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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.

Carson City Offroad – some takeaways from a deflating day in Nevada

This was my first trip to the Carson City Offroad; the final stop in the three-race Epic Rides series. These epic rides events always find quirky towns to host the races, and Carson City is no exception. It’s got a very similar feel to Prescott (home of the Whiskey 50). It’s an “Old West” town, with lots of optimistic architecture, but a decidedly tired feel. I hope the race can go some way to changing that, as the potential for mountain biking here is huge, and the town seemed really receptive to hosting the event and building a reputation for good riding.

Carson City is the state capital of Nevada, meaning it’s got some really impressive courthouses, and lots of early 1900s architecture

I started the race in 4th on the overall standings. Much was made of the battle between Kyle Trudeau and I for the third place overall, but looking at the time differences, I would have had to put over 5 minutes into him to knock him out the way. I was more concerned with Payson McElveen just a minute or so back from me. Either way, I didn’t really start the race with the overall standings in mind, but more my normal goal of “no mistakes”.

The race started on King’s Canyon Road. The pace was fiery for what would be a long day on the bike. I got dropped from the main bunch, and instead of competing for the holeshot into the trail, I ended up losing two minutes to the leaders by the top of the first climb. The legs didn’t want to push any harder, and I don’t know why. I was descending well, though, and over the course of the race, was happy to see that I was consistently 10-15 seconds faster than the leaders down the singletrack descent. When you’re losing minutes on the climb, gaining seconds on the way back down isn’t going to help. It was fun descending with Taylor Lideen on the first lap though, even if he later found out he’d already snapped his frame.

The course used trails above Carson City, that had a very similar feel to Betasso in Boulder. Slightly off camber, but mainly flowing and wide.

The descending did help get me back in the race a little, and after the first lap (of three), I’d moved up well and felt like I could get back into it. By the second time up the climb, I’d caught a lot of people, and was riding in about 14th. I thought I could salvage something from the event, and maybe get into the prize money to cover my costs. Again, the second lap descent went well in terms of speed, but I’ve struggled with my hands and arms going numb when going downhill. Not sure what the problem is, as my bike fit is really good, and I worked a lot on upper back strength at RevoPT this winter. I’m going to get on a pair of the Ergon GA2 grips and see whether that helps. I haven’t used Ergon grips for a few years, so excited to see if that makes things better.

Lap three: I moved into the chase group for 10th, and quickly reeled in Spencer Paxson in 9th on the bottom of the climb. I finally felt like I expected to going into the race, and even if I’d lost the chance of a podium with a terrible opening lap, I knew I could get a top 10.

Then I flatted. On the climb.

I think a combination of lost concentration and over enthusiasm to pull back Spencer had me not paying attention to the small rocky sections on the climb. I pinched the bead of my tire, and had to put a tube in. It took me 10 minutes to fix the flat, which is more than twice as long as a smooth fix should take. My first CO2 cartridge failed, and the second one got me to “just about OK” pressure. It meant I had to baby the tire around the last lap, an extra kick in the teeth after the time wasted fixing the flat. I gained a few of the places I lost, but by that point in the race the time gaps were so large that I was never going to claw my way to where I wanted to be.

I finished in 16th place, and failed to really muster much emotion about it. I’d lost my placing in the overall, dropping out of the top 5, and left the event without any prize money.

Coming into the season I told my coach that I was fed up with being consistently “good”, and instead wanted to push myself to get some “excellent” results. The trade-off there was going to be the risk of performing mediocrely sometimes in order to build some more fitness and get to a higher level. I think that’s the path I’m on at the moment. GoPro games last weekend was a poor race, this weekend was better, as the sensations did come around in the end. It’s now two weeks away from my first World Cup this year in Andorra, and I’m really confidently that I can put it all together in time to get a good result. The overall goal for the season (british national championships), is another month away, and I’m feeling like I’ll be flying by then. Looking forward to making the final tweaks to get things straight, and see what happens when I do.

The best part of the weekend was staying with Christa’s aunt and uncle, and a quick trip up to Tahoe to jump in the lake.

 

GoPro Games – A quick recap from a Colorado Classic.

GoPro Games. Finding a traditional ski resort XC race in the world of modern mountain biking is actually quite rare. XC Trends have moved on to shorter climbs and more technical descents, while Marathon races have also got more technical, too. The three lap format of the race reminds me of the Mountain States Cups that were held in Colorado when I first arrived. Strong but small (30 people in the pro race) fields. Long but very smooth climbs on the service roads through the ski area, with only a small amount of climbing on actual trail. The descents were mainly man-made on fun and flowy ski area style trails. Too wide to be called singletrack. Too predictably built to be scary or dangerous, even when speeds get high.

