We’re standing on the top of the car park looking at the course tape flapping in the morning breeze. The Aspen trees are bright green, the Gore Range behind us is silver with melting snow, and the pollen is flowing off the pines trees in huge waves. The pine pollen forms a bright yellow fog wafting up and down the valley. You can feel it on the back of your throat. Combined with the altitude in Vail, it’s making the process of getting lycra’d up a little taxing. Welcome to the GoPro Mountain Games.
Fast forward an hour or so and I’m chuckling as I see Howard Grotts pulling away from the rest of the field. He’s got a sizeable gap, and it looks like he’s got the win locked down. We’re all of 30 seconds into the race. My lungs complain, but the legs get on with the job in hand, and I find myself in a group of four people as we approach the top of the first climb. I feel terrible, but I seem to be doing OK. Perhaps everyone else feels worse? I bank on that and move to the front of the group, managing to follow Russell Finsterwald’s wheel on the rollercoaster back to the bottom.
The GoPro Games is a stereotypical ski resort race: the climb from the village to the snow line (800 feet up) takes about 20 minutes, then you hit a flowy descent back to the bottom. Three short little punchy climbs as you traverse the bottom of the ski area knock the wind out of you, and then you do it again.
By the second time up the climb, the group I’m riding in had reshuffled. Troy Wells puts in an attack. I duck my head and fail to follow. Ben Sonntag stalks me from behind, not yet making the move I know he’s capable of. Russell Finsterwald is a switchback behind. It’s like a slow game of poker. Who’s holding what cards? Who is bluffing and who is about to lay down a strong hand? Ben motors past me at the top of the climb – to be expected. I fall back a little, but catch both Ben and Troy on the next descent. It’s down to round three. Ben makes a move and calls my bluff. I give it everything I can to stay with him, but look up to see him crest the climb. He shifts down a couple gears, gets out of the saddle and gives it a couple hard pedal strokes. I think about standing up and my left calf tells me that it will cramp like hell if I do. I sit and spin instead. I grind it out to the top, and take an unnecessary look behind me. Empty space. I descend like it’s my first time. Coordination is as low as my blood sugar. I barely managed to navigate the silly slalom gates on the finish straight, and collapse neatly into a cold can of coke handed to me by Des from the BCS Team.
Super happy to take fifth in a strong field. It was a race where I never felt great, but I don’t think anyone did. The support and friendly faces out there were amazing. I think I saw literally a hundred people I knew before the start, and way more afterwards. Everyone was so happy to be up in the hills, and I didn’t hear a negative comment all day. That in itself is pretty fantastic. I had great support from the Boulder Cycle Sport team, who had a tent at the start line with much needed shade and a chair. The same shade and chair were supplemented with a coke after the race! Des Simon is a superstar supporter who is completely community minded, and is also a fantastic bottle hander upper. It was awesome to have that certainty of knowing where my bottle was coming from while I was suffering!
Some thoughts on Marginal Gains: I spent much of 2013 and 2014 wondering what little tricks the fast guys were using to get that extra speed that I didn’t have. Was it tyre pressure? It definitely had to be something to do with suspension set up, right? What about Beetroot juice? Should I stop drinking beer altogether? What’s the optimal warm up before a race? There must be some simple trick that these guys are doing in their warm up that’s giving them that extra couple of percent on the climbs.
Marginal gains are an absolute waste of time until you’ve conquered on those big gains that are out there. Like working harder. Racing smarter. Being consistent. Not flatting. Doing the interval session when you don’t want to. How many of those gains you’re willing to work for? In the end, training harder (which is very different than training more) will get you wherever you need to go. Hard work really does pay off.