Getting above treeline for the last time this season

The Colorado Trail is a winding high alpine route that traverses over 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains from Denver to Durango. While there are a few hardy souls that take on the entire thing in one go, it’s more normally ridden in small little chunks. Starting from Kenosha Pass is one of the more common variations, and that’s what we chose for this late season attempt to get above treeline.


In most years, the snow barely melts up here until the middle of June. By early September the leaves have changed, and October signals the first serious snow. We set out from the trailhead knowing a storm was on its way. The first proper winter weather was scheduled to hit that afternoon, giving us a glorious window to get the goods. We’d made a late start; most of the people we saw on the trail were already heading home by the time we started out. The trail heads from Kenosha pass along an Aspen lined ridge, before dipping down into the trees. The views south across the orange-tinged hills looked cold and foreboding, and we knew we’d be on our own for most of the ride. It’s these conditions that really hammer home how self sufficient you need to be in the mountains. When there’s no one around to call, and absolutely no phone service anyway, it’s a great incentive to double-check your hydration pack to ensure you’ve got all the essentials. After crossing Jefferson Creek, the trail winds in an unbroken climb to the top of Georgia Pass at over 11,000 feet. We stopped at the creek and took in the warm sunshine filtering through the trees before attempting the rest of the climb.

 

As we started the final climb towards Georgia Pass, I had this eery feeling of being the only person for a long way around. It was already past noon, the sun was high in the sky, and we hadn’t seen anyone for a good hour. The trail is well trodden – it’s busy and popular in the summer months. The rooty switchbacks are polished from thousands of bike tires winching themselves towards the summit, and the sharpest corners are rutted and bumpy from over-enthusiastic riders enjoying themselves on the way back down. While nothing material had changed since we left the car, the smell of cold weather seemed to fill the air, making the ascent seem ever more lonely.

 

The climb to Georgia Pass is about 10 miles long. Not a huge distance, but with serious elevation to contend with, it makes for a great challenge. After leaving the creek at the bottom, you first tackle a series of ever-tighter switchbacks that gain a long east-west ridge. You’re now in the high alpine. Blue sky appears above, and you can see more light leaking around the edges of the hillsides, suggesting there isn’t much higher to climb. The switchbacks are replaced with a swoopy trail that traverses around the hillside, until a wide meadow opens up in front of you. After the muffled sounds of the forest, emerging into the open is like entering a new universe. The trees rustle as they sway in the breeze, and the soft bed of pine needles on the trail is replaced by the rough stones and rock that give these mountains their name.

We stop and listen. Not another human sound around. We’re barely 15 miles from the road, but we might as well be 100 miles. The wind seems to die down as we come to a stop and set our bikes down right in the middle of the trail. No one else is riding here today. With the storm that’s coming, we’re certain to be the last riders this year. It gives the mountains a new perspective; it’s just them and us.

It’s hard to pull ourselves away from the sunny spot in the meadow. We had set out with a destination in mind, and having reached it, the motivation to be back in the valley below was minimal at best. The sun crept ever closer to the trees around us, and as its warming rays left us, the temperature plummeted. It’s October in the high country. Any illusion of this being an inviting place was quickly dispelled. All that was left now was the descent.

There’s the checklist that every modern mountain biker knows before descending a long and fun trail. Dropper post: down. Suspension: unlocked. Pull the brakes a couple of times and check your tires. You don’t want to have any reason to stop from here until the very bottom. That traversing trail gives us a chance to get into the flow before getting thrown into the switchbacks. Ready and warmed up, those braking bumps in the corners pose no challenge. That hesitation between going faster and relishing the descent pulls at me. I’m normally cautious of hikers and other riders, but I let the wheels run just slightly more today. It’s quiet out here.

The rush ends sooner than you ever hope. Pushing your tires into the final pine-laden corners, knowing this is the last high alpine descent of the year. What to make of it? Sadness that the season is over? Or joy for being perhaps the last people to ride up here this year?

I’ll take the happiness any day. While snow is the curtain that drops to end our fun in the mountains, it’s also the necessary weather that keeps our mountains alive. The trails are now buried under their protective blankets for another season, and will be sure to reappear next summer ready to go. Braking bumps magically repaired, new lines created by the weight of the snow and the rush of water.

2017 Mountain Bike Season – It’s a Wrap!

And just like that, Spring has turned into late Autumn, and my mountain bike season is over for another year. I raced 34 days in 2017, my most ever. The season didn’t go to plan in every aspect, but the process of looking back has been really helpful. I improved on the competitive side, and saw some amazing sights while traveling, too!

My biggest accomplishment was getting on the podium twice in the National ProXCT series. I’ve been working towards short-course UCI style races for a couple of years, so to see that success pay off was fantastic. The validation of a national level podium cannot be underestimated

The low points

My biggest disappointment was not capitalising on that early season form in July, when I travelled over to race the World Cups. The form dipped, and the beating I got during those races was hard to recover from. I came back from Europe with a terrible cold that hung around for the rest of the year. It wasn’t until after Breck Epic in August that I finally went to the doctor and got diagnosed with a sinus infection!

