The Firecracker 50

What does it take to lose a 50 mile mountain bike race by 0.16 seconds? It takes so much. So much support and effort on many people’s parts.

The Firecracker 50 is a big event in Breckenridge. It’s held in the midst of the Independence Day celebrations; it forms the start of a carnival style parade through the centre of town. The street is lined on either side by happy, relaxed families out for a day of celebration. It’s a great privilege to get to start off the festivities, and riding through the throng of people whilst ‘high-fiving’ kids of either side of the road is a great experience!

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The race had a neutral start for the first 3 miles – a huge contrast to XC style racing that requires eye popping effort from the gun. The pace quickened in a gradual effort until we were cruising up Boreas pass road in a group of 25 people. The first lap formed a huge group that wouldn’t separate, and it made for some good close racing and a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere. I was dismayed to see Thomas Spannring – a long time competitor and token Austrian – lose some spokes to a wayward log in a freak incident very early in. I was expecting punctures all around, but that was annoying to see.

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The first big test of the race is Little French Gulch. It’s a 10 minute scree slope climb through pine trees and across glacial streams running off the north side of Mt Guyot. It’s here that the racing started in earnest as Cam Chambers put in a good effort to break up the group of about 15 people. We all strung out along the climb, and not wanting to miss anything, I made sure to move slowly through the group until I could see Cam just ahead. The effort caused a good separation that maintained itself. We finished the first lap down the new ‘flow’ trail towards Carter park, with four people in the group: Bryan Alders, Peter Kalmes, Jamey Driscoll, and me. I grabbed a couple of bottles of Carborocket from Christa and her Mum, and settled in on the road to eat as much as I could. Peter set a blistering pace up the first road section of the climb, and I just dug in and held on, knowing that the pace was really needed to keep the other rider at bay who were just behind us. This effort kept our group together and at the top of Boreas pass, the four of us were still together. The next challenge was Little French Gulch, once again. This seemed like the only point in the race were I could get any seperation, so I chose it to ramp up the effort. I knew it’s hard to ride anything but “full gas” up the climb, so it felt like a good place to see who would come with me. No one did. It was a risk, as there were still almost 15 miles of racing left, but I had no choice at that point but to commit to my move. The undulating terrain from the top of little french provided no respite, and I could feel my legs getting closer to cramping with each pedal stroke. I finally had to start thinking about damage limitation, rather than an all out effort to the line.

10409316_10202180596701673_589353042800193409_nWith little chance of getting people to all the feed zones scattered in the hills, I relied on the neutral bottles handed up by volunteers. These were filled with Gatorade, which is electrolyte free. It was an oversight that I shouldn’t have overseen, especially because I know I cramp so easily. Without Carborocket, I was struggling, and could feel Jamey Driscoll reeling me in.

The last aid station came five miles from the finish. I looked back to the inevitable sign of Jamey right on my wheel. I started the switchbacking climb and felt Jamey glide by me on a straight section. I grasped for his rear tyre as he pedalled on by, and the motivation of seeing him in front of me was enough to dig deeper. Pedalling through cramps is one of the most horrible experiences, but I dealt with it. Over the top of the climb, Jamey had a maximum of three seconds on me which I closed quickly. We were dodging back-markers left and right – these are the people who were finishing up their first lap in the time it had taken us to do two. Down the last switchbacks there was almost nothing I could do to get by – I tried in every turn to find a shorter line to the bottom, but Jamey’s experience showed through, and I was left coming into the home straight on his wheel.
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I gave it everything in the first pedal strokes out of that corner. My bike responded and I seemed to come up on Jameys left side quickly. That’s when I pulled my right foot out of the pedal (similarly to in Missoula), and lost just enough momentum to stay behind Jamey. Second place.

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I said, right after the race, that in a couple of days I would be happy with a hard fought battle. I thought the sting of losing so narrowly would fade. But I was wrong. I’m really disappointed to not win. It would have been a great event to add to my resume, and something I would have really cherished going forward. As it is, I’ve been replaying the events in my mind on every ride for the last week. It’s burning inside me. It’s motivation. I’m really looking forward to coming back much stronger. Strong enough that there will be no sprint finish, and no doubt whatsoever about who won.