Through the rosy lens of nostalgia, the race actually starts to sound quite fun, but racing it is a completely different reality. It’s a sufferfest with absolutely nowhere to hide. Howard Grotts has made it his life’s goal to win every edition of the race from now until ever, and predictably it was him alone out front after just 5 minutes of racing. While I felt lethargic at the start, I was certain I could race myself into some good legs, and so worked hard on the first lap. We found a group of three people – Teammate Grant Ellwood, Rotem Ishay and I, and began reeling in Josiah Middaugh, who had escaped at the start. Half way up the climb I got stung by a wasp on my upper thigh. It left its stinger poking through my lycra, and after about 5 minutes of agony I realised I should probably pull it out.

Between lap 1 and lap 2 I realised the “good legs” weren’t going to show up, and instead I needed to dig deep and suffer my way through the race instead. On a normal day, I can make myself hurt without calling on my inner reserves of willpower to do so, and that Good Hurt also normally yields some fine form too. Today wasn’t like that. The hurt was bad. It was a hollow feeling. The hurt went through my back, through my neck and arms, and numbed my hands as I suffered towards the top of the second climb. Grant Ellwood had put in a great move ahead of me, and I could see him slowly catching Middaugh. The open climb affords a view of everything happening around you. I could see Todd Wells (three minutes ahead), Middaugh and the chasing Ellwood (1 minute ahead), and then Rotem, Alex Grant, Levi Kurlander all spread out on the switchbacks below. It doesn’t make for much suspense, but it gives you a great sense of perspective about where you are on the course.


Lap three was survival. I got hold of a bottle of water, instead of drink mix and that did wonders. By the mid-point of the third climb I actually felt like I was coming around a little, but I think my pace had just dropped low enough to be working the slow and steady aerobic system instead. That system wasn’t the problem today – it was that little extra that you normally call on in a race that you know can pull you up a notch. I cruised the last descent, sitting down between corners to try to unseize my back, and was happy I wasn’t being chased closely. I came across the line in 5th. Same as last year, and actually a decent result, as well as a reasonable payday ($500).

As soon as I finished the pain from the sting really caught up with me, and I spent about 10 minutes at the finish wondering whether I was going to pass out or throw up. It’s been awhile since I felt that rough at the finish of a race. It was probably about time I reminded myself of what suffering feels like. After I’d stopped feeling sorry for myself, I had two big takeaways from the race: Grant’s performance was sublime. Without regard to the fitness he’s got now, it was well measured and smooth. He’s a talent for sure, and it’s great to have him in these pro races. I’ve never had a BCS teammate on the MTB side, and although there’s no tactics that can play out on a course like this, it’s great to know you have an ally. Second takeaway: I raced really well despite feeling like shit. I did my biggest block of training all year in the 10 days leading up to the race, and I think that’s enough to account for how I felt. Nothing a good chunk of rest cannot solve.

Bike choice today: Spark 900 RC SL. (Nearly went for the hardtail. It would have been a good choice considering how smooth the descent was this year). Ikon 2.2 EXO tires with 21 front and 22 psi rear.

Onwards now to the Carson City Off-road this weekend. Looking forward to having a longer race on the cards, and visiting some of Christa’s family in the process.

GJ Offroad: finding my limits at the front of a big field. 8th place

 

The Grand Junction Offroad is the second installment of the three-race Epic Rides offroad series. I’ve had some good success at the race in previous years (before it really heated up in terms of competition) with a 4th in 2014 and a 3rd in 2015. I skipped last year to race the May rounds of the world cups. This year I was back to face up against a much stronger field. I was happy with my race at Whiskey though, which had left me in 7th place out of the riders contesting the series overall. The goal was a top 10 finish.

To hit the goal of a top 10 I had to do two things: not puncture, and not get stuck in traffic which would prevent me latching onto the lead group. My worry about flats actually ended up being my downfall for the entire race. Although I’ve run 21-22 psi all season, I made the stupid pre-race decision to pump my tires up to 25 psi. I thought this would help avoid the risk of pinch flatting. It was a silly thing to do, and it made the technical riding a challenge all day.

I had a great start and lead the race into the singletrack at the lunch loops trailhead. It was a wise choice, because I avoided all the bunching, bumping and barging that happens in the first sections of trail. It also put me into a great position to latch onto the lead group. I made the opening selection out the top of the lunch loops, and choked down as much food as I could on little park road before dropping into the trails. Here I made another mistake: I sprinted Rob Squire for the singletrack into Twist and Shout. I ended up putting out a 10 second effort of 950 watts. Really silly. I knew Squire wasn’t good on the technical stuff, but it wasn’t worth that effort. Sonntag, who didn’t do that sprint, quickly got around Squire when he made a mistake anyway. Lesson learned.