Marathon Racing

My “long form” racing came on quite well. I finished 13th at the Whiskey Offroad and 8th in Grand Junction. These were the strongest domestic fields I raced in all year. These events are the target for next year, and I have a good idea of what I need to do in 2018 to be even stronger. I love the 3-4 hour length races, and I can be a better all-round rider with this focus in 2018.

The Local Stuff

Racing in Colorado is hard to beat. I love where I’ve chosen to live. I relished the late season events in Colorado. Without doubt, the highlight of the season was my 8-day block of racing in August: The Steamboat Stinger, into the Breck Epic, into the King of the Rockies (aka #KingoftheHoneyEpic, thanks Evelyn). That block started well with a win in Steamboat. I struggled through the Breck Epic, but came out the other side having a new appreciation for multi-day racing. As day 8, I went over to Winter Park for the King of the Rockies, and had a great battle with Taylor Shelden, coming in 2nd. That was the start of the best season in Colorado: the late season races. I got on the podium at the last of the MTB races, coming 2nd at the Fall Classic and 5th at the Outlier.

The Support Network

Christa has been there for everything. She dealt with my incessant hunger during the Spring when I did nothing but long hours on the bike. She traveled to Europe to watch me at the World Cups, and she’s there now when all I want to do is sit on the sofa!

I have an amazing support network. I’ve stayed with family and friends across the US and further afield; people going out of their way to help me pursue my single minded drive to succeed. It’s humbling to see. There are two companies in particular that have stuck by my side. Boulder Cycle Sport lives and dies by its local community. Their support this year is the biggest component of my success; Wes Webber has rebuilt my bikes more times than he or I can count, and Justin Hoese has fielded my emails and questions at all times of the day.

At Scott Bicycles, I’ve had the pleasure of working with really good people, too; Wade Gasperson and Zack Vestal – thanks for your help. Your bikes are undoubtedly the best on the market, but your culture and willingness to help are even better!

Jasen Thorpe – you’re a bigger part of the last couple years than I’d ever tell you in person.

What’s up in 2018?

I’m changing up the schedule next year: no World Cups, and very few short course XC races. I’ll be starting my season later, giving time for a proper break through the winter. I’ll focus on a couple big stage races, in addition to the Epic Rides series, and also some bigger races in Colorado.

No guarantees just yet, but it’s going to go something like this:
Moab Rocks, Moab Utah
Whiskey 50, Prescott Arizona
Grand Junction Offroad, Grand Junction Colorado
Trans-Sylvania Epic, Pennsylvania
GoPro Games, Vail Colorado
Carson City Offroad, Carson City Nevada
Crested Butte Fat Tire 40, Crested Butte Colorado
Firecracker 50, Breckenridge Colorado
Singletrack6, British Columbia, Canada
Steamboat Stinger, Steamboat Springs Colorado
Breck Epic, Breckenridge Colorado
King of the Rockies, Winter Park Colorado
Fall Classic, Breckenridge Colorado
Chequamegon 40, Cable Wisconsin
Outlier XC, Vail Colorado
OZ Trails Offroad, Bentonville Arkansas
Iceman Cometh, Traverse City Michegan

2017 Steamboat Stinger – On the hunt for a second Stetson

Standing on the top step of the podium at the 2016 Steamboat Stinger was a great achievement for me. I’d been in pursuit of the illusive first-place cowboy hat for a few years, and I’d watched as Russell Finsterwald and Alex Grant took the prize instead. After winning last year, I felt like I’d validated myself a little bit, and the pressure was off my shoulders this year. Nevertheless, I wanted to win again to defend my title, and I also wanted to get Christa a cowboy hat to match mine. She’s much more of a cowgirl than I am a cowboy anyway, so it seemed appropriate.

The view south from Emerald mountain towards the Flat Tops. You don’t actually see any of this when you’re racing!

The race has an agonising start. Climbing up past the ski jump on Howelsen Hill is a shock to the system, but it gets you up and away from the town quickly, and from then on its just you and the trail. The race strung out quite quickly, and I took the lead into the new singletrack through the meadow, closely followed by Andy Clemence. Andy is new to the MTB scene, and I knew he would have some strong roadie power on the climbs. It was good to have him with me to gauge my effort on the first climb, and I kept everything in check, cresting the top of emerald mountain just a handful of seconds in front of fast locals Brad Bingham and Peter Kalmes. Brad quickly caught me as we descended the ridge trail. I thought I’d ridden this trail fast before, but Brad was absolutely pinned from top to bottom, and ended up going over 30 seconds faster than I’ve ever ridden it before.