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Colorado Springs US Cup

The Colorado Springs US Cup was the last round of the four race series. After the preceding three races being held in March (still winter in Colorado), I was worried the series may have lost some of the momentum it had gained earlier in the year. As it turned out, this was the best race of the series by far. There was some negatively circling around the race; rumours of a terrible gravel track course, and plenty of the usual USA Cycling hate from people not very well informed.

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It was with this attitude that I headed to Colorado Springs with Bryan on Saturday morning. We’d decided to save some time and money and just drive down on the day of the race. We arrived to the small little tent city and a great vibe. The women’s race was being broadcast live across the internet, and the production value seemed to be much higher than the previous races. I think this sport is learning how to do things! Bryan and I got a lap on the course after the women had finished. The rumours circulating about a terrible course were entirely unfounded. The opening straight gave way to sandy two-track road, and then silly steep and loose climbing, before another 10 minutes of constant up and down on singletrack and sandy trails. It was tough. Someone who knew about racing had done a great job of intertwining passing places and technical sections.

Only complaint of the day: After spending my hard earned to travel down to Texas and California, with the aim of gaining points and moving up the rankings, I was dumbfounded to find I was listed on the starting grid in the mid 50’s. It looked like they’d just pulled names out of the hat again for the starting order. On a course that was all about the first section of the first lap, it pretty much killed my chances of getting into the top 15.

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The start went as expected: I moved up to about 35th before the bottleneck into the singletrack. I watched the leaders up ahead ride through the rocks as we waited. Yes, waited on the trail. After the first three minutes or so the race got moving and I could move up well. I latched onto Jamie Driscoll, a cyclocross rider who also had a back row start and was moving through the field. He pulled me past 10 riders before I finally made a mistake on the steep loose climb and lost him. With two laps to go the heat was starting to make itself felt.

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Christa had thought ahead: she filled stockings with ice for us to shove down our jerseys, which made for a great temperature regulator. Christa and her Mum did a superlative job as support crew for Bryan and I. The heat was wreaking havoc on my stomach, and it was great to know I had a bottle of ice cold water waiting for me each time I came through.

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As the gaps got bigger towards the end, my strong finish didn’t end up gaining me too many more places. I passed a couple of people on the last lap, and came across the line 20th. That marks my best result at a national race, and it came on a day where all I did was pedal sensibly around the course. I missed out (again) on the 15th place I would have needed to get a UCI point, but at this point in the season I’m done chasing. I’ll be heading back to England with no expectations about how I’m going to race. Coming from a back row starting position means I just have to work hard and see what happens.

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Missoula – First Impressions

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Keith, Bryan and I drove through all of Tuesday from Boulder up to Missoula, on the western Edge of Montana. The twelve hour road trip took us mainly on two roads. First, we sped north on Interstate 25 for 359 miles, before bearing slightly left, and then driving along Interstate 90 for the remaining 503 miles. Easy. Wyoming, as ever, was an unerring expanse of vast emptiness. The unseasonal green covering the huge plains a little reminder of the excess rain we’ve had falling all over the place this year.

We pulled into Missoulla at 9pm. The swirling clouds hung close to the hills, obscuring the sky line. I knew, from my map gazing, that the hills went a lot higher than we could see, but I settled for waiting until morning to find out how high they really were.

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Morning brought a spin through town, through the University of Montana (“the Grizzlies”), and through a french style bakery set in a big warehouse. It’s here we got comfortable and did the bike racer thing of spending as little energy (and money) as possible.

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In the afternoon we headed up to Marshall Mountain for the first time. My intention was to race the local series race being held in the evening on the same course as Saturdays main event.

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We left the house at the base of the mountain and started riding up there. The temperature was hovering around 5 celcius with torrential rain. I’d resigned myself to be getting pretty wet, but I was soaked through immediately. We rode a lap of the course before deciding whether to race. The answer was a resounding no. After a good soaking, I thought it much more intelligent to get in the car and find a warm shower instead.