It was here the race really went downhill for me. I felt like my suspension was stuck in locked out mode, but it wasn’t. I couldn’t get around the corners to save my life, and after feeling very smooth on the bike for all of the early season, I was disappointed to be the guy holding people up on the trail. I was the cause of the split in the field, with Kabush, Riveros and Finsterwald just easily cruising away from me. Everyone behind me must have been really annoyed. By the time we found our way to the Gunnison River at the end of the Butterknife trail, the leaders were about a minute up, and we had a group of four: Kyle Trudeau, Ben Sonntag, Alex Grant, and I. We launched onto the long (7 miles, 3000 feet of climbing) windmill road climb, and I was quickly distanced from the group. It’s here that I really suffered a lot, with the other three riders taking turns up ahead. I couldn’t quite bridge and as soon as we hit the first pitch on the climb, I was gone.

It’s here that stupid mistakes creep in. In my delirium, I tried for about 3 minutes to eat a gel. Just holding it against the bars as I rode through a couple of rock gardens. There was no reason I couldn’t wait for a smooth section of road to do the eating, but my hypoglycaemic haste prevented rational thought.

The last half of the race for me was all about survival – no mistakes allowed. Eat as much as I can. Take the time to grab a neutral bottle as well as my pre-planned feed (Thanks Tim Gerchar for the excellent support). Although I could see Alex Grant (also shrapnel from the leaders) about 20 seconds ahead of me and a group of three riders behind (who would turn out to be Payson McElveen, Jeremiah Bishop and Nic Beechan), I couldn’t do anything but just ride solo to the finish. That’s what I did.

Compared to the first half of the race (Too much enthusiasm, too much tire pressure), the second half was much better (stayed focused, rode smooth, no cramping). I pulled off an 8th place finish. Why is it that sometimes you can achieve your goal, but still be unhappy? That’s how I felt after the race. I knew I’d sabotaged myself with too high tire pressure, and perhaps the race would have played out a little bit differently. But in the end, I think the legs I had at the start were the biggest determining factor in my results. I’m looking forward to Carson City for a new venue, and another chance to test my marathon racing against the best in the country.

 

8 things I learned from a DNF at the Sea Otter Classic

A season opening DNF wasn’t exactly what I was looking for from my trip to Monterey, but there are as many things (if not more things) to learn from a failed race as a successful one. An early race bump threw my shifting out of whack, and another 45 minutes of hard racing on a bent derailleur was enough to stop me in my tracks. A cracked derailleur cage meant my chain was jamming between the pulley and the cage. I was solving the problem with some creative back pedalling, but that ended up twisting my chain around my bottom bracket, and required taking the crank off to fix the problem. So here’s my lessons from the DNF. Maybe this is applicable to others, too:

  1. Slow down and check your bike after a crash/collision. I could see my derailleur pointing out at a funny angle after a really small tangle on the first lap. If I’d stopped and spent 15 seconds straightening it, I would have finished the race. Impatience is hard to overcome in the heat of the moment. I’ll probably make the same mistake next time, too, but you never know: I might come to my senses one day!
  2. Watch the finish. I was in the race, and then very quickly standing on the sidelines. While you’re in the race, you have a myopic view of what’s going on, but when you suddenly step outside, there’s a lot of learning to do. I could see some amazing lines people were taking that I hadn’t seen. I saw people trying to attack in silly places, only to realise I had been doing the same thing a lap earlier. Most importantly, I watched the group I was in until the end of the race. It was a large 10-person group, and no one managed to escape from it until the last lap. Russell Finsterwald put in a good move to hold off the rest of the group, and it was interesting to see how the drag race played out for everyone else.
  3. Cool down like you finished the race. I got off my bike with my heart rate doing 185 bpm, didn’t manage to fix my bike, and then walked to the SRAM truck. Bad idea. My legs were crushed the next day. A spin probably would have felt good, too, and let me dissipate the annoyance of the DNF.
  4. Don’t waste negative energy dwelling on what could have been. It wasn’t your day. Learn your lessons and move on. There are lots of races in a season, and one DNF does not make you a failure. It makes you one race smarter.
  5. Don’t blame anyone but yourself. It’s never the tyre’s fault if you flat. It wasn’t the derailleur’s fault that it broke. While dwelling on the negatives is a bad thing, blaming external factors for a bad race is never a good idea either. Own your mistakes, but don’t let them get to you.
  6. Check anti-doping even if you don’t finish! You can get called for doping control even if you’re registered and don’t start the race. I forgot to check at Sea Otter, and have spent the last week wondering if my name was on the list…. hope not!
  7. Check everything else on your bike that didn’t break. For mechanical failures, there’s probably more than one thing that went wrong, even if only one part actually failed. Spend a bit of time going over your bike to make sure everything else is in good shape before you line up for the next race.
  8. Be a nice human after the race. No one cares that you DNF’d, so walking around all grumpy and glum won’t make you any friends. Drink a beer and be happy instead.

