racing mountain bikes involves far more suffering than criterium racing. Saturday I raced the Twilight Criterium and was able to pull a couple of breaks back, get in a few breaks, bridge to and then sit in a break or two and then give the initial leadout to my riders during the final sprint. 4th and 8th (?) for Kyle and Ryan respectively. I worked hard in this race. But man did I work harder on Sunday.
I had been told that the West Hill Shop Race had some climbs. I had been told that it was hard. Little did I know. Second thing that I learned, when competitive cyclists of all stripes tell you that something is hard, believe them.
Wilcox and I left Cambridge with plenty of time to get to our 2pm start. The Pros and cat 1's were racing before us, so I was hoping that we'd get both a pre-ride and course intelligence from finishers.
It was raining as we drove into VT. They looked like passing showers, but when we got to the dirt roads near the venue (after getting lost when the signs that the promoter told us to follow proved to be flopped over and thereby not visible) we found them to be quite pasty and saturated. Lesson Three: If a mountain bike race promoter tells you that there will be signs, Google map it anyway, the signs are usually useless.
We got to ride the easy part of the course and listen to blown riders tell us that it was hard...and oh, Cary pointed out that my tires that were poorly suited to the course.
Then right before staging, Colin Reuter questioned my low tire pressure (though once he found out that I was running tubeless, he approved). Since I have only the tires that came with the bike, Racing Ralphs it was, tough shit for RMM.
The start was fairly tame. 20-30 dudes in my field (cat 2 30-39), most of them behind me. I was settled at third place,
fighting hard to keep it. After the hole shot, which was at the end of a 150 meter field, the course had some smooth single track that was slick though tacky. I was feeling good, though I was working quite hard. I eventually came around 2nd place and had the leader in sight. I was near my limit, breathing hard and panicked since we were only 3-5 minutes into an hour and a half race. I considered closing the gap and coming around 1st too...lost opportunities.
I remained in 2nd with a traffic jam of better bike handlers behind me. I would gap them on the flats and climbs, stay about even in the smooth "S" turns and get caught quickly on the descents and the technical sections. The trails were narrow enough in the middle of the course, that it was difficult to pass. I was riding fast enough that a rider would have to dig deep to get around me, but not fast enough to create a gap big enough to make up for my poor descending and technical skills. It was frustrating to clearly outride people on the climbs and then have them close a 15-30 second gap in less than a minute by just not being pussies. Lesson Four: skill trumps fitness in mtb racing.
My tires were completely compacted with mud within 5 minutes and I was slipping all over the course. Damn you Cary, I probably wouldn't have even noticed if you hadn't pointed it out. Lesson five: tire selection is really important in mountain bike racing.
On the first really fast descent, I missed a corner and went off the course by a few feet. I didn't crash, but I had to unclip a foot and hop back over to the trail. The line of riders stacked up behind me came whooshing by in an evenly spaced line and I had no choice but to wait for each one to pass before I could resume embarrassing myself. I was now in tenth and pissed.
I kept this group in sight. They remained about 30 seconds up the road until the first big climb. The climb was steep. Not so steep that you'd loose traction, but the tacky slickness combined with the roots, left you in danger of slipping out and being forced to dismount. Even on the first lap there were riders walking. I started in my middle ring and locked out my front fork and inefficiently stomped while out of the saddle. This worked well until I realized that this was not a power climb, that the climb wound up much further than it originally appeared to. Lesson Six: PreRide the course.
I made contact with my original group and came around a couple of riders. I was digging quite deep. It was only halfway through the first lap and I was doubting my ability to keep the pace.
I fell in Eric Petterson from Back Bay at the top of the climb. I was in front and flailing in the corners. He graciously pointed out the he had prerode the course and offered to lead. I gladly allowed him to. Minutes later, he announced that a certain descent was a place to go fast. He rode away from me and then yardsaled into the woods after missing a corner.
There were a number of short, technical power climbs. They were rideable, but if you bobbled, you were dismounting and running (read trudging) the remainder, as they offered no place to remount. I saw many riders dismount before these sections. I gamely tried to ride every section, even in the last lap. I was able to pass riders as they walked. Often I'd bobble halfway up, but sometimes I didn't and either way, I got around those competitors. Lesson Seven: try to ride everything, every time.
The final climb is right before the finish line. On a dry day, it would just be a moderately steep, straight dirt climb on a relatively smooth fire road. Today, it was a slippery muddy mess. Most of the time you would have fairly good traction, but then you'd deviate from the packed part and sink into squelchy sucking mud that sapped your momentum.
Then you'd stand to power out and hit an exposed root and your rear wheel would slip out. I was able to remain on the bike, but I was in the little ring and cursing the whole time. Hecklers took thier shots, but I was enclosed in a silent fortress of pain that mere taunts could not penetrate.
I was forced to relent on the second lap. I had overdrawn my account on the two climbs in lap one. In a road race, the peloton would take it easy on the flats, maybe set people up for the climb, in the leadup to it and then suffer up the climb. In this race, I was arriving at the base of the climbs blown and then putting out watts. Unsustainable. Lesson eight: pacing oneself is important.
There were no split times, but I think that I was faster in the second lap. Since I now knew the course, I was more confident in the tech sections and the descents. I recovered on the flats by riding a little below all-out. I still put in efforts on the climbs, attempting to ride everything. I passed a rider or two. On the final climb in the second lap, I seriously considered pulling out. I was struggling to complete the climb and was doubting that I would make it up it even this time, let alone a third. I think the only thing that kept me going was the fact that Cary would make fun of me forever if I did.
The third lap was pure hell. I knew the course, but was spent. Getting out of the saddle to go over a technical section was a chore. I was sloppy.
Near the bottom of the first big climb, a rider from my field came out of nowhere and passed me. I felt like I was at my limit, but I dug in and kept him within spitting distance, getting right on him at the crest. He easily gapped me on the descent, taking crazy risks to hold me off. I stayed off the brakes and kept him in sight.
He took a corner into a mud bog poorly. I didn't see the crash, but I sensed it. I passed him as he sorted out his bike (mechanical failure). I didn't see him until the final climb a few minutes later.
At the base of the final climb, I set a pace that was sustainable. The climb was steep enough and the mud squishy enough that keeping enough momentum to remain upright and moving was difficult. People were cheering. But wait, they were looking through me. They were cheering for the mud bog crasher who was closing on me. I looked back and estimated his speed versus mine and dug for a little more. My left hip flexor and my right inner quad were both threatening to cramp up irreparably. He continued to close as his friend cheered and I struggled.
Once I got over near the crest of the climb, I knew it was over. I wasn't sure how far he was from me, but no matter how blown I am, I have a sprint left. I locked out the fork, got to the big ring and laid it down like I was at the track.
I felt like I won, but the officials thought that I got 5th. The evidence was on their side.
On the other hand, Wilcox won the single speed (out of 2 riders), but got 4th overall out of his starting group (cat 2 19-29) and put 2 minutes into my time.