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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!

Thinking about the consequences of a dry autumn

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Autumn has been very dry here in Colorado. Traditionally it’s the time of year where the weather most closely matches the cool and drizzly days of home. But this year the temperature has hardly budged below 20 celsius.

While it’s nice to have access to the high country mountain bike trails that are normally buried by now, it’s a shame to see them getting more and more tired with the passing of extra tires. There comes a point where I’d sacrifice the extra rides in favour of a protective blanket to rejuvenate the forest and deliver them back to us in good shape come April. Wildfire is always front and centre in my mind when I see such dry weather. Will this batch of warmth mean more danger next year?

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It has also been a tough year to race cyclocross. Although there’s a lazy ease in packing no spare clothes for a race, I’d rather it be cold and damp for our race days. I’ve been racing with a water bottle on my bike all year so far, and it doesn’t seem like that will change any time soon. We’re far past due a introductory storm to get the winter rolling.

A positive on the snow front is that this warmth will likely lead to a bit of a safer snow pack. Rather than an early season storm sitting on the slopes and baking in the sun, I’m hoping that when the weather finally turns, the temperature will stay low and the snowpack will be a nice consistent depth of small layers. It would make the skiing much safer, that’s for sure. 20161030085337

 

 

The Missoula ProXCT – Solitary suffering on the slopes of Marshall Mountain

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There’s a six foot drop approaching, and my fork is locked out. Not by choice of course. The cable is just a little sticky. Probably something to do with the gel I just spilled across my bars. What would you do? Forcefully unlock it and suffer another 4000 feet of climbing with a bouncy fork, or ride the six foot drop and the rest of the descent five more times with no suspension?

Luckily the decision was made for me. A final bounce on the front end and the fork released, giving me some sweet, buttery suspension to cushion the drop. I squirted my bottle at the lockout and had no more problems for the rest of the race.

A unique thing happened on June 17th 2016: the first time in the history of US mountain biking, two important races were scheduled on the same day. Unlike in Europe where it’s common to have a handful of UCI races on the same day, North America is renowned for having few events, and rarely any overlaps. This means that generally the fields are always strong and UCI points are as rare as hen’s teeth. With the Carson City Offroad and the Missoula ProXCT falling on the same date, there was a choice for pro riders to make. Go to Carson City and benefit from the big payouts, friendly vibes and fun trails that Epic Rides events are known for, or head to Missoula for the awesome course (complete with famed A-line drop), rowdy solstice celebrations and the ability to spend the weekend in one of the coolest mountain towns in the west.

It was interesting to see who chose what race. The Olympic hopefuls were in Missoula as expected. Howard Grotts and Raphael Gagne are proving this year that they can compete on a world stage. Along with Stephen Ettinger and Keegan Swenson, they made sure the front of the field in Missoula was stronger than the front of the field in Carson City. But after that handful, there were some notable exceptions that went to Nevada instead: Russell Finsterwald and Ben Sonntag are normally stalwarts on the XC scene, but chose the Epic Rides events instead. Ben Sonntag was chasing the series overall payout, while I think Russell was relishing a different scene after an early season of World Cupping. Kabush, Wells, and Spencer Paxson all went to the big blue lake too.

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In Missoula, I was among a number of “second rate” riders that had lined up for the opportunity to nudge their way higher in the rankings and get to experience being a little closer to the front than is normal for these events. With just over 20 UCI points, I’ve been enjoying a second or third row call up this season, but with the absentees, that ranking got me onto the front row in Montana. We’re so used to battling in 100+ people fields, that the tactics were going to play a big part in the racing. As Howard Grotts said after the race, there’s no place to hide on that course. Rather than being a group riding event, it always comes down to one’s ability to ride six consistent climbs followed by six mistake free descents.

I made the tough decision to take it steady off the start line. I knew that my fitness was good, but I also knew I’d have a better chance of surviving six laps if I was cautious at the beginning. It was hard to willfully fall back through the pack on the opening climb, but I did it nonetheless. A minute into the race I was back in the late teens watching the front group assemble and then pull away from the chasers. I found my rhythm and passed people slowly throughout the race instead. I made a little move at the top of the climb on lap one to get ahead of a bunch of riders, and that paid off by riding the descent cleanly and getting a gap on everyone behind me.