By the time we started climbing Beall trail the first time, I ended up out front and quickly moved ahead of Brad. With just me and the overgrown trail, I finally felt comfortable and could get into a rhythm. That ended as soon as a huge bull elk jumped across the trail about 10 feet in front of me. I slammed on my brakes and shouted “Holy SHIT” really loudly. Then looked around and was half disappointed and half relieved to see that no one shared my experience. I got back into the groove a bit, then came across a herd of cows on the trail. The first couple responded to a slap and a “YA” by moving out the way, but I got stuck behind a steer that was running along the trail. He wouldn’t get out the way, and I ended up chasing it for about a mile. Poor thing. It eventually dove off the end of a switchback into the trees, and I was alone again. The rest of the lap was decidedly less exciting, but it meant I could settle into my own pace. Knowing I had 7 days of racing after this, I thought the most detrimental thing would be having to follow any attacks or accelerations, so I kept my pace high and just chugged along.

I came through the lap after 26 miles in just over 2 hours. I realised at that point that I was actually going really fast. Finsty’s course record is 4:04, so a two-hour lap put me right on target. With a 2-minute cushion over second place already, I was conflicted – do I try to push the pace for the record, or stay steady and think about Breck Epic coming right up? I chose the latter, and found my groove instead.

The second lap always drags on, and by the time you get to the final climb it feels like you’ve been out there for days. With such limited visibility, I had little idea of where other races were on course, and knowing I was being chased by locals, I felt like they could catch me on any descent. I rode the final downhill through the quarry really scared, trying to be smooth and forget about the win. It’s at this point in the race that I began to lap riders still completing their first lap. The people I’m lapping can be split into two groups quite cleanly – there are the super prepared riders who know they’re in for an 8 plus hour day, and are slowly and happily chugging along the trail. These are the best. They’re normally expecting you and are enjoying the experience. The second group is made of those who had no idea how hard this race was going to be. With other 50 milers comprising a good deal of road and dirt road, it’s sometimes a shock to people when they realise Steamboat is all singletrack. And all windy, tight singletrack at that.

A note on the organisation at this race: It’s sublime. Some races are well organised enough that you are satisfied. Some are efficient. Very few races are so well organised that it’s actually pleasurable. This one is. I don’t know who the volunteers are that stand out on course all day handing me bottles, but I’d love to meet them and say thank you. The one person I do know who makes the day happen is Nate Bird. He’s the force behind the event, and it’s amazing to see the amount of work he puts into the day. Knowing that he’s been up in the middle of the night marking the course makes you relish the experience even more.

By the final short climb, I was in cruise mode, trying to save my legs for Breck Epic. This is the first time I haven’t cramped during the Stinger, and it made the last 5 miles vastly more enjoyable! The finish runs you along next to the rodeo ground, and gives you a good half mile of sporadic cheers from spectators. It’s a feel good finish to the race for sure!

I ended up with a comfortable buffer of five minutes over second place, and was entertained to see Alex Pond and Peter Kalmes drag racing into the finish for a sprint. That’s a tough way to finish a 50 miler! As always, the day was capped off with beer and a BBQ at the base of Howelsen Hill. The atmosphere is so friendly and positive, and Larry Grossman continues to impress with his knowledge of so many racer’s names. He can recognise and cheer the vast majority of the field on site. It’s impressive!

All things going well, I’ll be back again next year. I haven’t missed a Stinger since they began, and I don’t intend to stop any time soon!

 

 

 

Whiskey Offroad: So that’s what it feels like to ride smoothly for three hours.

I’ve been nervous about my form this year. It’s not something that normally bothers me – I’ll line up, race and finish where I finish. But there’s been a resurgence in US mountain biking recently. People are getting fast. The combination of the first generation of High School MTB racers aging into the Elite ranks, plus the rest of the mtb community turning its focus onto the races I’ve traditionally done well at, has had me scared that I’m going to be out of my depth in the fields I’ve normally excelled in. After a disappointing DNF at the Sea Otter last weekend, I didn’t get that “first race” out my system, and instead came into the Whiskey with some apprehension.

The Whiskey 50 has grown a lot since I first did it in 2012, but I ended the weekend in the same place: 13th in the pro race. Between that 13th place and this year’s 13th place, the Whiskey has changed dramatically. From being a regionally recognised race, it’s grown to being without argument the strongest marathon field in the country, and probably the strongest marathon race in the world away from the big championship races. For me, it seems like I’ve kept pace with it’s growth, and I set my sights for the weekend the same as I did back in 2012: I would have been happy with a top 20. But really, there was a more important but boring goal: I just wanted to finish smoothly. A clean, no mistakes race. I kept that front and centre all weekend, through the criterium and the main event, and the constant reminder to be patient and careful really paid off.

The Crit: Friday’s spectator spectacular went off in usual fashion. I managed to accidentally get a front row line up, and followed Levi Kurlander through the first corner, then got to the top of the famed Union Street climb first on the opening lap. No other reason than, why not? It was entertaining to be at the front, but I quickly backed off and found a more sensible group to race around in. I upped my cadence a lot and relaxed, enjoying watching the crowds get drunker and drunker on each lap past the hill. I finished at the back of a chase group, happy to have survived without major incident.