Mountain Biking needs more three-day stage races (Moab Rocks recap)

 

Photo by Kenny Wehn (Stan’s Notubes)

Tired of driving across the country for a two-hour race? Me too. Three-day stage races are the answer. With most one day races – even the short ones – costing close to $100, the price of a well run stage race is seeming much more affordable. While the big marquee events like Breck Epic take a lot of organising and time off of work (which is definitely worth it, by the way), a three-day race is easier to organise. And let’s be clear here: I’m not talking about those “stage races” that are actually a 20 minute short track, an XC race, and a 12 minute “Super D”. I’m talking about three legitimate and challenging races on real trails, in a beautiful place, and the ensuing deep and satisfying hunger that comes after racing your bike for three days in a row.

Moab Rocks ticks all the boxes above. It covers some of the best terrain on the planet. The race started on a Saturday, so I took Friday off work to drive down to Moab and settle in. Starting the weekend on the climb to Porcupine Rim gave the field a huge view of the La Sal Mountains with a fresh blanket of spring snow on them. The recent storm had cleared the air, resulting in fantastic light bouncing off the red rock canyons around us.  We then turned on to trail and descended through Ponderosa Pine forests on the edge the rim for 45 minutes to the finish. I went into the singletrack in the lead group, but an unfortunate flat dropped me off the pace before the finish. I was disappointed to make some time on the climb (and the beginning of the DH) and then have that washed away. It put me in 8th on the first stage, about 6 minutes back on the lead, and pretty much washed away my General Classification hopes for the weekend. No matter, it was a great ride, and I rode the untimed section of the descent down to the Colorado river with Rotem Ishay. He’s so smooth on his bike that it was a pleasure to follow him, and watch him session a couple of lines too.

Riding: Scott Genius trail bike with dropper post and 140mm suspension. Maxxis IKON EXO 2.2 tires running 21 psi front and rear (a little too low for the rocks of Moab, it turns out). The trail bike was a good choice on the descent, although having XC tires on a trail bike is a little precarious: I was definitely pushing the bike too hard through the rock gardens, because on an XC bike I would have made some more careful decisions on the way down. Either way: the equipment is never the problem, it always comes down to the rider!

Eating: I ate 4 Honey Stinger gels and 1 packet of chomps during the stage

Drinking: Carborocket drink mix as always. One tall and one short bottle of Kiwi/Lime mix made with a single scoop in each bottle. It goes without saying that I’ll be drinking Carborocket during a race; it’s got me through so many years of racing now, I’ve lost count.

The second day I woke up feeling better than expected. Although a hard effort, the sustained climb on day 1 resulted in not that much fatigue. With good sensations, and some time to claw back on the overall results, I decided to set the pace for the second stage. We drove out to Klondike Bluffs and warmed up on the dirt roads while watching the sun rise over the La Sals. A band of clouds hung half way up their flanks, and shimmered silver in the morning light. A layer of clouds came over pretty early in the day, leaving the temperature at a fantastic 16 celsius for the day. The race started on a flat dirt road. With 300 people racing, it was jittery to get started, but I came to the front as early as possible to get in a good position. I lead into the singletrack and hoped that I actually did have as much in my legs as I thought I did. Sitting 8th in GC, I knew I had to cause some attrition if I was going to make appreciable gains. I kept the hammer down for a while before I dared to look back, but I was pleased to see that even 15 minutes in I had made some separation. The main players were still attached though, and not looking too phased by the pace: Geoff Kabush, Ben Sonntag, Justin Lindine and Taylor Lideen were still with me, so I had no choice but to keep pedalling.

After the first big descent, I made a small navigation error and let go of the lead. Kabush went on his merry way, leaving the race for second to Justin, Ben and I. I was tired by this point. The pace setting definitely took its toll, and my technical riding began to suffer. After a late attack by Justin, it’s all I could do to hold Ben’s wheel as we drag-raced to the finish. 4th on the stage for me, but more importantly I moved from 8th to 5th on the overall. Still a long way from the win, but happier with my position nonetheless.

