Back in the Game

I’ve really missed competitive Mountain Biking: I haven’t done enough of it this year. My return to Colorado set the stage for a return to the wonders of XC racing, and I was really happy to race in Winter Park this last weekend. I started my Mountain Bike career in the Grand Valley, at the headwaters of the Colorado river, and it’s great to continue it now. My first XC race was a collegiate race in Sol Vista, just down the road from Winter Park. I raced in the ‘B’ category, and came an emphatic second after feeling like my sea level lungs were about to explode.

Early Morning clouds hanging over Winter Park ski area

The feeling this weekend was similar: spending six months at (almost) sea level has given me plenty of time to get used to the thick soupy air, and my main concern on Saturday was whether my lungs would be able to keep up with my legs. Since getting back to Boulder, Bryan had wasted no time in catching up with missed rides, and we’d done a couple reasonably strenuous jaunts into the hills. I’d been finding the climbs confusingly small after the majesty of the Alps, and ‘tempo’ pace climbing had felt great. My one effort into the red zone had ended with Bryan pedalling away from me up the backside of flagstaff, so I had a feeling that come race day, I’d be lacking at the pointy end.

Bryan Alders climbing up through Winter Park ski area on the way to preride the XC course

My fears turned out to be unfounded though. Lining up on the start line was an intimidating but warming experience: as I cruised up the road to the start, I was greeted by legions of people who I hadn’t seen for a season, and who seemed delighted to see me. Equally, I was reminded how serious this whole racing thing is taken in Colorado, and as I squeezed onto the very end of the front row, I couldn’t help but count the people I was worried of loosing to.

The start ‘gun’ went off, and as usual, there was a mad dash to get to the front, and a couple hopeful chancers led the pace up the first road. As expected, my lungs felt like they were trying to evacuate my chest through my throat, and I had to concentrate hard on breathing properly before I could get into a rhythm. But eventually I did, and found myself a couple lengths back from the lead group heading up the biggest climb of the day. I was worried by how comfortable the pace felt, but a glance behind me confirmed that almost everyone had been dropped, and the good feeling should be enjoyed. I took the lead on the stupidly rocky summit of the climb, and enjoyed clear trail on the descent. Looking behind me at the bottom confirmed what I had expected, and it was just Bryan that had matched my DH pace. We started the undulating ride towards the finish. We had an hour or so of riding left, and whilst I was concerned with keeping my lungs inside my body, Bryan’s attention had turned to how he was going to shake me off. On the last climb of the day, I was finally convinced that my strength would last til the finish, so I upped the pace a few times to see what would happen. To my disappointment, Bryan stuck with it each time, but the plus was that I still felt in control. Coming into the last 20 minutes of singletrack, I was pretty confident I could shake him somehow.

It’s a shame, then, that my head fell apart in sight of the finish line, and I ended up making the rookie error of dragging the other guy to the line. My tactics of “stamp on pedals as hard as possible” led to me being handily beaten by 0.3 seconds on the line. I was less disappointed until I realised my mistake had cost me $250. An expensive lesson, but one well learned and not to be repeated.

The winnings. Or, more appropriately, the losings.

In the end, after my harsh self-criticism faded, I’m rather happy that after six months of putting in some big miles, losing some weight, but not racing, I’m at least as fast as last year, and with room for improvement too.

The sun setting on the Grand Valley