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Up hardscrabble road – exploring Eagle’s singletrack

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The GoPro games XC race was on Saturday afternoon. It took just one hour and twenty seven minutes to drain weeks of preparation into a hastily produced PDF sheet of results, with my name printed neatly on the 9th row. That hour and half of effort left me in restless tiredness all evening. Luckily I had a companion in pain: Dustin had switched his waxed planks for knobbly tyres, and done the sport race. We both sat on the porch at the Ghent household on Saturday afternoon, beers in hand, wondering what it is that makes people pay money for such treatment.

It also left us with a Sunday free from racing, and a family ready to do some adventuring. Brad was going in for some reasonably major back surgery (which went just fine in the end), which meant he would be out of bike riding action for the rest of the summer. We had an adventure to plan.

The Eagle Valley is dominated by two things. Firstly, Vail ski resort. It takes the majority of attention, so much so that most people from Colorado couldn’t tell you where in the valley the rest of the towns sit. The second thing is I-70. The monstrosity of a highway carves down the centre of the valley, a beeline from Vail pass at 11,000 feet to Dotsero, at the entrance of Glenwood Canyon on the west. The first couple of years of being in Colorado, that was all I saw of Eagle county, too. But then I started dating Christa, and then met the parents. And that meant spending a lot more time in the valley. It was an eye opener. There’s so much to explore away from the highway.

Eagle is one town down from Edwards (or about 45 minutes drive from Vail, if you’re still using that reference point). Leaving the highway, you first pass through the old town, then the new town, then the newest town, before getting to the edge of the trails. We were riding on the slopes of Hardscrabble mountain, south of town. First off we pedalled through Eagle Ranch, where the Firebird 40ish was held a couple of weeks ago, and then took a turn onto third gulch. The livelihood in the hills in obvious here; cows grazing the sparse grass between fragrant sagebrush. We rode through the pastures, getting ever closer to the Aspen lined mesa above. We then dove into a small trail paralleling an old water conduit, called the pipeline. This took us through Gambel Oak, Boxelder and Aspens before we popped out onto Hardscrabble road. This road is a well maintain dirt track leading almost all the way to the top of Hardscrabble mountain. We pedaled slowly on the red dirt as the clouds lowered a little around us. The first drops of rain released the loose fragrance from the sagebrush interspersed among the Aspens. Soon we turned off the road, heading along Firebox trail. This narrow single track traversed through open grassy meadows at 9000 feet, before popping onto a dirt road, and circling us back towards Eagle. Now a little bit south, and a couple thousand feet above the town, we descended fast jeep roads to the top of Abrahams Ridge, and then jumped onto flowing trails.

At this point the rain had started in earnest. The red dirt was starting to clump under our tyres, and we pedaled on with cold hands, hoping to avoid a prolonged soaking in the dropping temperatures. The red dirt turned brown, then white, as we rode through the chalky hills. The final turns had been tamped down by the rain to make perfect dirt. The motivation of more rain moving in had us barely stopping in 30 minutes of downhill.

For Brad’s last ride of the summer, it was a great one. It took in all the strata of vegetation from the valley floor to the high alpine. We had rain and sun in equal measures, and we finished it off with some perfect descending.

The GoPro Mountain Games

Vail in the evening light of June

The GoPro games is Vail’s way of filling the town with 50,000 people during a time of year that most ski resorts still idle and empty. The protective white coating on the hillsides has barely revealed the fresh sprouts of summer grass, and the Aspens have their young yellowish-green leaves in contrast to the dark evergreens. The GoPro games is unlike most other races, as it combines a whole bunch of different sports into one festival. Alongside the XC mountain bike race, climbing, kayaking, running, ‘slacklining’ and road bike time trials vie for spectator’s attention. It’s a great opportunity to perform in front of a bigger crowd, and a crowd of people who probably wouldn’t choose to attend a bike race under any other circumstances. The event puts up a sizable chunk of money to attract the names. $6000. Because of the money on the line, I’d set a goal of top 10; it wouldn’t get me in the money, but I just wanted to prove that I can compete against the guys I’ll be racing against in the next ProXCT in Montana in a couple of weeks.