Riding: Same bike, same tyres but I went up on the tire pressure today. 25 psi front and rear. This was an overcompensation, and I would have been fine with the lower pressures of the first day. Live and learn! The TwinLoc suspension system was absolutely magic today. So easy to toggle between settings on the constantly undulating terrain.

Drinking: Just one bottle of Carborocket today. It was hard to find time to drink on the stage, and the lower temperature meant I didn’t need too much anyway.

Eating: 6 gels! That’s a lot of sugar in a two-hour race.

Taylor Lideen and I had our game faces on from the start of stage three

The last day of the race fell on a Monday morning. There aren’t many better feelings than racing bikes on a Monday! The weather was really mixed, with a big storm blowing across the mountains. The clouds had kept the night-time temperature up, but without the sun breaking through, it stayed around 12 Celsius all day. I decided to not bring another layer with me, which was risky but in the end turned out to be OK. We started the race on the steep climb up Gemini Bridges road. The pace was pretty strenuous as people jockeyed for position, but once again I thought it best to spend my energy upfront, rather than getting jostled around and burning matches overtaking on the singletrack. I briefly saw the lead, but very quickly Justin Lindine laid down his agenda with a fierce pace on the climb. I should have been sensible and metered my effort a little, as I knew the tank was low, but I didn’t do that. I followed Justin for a while, and actually started to feel comfortable. This didn’t last very long and I ended up dropping the pace, getting passed by Kabush, and then riding the climb with Sonntag who had been much more sensible. I wasn’t feeling great, but thought I could hold it together on the way down. I was wrong. I dropped Ben’s wheel really early on the descent for no good reason, and then struggled to ride what was in front of me for the rest of the day. This section of trail is called Bull Run, and I’ve ridden it a few times. It’s not that challenging, but definitely rough, and my complete lack of punch really began to show. By the time I exited out of the bottom and found the sandy wash to come home I was seeing stars. I put my head down, picked up the pace a little and pushed hard for home. I had hoped to gain the 3.5 minutes I needed to move ahead of Taylor Lideen on the GC. He started the day with a most likely broken thumb, and was in the pain cave from the start. He held on though, and finished just 2 minutes back on me to hold his position. True guts right there.

Riding: this was the first day that the trail bike felt like a real burden. The punchy climb had a huge number of accelerations in it, and I just couldn’t get the bike up to speed. The undulating descent didn’t really test the bike either, so although it might have been a bit more comfortable, I don’t think I got proper use out of it. Knowing how capable the Spark is (the little brother to the Genius), I think I would have been very happy with an XC bike all weekend.

Drinking: Low temperatures helped today, but I still got through two tall bottles of Carborocket. The fuel tank was close to empty all day, and reaching for a drink at every opportunity was all I could do to keep going.

Eating: Not enough! Justin’s attack on the climb threw me off a little, and I spent time chasing him instead of focusing on my own race. I got down 4 gels during the race; barely enough to get to the finish.

I finished the week in 5th overall, 10 minutes back on Geoff Kabush who took the win. I made a big mistake by being so impatient on the first day, and flatting as a result. Lesson learned. The longer the race progressed, the sillier it seemed to have been taking so many risks early on. I think that’s something I need to remember in every race this season. Generally I’m really happy with the way I raced though. The pace I set on stage 2 shows that I have some top end fitness that I wasn’t sure was there, and although I faded a bit, I still think my endurance is better than where it was last year. The best thing is that I still have a month or so before the next big goal of the year at the Whiskey 50.

I’ll be back again to Moab Rocks – I can’t imagine a better way to open the season, and the friendly vibe just makes it more appealing. It’s definitely a race worth traveling to!

 

Old Man Winter V.3: taking some good things from an otherwise frustrating day.

I flatted out of the Old Man Winter Rally yesterday. It was probably the most expected outcome from my decision to ride a road bike on a course that was a lot more suited to something with off-road capabilities. But it was the risk I took, and I’m still not too disappointed with the result.

The race rally started about 45 seconds ride from our new house, making the morning a relaxed affair. I rolled out in the middle of the pack, and finally got the itch to actually race the thing as soon as the pack started rolling. The motivation for racing has been low recently, mainly because training has gone so well. With almost six weeks of really consistent training under my belt, I’m looking forward to the season ahead. But I also came into the race tired, and knowing it would be a tough day on the bike. The sunny weather and completely calm conditions helped alot, and by the time we turned onto the first dirt road, I was revelling in the race.

