Another year in the high desert of central Arizona to really kick-start the mountain bike season. I’ve told everyone in the last few weeks that it’s a nice time of year to come down to the desert – that starting the season among the cacti is a good introduction to the new year. But the truth is that the high desert surrounding Prescott is anything but forgiving. The arid hills get little moisture, except in the spring. Last year we dealt with unlikely snow, but this year the weather wasn’t that far from normal for the region; on and off thunderstorms for three days straight. The crushed granite hills take the moisture well, though, and we rode some amazing under threatening skies.
Leading up to the race I was expecting the forecast to improve. But it didn’t, and we lined up on Whiskey row on very wet roads with huge clouds glooming overhead. The shotguns signalled the start, we were racing from the get go. No neutral start this year, and it was a good considering the temperature sat firmly in the single digits celsius. I started far back, no need to stay at the front in the wind. The pace wasn’t ferocious, and I slowly wiggled through the pack as the grade of the road climbed. There are two really steep pitches of road that lead to the dirt, and it was my plan to get as far up in the pack as I could. I dug deep and made it into the top 10 going along the first section of dirt, and was happy to head into the singletrack in about 12th place. Much higher up than previous years, and more controlled too.
The pace abated as soon as we hit trail, and we all strung out – it seems like everyone relaxes once the potluck of the start is done. I let a couple of small gaps open up on the trail, metering my efforts well on the way to the top of the climb. I got to the top feeling fantastic – I’d paced myself really well, eaten enough, I was warm, and the lead group were all still in sight.
And then that daunting sound. Like someone opening a can of coke, followed by ffft ffft ffft ffft ffft. Puncture. An almost instant flat. There were a couple sections of trail I’d made a mental note of the puncture potential, but this was a random root on the side of the trail. Misfortune or inattention, I’m not sure. I performed the best flat fix of my life and lost exactly 2 minutes and 40 seconds. Not much time to put in a tube, but years of time in a race with such a deep field. I got back on in the middle of a group of riders, with no idea how many people had passed me, and got a little held up on the way down to the second climb. I was being impatient. I knew it too. The second climb is about 12 minutes long, and I should have stayed with the group I was in, calmly pedaled to the top and then tucked in the group on the long descent to the bottom of Skull Valley. I didn’t; I turned it on and found a good groove, and descended alone most of the way down to the bottom.
I got caught near the 25 mile mark of the race, just before the turn around to head back up the 12.5 mile, 3000 foot climb. This turn around is reasonably unique in mountain biking, because it gives you an opportunity to see the race happening in front and behind you. It was disheartening to see how far back I’d fallen. Multiple groups were heading up the climb already, and I knew I belonged in one of them. I was in the fourth group, at least 30 riders back.
I was happy to work on the front of my group up Skull Valley. There is no drafting advantage on that climb, and the mental advantage for me was stronger to turn up the pace than let other people do the work. Soon we were down to three people. I just kept pedalling. Didn’t care who was on my wheel, I’d found the right pace and cadence and I was going to stick to it. An hour later (1:01:56 to be precise), I got to the top of the climb. We’d caught the shrapnel that had exploded out of the groups in front. Hollow shells of riders pedalling squares towards the summit. I felt great. I was a little careful coming down the last trails into town, simply because the thought of riding a flat tyre two miles back along the ride was terrifying. I got to the road with one other person, Payson McElveen, and we didn’t do too much racing toward the line. He put in a big dig about a quarter of a mile before the line, and I had nothing to respond with. I crossed the line in 3 hours 19 minutes. Much slower than last year, simply due to the heavy waterlogged trails.
18th place. 45 seconds behind Bryan, who was with me when I flatted. I felt great all day, and I am happy that I have the form I thought I did. It’s the first big goal I’ve lost out on due to a flat tyre, and I’ll need to spend a bit of time thinking about tyre choice before I line up for the next one.