The start arena at Vail Mountain for the GoPro Games

Mountain Biking is pretty selfish. It’s an individual pursuit than requires entire self-absorption. At the same time, it can’t be done without a huge network of people supporting and helping out. With the race being in Vail, I had the Ghent household out in strength to support me. It made a big difference. Christa is a seasoned expert in dealing with me before races.

We lined up on a downhill corner on loose gravel. Switching the opening loop to run in reverse would have been simple, creating a nice fast climb right from the gun. Instead we ended up with a chaotic stampede into a treacherous corner. I lined up on the second row (yay for not needing UCI points to get a good start!), and managed to get smoothly through the first corner in about 6th place. I have to admit to a novice-error on the first steep climb though; as Todd Wells pulled up alongside me, I briefly decided that I wasn’t worthy of rubbing shoulders with Olympians and let him slip effortlessly in front of me. Although I was never going to challenge him at the end, I still feel like I should have held my own a little more at the start.

GoPro Mountain Games. Photo by Linda Guerrette

Howard Grotts, made mainly of thin air and pure glucose, lead the pace up the first climb. I was on my limit, and thanks to my good start I was able to find a small group to work with just behind the leaders. The Vail course is all about climbing – right from the gun it’s all about digging deep into your muscles. These kinds of climbs don’t allow rhythm – they require constant tension in your muscles, constant force to keep the pedals going forward or else you’ll be going backwards before you know it. I didn’t dare look back for the first 10 minutes of racing. As we neared the top of the climb, I was expecting to see a procession of riders behind me, but momentary relief flooded me as I saw open trail behind. I’d managed to get some separation, and was in about 10th place. I found Russell Finsterwald and Mitch Hoke to ride with over the top of the descent. It was a mixed blessing on the downhill however. I benefitted from not having to think too much on the way down, but Russell’s constantly drifting rear tyre filled my face with dirt. I would be coughing dust for the next couple days!

GoPro Mountain Games. Photo by Linda Guerrette
Lap two. The dread of starting all over again and doing what I’d just done for the second out of three times. This time I metered my efforts just slightly. The now comforting presence of pain in my legs told me I was going plenty hard enough. Heart rate and power mean nothing at this point in a race – the altitude and crumbling dirt under your tyres are the limiters on performance. Russell had dropped Mitch and I, and we hit the base of the climb together. Through the winding Aspens on the least steep section of course, I upped the pace slightly, trying to keep some momentum over the wet roots. Mitch dropped back a bit, and from there on I was alone. A quick sneak over my shoulder saw me entering the descent with no one around, and although I thought I’d be caught before the bottom, I came out the other end alone too. At this point, the shape in my rear view mirror was Ben Sonntag, the German now living in Durango. He caught up to me at the base of the climb, and I attached myself to his wheel. As I would expect him to have had a better start, I assumed he’d be giving it everything up the climb, and it was safe to hold on for dear life. That’s what I did. It came to the top, and his little acceleration seemed to push me backwards as fast as he went forwards. He now had 15 seconds on me. 15 seconds that would hold to the end. Me chasing, and him holding me off meant that we caught another rider just before the finish. Try as I might, the sickening feeling of hydrogen ions blocking up muscle fibres stopped me going any faster. Getting out of the saddle was an exercise in going though the motions. I couldn’t catch Ben, or Troy Wells, and I rolled across the line in 9th place, just six seconds behind 7th place.

results from the 2014 GoPro Mountain Games Pro XC
I’d come into the race with a goal of top ten. As I perused the start list, I had no idea whether it was realistic. I’m happy that I pulled it off, and very happy that I was a solid three minutes ahead of the rider behind me. I’m getting more confident about going out as hard as I possibly can, and then holding on for dear life. It seems that’s the way these races are run. It’s all in the start, and holding on to the finish has nothing to do with endurance. It’s all about suffering, tactics and pure will. It’s a good result going into the Missoula race in two weeks time. Although I won’t have the luxury of choosing my own start position there, I’m confident that I can make up some places on the steep climbs and hold on to the finish.