Bike set up: Epic Rides states you have to run the same bike for Friday’s crit as the main event on Sunday (great rule!). So I rode the Spark 900 RC SL. I didn’t bother putting slick tyres on the bike, as I wasn’t that invested in the result. I ran my normal IKON 2.2 tyres pumped to 35 psi (the most I’d risk putting in a modern tubeless MTB tyre).

The main event: I did an abbreviated warm up, still feeling fatigue from Friday’s crit and Saturday’s pre-ride. I got to the line early and found a warm sunny spot to watch as the field filled in around me. The course had changed since the last time I did the race, giving the pack much more room to spread out before the singletrack. I liked the new start, and liked that the immediate up hill limited the amount of time I spent being freezing cold before the racing got underway. I surfed the back of the field as everyone jostled for position around me, and then picked the right time to move up before we got to the dirt road section. I played the beginning of the race well, and found myself in around 30th place. Here was the hard part: once you’d found that position, the first section of singletrack locked you into a conga line of riders. No point wasting energy or stress on trying risky passes. Although I was being held up by a couple of people, I had to just calm down and be patient. It worked out quite well, and by the first open climb (about 5 miles into the race) I had space around me to get on with the racing. I found myself alone after about 45 minutes of racing, with a small group ahead of me (Todd Wells, Finsterwald, Ettinger) and a big group behind me (Payson McElveen, Christoph Sauser (!!!), Taylor Lideen and plenty more).

I wasn’t feeling good enough to attempt a bridge up to the next group, so instead settled into a rhythm, knowing that the bigger group behind me would swallow me up on the way down to Skull Valley. That’s exactly what happened. I got to the bottom of the long climb with sensations starting to come around. I’d had unusual stomach issues at the beginning of the race: a bit of cramping and nausea that I’ve experienced perhaps only twice before. I switched to drinking just water quite early in the day, and I think that helped clear my stomach. Skull Valley is a long climb. 12 miles and 2700 feet of climbing (that’s 19km and 820m). Payson and Christoph Sauser were doing a lot of work on the front, and I really wasn’t ready to commit my matches to pulling everyone around just yet. I stoically ignored Payson’s requests for me to pull through, and I didn’t realise he was taking those signal to mean I was cracking. But either way, it worked, and I happily sat in the group for a while as we started the climb. I came to the front of the group about half way up, and knew I needed to inject some pace if I was going to separate myself. Through the feed zone I put in a little pace and got a gap, only pulling Payson with me. We caught Finsterwald towards the top of the climb, and at that point I thought we’d ride together until the finish. I was feeling good though, so went to the front again and got some separation. Knowing how good both of those guys are on the way down, I wanted to stay ahead into the singletrack and hope to hold them up a little. That didn’t happen, and instead I gained a bit more time, and eventually caught Spencer Paxson on the last descent. We crossed the last (and famous) creek crossing together and revelled in the huge crowds dotted through the forest. I was pretty spent at that point, and the thought of a sprint finish filled me with dread. Paxson willingly did most of the work into town, and hammered up the final climb. I was prepared to duke it out, but he seemed unwilling to sprint, so I went to the line solo for 13th place.

Bike notes: Scott Spark full suspension. 55 psi front, 130 psi rear. Tires: Maxxis IKON 2.2 with 20.5 psi front, 21 psi rear.

Nutrition notes: 2 bottles of Kiwi lime carborocket drink mix, 4 bottles of water, 6 honey stinger fruit gels, 1 packet of honey stinger chews.

Clothing notes: This is the first year I have a thin “summer weight” jersey. In previous years I’ve raced in a thick, black jersey, and the difference is huge! I felt so much more comfortable today than any other time I’ve been out in the heat like that.

Mission accomplished. I raced smooth and patiently. I was conservative on the downhills, and lost a few places there, but got them all back by the end. I proved I’m in the shape I need to do for both more Epic Rides events (Grand Junction in May and Carson City in June), and some World Cups (details TBD, but hopefully Andorra and Lenzerheide). More importantly, I got to see that the Mountain Bike community is alive and well, and filled with very fast young racers that will be beating me handedly in the near future! That’s what it’s all about!

 

 

Moab Rocks: coming right up

Lots of trail time in Lyons this spring
Lots of trail time in Lyons this spring

And just like that, it’s race season. I’m preparing to head to Moab for a long weekend of racing and riding bikes, and I cannot wait! Moab Rocks has been going on for a few years, but this is the first time it’s moved to the spring, instead of autumn. That’s made it much more appealing, and I think the field will be a lot stronger as a result. I’ve been seeing lots of the Durango riders making regular trips to Moab in order to pre-ride the stages, which has me a little scared. I’ve firmly put this race in the “enjoy myself and get fitter” column on the race schedule, but I know that you can’t turn up to any pro level race in this part of the world without encountering serious riders with their game faces on.


