Twelve hours is a long time to drive, no matter what you’re doing at the other end. When it comes to racing, a long drive just seems to amplify expectations. The planning that goes into a drive to Montana means that I’d weighted this race pretty heavily. For my first season of racing the full ProXCT series, one might say that I’m being harsh to expect results straight away, but I’m here for that reason only – the experience and the atmosphere, the trails and the new places are definitely secondary to gaining that one UCI point.
I knew the course in Missoula wouldn’t be my ideal scenario. Marshall Mountain is a defunct ski resort with a rusting chairlift and a couple of lodge buildings. Just outside of Missoula, the hills don’t have a huge elevation change, but enough for an amazing purpose built course carved out of the side of the hill. Each lap was one steep 10 minute climb, gaining roughly 900 feet (300 metres) followed by a technical downhill. The climbing would favour the riders that weighed in a little less than me, but I looked to the positives and saw that the slightly smaller field and wide dirt road climb on each lap would give me plenty of opportunities to move up, even if I had a bad call up on the starting grid. The downhill would suit me too; lots of tight alpine style switchbacks and a big six foot drop half way down the hill. I was confident. In the end, there really wasn’t much I could do on race day, as my legs stayed at home and left my mind to suffer up the hills alone.
The start was furious, but I weaseled my way through the four rows of riders in front of me and found a position in the top 15 on the dirt road. There wasn’t any significant bottleneck, as the singletrack started far enough up the hill to spread things out. I was where I wanted to be. I felt terrible, but as anyone who’s raced an XC knows, terrible is exactly where you expect to be at this point in the race.
I just remembered to reach down and unlock my fork going into the first descent, and felt pretty comfortable descending, even if my brakes had decided they weren’t going to be very effective.
I hit the big drop in a chain of riders, and felt my foot loosen from my left pedal just as I left Terra firma and sailed through the air. The next second or so slowed down as my bike twisted underneath me and my left leg sprung upwards. The weight of the bike that I expected to be on the bottom of my foot was not there and my balance suffered greatly. I landed one footed and just held on through the corner at the bottom. I took a couple of deep breathes and got back to the racing.
At some point on lap two, my body started dictating orders to me. I’m very used to ignoring those calls and suffering onwards, but this time it would be different. My back and hips seemed to seize up to the point where the signals coming down from my brain didn’t get through. I eased back and fell through the mid teens until I found a group of riders spanning 20-25th. It worked well for me to be in a group. The draw of a wheel in front of me was enough to keep pushing hard, but by lap three even that was too much. I cracked on the climb, then crashed into the bushes on the descent trying to chase back on. I was now in no mans land with two laps to go. The ‘quit’ signals from my brain got ever stronger, but the thought of driving twelve hours back to Boulder after not finishing was even worse. I just pedalled around, alone, in agony.
I finished in 25th. A much better result than I thought I was riding for at the time, but still a long way short of where I wanted to be. Two weeks ago, when I raced the GoPro games in Vail, I’d finally started riding with some names I’d been paying attention to this year. I had finished four minutes behind Howard Grotts (the winner on both occasions), rather than twelve minutes back here in Missoula. I know that I have a top 15 ride in me, and it’s really disappointing to see who I want to be competing against doing well in the important races, and leaving me floundering behind.
It’s the bad races that really make me appreciate having a coach, though. Dave’s hard work for me really shows through when I’m having a bad day. He cares about how I do, and that support helps lessen the burden of figuring out where to go from a bad race. It makes going into the next one a little less scary, and reminds me that there’s a bigger picture out there that he’s painting for me.
Colorado Springs ProXCT is next weekend. I’m confident of having a better race than this weekend. Whether that better race will fulfill my goals is another question. I’d really like to head back home to England with a UCI point.