The Iron Horse Classic

The fresh May snow coating the peaks

The Iron Horse Classic MTB race, scheduled for Sunday, was cancelled due to bike eating mud. From arriving in Durango on Friday until the race at 8:30am on Sunday, low clouds hung over the valley. Occasional glimpses of the high country revealed a fresh sprinkle of white on the peaks. Bryan and I warmed up in the drizzling rain on Sunday morning, the clouds refused to part. Our reluctance to stop warming up could be explained by our 5:00am wake up time. The multiple cups of coffee consumed. The hearty breakfast eaten in preparation. As we cruised up to the start line, the general chaos belied the decision about to be announced. A stressed looking Dave Hagen, the man in charge, had his phone glued to his head. His shoes were clumped with pounds of red clay mud; his early course reconnaissance obviously didn’t go as planned. As Dave lowered his mobile from his ear, he drew a slow cutthroat sign across his neck. The race was done. As with most Colorado towns, the trails are a public facility. Tax money has been turned into winding and sinuous singletrack routes around town. In the short term, the rain is much needed to keep the trails in good condition, but as guests to the town, a race in the mud would do a year’s worth of damage in a day. The cancellation was the only solution.

Durango is fun, no matter what the weather gives you

This is where friends come in. The seven hour drive to Durango wasn’t all for the race. Certainly, it was an excuse, a motivator. A reason to get in the car and drive. But we’d gone to the southwest of Colorado to get away from Boulder for a long weekend; to spend time with friends, enjoying Durango’s network of paths and trails in the red hills spiraling away from town. When the race was cancelled, it didn’t make to a wasted trip, it just lead to a reason to find trails that stood up to the rain; to play around on the higher trails that were armoured with a thick and crunchy covering of pine needles.

Laura riding the Hogsfoot trail in Overend Park, Durango

On Sunday we ended up messing around town for almost five hours; trails, roads, rain, and eventually the sun came out. We wondered downtown to spectate the poorly attended criterium, then drink a beer at Old Tymers on Main Street. Never a day wasted; just repurposed to make the most of the situation.

Bryan riding Raiders Ridge above downtown Durango. The rain made it an extra challenge

The Memorial Day weekend gave us an extra day to play before getting on the road back to Boulder. We pedalled out of town in the direction of Junction Creek. The Colorado trail is a 535 mile route from Denver to Durango, ending its journey among the huge cottonwoods in Junction Creek, just five miles from town. We rode up the first section, pedalling up the tacky dirt under the canopy in the bottom of the valley.

Christa embraced the rain to ride with Bryan and I. She's a natural born MTBer

We then picked our way up the tight switchbacks though the healthy, old growth pine forests onto the top of the ridge at Gudy’s rest. From here we could look south towards the town. Just at the very edge of the expansive wilderness that spreads for hundreds of miles, we already felt out there in the middle of nowhere. The size of the untouched forests are like nothing found in the UK or Europe.

Just a small stretch of the unending forests around Durango

There’s places, I like to believe, that no-one has ever been. Perhaps there are just places so beautiful, quiet and isolated that the people who have found them will never share their secrets, in order to protect them for the people who will search them out themselves.

Bryan, Katie, Christa and I at Gudys rest. Overlooking Junction Creek

I’ve pondered what it would be like to live in Durango. When I go there, the opportunity and time to explore is almost endless. Would living there be the same? Would all the amazing things about Durango make up for it being six hours from the outside world? It’s isolation is what makes it special. For the time being, I’ll just enjoy the small chunks of time I get to spend in Colorado’s southwest.

The Sangre de Cristo mountains on the way to Durango

The Whiskey 50

Prescott is somewhere worth visiting. I feel so lucky to travel around the US wearing my Red Ace kit, seeing sights and sounds that most people will never experience. The Whiskey 50, in Prescott, is something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. I have another post to write about the town and the experience, but I needed to write the race down, too.

A freak storm crossed the open Sonora desert on Saturday, stunning everyone. I watched the snow settle on the red dirt from the comfort of the house,  happy I had 24 hours until go time. I didn’t need to suffer – I didn’t want or need to battle the the conditions the amateur race dealt with. Call me soft if you want.