The A-line drop gets a lot of attention, and for good reason, but it’s not a make-or-break feature. The anticipation of hitting the drop builds from the top of the descent, and then it’s over in a second as you sail across it and down into the big catcher berm at the bottom. After that, the real challenge on the descent is a series of sharp corners with drops at the apex. These take some commitment to get your weight forward and your finger off the front brake. Any hesitation here can waste way more time than you’d lose on the big drop.

The middle of the race in Missoula was a little boring, to be honest. I did a lot of hard pedalling. A lot of concentrating on keeping my cadence up and not being stupid about pushing a big gear through the sharp uphill corners. I’d need those matches for the last lap. I was in about 12th place at the end of lap one, and then slowly worked my way through the field. Never following other people’s pace, always just keeping the sensations where I wanted them. I had power and heart rate numbers in front of me for this race, and I did quite a lot of looking down, which is not normal for me. It’s hard to say whether I actually used the data to pace though: the numbers move around so much that I found it a lot easier to “feel” that tension in your legs that you know is sustainable.

With one lap to go I’d moved into 8th place. A relative unknown rider Jamey Yanik was just ahead in 7th, and Alex Wild in 6th. I’d raced Jamey at Sea Otter and only just bested him. Little did I know that he was about to have a fireworks display, and slip back to 12th. After I went past him I was pretty sure that was the last place I would be gaining. Alex Wild is also pretty new to the pro scene, and has had a fantastic opening to the year. He was more of a known quantity and a bigger hurdle to overcome. Approaching the top of the last climb I clocked the gap to Alex as about 35 seconds. Pretty significant. I kept working at it though and came into the descent seeing flashes of red in the trees ahead. Last year I crashed really hard chasing Jamey Driscoll on the last lap, so I was cautious to ride smooth on the way down. I still closed the gap to Alex, though, and we came out of the trees together. Just one 30 second climb to go.

I bided my time a little, let Alex sprint into the base of the finish climb, then stood up and gave it everything to the finish. It was a dramatic little battle, but no one was paying much attention. Instead, the organisers were doing what every promoter should do: have the podium immediately. Once the haze of lactic had cleared I got to see Howard hold aloft a majestic rack of antlers for his win. The crowds were deep and the beer flowing.

My 6th place was exactly what I’d hoped for out the event: consistent riding, clean descending and no mistakes. A big thanks to Heather Earl, who I found at the start line and managed to persuade me to hold bottles in my general direction. Much appreciated! Also a huge thank you to Ken Griffiths, who opened his home to me for the weekend. Ken really made me feel comfortable in Missoula, and it was great to have someone to chat Montana life with before the race. Meeting new people and seeing different ways of life is a big part of what makes traveling so compelling to me. Thank you Heather and Ken!

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La Bresse World Cup: The Nun with a chainsaw.

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There’s a chainsaw being revved mere inches from my ear. The Nun wielding the chainsaw is laughing maniacally and paying little attention to the proximity of his blade to my head. Yes, the Nun is a man. Welcome to World Cup Mountain Biking in France.

I’d seen said chainsaw wielding Nun earlier as I was warming up, and thought it would add greatly to the atmosphere on the course as I came sailing by. Nino may have gone sailing by, but I was stuck here, next to the chainsaw, as I watched the scrummage of riders ahead of me battle for one very narrow and slippery strand of dirt. A woman shouted ALLEZ at our assembled group of riders. Little did she realise that we were trying our best to Allez, but the traffic ahead seeming to be preventing all Allezing.

Soon it was my turn to file slowly up the hill. The armed Nun wasn’t the only novelty course-side. There was also a Gallic kilt wearing man thrusting his hips, and the attached cowbell, with vigour. The crowds in La Bresse were a different beast than Albstadt a week earlier. Although similar in numbers (roughly 15,000 people paid 16 euros each weekend to watch the races in person) the Germans took the opportunity to drink a beer, stand back and watch the racing in an orderly fashion. The French on the other got involved. It was the personal responsibility of each Frenchman lining the course to tell you that Julien Absalon was much, much faster than you. They did this in an entirely unintelligible mix of cowbell ringing, beer swilling, and general frenching.

