Mellow Johnny’s classic. The first US Cup of 2014; It’s hard to be ready to race when winter is still gripping Colorado. Seeing friends and being out in the warm sunshine is motivating though – a great season opener.
I’ve only done one US Cup before; the 2012 Ute Valley race in Colorado Springs. The 2012 national series was perhaps the low point for XC in the USA – people weren’t interested anymore. Texas this year felt like the start of something new. I’d deliberated this winter about how to spend my racing budget for the season. There are lots of ways to slice the pie between local Colorado races, fun one off events (like the Steamboat Stinger), and national races like the US Cup / ProXCT series. When it came to decision time, I decided on the national races for a couple of reasons. For the nine months since I paired up with Dave at FDB coaching, I’ve made a conscious decision to train, rather than just ride a lot. The National series seemed like the best way to put that into action. It’s a situation where there’s no interpretation needed for the results; the fastest people turned up, toed the line, and raced until the end. It’s a yardstick for everyone to find out who is the best. I have no illusions that I will be at the front of these races, but for once I’m not chasing the firsts and seconds for my resume, I’m trying to build myself into an XC racer. It’s rewarding.
I hadn’t spent much time on my Mountain Bike before we headed down to Texas. My parents were here on holiday, which gave a perfect excuse to go skiing. Working/learning/teaching was also keeping me engrossed as the snow came in waves through January and February. I put my entire trust in Dave to tell me what to do – the levity of following orders. Trainer time, hour-long slams on the road bike, and lots of looking at numbers tick by on my Garmin.
The day before the race was a wake up call. Trails that make good racing rarely make good riding, they have no ‘flow’; just brutal bursty climbs, open stretches of grass and loose gravelly corners. I rode the pre-ride like I would a normal bike ride – I tried to find my flow, but it wasn’t there. It was my biggest concern coming into the race; wasting energy bouncing between rocks. I’m a good technical rider, but I know I’m also prone to loosing concentration in the middle of rock gardens.
Starting position is based on UCI points, accumulated by finishing in the top 15 of a national race in the 12 months previous. I didn’t have a deposit in that particular account; I lined up on the eighth out of nine rows. The start was a wide open stretch of gravel, with a small chicane between two barns, then a slightly narrower dirt ramp leading onto a big open climb. The race hared towards the first ramp, where bikes got tangled and the race came to a grinding halt. We watched as the top 20 careened up the dirt climb, and people in front of us scrambled to get back up and moving. It made the rest of the race a chase. Passing in a MTB race involves being a second behind someone for as long as it takes to find a place to get past. When you give 20 people a 30 second head start, it means plenty of chances to move up the field evaporate instantly.
The start loop took us out into the singletrack, with the race concertinaing between fast and slow as people got caught up in bottlenecks. I was probably in about the same place as I started at this point; mid 50’s. I burnt a couple of matches to overtake people in each gap. I went into the singletrack with an “it can’t get worse attitude”, and rode smoothly around the first few rocky sections. Each climb gained me a couple of extra spots, and I seemed to blow by people riding flat tires. The course was definitely eating peoples’ bikes. The race followed a rough loop through a dry creek wash, with frequent rocky drops down into the riverbed, and then punchy climbs winding through the scrub oak and pinion pines. The half way point was the toughest climb of the day; a one minute long drag race to the the feed zone. Each lap I held back a little at the bottom of the climb, took a drink, and then worked it all the way to the top. It seemed to pay off, as I closed the gaps in front of me and slowly clawed my way into the race. There was no doubt I’d missed the exciting action at the front, but I felt like I was gaining ground.
By lap four the race was strung out, and I just had to make myself hurt. Coming from altitude down to sea level is a weird feeling; you can breathe the thick oxygen rich air, but your legs can’t utilise it. You have this internal speed limit; I knew I couldn’t go any harder even if I wanted to. With a few more people to pass on the last lap, I rode the rocky ‘waterfall’ section smoothly again, and finished out the race with a final pass coming into the home straight. The race was a blur of bottles being poured over my head, lots of Texans screaming from the side lines and the satisfaction of making progress throughout the race.
One thing stuck with me more than everything else though – the start was terrible. I’m in this catch 22 of not having points, and not getting a good call up. I’m going to change it, and I know it will make huge difference for the rest of the season.
Bring on the California races.