Yes, it sounded crazy to me too. But instead of getting abused by New England junior skiers for another weekend, I was headed to Newport Vermont, which is basically Canada, for a winter mountain bike race.
The whole week I was waffling on how I felt about the race. Biking on snow, which I had done a grand total of one time, I remember was fun. Driving 220 miles each way to do a race is not fun. Paying $54 entry fees, gas, and hotel is not fun. So this was teetering on the edge of being not fun. The real thing that had me scared, however, was the terrifying illiteracy of the race promoter. His blog/race info site included sentences like...
you should have some newspaper with it in order to help you start a fire if need be?
I'm trusting a guy who can't tell the difference between a question mark and a period to be in charge of this thing? Maybe it's years of being nagged by an English major (my mom), but I was seriously concerned by this. I had a feeling this guy was just going to tell us to "go 'bout 10 miles down dis trail, then bang a left, then, uh, go over to, uh, Newport Center... and uh, take trail 7 back. ok? go!"
But Linnea really wanted to go, so I caved, and we went. And I got there, and met the race promoter. And he talked kind of funny. You know why? Because he's French Canadian.
He's French Canadian!
No wonder he doesn't give a crap about writing English, it's his second language! He just carpet bombs a sentence with nouns and verbs and figures he'll hit something close to what he wanted to say. All is forgiven, Quebecois-race-promoter-man!
Ok! Racing time. The 30 milers started at 8am, about 30 of them. It was zero degrees. I was freezing, and scared. Us sissy 10 milers caravan'ed over to the 10 mile start at 9am and I got even more nervous. Was I going to lose my toes? All I had was my bike shoes covered with my skiing overboots. Standing around watching the start at 8am, my whole body was cold, not just my feet. I have no idea what I'm doing. I'm going to die in the woods...
It probably wasn't that bad. The sun came out, and the wind didn't come up. We rolled down the dirt road around 10:15, all 15 of us. The lead was quickly taken up by a girl in a full Trek/VW kit, riding a full XTR carbon fiber hardtail, who had her name and an American flag on her top tube. I had a sneaking suspicion that she might, in fact, know what she was doing. More on her later.
After a minute of riding on a dirt road (man, this winter mountain biking is easy!) we turned onto a snowmobile trail. In a matter of seconds the race completely changed. This is what went through my head.
- Riding on this road is easy. I can't believe I paid $50 for this.
- Hey, we're turning.
- Whoa, I'm slowing down.
- Better start pedaling. And shifting.
- Whoa, I'm still slowing down.
- I can't even steer this thing.
- Whoa, I'm basically stopped.
- *Churn pedals and moves at 2mph*
- Holy crap what did I get myself into
It was really that bad. Out of 15 people, I think 13 of us were off the bike within a minute of hitting the trail. I zigzagged around at walking pace trying to find solid snow to ride on, and generally failed miserably. I started running with my bike, because I'm a cross racer, darn it, and that's just how we deal with adversity.
Unfortunately the field was half a mile long, and I was running in snow, so I didn't really get that far before I went back to slogging at 2mph. After 5 more minutes of suffering, it was about 100 degrees inside my winter outfit (because somehow I thought winter biking would be way colder than skiing, ha ha), and I got to the end of the field. I was up to 4th place because everyone else was having as much fun as I was.
Somewhere along the line I let more air out of my tires, so I was probably running 20 psi. I think that helped. It turned out that that field was really the worst part of the course -- once we got onto the snowmobile trails in the woods it was genuinely ridable. You still had to sit back, not steer, and pedal smoothly -- but you could actually do it. The fun factor increased exponentially.
So Linnea and I rode together for 8 miles of pretty fun snow biking. It was a race, but not that serious. I took about 5 minutes longer than necessary at the first checkpoint and we lost 4 places. I yelled "WATTS" when I tried to ride up a steep hill and failed. Things were going well.
The really great thing about riding on snowmobile trails is descending. It is an awesomely out of control experience -- you just get way back and push on the bars to keep them straight. You try to relax, fight your bike anyway, generally slide all over the place, but somehow stay upright.
The race ended with an epic mile of suffering across Lake Memphramagog. Linnea and I had actually passed enough people back that we were up to 3rd, riding with the 2nd place rider. Riding across the lake, there was a little plowed strip of ice (instead of drifted snow) to ride on, so you could actually get moving. I "put the hammer down" and "attacked" (these words are in quotes because it was really pretty feeble) Linnea and the guy in 2nd and opened up a nice 50 yard lead by the end of the lake. Woohoo! I'm doing great! My legs hurt but I'm almost done... oh crap the plowed section ended.
I immediately floundered helplessly in the the soft snow, thrashed myself sideways, got off, got back on, and hey, there they are, right next to me! That lead really paid off.
It was too soft to ride effectively in. My girlfriend is right behind me and has a legitimate chance of beating me. My legs are now really quite cooked from my fruitless attack. This must be how Ryan Kelly feels in every race. But I'm a cross rider, damnit.
So I did what I had to do. I ran, pushing my bike through the snow for about a minute, until I couldn't run any more, and then I staggered up the bank off the lake. I got on my bike, fought some more soft snow, and made it to the finish line in 2nd overall.
The two people I was racing against? They didn't give a damn. They walked their bikes through the snow and finished calmly, because they're not hypercompetitive idiots.
So maybe I tried too hard, but I was second, and I was the first man in, because all the real men were riding the 30 miler. The winner turned out to be that pro woman, which didn't really bother me until I saw the times.
Her time: 1:12
My time: 1:36
I got girled by 24 minutes and I was still the first guy in. Put another way, I was 33% back and still got second place.
That girl kicked my ass in a way Lynn Bessette can only dream of.