My race didn’t go quite as well to plan as Albstadt, although I finished better in 95th place. And only two laps down this time, as opposed to three last week. The first (literal) roadblock happened on the start straight, as bikes went sideways and riders came to a standstill. I was too far back to be involved in the carnage, but it slowed me nonetheless. From there, half the field or more was up the road, and the energy I normally put into gaining places on the start was instead used to hold my position in the stringy remnants of the pack. The chainsaw incident happened soon after. The climb on lap one ended up being a mix of track-standing and all out sprinting.

The fans hadn’t actually lined up to watch us stand around on the climb. They, like the riders, had come for the descent. La Bresse is a small town in the Vosges Mountains of France. It’s reported the wettest area in the country. This has lead to an amazingly lush forest under which sits heavy dirt, moss covered rocks, and sinuous roots. From the town square you can see almost the entire descent, switch-backing steeply through the trees. It starts with some man made bermed corners. No problem there. Then some 3-4 foot drops to flat. OK, not much to worry about. Then a 180 turn, a sprint up a root covered climb straight into a huge rock slab with little room for error. Rinse and repeat. Unlike Albstadt where the descents were little more than a sideshow, the downhill here took the same time as the climb. By the time we got towards the bottom, hub deep ruts had been cut through berms revealing shiny roots underneath. Commit to the rut. But downhill.

I survived the first descent with nothing to write home about. It was the slowest I’d ridden it all weekend; held up by riders who were held up by riders. We careened back into the town square after lap one and saw that Julien was leading. That made the French happy. Happy French people are louder than sad French people. I was over four minutes down already, and could do nothing but pedal my hardest.

I couldn’t work out why I was riding so slowly. I was pedalling as hard as I could but gaining no ground. It wasn’t until I looked down and saw that my hardest actually was over 500 watts on the punchy ups, and everyone else was simply riding faster. The climb topped out at a big statue of Jesus that overlooked the town. It was here you prayed for more air, uncrossed your eyes and dived into the trail with abandon. It took me a few corners to remember how to ride a bike, but I was happy that I passed riders each time down the hill. A couple at a time made a difference, and by lap three I had a clean run down. The clock ticked to nine minutes behind as I crossed the line to begin lap 4 and I knew it would be my last lap.

In my bleary state I read that I was 102nd going through the start finish for the last time. That was motivation enough, as I could see two riders ahead of me. The elastic stretched as I pedalled up the climb, seemingly making no progress but also not losing ground. Toward the top of the climb the first rider cracked, almost crawling up the hill as if he’d lost his lungs and was trying to find them. The second rider was in sight, and then disappointingly crashed on the descent, robbing me from a valiant overtaking manoeuvre. I sprinted out the bottom of the descent and through town, and gained another place into the 80% zone. I found out later that I finished 95th, so I had read the sign wrong a lap earlier, but it motivated me, and made me work harder than I could have otherwise.

The spectacle and atmosphere aside, I didn’t race very well at La Bresse. I was too enthusiastic the days before the race, and ended up tired by the start line. An amateur mistake. Another amateur mistake would be to assume that better legs or better preparation would have vaulted me up the field. The gap in my fitness compared to those 50 places higher isn’t massive, but it’s more than I could make up on a good day. My skills to ride the course definitely weren’t lacking, but my experience racing terrain like that was. I have no idea how to thread together a blistering fast descent on the back of an all out climb. The best thing about coming over here and racing way above my pay grade has been the revelation of how much better I can be. I came away feeling fat, unfit and unable to ride downhill. I’m looking forward to being back in Colorado for the rest of the summer to do some fun events locally, get faster, and maybe even win something!

