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.
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.
I’ve been nervous about my form this year. It’s not something that normally bothers me – I’ll line up, race and finish where I finish. But there’s been a resurgence in US mountain biking recently. People are getting fast. The combination of the first generation of High School MTB racers aging into the Elite ranks, plus the rest of the mtb community turning its focus onto the races I’ve traditionally done well at, has had me scared that I’m going to be out of my depth in the fields I’ve normally excelled in. After a disappointing DNF at the Sea Otter last weekend, I didn’t get that “first race” out my system, and instead came into the Whiskey with some apprehension.
Happy to have the support of Carborocket this weekend
Lovely to be in AZ when you know it’s still snowing in Colorado
This race is all about fueling properly….
The Whiskey 50 has grown a lot since I first did it in 2012, but I ended the weekend in the same place: 13th in the pro race. Between that 13th place and this year’s 13th place, the Whiskey has changed dramatically. From being a regionally recognised race, it’s grown to being without argument the strongest marathon field in the country, and probably the strongest marathon race in the world away from the big championship races. For me, it seems like I’ve kept pace with it’s growth, and I set my sights for the weekend the same as I did back in 2012: I would have been happy with a top 20. But really, there was a more important but boring goal: I just wanted to finish smoothly. A clean, no mistakes race. I kept that front and centre all weekend, through the criterium and the main event, and the constant reminder to be patient and careful really paid off.
The Crit: Friday’s spectator spectacular went off in usual fashion. I managed to accidentally get a front row line up, and followed Levi Kurlander through the first corner, then got to the top of the famed Union Street climb first on the opening lap. No other reason than, why not? It was entertaining to be at the front, but I quickly backed off and found a more sensible group to race around in. I upped my cadence a lot and relaxed, enjoying watching the crowds get drunker and drunker on each lap past the hill. I finished at the back of a chase group, happy to have survived without major incident.
Bike set up: Epic Rides states you have to run the same bike for Friday’s crit as the main event on Sunday (great rule!). So I rode the Spark 900 RC SL. I didn’t bother putting slick tyres on the bike, as I wasn’t that invested in the result. I ran my normal IKON 2.2 tyres pumped to 35 psi (the most I’d risk putting in a modern tubeless MTB tyre).
The main event: I did an abbreviated warm up, still feeling fatigue from Friday’s crit and Saturday’s pre-ride. I got to the line early and found a warm sunny spot to watch as the field filled in around me. The course had changed since the last time I did the race, giving the pack much more room to spread out before the singletrack. I liked the new start, and liked that the immediate up hill limited the amount of time I spent being freezing cold before the racing got underway. I surfed the back of the field as everyone jostled for position around me, and then picked the right time to move up before we got to the dirt road section. I played the beginning of the race well, and found myself in around 30th place. Here was the hard part: once you’d found that position, the first section of singletrack locked you into a conga line of riders. No point wasting energy or stress on trying risky passes. Although I was being held up by a couple of people, I had to just calm down and be patient. It worked out quite well, and by the first open climb (about 5 miles into the race) I had space around me to get on with the racing. I found myself alone after about 45 minutes of racing, with a small group ahead of me (Todd Wells, Finsterwald, Ettinger) and a big group behind me (Payson McElveen, Christoph Sauser (!!!), Taylor Lideen and plenty more).
I wasn’t feeling good enough to attempt a bridge up to the next group, so instead settled into a rhythm, knowing that the bigger group behind me would swallow me up on the way down to Skull Valley. That’s exactly what happened. I got to the bottom of the long climb with sensations starting to come around. I’d had unusual stomach issues at the beginning of the race: a bit of cramping and nausea that I’ve experienced perhaps only twice before. I switched to drinking just water quite early in the day, and I think that helped clear my stomach. Skull Valley is a long climb. 12 miles and 2700 feet of climbing (that’s 19km and 820m). Payson and Christoph Sauser were doing a lot of work on the front, and I really wasn’t ready to commit my matches to pulling everyone around just yet. I stoically ignored Payson’s requests for me to pull through, and I didn’t realise he was taking those signal to mean I was cracking. But either way, it worked, and I happily sat in the group for a while as we started the climb. I came to the front of the group about half way up, and knew I needed to inject some pace if I was going to separate myself. Through the feed zone I put in a little pace and got a gap, only pulling Payson with me. We caught Finsterwald towards the top of the climb, and at that point I thought we’d ride together until the finish. I was feeling good though, so went to the front again and got some separation. Knowing how good both of those guys are on the way down, I wanted to stay ahead into the singletrack and hope to hold them up a little. That didn’t happen, and instead I gained a bit more time, and eventually caught Spencer Paxson on the last descent. We crossed the last (and famous) creek crossing together and revelled in the huge crowds dotted through the forest. I was pretty spent at that point, and the thought of a sprint finish filled me with dread. Paxson willingly did most of the work into town, and hammered up the final climb. I was prepared to duke it out, but he seemed unwilling to sprint, so I went to the line solo for 13th place.
Bike notes: Scott Spark full suspension. 55 psi front, 130 psi rear. Tires: Maxxis IKON 2.2 with 20.5 psi front, 21 psi rear.
Nutrition notes: 2 bottles of Kiwi lime carborocket drink mix, 4 bottles of water, 6 honey stinger fruit gels, 1 packet of honey stinger chews.
