There’s a six foot drop approaching, and my fork is locked out. Not by choice of course. The cable is just a little sticky. Probably something to do with the gel I just spilled across my bars. What would you do? Forcefully unlock it and suffer another 4000 feet of climbing with a bouncy fork, or ride the six foot drop and the rest of the descent five more times with no suspension?
Luckily the decision was made for me. A final bounce on the front end and the fork released, giving me some sweet, buttery suspension to cushion the drop. I squirted my bottle at the lockout and had no more problems for the rest of the race.
A unique thing happened on June 17th 2016: the first time in the history of US mountain biking, two important races were scheduled on the same day. Unlike in Europe where it’s common to have a handful of UCI races on the same day, North America is renowned for having few events, and rarely any overlaps. This means that generally the fields are always strong and UCI points are as rare as hen’s teeth. With the Carson City Offroad and the Missoula ProXCT falling on the same date, there was a choice for pro riders to make. Go to Carson City and benefit from the big payouts, friendly vibes and fun trails that Epic Rides events are known for, or head to Missoula for the awesome course (complete with famed A-line drop), rowdy solstice celebrations and the ability to spend the weekend in one of the coolest mountain towns in the west.
It was interesting to see who chose what race. The Olympic hopefuls were in Missoula as expected. Howard Grotts and Raphael Gagne are proving this year that they can compete on a world stage. Along with Stephen Ettinger and Keegan Swenson, they made sure the front of the field in Missoula was stronger than the front of the field in Carson City. But after that handful, there were some notable exceptions that went to Nevada instead: Russell Finsterwald and Ben Sonntag are normally stalwarts on the XC scene, but chose the Epic Rides events instead. Ben Sonntag was chasing the series overall payout, while I think Russell was relishing a different scene after an early season of World Cupping. Kabush, Wells, and Spencer Paxson all went to the big blue lake too.
In Missoula, I was among a number of “second rate” riders that had lined up for the opportunity to nudge their way higher in the rankings and get to experience being a little closer to the front than is normal for these events. With just over 20 UCI points, I’ve been enjoying a second or third row call up this season, but with the absentees, that ranking got me onto the front row in Montana. We’re so used to battling in 100+ people fields, that the tactics were going to play a big part in the racing. As Howard Grotts said after the race, there’s no place to hide on that course. Rather than being a group riding event, it always comes down to one’s ability to ride six consistent climbs followed by six mistake free descents.
I made the tough decision to take it steady off the start line. I knew that my fitness was good, but I also knew I’d have a better chance of surviving six laps if I was cautious at the beginning. It was hard to willfully fall back through the pack on the opening climb, but I did it nonetheless. A minute into the race I was back in the late teens watching the front group assemble and then pull away from the chasers. I found my rhythm and passed people slowly throughout the race instead. I made a little move at the top of the climb on lap one to get ahead of a bunch of riders, and that paid off by riding the descent cleanly and getting a gap on everyone behind me.
The A-line drop gets a lot of attention, and for good reason, but it’s not a make-or-break feature. The anticipation of hitting the drop builds from the top of the descent, and then it’s over in a second as you sail across it and down into the big catcher berm at the bottom. After that, the real challenge on the descent is a series of sharp corners with drops at the apex. These take some commitment to get your weight forward and your finger off the front brake. Any hesitation here can waste way more time than you’d lose on the big drop.
The middle of the race in Missoula was a little boring, to be honest. I did a lot of hard pedalling. A lot of concentrating on keeping my cadence up and not being stupid about pushing a big gear through the sharp uphill corners. I’d need those matches for the last lap. I was in about 12th place at the end of lap one, and then slowly worked my way through the field. Never following other people’s pace, always just keeping the sensations where I wanted them. I had power and heart rate numbers in front of me for this race, and I did quite a lot of looking down, which is not normal for me. It’s hard to say whether I actually used the data to pace though: the numbers move around so much that I found it a lot easier to “feel” that tension in your legs that you know is sustainable.
With one lap to go I’d moved into 8th place. A relative unknown rider Jamey Yanik was just ahead in 7th, and Alex Wild in 6th. I’d raced Jamey at Sea Otter and only just bested him. Little did I know that he was about to have a fireworks display, and slip back to 12th. After I went past him I was pretty sure that was the last place I would be gaining. Alex Wild is also pretty new to the pro scene, and has had a fantastic opening to the year. He was more of a known quantity and a bigger hurdle to overcome. Approaching the top of the last climb I clocked the gap to Alex as about 35 seconds. Pretty significant. I kept working at it though and came into the descent seeing flashes of red in the trees ahead. Last year I crashed really hard chasing Jamey Driscoll on the last lap, so I was cautious to ride smooth on the way down. I still closed the gap to Alex, though, and we came out of the trees together. Just one 30 second climb to go.
I bided my time a little, let Alex sprint into the base of the finish climb, then stood up and gave it everything to the finish. It was a dramatic little battle, but no one was paying much attention. Instead, the organisers were doing what every promoter should do: have the podium immediately. Once the haze of lactic had cleared I got to see Howard hold aloft a majestic rack of antlers for his win. The crowds were deep and the beer flowing.
My 6th place was exactly what I’d hoped for out the event: consistent riding, clean descending and no mistakes. A big thanks to Heather Earl, who I found at the start line and managed to persuade me to hold bottles in my general direction. Much appreciated! Also a huge thank you to Ken Griffiths, who opened his home to me for the weekend. Ken really made me feel comfortable in Missoula, and it was great to have someone to chat Montana life with before the race. Meeting new people and seeing different ways of life is a big part of what makes traveling so compelling to me. Thank you Heather and Ken!