The start line. Everyone was looking at Sauser (the guy in the stripy jersey on the right).
I lined up a couple of rows off the front of the grid, the rainbow stripes of World Champ Christoph Sauser just in front of me. Such a superstar of cycling removed all the burden from my shoulders – I wasn’t here with expectations. All the eyes were on him. No-one expects me to do well, as most people still don’t know who I am. Confidence surged on this realisation.

Like in 2012, the race started gently. I sat in the centre of the pack, protected on all sides. People posed for the cameras at the front; they wouldn’t be the ones fighting for positions at the end. The tarmac’d road rose steeply to meet the dirt. The jostling for position was intense but I was at ease; I slotted into the singletrack behind my teammate Sam. The familiarity of his riding relaxed me; we rode to the rhythm of the smooth and tacky trail ahead.

Descending the ripping fast trail before the first real climb

We started the steep singletrack climb onto the ridge. Riders concertina’d back and forth, the gaps stretching and coming back together. I had time to eat and drink, taking down half a bottle before I’d even started working hard. The hard-earned gravity pulled us back into the ponderosa and scrub oak lined valley; 2000 feet of elevation to be rid of. The turns had been sculpted smooth by yesterday’s rain. No effort was needed to navigate at warp speed. My bike effortlessly did what I told it to as I followed Sam and Ben Sonntag downwards.

The descent threw us onto a wide and rolling dirt road – 12 minutes of grinding. I sucked down a gel. Yuk. This is where the race should have started happening. Our train of riders had let a group off the front. I wasn’t sure how many were up there, but slowly the chase started. The pace picked up. We rounded the final steep corners to the first aid station, friendly volunteers waving bottles in our faces. I grabbed some water, then sucked down a gel. Yuk.

Nine miles of downhill on loose gravel road. The small washes where infrequent desert storms run across the road were damp. We cruised down the road, bullets of gravel thrown from tyres stung at my face. The group swelled. We rode slowly, no-one wanting to pull along a huge group. The tactics had changed. Riders who had chased hard to get into the group now dwelled, not sure what to do. I started eating. I managed to go through a whole packet of Clif Bar chews, 200 calories of processed sugar. We cruised into the feed zone en masse. The U-turn at the bottom gave me a chance to see Mrs. York, Deidre’s Mum. She had her work cut out. With 40 riders coming through all at once, she had to find three of us and hand us the right bottles. I got mine smoothly and was on my way.

The feed zone was chaos. 40 people trying to grab bottles without slowing down. I went to the front to stay safe.
We were half way through the race and the race hadn’t even started. I went to the front of the pack and turned the pace on a little, helped out by Rotem Ishay from Jamis and Spencer Paxson from Kona. I was wary of doing too much work on the front; wary of people tucked away keeping their powder dry. As the gradient kicked up, I closed every gap that appeared. No one attacked, but the pace ramped up. I finally looked back at the feed station two-thirds of the way up the climb; We had dropped all but five people.

The Skull Valley Climb. This is where is started to get hard

I sucked down a gel. Yuk. Barry Wicks set the pace  to the top of the climb, where we dived into singletrack. I upped the tempo just before the trail narrowed, but somehow still managed to be the last one into the woods. I sucked down my final gel on the top of the smooth trail. Yuk. We battled on the top of cramp hill, legs resisting each pedal stroke, each rider elbowing out the rest to get a better position for the last DH. I still got relegated to last onto the trail. I need to work on that.

The final sprint. I really need to learn how to sprint!

The finale: two miles of downhill road to the finish. I was accompanied by two team Kona riders, two from team Jamis, and a lone Scott rider who none of us knew. My brain hurt. My legs hurt. My back hurt. We rounded a corner that lead into an uphill with a minute left, I had nothing left, but I laid it all down, getting a small gap. I thought it would hold, until someone else attacked behind me. We were all together with one corner left. 35 mph on mountain bikes. The sprint was a mess. Bars been thrown side to side. It was slow motion. I came across the line 3rd of five in the sprint. 11th place. Mission accomplished.