 

 

British Series at Dalby Forest: sunshine and singletrack in Yorkshire

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I’d heard about the racecourse at Dalby after the World Cup in 2010. First of the “new school” courses, the lap was shorter and more technical than anything before. Since then, other courses have caught up, but it was still the best course I’ve raced on.
All this was reason enough to put the British Series race at Dalby on the calendar. After I’d qualified for the World Cups, it made sense to head over to Europe a week early and get the traveling and jetlag out of my system. The British series race was perfect for that. I flew into London on Thursday morning and met up with Tom Sampson who’d decided to piggyback on my trip. We drove up to Loughborough and stayed with my Brother for a couple of days before the race. DSC06805

We drove to Dalby on race day and arrived early to get a lap on the course before the start. I loved what we found, and I lined up knowing I could put together a good race. The temperature was also perfect; 10 Celsius (50F is ideal for me. The Dalby course is a little different than most, because the start/finish line is at the top of the hill, and the start throws you straight into a downhill. I was gridded 17th, on the second row. The start “straight” was a sharp left-hand bend straight into the downhill, and with an outside position I was confident of getting off the line well and gaining some places into the singletrack. That didn’t happen. Instead, Jason Boutell who was in front of me snapped his chain on the second pedal stroke and crashed in a pile. I slammed on my brakes, avoided going straight into him, and then played catch up with the people that got a clean start.

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Nerdy Bike stuff:

I was riding my 2016 Spark RC. After the pre-ride I upped the fork pressure from 62 psi to 80 psi (I weigh 165 ish pounds at the moment). It’s perverse, but on the smooth US courses softer suspension is better. Dalby had enough drops that I needed a firm surface to push against. I slowed the rebound on my rear shock from middle of the range a couple of clicks. The drops were bigger and not very frequent, meaning a slower rebound was better for this course.

Tire pressure: I normally race at about 22 psi front and rear, but I went up to about 26 rear / 25 front. Low pressure is great when the course is loose and sandy, or really wet, but at Dalby the surface was hard and fast with good traction. This meant a firmer tire held up better through the fast rough sections. I was running 2.2 inch Maxxis Ikon with EXO sidewalls on the SRAM Rise 60 carbon rims. After the race I found that I’d sliced my rear tire at the bead, but it had held pressure and didn’t cause a problem. I’m glad I upped the pressure before the race, as I didn’t notice hitting the rim at any point and still must have flexed the tire enough to slice it.

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The first lap went well, and I didn’t get held up much, despite being further back than I would have liked. I started picking people off and had some luck following other riders who were gaining ground. There comes a point in every XC race where the gaps get big enough that you have to start doing the work yourself. By lap three I’d made up the easy passes that I should have gained off the start line, and then had the more difficult job of riding up to people in the top 10.
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My bike didn’t feel quite right: mainly the seat height felt odd. I’d just put a dropper post on my bike for the trip to the World Cups, so I assumed the dropper was making me feel weird. I figured out after the race that my seatpost was slipping, and I lost about 2cm of height during the race!

With just over a lap remaining (about 25 minutes) I caught sight of a group ahead. I got a position check coming through the start finish on the last lap, just as I caught the back of that group. I was in 12th. Higher than I had thought. UCI points finished at 10th, and looking ahead, I realised that two of us in the group would be going home without points. I wasn’t going to be left out. I made a distinct effort to get in front on the downhill out of the start, and got a gap immediately. Paul Oldham, a long time pro in the UK, caught me again on the next climb, and it was down to he and I. I felt sure the other two riders wouldn’t come back, but I put in a few short sharp efforts nonetheless. Paul came around me on the final long climb, and I clung to his wheel with the realisation that my seat was indeed now really low. The only thing to do was get out of the saddle. I got ahead of Paul just before the final technical section, and pulled out enough of a gap that I could be confident holding it to the line. I gave it one final sprint to the finish. 9th place, and two UCI points to go with it!

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One of my better races – I’m putting it down to a combination of temperature, smaller field size (only 50 racers – although the front of the field was World Cup standard, the field died down a little after the top 20), and also a course that suited me well – no long climbs and a lot of technical sections that I was confident on.

We left Loughborough on Tuesday and drove to Belgium. We spent the night in Namur, and had enough time to ride through the 10th century Citadel that hosts World Cup Cyclocross races. We then walked into the old town centre and ate a good meal accompanied by a proper Belgian Beer. Today (Wednesday) we arrive in Albstadt and start figuring out how to race a World Cup. I’m ranked 145th out of 157 starters – back row!!

 

 

 

Crashing and learning on Salamina. This is all about not racing my bike

What do you do when you fly 16 hours for a bike race and then crash out before the start? That’s not a question I was hoping to answer, but it’s actually less depressing than it first sounds.