Clothing notes: This is the first year I have a thin “summer weight” jersey. In previous years I’ve raced in a thick, black jersey, and the difference is huge! I felt so much more comfortable today than any other time I’ve been out in the heat like that.
Rough weekend for equipment.
Not so gold anymore
I ran out of chainlube about half way up Skull Valley
Mission accomplished. I raced smooth and patiently. I was conservative on the downhills, and lost a few places there, but got them all back by the end. I proved I’m in the shape I need to do for both more Epic Rides events (Grand Junction in May and Carson City in June), and some World Cups (details TBD, but hopefully Andorra and Lenzerheide). More importantly, I got to see that the Mountain Bike community is alive and well, and filled with very fast young racers that will be beating me handedly in the near future! That’s what it’s all about!
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
And just like that, it’s race season. I’m preparing to head to Moab for a long weekend of racing and riding bikes, and I cannot wait! Moab Rocks has been going on for a few years, but this is the first time it’s moved to the spring, instead of autumn. That’s made it much more appealing, and I think the field will be a lot stronger as a result. I’ve been seeing lots of the Durango riders making regular trips to Moab in order to pre-ride the stages, which has me a little scared. I’ve firmly put this race in the “enjoy myself and get fitter” column on the race schedule, but I know that you can’t turn up to any pro level race in this part of the world without encountering serious riders with their game faces on.
Outfitted by Boulder Cycle Sport as usual
Couldn’t imagine training/racing without Carborocket.
Honey Stinger isn’t a sponsor of mine, but they’re a great company and I love their products
It’s been all about the recovery this week
I’ll be riding my trail bike for this race, a Scott Genius. Not sure if it’s the ideal choice, but it’s the only one I’ve got for now so I’ll deal with it. I’ve put on the standard Maxxis Ikon 2.2 tires, and the bike weighs in pretty light at around 24.5 lbs, so I don’t think I’ll be too disadvantaged. The first stage climbs to the top of Porcupine Rim on a service road, and this will be the main part of the race where I might lose some time. The bike has the awesome Twinloc suspension lockouts, so I’m sure I’ll be just fine. I’ve got a new Scott Spark on the way for the rest of the season, and although I was hoping it would make it in time for this weekend, it might well be a blessing in disguise.
Even the high country trails are dry
The Stages cycling gang have been helpful to train with
Sessioning the rock gardens
Evening rides on Hall Ranch
Fitness feels good. I’ve trained more than in previous years, including more time with some fast group rides on the road. I’ve also been riding the trail bike a lot on our new back door trails around Lyons. I’m hoping the combination of both road and trail time will set me in good stead, and even though I haven’t ridden the Porcupine Rim trail for a while, I think I can remember it well enough to get by. After Moab Rocks I’ve got another few weeks of training before jetting off to the Sea Otter Classic in California, and then the first goal of the season at the Whiskey 50 at the end of April. I’ve really enjoyed starting the race season a little later this year, and I hope it will pay off later in the season with some more base fitness to call upon, and some motivation to keep racing until the very end of the summer. As always in Colorado, our best mountain bike races don’t get going until August.
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!
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.
Driving through Bluff, Utah. Roughly the halfway point, and a long way from anywhere else
This kind of photo doesn’t normally make it onto the internet. But this is what it takes to roadtrip.
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.
The warm desert sun
Oak Creek was raging
Leftover leaves from the autumn
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!
Following the German
Following Ben and Tom meant the pace didn’t slow down all day
The sinkhole by Soldier Pass gave us a reason to slow down for a bit
The sun was setting and we still weren’t anywhere near home. That’s how it should be!
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.
The Colorado winter has stamped its authority on most of the state this year in dramatic effect: record snow totals and unending storm cycles seems to be keeping the chairlifts full and the backcountry waist deep in our famed airy snow. The weekends have been filled with some awesome adventures in the snow, but with avalanche conditions expectedly sketchy, there has been plenty of time for riding bikes too.
Colorado always gets a mix of warm and cold days in the winter. Storm fronts battle over the mountains, buffeting the Front Range by warm chinook winds that pour off the high peaks. These conditions are a dream for mountain bikers. The winds dry out our trails in record time, even in winter, and raise the temperature from close to freezing to the mid teens celsius.
The trails around our new house in Lyons are already pretty known to me. Even the ones not on the maps. Although most of the south-facing trails have been dry for a few weeks, I’ve been encountering packed snow on the northerly stuff. As long as you avoid the midday sun, it’s been nice to ride on the frozen bed of the trail without getting muddy at all. Colorado is known for its rocky, sandy trails and lack of loamy dirt to slide around on, so the snow is a welcome change in conditions under the treads.
While Picture Rock has been closed a lot due to “muddy” conditions, Hall Ranch has been open, and I’ve ridden it a lot. The trail has been dry down low, but tacky higher up. The top of Hall Ranch has been snow packed for a while now, creating the best conditions I’ve ever experiences there. All the rocks are buried, meaning I’ve dropped the tire pressure to compensate. The sunbaked sections have got icy, too, creating traction similar to slippery roots. All in all, it’s been an eye opener to see how well a conventional trail bike can cope with the snow.
Christa and I are now on our way to Sedona for a few days of real mountain biking on real dirt. It’s a long drive, but I’ve wanted to get there for a few years ago, and this seems like the perfect opportunity. Bring on the winter sunshine.
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.
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.