I’ll be riding my trail bike for this race, a Scott Genius. Not sure if it’s the ideal choice, but it’s the only one I’ve got for now so I’ll deal with it. I’ve put on the standard Maxxis Ikon 2.2 tires, and the bike weighs in pretty light at around 24.5 lbs, so I don’t think I’ll be too disadvantaged. The first stage climbs to the top of Porcupine Rim on a service road, and this will be the main part of the race where I might lose some time. The bike has the awesome Twinloc suspension lockouts, so I’m sure I’ll be just fine. I’ve got a new Scott Spark on the way for the rest of the season, and although I was hoping it would make it in time for this weekend, it might well be a blessing in disguise.

Fitness feels good. I’ve trained more than in previous years, including more time with some fast group rides on the road. I’ve also been riding the trail bike a lot on our new back door trails around Lyons. I’m hoping the combination of both road and trail time will set me in good stead, and even though I haven’t ridden the Porcupine Rim trail for a while, I think I can remember it well enough to get by. After Moab Rocks I’ve got another few weeks of training before jetting off to the Sea Otter Classic in California, and then the first goal of the season at the Whiskey 50 at the end of April. I’ve really enjoyed starting the race season a little later this year, and I hope it will pay off later in the season with some more base fitness to call upon, and some motivation to keep racing until the very end of the summer. As always in Colorado, our best mountain bike races don’t get going until August.

A super early spring in Boulder has me worried for the fire season. Im hoping we get some spring storms coming through soon!

Snow packed trails are as close as Colorado gets to real dirt

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The Colorado winter has stamped its authority on most of the state this year in dramatic effect: record snow totals and unending storm cycles seems to be keeping the chairlifts full and the backcountry waist deep in our famed airy snow. The weekends have been filled with some awesome adventures in the snow, but with avalanche conditions expectedly sketchy, there has been plenty of time for riding bikes too. 

Colorado always gets a mix of warm and cold days in the winter. Storm fronts battle over the mountains, buffeting the Front Range by warm chinook winds that pour off the high peaks. These conditions are a dream for mountain bikers. The winds dry out our trails in record time, even in winter, and raise the temperature from close to freezing to the mid teens celsius. 

The trails around our new house in Lyons are already pretty known to me. Even the ones not on the maps. Although most of the south-facing trails have been dry for a few weeks, I’ve been encountering packed snow on the northerly stuff. As long as you avoid the midday sun, it’s been nice to ride on the frozen bed of the trail without getting muddy at all. Colorado is known for its rocky, sandy trails and lack of loamy dirt to slide around on, so the snow is a welcome change in conditions under the treads.

While Picture Rock has been closed a lot due to “muddy” conditions, Hall Ranch has been open, and I’ve ridden it a lot. The trail has been dry down low, but tacky higher up. The top of Hall Ranch has been snow packed for a while now, creating the best conditions I’ve ever experiences there. All the rocks are buried, meaning I’ve dropped the tire pressure to compensate. The sunbaked sections have got icy, too, creating traction similar to slippery roots. All in all, it’s been an eye opener to see how well a conventional trail bike can cope with the snow.

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Christa and I are now on our way to Sedona for a few days of real mountain biking on real dirt. It’s a long drive, but I’ve wanted to get there for a few years ago, and this seems like the perfect opportunity. Bring on the winter sunshine.

Colorado is past Peak Cyclocross, and why it doesn’t matter

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It’s official: we’re past peak cyclocross in Colorado. The hype has faded. The crowds have diminished. But it doesn’t matter one little bit.

As I drove into Valmont Bike Park on Sunday for the US Open of Cyclocross, I was prepared for the normal scrum. Cars parked everywhere, the parking attendant’s voice drowned under the sounds of cow bells from the 5280 stairs. But that didn’t happen. I cruised into the car park and stopped in one of a dozen empty spots. The crowds were thin, the course tape fluttering in the wind without even a hardened supporter to hold it back. What happened? The truth is that Colorado is over the hyperbole that accompanied the arrival of the National Championships in January 2014. The amatuer and elite fields have diminished in size. Even the junior fields have suffered.

Last week, the best race promoter in the state hung up his hat. Tim Lynch had run the Cross of the North for six years, bringing together challenging (and novel) courses, prize payouts, DJ’s, and a prime middle-of-the-season date. But even this wasn’t enough to stave off the inevitable. Racer numbers declined from 1250 to 1000 this year. That might not seem like a huge change, but in a business where margins are slim and prize purses have to be declared ahead of time to get the pro’s to turn out, it makes a big difference.

Why is this trend happening? I’ll list a few reasons that should piss off most people in some regard or another.