The route had changed slightly compared to previous years, to take in a little extra dirt earlier in the race. This proved decisive. We turned into the Oskar Blues Farm about 30 minutes in, and the large front group got completely shattered. While in previous years the race hadn’t split up until Lefthand Canyon, this extra off-road section broke the race into a front group of 12, with everyone else chasing behind. The pace then picked up to establish our gap. Everyone I expected to feature at the finish was already in the group, so the chances of anyone bridging were pretty small. Alex Howes, Michael Burleigh, Jakub Valigura and Ryan Petry were the people I’d picked out at the beginning to pay attention to, and it was those guys setting the pace.

Fast forward another 45 minutes and the pace was getting feisty on the approach to Rowena trail. I’d pleased myself by being the arsehole who sits at the back of the pack and refuses to pull through, and because of that, I felt completely fresh by the time we got to the bottom of the trail. In previous years I’ve ended up spending quite a few matches to get to the front of the pack on this section. I got into the trail in about 5th wheel. Burleigh made a smart move to get out front alone, and it was my goal to get back on his wheel. I was still really pleased with my decision to ride the road bike, as I was riding as much as Burleigh was on his CX bike ahead. I finally got into second place on the trail and had my sights on Burleigh ahead. I took a little bit of a breather and was again feeling comfortable.

We rode into a pretty rocky section and I saw Burleigh dismount. I cruised in and unclipped to and ran through the rocks. I thought I heard my rear wheel spinning, but it wasn’t. It was the air escaping rapidly from my tire. Game over. No more chasing. I fixed the flat pretty quickly, but ended up getting only about 25 psi in the tire. I rode cautiously up the rest of the trail, but I was now about 5 minutes back on the action. Still feeling good though, I pushed on through. I found the Boulder Cycle Sport van at the top of the trail and filled up the tire to 65 psi, and then cruised down Sunshine into Boulder. Knowing how close Spruce confections was, I was sorely tempted to turn right instead of left and call it a day right then and there. If we still lived in Boulder that would have been the only outcome, but with home and the finish being in Lyons, it made more sense to keep riding anyway. I had to get there eventually. Linden was a pleasant surprise, and a frustration. Pleasant because I felt absolutely great and set a personal best time on the climb. Frustrating for exactly the same reasons: the old “what could have been” thoughts that are hard to banish.

I caught a few people on the climb and cruised down the dirt road section on Bow Mountain pretty gently. If I was at the front of the race, this is a place I would have taken some risks to gain time. As it was, there was nothing to gain from going fast. Even still, this is where puncture number two happened. It’s funny how often flats happen when you’re Just Riding Along (translation: not paying enough attention), compared to when you’re racing (and completely focused).

I’d planned to have Christa hand me some bottles on the last climb of the day up Old Stage. I was thinking she would be close to the bottom. Being only a couple of minutes away, I decided to roll along on the flat tire. I didn’t have anything to fix it with anyway. I started the climb up Old Stage expecting to see her and the car around the corner at any minute. No signs. I kept climbing. Rear tire squelching angrily along behind me. No one caught me. I saw a few people behind, but they weren’t getting any closer. Even with a flat, the only person that went by me on the climb was Erin Huck. And she was absolutely flying when she did go by. Christa was waiting at the top of the climb. 15 minutes of climbing on a flat tire wasn’t ideal, but it was a workout at least!

Moral of the story: there are lots of mountain bike races where “PROTECT YOUR TIRES” is rule number one. Rather than focusing on going fast at every opportunity, being cautious and considered with line choices is the best course of action to get to the line safely. The first main descent in the Whiskey 50 is a prime example of when caution should definitely not be thrown to the wind. I should have taken that mindset into the Old Man Winter. My road bike choice was just fine for the race, but it was my decision to chase down Burleigh on Rowena that cost me the race. I had an advantage for the later half of the race, and if I had exited the trail within 15-20 seconds of him, I still think I could have pulled it back in the end. But I got excited! These things happen. I raced enough of the day to test my fitness and realise I’m in a good place for the season ahead, and I’m really looking forward to the races where I’m actually on a Mountain Bike not a road bike!
Michael Burleigh held off the chasing field to take the win comfortably again (same as last year). I’m not sure what happen to the rest of the field, but the top 6 finishers were all from our early lead group. I’ll take that as a positive too!

Why would you drive 22 hours in one weekend to ride bikes? Sedona.

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The blowing storms of Colorado (and a new house that we’re feverishly trying to turn into a home) finally got the better of Christa and I. We looked at our options for a getaway, and decided that in order to find weather that I could get my hairy knees out in, we’d need to go a lot further than Moab. The first option was Tucson: the idea of a big weekend of riding on the road sounded quite appealing for a bit, but after looking at flights and hotel options, I realised it wasn’t going to be that cheap. And the drive to Tucson was more than I had in me. So Sedona rose to the top of the list. I briefly visited (for about 3 hours) a couple of years ago. Just enough to know that I had to go back.