I came to Greece to race two three-day stage races. After a successful first race, I headed out to pre-ride the courses for the second weekend of racing. Feeling good physically, but poor technically, I was focussing on smoothing out the descents and getting some confidence at the same time. The opposite happened. The XC course featured two steep descents. At the bottom of the first descent, the course opened into an orchard, with trees dotted on either side of the course. A sharp right hand corner marked the end of the downhill, and to set up for the corner meant moving to the left around a slight bend. I moved left, but as I did so my tires skitted out from under me, sending me sideways towards a tree at maximum speed. Being such a straight and easy section of trail, I was carrying plenty of speed without even trying. I wasn’t pushing the pace, but my error was not concentrating: I was about to be done riding and was already thinking of lunch.

I hit the tree side on, my non-drive side crank hit the tree first, and then my left thigh broadsided it. I heard the crack, and hoped my bike was OK as I was flying through the air, landing on my back. The impact of hitting the crank passed through my frame and cracked the chain stay almost cleanly in two, just holding itself together with an Amy D Foundation sticker. What I didn’t notice was my rear wheel. Held together by the tire pressure and spoke tension, it was only later when I tried to go for a quick spin that I realised I had four equidistant cracks in the rim. It failed as soon as I tried to pedal out of the saddle.

 

For such a mindless crash, I did some pretty good damage to myself. The impact of hitting the tree with my thigh caused an instant “dead leg” that has lasted almost three days, stopping me from being able to activate my quadriceps at all on that side. After lots of rest and icing, I’m reasonably sure there isn’t any permanent damage, but in the mean time I have a great comedy limp. I also managed to slice open my elbow, but that has been much less pain than the leg. With no bike and an injured body, I pulled the plug on racing. It was a huge disappointment. I could have chased finding a rental bike and perhaps got to the start line, but in hindsight I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve been really sore for the last few days. I was looking forward to the extra fitness I would get from racing, and also learning a bit more about how I do racing when tired, but that will have to wait. For now it’s back to Colorado for a good chunk of training, and then I’ll be in California in April for the US Cup races.

 

Not racing the second race in Greece gave Christa and I a little more time to look around and do some touristing. For her, being conscripted into flying to Greece and not just sitting around on a sunny island, I think it was actually a relief to have an extra spare day or two. For the first week, we’d struggled to find any good food on the island. We knew it was there, but it just wasn’t apparent to us. Combined with wanting to eat safe food before racing, it meant we’d had a quite boring diet. I travel for the food more than anything else, so it was great to find two really good seafood restaurants in the town of Salamina itself.

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We drove around the island to the town of Maroudi on the south coast, and then scampered along the rocks until there was deep blue sea on either side. It’s here that we jumped in, happy for it to feel much warmer than the same sea in Hydra. We celebrated the swim with a café at a small tavern on the beach, and then went to watch the racing action. I was hesitant. I wanted nothing to do with the racing, but Christa persuaded me that watching it would be a good idea. She’s awesome like that.

We perched up on the hill with a view of the start and the first corner, and watched the drag race unfold below. When you’re in the race, everything seems to close and tight, but watching from a distance made me realise that I have more space to ride than I think I do. We situated ourselves on the first descent, the one I was really struggling with, and watched the best riders in the world struggle in exactly the same places. Gerhard Kerschbaumer from Italy (well, Südtirol if that counts…) took the holeshot, and drifted out on the trickiest corner on the DH, getting unclipped just like I had done pre-riding. On the steep and fast section before I crashed, only a handful of riders went down confidently, with everyone else on their brakes as much as me. It made me feel much better to know that I may not have been riding well, but I wasn’t riding any worse than anyone else either.

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Seeing the gaps form, hold, and then lengthen throughout the race justified the weight I place on the start of the race. The order in the first 3 minutes was mostly the order that would hold to the finish. But I also realised that getting a bad start shouldn’t exclude me from a good race; I just have to get fast enough to close those gaps. Sometimes in chasing some margins here and there, it’s easy to forget that training harder and for longer is the simplest way to get faster. So that’s what I’ll be doing for the next 6 weeks – more training, more hours, and more intensity. Hopefully I can fit in a trip to somewhere warm to make it happen.