  1. High School MTB racing: It’s taking off. Over a 1000 racers on a regular basis. These young racers don’t drive to events by themselves, though; they have willing parents in tow for the weekend. This is alongside coaches and vendors who are all tapping into the huge success of the format. In a state where volunteer power and sponsoring companies are finite, it’s obvious that these events will be pulling people from master’s fields, juniors fields, and the expo arena. This is no bad thing. I’m a huge advocate of high school racing. If it’s bringing kids from outside of the sport into racing, it will be a benefit for everyone. Unlike traditional club racing, where even juniors have to know someone who’s into cycling if they’re going to start competing, High School racing has the ability to spread into a wider population of teens. This can only be a great thing.
  2. Reliance on a finite number of racers. There’s a vocal group of people that blame Boulder for races failing. The argument is this: “Boulder won’t drive more than 15 minutes to race. It’s their fault that races fail”. I’d like to reverse this argument and suggest that relying on people driving to a race when there is a local alternative is not a sound business model. Bike races are a little bit like coffee shops: if there’s one closer and the coffee is halfway decent, you’re not going to drive past it. There are great examples of races doing really well outside of the bubble. Take a look at what raceco.org are doing with the summer Race the MAC series in Castle Rock. Big turnout, friendly vibes, and few Boulderites to ruin the party. What about the Back to Basics series in Golden? Sustainable and friendly, and a business model that doesn’t rely on Boulder to fuel the fun. Perhaps a small start and a focus on attracting more cyclists from their home community will lead to a great event. Then people from Boulder might pay attention in years to come…
  3. Staleness of the courses. I’m not talking venues here, but the courses themselves. After a few years of racing, is it too much to ask that the promoter head back out and dream up another way to string the course tape? We have some great parks on the front range, but a little imagination would go a long way. Once a venue like Interlocken or Flatirons is established as a great place to race bikes, a fresh course can only be a good thing. If for no other reason than marketing: if “BRAND NEW COURSE” isn’t a way to attract racers, I don’t know what is. side note: CX of the north has had a new course multiple times, and it’s still seeing dwindling numbers, hence why this point only got to number three on the list.
  4. Specialization. People are pretty serious about cross these days. It’s no longer about beer swilling and staying fit for the “real” race season in the summer. Rather than racing twice in a weekend for two months straight, people are focusing on peaking and doing well at select events. This drives down participation. This may also be the reason why the strength of fields hasn’t fallen even as the field size has: it’s harder than ever to get in the top 10 of any category, even if it’s easier than ever to make 20th.

But this doesn’t matter. Although the number of racers has diminished, it’s still huge. Bigger than 5 years ago. The hardcore will keep racing, events will adapt to cater for that number of people, and the huge number of people who have tried cyclocross in the last couple years are unlikely to disappear totally. They’ve been immersed in the culture, and whether it’s an MTB race or just a bikepacking trip they try next, they’re still on bikes. Or simply ensure their children will race high school events and stay in the community. And that’s a good thing.

So go race your bike. Give it your all. Throw in a mountain bike ride on the occasional Sunday, and worry not about the health of the sport. It will be just fine.

 

 

GoPro Games – forget the marginal gains

 

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We’re standing on the top of the car park looking at the course tape flapping in the morning breeze. The Aspen trees are bright green, the Gore Range behind us is silver with melting snow, and the pollen is flowing off the pines trees in huge waves. The pine pollen forms a bright yellow fog wafting up and down the valley. You can feel it on the back of your throat. Combined with the altitude in Vail, it’s making the process of getting lycra’d up a little taxing. Welcome to the GoPro Mountain Games.

You would be mistaken for thinking this was the front of the race, but Howard and Fernando were already up the road somewhere.
You would be mistaken for thinking this was the front of the race, but Howard and Fernando were already up the road somewhere.

Fast forward an hour or so and I’m chuckling as I see Howard Grotts pulling away from the rest of the field. He’s got a sizeable gap, and it looks like he’s got the win locked down. We’re all of 30 seconds into the race. My lungs complain, but the legs get on with the job in hand, and I find myself in a group of four people as we approach the top of the first climb. I feel terrible, but I seem to be doing OK. Perhaps everyone else feels worse? I bank on that and move to the front of the group, managing to follow Russell Finsterwald’s wheel on the rollercoaster back to the bottom.

The GoPro Games is a stereotypical ski resort race: the climb from the village to the snow line (800 feet up) takes about 20 minutes, then you hit a flowy descent back to the bottom. Three short little punchy climbs as you traverse the bottom of the ski area knock the wind out of you, and then you do it again.

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By the second time up the climb, the group I’m riding in had reshuffled. Troy Wells puts in an attack. I duck my head and fail to follow. Ben Sonntag stalks me from behind, not yet making the move I know he’s capable of. Russell Finsterwald is a switchback behind. It’s like a slow game of poker. Who’s holding what cards? Who is bluffing and who is about to lay down a strong hand? Ben motors past me at the top of the climb – to be expected. I  fall back a little, but catch both Ben and Troy on the next descent. It’s down to round three. Ben makes a move and calls my bluff. I give it everything I can to stay with him, but look up to see him crest the climb. He shifts down a couple gears, gets out of the saddle and gives it a couple hard pedal strokes. I think about standing up and my left calf tells me that it will cramp like hell if I do. I sit and spin instead. I grind it out to the top, and take an unnecessary look behind me. Empty space. I descend like it’s my first time. Coordination is as low as my blood sugar. I barely managed to navigate the silly slalom gates on the finish straight, and collapse neatly into a cold can of coke handed to me by Des from the BCS Team.