Christa and I drove up to Edwards on Wednesday night, then the rest of the way on Thursday. It’s a long way down there. I’m lucky to be able to work from my laptop for the majority of what I do, so even though taking a conference call in the middle of Utah isn’t ideal, it works, and it lets us strike the life balance that we both need. Christa is her own boss, and she pushes herself pretty hard. Once I’d got off the phone, I took over the driving and she plugged away on her computer on the rest of the drive. I think social media glosses over what it takes to do that. With perhaps just one Instagram photo to grab the attention of your audience each day, it’s not likely you’re going to share the 5 hours you spent staring at a laptop while hurtling through the Native American reservations of northern Arizona. But that’s what it takes to successfully make a weekend away on trails happen, while maintaining a full time job. Christa and I are pretty reserved on the internet, not wanting to get into personal life or politics. That also means that we don’t talk about the work that we do to keep the bike racing rolling. It’s not that we have it very hard, but we both know we’re competing against people who don’t work full-time, and dwelling on what we DO work would be counterproductive. Either way, we’re lucky to have jobs that facilitate what we’re doing, and it makes you work all the harder to respect the people who give you those freedoms.

After moving to America, Moab was the place to go: the pilgrimage to make on your journey to Mountain Bike enlightenment. And for this very reason, I’d never ventured further south in search of trails and the desert experience. I thought it was all the same. Once you’ve dropped off one red rock ledges towards a flowing desert creek, you’ve dropped them all. I was wrong. The riding in Sedona is mind-blowing. I’ve ridden in a lot of glorious places, and I arrived knowing what to expect. But it still amazed me. The biggest benefit compared to other places in the desert is the ability to leave the car parked and ride right from town. The trails circle Sedona in every direction, making it easy to thread the different networks together.

I started the weekend with a brief spin on Thursday evening. I managed to squeeze about 38 minutes of trail into a 45 minute ride, including Twin Buttes and Hog Heaven. I was sold, and reasonably certain that those 45 minutes of riding had justified the drive. On Friday we headed out pretty early, just in time to see the crisp morning light bouncing shadows across the canyon walls. It was tempting to wait for the day to warm up, but we were both in a hurry to get on trail. Even at 8am, it was warm enough to forgo leg warmers. I always feel so exposed on those first few rides in shorts, after being wrapped up to ride in Colorado.

We rode for a couple of hours on Friday morning, mainly taking in the trails between Sedona and the village of Oak Creek. I think these are some of the best trails in the area. They’re mostly mellow with a few problems to solve as you ride along. After lunch I headed out for a spin on the road bike, taking in the Page Springs loop, and then finishing with the Red Rocks loop before coming home. Compared to the trails, the road riding is a little lacking. Enough to keep you busy for a few days, but probably not enough to make this a destination for roadies in its own right. Perhaps it just goes to highlight how the reverse is true in Boulder: our road riding is really good on the Front Range, but road riding is not exciting enough for me to shout about it!

Saturday was a big day. I met up with Tom Sampson, Ben Sonntag and a local Junior called Hayden for a big ride. I wanted to get in about 6 hours of riding, and this was a solid crew to do that with. Christa and I rode south on trails to Oak Creek to meet the crew, and then we split up for the day. Our group proceeded to take in about 60 miles of the best Sedona has to offer.

It was exactly what I needed. As the light was fading, lighting up the canyon walls in a silky red colour, my legs were aching and we were still 10 miles from town, I found that deep happiness that only athletes know about: that mix of hunger and accomplishment that fuels the drive to train harder in the future.

The other great thing about spending eight hours outside on trails is that every other ride feels really short. We rode for 2.5 hours on Sunday, and it felt like a 10 minute spin. Christa and I were both tired, and we were definitely ready to get in the car by the time we left town. The drive back seemed a little daunting when we were leaving Sedona, but it went quicker than the way down. Driving through the middle of nowhere on super bowl Sunday means that you have the roads to yourselves! With two people, plenty of food and work to keep occupied with, the driving isn’t that bad. I just think of it as quality time that Christa and I get to sit next to each other for! This trip sated my early season desire to get on trail, and added some motivation to build on this weekend of training over the next few months.

 

 

 

Exploring the new neighbourhood

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Christa and I bought a house in Lyons, Colorado. About 12 minutes by car from the bubble of Boulder, we’re settling into our new surrounds, and finding out what the riding options are from this new starting point. Having ridden in and through Lyons so many times, it’s weird how foreign some of the same trails feel. A change really is as good as a rest.

