Angel Fire ProXCT – successfully suffering in the thin air

Wes from Boulder Cycle Sport has gone above and beyond for the last few days keeping my bikes up to speed. He’s worked at least a couple days off just to service my bikes.

It was a shock to the system to head up to Angel Fire for the ProXCT. It’s been awhile since I’ve raced at proper high altitude, and it doesn’t get much higher than the 2800-metre high point here. I’ve raced well here in the past though, and know I can normally push on through well at higher elevations, and having that for reassurance was useful going into the race.

I went for a quick spin on Thursday evening before driving down on Friday, and managed to wash out on a gravely turn. No damage done to me, but I managed to pull my brake lever out of place, leaving me no choice but to enlist the help of Wes very early on Friday morning to get me running again. He showed up to work 2 hours early and gave my bike a much needed once over before sending me on my way. Seriously don’t know what I’d do without him!

Returning to the USA Cycling organised ProXCT series after a few Epic Rides events was a reminder that UCI racing is suffering a bit at the moment. I’m not normally a hater of USAC, or UCI racing in general, but it was hard to feel anything but sad for the national series after having such a good time in Carson City last weekend. While the Epic Rides events had huge crowds, a party atmosphere and a huge event expo, Angel Fire was all about the racing and not much else. The only people in attendance were there to compete, and there wasn’t even a SRAM or Shimano neutral service truck to pretend like there was anything else going on. Turnout in the Pro Men was strong though, and the trend towards the new generation dominating the racing continues. While there’s no “buzz” around the events, the level of competition in these races is getting a huge boost from the first generation of high school racers to step up to the pro level. At 29, I was one of the oldest in the field, with only Brian Matter and TJ Woodruff holding it down for the “old-school” riders.

The course in Angel Fire has been used for a several years, and it’s one of the best XC laps around. You quickly funnel into a winding and very steep singletrack climb that takes roughly 10 minutes at race pace. There are a couple short flat spots on the way up, but for the most part it’s a granny-gear (does that term still exist?) grunt to the top. From there on, it’s a fast and flowy descent on a steep man-made trail back to the base area. The descent was perfectly manicured the first time I raced here, but in the following years, it’s got chunkier and more rutted. While there still isn’t any real technical challenge, it’s at least interesting and fun enough to make the climbing worthwhile.

Bike choice: I went for the Scale Hardtail this time round. The weight saving was really important for the climb, as well as the ability to forget about locking out the fork and just pedalling hard instead. The descent wasn’t too rough, and there weren’t any sections that required pedalling and descending, which meant the Scale did just fine. I got Wes to pop a couple of tokens into my fork (RS SID, 85 psi) to increase bottom out resistance. Tires: the normal IKON’s in 2.2 EXO flavour, running a little higher pressure in the rear to avoid pinching (21 psi front, 23 psi rear).

I started front row, with just enough UCI points hanging on from last year to have me ranked in 7th going into the race. Based on the form from the last few weeks, I’d set 7th as the threshold over which I’d be happy with the race, and knowing there were plenty of people in the race a lot lighter than I am, I knew it would be tough to stick with the pure climbers on the way up. We completed a short start loop, and I managed to get out in front and out of trouble.

I lead into the singletrack climb, very happy to spend my energy up front rather than track standing waiting to funnel into the trail behind. I set a comfortable pace on the first climb and started to realise I could be in for a good race. I brought three other people with me: Keegan Swenson, Cyprus Gorey, and Payson McElveen. They all sprinted around me at the top of the first climb, so I went into the descent in fourth. The top two pulled away on the way down and Payson and I started the second climb together. Nic Beechan bridged up to us here, and I followed the pace, feeling like I was on the edge a bit, but not hurting too badly.

Lap three was a repeat of before, but for some reason I didn’t follow the pace when Nic accelerated just slightly. I don’t really know why.  Looking back, I think I was trying to settle in and get comfortable on the climb, while that was never going to happen: a short race at altitude doesn’t involve any “getting comfortable”, and my lack of concentration here was probably the weakest part of my race. I got gapped from Nic and Payson, and quickly got caught by Kyle Trudeau and Alex Wild from behind. I realised as soon as I was in their group how much my pace had dropped, and I was a little disappointed with knowing I probably should have been further up the hill battling for third place. I stuck with this group on lap 5, regrouped, and dug deep for the last time up the climb. I moved ahead of Kyle halfway up the climb and put some time into him, coming over the top about 30 seconds up. I set my fastest time up the climb on that lap, suggesting I probably should have dug deep earlier, and my hesitation to get uncomfortable and really hurt myself was probably the reason I fell back.

After a couple of mediocre races, I was really happy with 5th. It also scored me another 20 UCI points, which I hope will boost my start position for nationals in a couple of weeks. The day ended a little disappointingly. Convention in the US is that the podium is recognised to 5th place. It’s how it’s alway been in Mountain Biking, and although it’s a little strange, it’s what everyone expects. The UCI official was having none of that though, and made a bit of a fool of himself trying to argue his point. It was a shame to end the day like that, and just highlights one reason why it’s so easy to get negative on USAC/UCI so quickly. I was mainly disappointed because I knew there weren’t any photogs out on course, so the podium shot was going to be the best way for me to represent Boulder Cycle Sport. It sounds cheesey, but they put a lot of faith in me representing their brand through racing, and the inability to do that makes it harder for our relationship to succeed.

Main takeaways from the race: fitness is good, but I’ll have to suffer a lot more at the World Cups if I’m going to make any progress. Racing the hardtail is fun. It’s direct and I really didn’t descend any slower than I would have on the full suspension.

A mid-descent bottom out resulted in a stuck down fork. Not ideal, but not race changing.