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Super happy to take fifth in a strong field. It was a race where I never felt great, but I don’t think anyone did. The support and friendly faces out there were amazing. I think I saw literally a hundred people I knew before the start, and way more afterwards. Everyone was so happy to be up in the hills, and I didn’t hear a negative comment all day. That in itself is pretty fantastic. I had great support from the Boulder Cycle Sport team, who had a tent at the start line with much needed shade and a chair. The same shade and chair were supplemented with a coke after the race! Des Simon is a superstar supporter who is completely community minded, and is also a fantastic bottle hander upper. It was awesome to have that certainty of knowing where my bottle was coming from while I was suffering!

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Some thoughts on Marginal Gains: I spent much of 2013 and 2014 wondering what little tricks the fast guys were using to get that extra speed that I didn’t have. Was it tyre pressure? It definitely had to be something to do with suspension set up, right? What about Beetroot juice? Should I stop drinking beer altogether? What’s the optimal warm up before a race? There must be some simple trick that these guys are doing in their warm up that’s giving them that extra couple of percent on the climbs.

NOPE.

Marginal gains are an absolute waste of time until you’ve conquered on those big gains that are out there. Like working harder. Racing smarter. Being consistent. Not flatting. Doing the interval session when you don’t want to. How many of those gains you’re willing to work for? In the end, training harder (which is very different than training more) will get you wherever you need to go. Hard work really does pay off.

Old Man Winter – Version 2

Wake up. Coffee first. Always. It’s normally tea, but it’s coffee today. Race day. It’s been a while. The routine is still there, but a little fuzzy. A season off from cross racing means that my race morning routine is askew. My kit bag isn’t a kit bag any more. It’s been cleaned. Thankfully. The empty packets of carborocket, safety pins and single dirty socks have been removed. I go through the process. Walking around the house in no particular order until I seem to have all the things I might need. What do I even need for today?

It’s not a normal race, Old Man Winter. It’s different. When else will I be racing for three hours in sub zero weather? I put in all the clothes I’d ride in, then some extras. I won’t wear them all but something forbids me from leaving the house under-prepared. I still forget my heart rate strap.

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The start line is a cold place. Josh Kravetz, Race Director, tells us how pumped he is that we’re racing. We chatter our teeth in approval. Thickly gloved hands produce a muffled applause for last year’s winner Bryan Alders. I went with the decision to wear most of the clothes. Thick skullcap, neck gaiter, and thick gloves. I ditched the shoe covers, perhaps a foolhardy decision considering the temperature. With a two-mile run in the middle of the race, I couldn’t stand the thought of all that snow building up on the bottoms of my shoes.

We speed down the highway behind a blacked out Police dodge charger. The discussion in the pack centres around whether the driver has ever motorpaced a cyclist before. We continue to stick our tyres as close to the rear spoiler as we can. The sharp right turn onto dirt happens just like last year; tapping of brakes, short bursts of acceleration, and then the real race is underway. No horses this year, thankfully.

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Just like last year, a couple people went to the front to burn some energy and get out the pack. I stayed put, enjoying brief 10-15 second conversations with an array of people I only see at races. There were all kinds of people up there: Mountain Bikers, Roadies, people with beards. The race got going for real when we meandered our way off the flat dirt roads that eastern Boulder County is known for, and up Lefthand Canyon. There were some interesting differences from last year. Gone was the pack racing mentality on smooth tarmac. In its place a narrow and rough dirt road that had been ripped up by road construction, and a mandatory single file rule. I wasn’t impressed when I read that rule, thinking it would be impossible to enforce. I was wrong. The pack spread out and the pace quickened. Gaps opened and splits formed; we were definitely single file.

Rowena is the undoubted crux of Old Man Winter. The two-mile trail is completely shaded, sitting on the north facing side of the canyon. Last year, the snow had been packed hard into a mainly rideable tread. This year was different. A big storm dumped over a foot on the trail the week before the race, and the surface was soft. Too soft to ride, no matter the bike. Muscle memory kicked in and I shouldered my bike smoothly and took some strides into the snow. In a cross race, the absurdity of running with a bike on your shoulder is so short lived that it’s bearable. Not so here. After 5 minutes my shoulder hurt. After 10 minutes the continuous plunging of my feet into the icy snow felt like shards of glass cutting into my legs. After 15 minutes it was all numb. A glimmer of red dirt breaking through the snow had us all leaping onto the bikes. Michael Burleigh, just ahead of me, leapt through my bottle cage, rendering it useless. On the plus side, it made shouldering the bike far easier for the rest of the run.

