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.
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.
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!
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.
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.