Google Maps splays open hundreds of dirt roads when you centre on Lyons. In reality, most of these are private driveways with big gates and lots of no trespassing signs. With my incessant need to explore, I’ve been tracking these roads, seeing which ones actually are private, and which signs can be ignored in favour of a good ride. So far, I’ve found that a friendly smile and a wave at any passing car is enough to keep going on my merry way. It’s only been solid cast iron gates that have turned me around. Oh, and a Bull Elk draining from the raised bucket of a tractor.

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With lots of snow still in the forecast, it’s going to be a while before I figure out how to link Lyons to the high country and all of the singletrack that I know exists, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.

 

The Peter Estin Hut – an opportunistic trip

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In a fit of passing motivation, I checked the 10th mountain division site just before Christmas to see what availability was left over the holiday period. The huts normally sell out early in the Autumn, and finding a space involves either knowing someone who booked early, or squeezing a short trip during the middle of the week. I was surprised then to find a completely empty hut just after Christmas.

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The Peter Estin Hut sits on the flank of the Holy Cross Wilderness. South of Eagle, North of Aspen, this is an overlooked chunk of the state that is overshadowed by the bigger mountains around it. We drove through Eagle on Brush Creek road early on Boxing Day, then would our way to Yeoman Park. This area was extensively mined and still bares the scars of infrastructure from that time. We left Bryan’s car next to some impressively buried vehicles, then started skinning up Fulford road. Fulford in a small ghost town set far away from civilization, with tumbled down cabins and the occasional lived-in structure. We turned off the road, passed some cabins in the woods and went past some hot springs. From here the trail kicked up steeply. The ironbridge is a gem of a mountain bike trail in the summer, and in the winter forms a well trodden track that gains altitude quickly on the way to the ridge above.

After a couple hours of skinning, we crested the ridge. The temperature dropped immediately as we left the shelter of the valley and were faced with the gusty wind blowing in from the south. The ridge itself had seen a big dump of snow three days before, and our appetite for skiing was whetted by some symmetrical turns cut into the face above us.

While the guide book suggested the 4.5 mile skin would take close to 6 hours, we got to the hut in about three. The situation of these huts is always mind blowing. We lit a fire, made a cup of hot chocolate and warmed ourselves for half an hour, and then headed back out to explore the area.

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A quick skin above the hut has us on the top of Prospect Peak. A small pimple on a longer ridge towards the high mountains. Below us was a open face. Perfect for 10 turns of glorious shin deep snow. The light started its transition from cold wintry blue into golden evening as we took off our skins and fastened the boots. 10 minutes later we were at the hut with grins on our faces and anticipation of what tomorrow would hold.

Everything about a 10th mountain division hut is warm: the smell of wood smoke mixing with the musty cushions; the hearty cooking and drying ski clothes. We played a few rounds of cards, drank some whiskey (the efficient traveler’s choice of alcohol: maximum kick for minimum weight), and were in bed by 8:30.

It’s never difficult to leave that warmth of the hut in the morning. Even somewhere as remote as the Estin hut, it seemed like the powder wouldn’t wait around. We were skinning by 9am, taking a similar route to the day before, but with the goal of Charles Peak this time around. Charles is a barely 12,000 foot mountain with gentle south facing slopes that fill in with wind blown snow. In purely skiing terms it was a very mellow goal, but the view was unbeatable. The Western Slope filled unbroken sweep of 180 degrees. From the Flattops near Steamboat Springs, to the Grand Mesa above Grand Junction. Moving south, the real high peaks rose up: Mount Sopris above Carbondale formed the centrepiece of the Ragged Mountains, which blended seamlessly into the West Elk Mountains. The Maroon Bells marked the direction of Aspen, and the small strips of piste on the resort could be seen. Moving southeast, the Sawatch Range grew bigger the closer it got to us. We searched to pick out Mount Elbert; the highest in the state, before our attention was drawn to the very tip of Mount of the Holy Cross, just peaking itself above the closest mountains. In the direct vicinity was New York Mountain: a collection of ridges that I’ve only ever seen from the Ghent household in Edwards. It was great to see the other perspective.

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The ski back down started on bulletproof above treeline crusty snow. As we threaded into the thicker trees, pockets of untouched snow exploded as we cut through it. Small natural clearings provided the perfect bowls to let rip, and within 30 minutes we were at the bottom, looking up at the hut, and planning our skin out.

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The Ironbridge trail, that narrow twisting and winding path we’d followed in made for a very difficult ski out. On tired legs and with full packs, the 3000 foot singletrack descent was a true challenge for me, and made planning every turn a critical decision. The last mile down Fulford road was a relief, and I pitied anyone who made a journey to those huts on snowshoes – walking up would be bad enough, let alone walking back down!