Never have I been happier to get back on my cross bike that at the top of the trail. We formed a lead group of six. The pace down Sunshine Canyon was intense. I was on Brandon Dwight’s borrowed Focus Mares, with the brakes American style, so I didn’t have too much confidence coming into the turns at 40 mph. I let others do the danger work and I held on for dear life.

The 2015 playbook repeated itself on Linden. Sepp Kuss danced his way up Linden, but this time he towed Burleigh with him. Bryan Alders, Yannick Eckmann and I formed a heavy legged “chase” group. Chase wasn’t really the word though, as none of us made an effort to bridge the gap on the climb. Descending Bow Mountain was a hilariously good time; the road was packed and icy, making the perfect luge run for cross bikes. Foot out, rear brake on and grinning from ear to ear. Sepp crashed somewhere on the downhill, so we ended up getting onto Olde Stage pretty close together. My tactical error of the day happened here: I should have dug deep early on the climb to close the gap to Sepp and Burleigh, but I paced myself, thinking it best not to go too deep, and knowing that any gaps formed here wouldn’t last to Lyons. I was wrong.

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I gapped Yannick and Bryan, but didn’t catch on to the leaders. The no-mans land was short lived when Yannick caught me on the descent, and we worked together to start pulling the leaders back. We could see them ahead of us, no more than 30 seconds up and probably less. The idea of drafting was hilarious: is it better to sit behind someone and get a continuous shower of just-thawed mud gravy, or ride in front and burn some energy? Either way, we worked well together, and soon had Sepp in our sights. Burleigh, on the other hand had attacked and gone solo off the front. It’s unfortunate that he lost his Garmin before the finish, as I’d love to know where and how he turned our 30-second deficit into over two minutes at the finish. Despite Yannick pushing me down Nelson road (I was spun out in the 42t chainring), and having Sepp join our rotation, we were powerless to pull the gap back in. We came into Lyons as a trio. I went to the back of the group, and then pre-emptively crossed the road, trying to get a jump through the awkward zigzag turn that Bryan bested me on last year. I managed to pull perhaps 5 metres ahead, but it wasn’t enough, and Yannick just came around me on the line, turning 2nd into 3rd in an instant.

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Burleigh had time to compose himself before we even finished, doubling the sting of being beaten so handedly. The combined fatigue of the run and the ride in such cold weather hollowed me from the inside, and I was soon too cold to contemplate being outside any more. I stepped gently to the car. The kind of walk where you can’t feel your legs. I stripped fully naked in the car park, before putting on every assortment of clothes left in the car. Including Christa’s down jacket and scarf.
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What a day to be a bike racer. The unpredictability of the race is indescribable. Every race has unknowns, but the Old Man Winter takes it to a new level. You could do the same course with the same people every February for 10 years and come away with a different race each time. I knew it last year, but it’s confirmed now: Boulder has a new classic that will be on the calendar for a long time to come.

What no cross racing?

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Enough people have asked why I’m not racing cross to actually write a blog post (yeah, people still do that). Rather than racing cyclocross, I’ve been galavanting through the hills on some amazing mountain bike rides, and also supporting Christa as she’s dived head-on into cross fever, and taking a break from racing. My racing hiatus isn’t permanent – I’m going all in for Mountain Bike season next year, so I thought I should put my feet up for a month or two instead of draining the battery even further. No matter how many small breaks you take throughout the season, it’s good to stop completely for a bit and rest. I get to the end of every season still motivated and enthusiastic about riding bikes, but that continuous drive to race needs to be tempered by what’s good physiologically too. So I’m not in for cross season. But I’ll be in the pits drinking beer instead. It’s actually really hard not to race, but I know it will pay off next year for MTB season.

Next year: I’m three UCI points away from racing a World Cup. So that’s what I’m aiming for. Having a break earlier in the year means I can get in some quality rest, followed by a lot of strength training, and still be ahead when it comes to base miles in the spring. Unlike last year, I’m starting racing a little earlier to see whether I can get some points in time for the June World Cups. The goal will be all the short lap XC races that attract so much internet hate, but are so fun and intense to race. I’m not sure on the exact schedule yet, but I’m thinking I’ll be heading over to Europe at least once during the season. Christa and I are getting married at the end of July, so that seems like a good time to take a break. Then? Not sure yet, but I have a feeling that Cyclocross season 2016 will be really appealing.

On the team front: I’m sticking with Boulder Cycle Sport and YogaGlo for 2016. I didn’t even consider looking for other teams. With assurances that the team will be even better supported than last year, I’m very happy to be staying in the same kit. I’ve done a lot of skills coaching for BCS this year, and in the process have met a huge bunch of people in Boulder that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. That’s pretty awesome. Their community philosophy is worth supporting, and they make me feel valued as an athlete. It doesn’t really get much better than that.