1) Cold that is lingering long enough I'm starting to think it's more than just a cold? Check.
2) Knee pain when I ride more than an hour? Check.
3) Bike that creaks like a haunted house in the wind when I stand up? Check.
Alright, it must be time to mountain bike race!!
So today I was back down at Winding Trails, home of the Chainbiter, to restart my mountain bike career. I had only just registered when panic time started... not only because that's my default action 60 minutes before a start, but also because I heard that some guy had won beginner class on a cross bike. A cross bike!
Suddenly my dual-suspension Jamis seemed very, very heavy.
(As a side note, if you're clever enough to bring a cross bike to a mountain bike race because you know the course is easy, then maybe you should try riding sport, hmmm?)
Preriding the course with Linnea confirmed my fears. This thing was flat, short and fast. I'd describe it but it's pretty simple... 20-25 minutes of flying around smooth double track in the big ring with the occasional fast and smooth singletrack section thrown in. I had been hoping to start slowly, see how I felt and then settle into whatever pace I could manage, but it was obvious that was a recipe for failure today -- with that much drafting to be had, it was going to run a lot more like a cross race than a mountain bike race.
So I lined up near the back of 20 or so people riding the 19-29 sport category and went tearing into the woods in an absolute cross-tastic start. The first singletrack section came about 4 minutes in and when the leaders looped back I could see I was up to about 8th place. Not bad. Also, we were really hauling.
Pretty soon things started to break up and I found myself on the wrong end of a gap, with 30 yards between me and the lead group. I ignored my brain's warnings that I really shouldn't be going this hard less than 10 minutes in and tried to bridge across, and got up there with relative ease. Well, if you had been watching me, you would have thought it was easy, but inside the control room there were all kinds of lights and klaxons going off. I got onto the lead groups wheels and tried to rest a bit in the draft.
The problem was that we were freakin' flying. I was going nearly at my max just to sit in on the gradual climbs, and did I mention we still weren't even 10 minutes into the race? This had the makings of an awesome bonk. But it just seemed too much like good ole' cross for me to back off -- just kept coming out of turns, grabbing a wheel and hammering. Eventually a pretty strong guy from UMass caught us to make it 5 at the front.
As we neared half a lap down, the guy leading (from Harvard) sat up and announced "anyone else want to have a go?" The adrenaline was wearing off and I was thinking about the hour of pain I had left so I wasn't taking any pulls. But it didn't matter because the guy in front of me got out of the saddle and raised the tempo even higher. It wasn't even taking a pull as much as it was an attack. 60 seconds later he was ten yards off the front and it seemed like the other four of us were just going to let him go.
Well, not quite, since the UMass guy realized how useless we were and went chasing after him. I tried to get his wheel but it proved to be quite elusive, and next thing I know we're coming back through the start/finish area with me leading two other guys in the 3rd place group. Oh, and my legs really, really hurt.
I was setting a pathetic enough pace that Harvard dude and the other guy both passed me, so I got back to staring at their back tires and suffering. I think this continued for the entire second lap. A couple times I started to crack and would get dropped a bit, but I was riding the singletrack more smoothly than them so I seemed to be able to roll back on each time. We were definitely slowing down, too.
Coming through for the start of the last lap I'm feeling pretty cooked and Harvard dude is 25 yards in front of us. I'm riding in 5th and haven't taken a pull in 2/3rds of a lap, and I think the guy in 4th is not amused. He looks back at me a couple times but never really swings off the main line... so I don't really know what's going on. I don't think I'm really going that fast on the double track but, his glare finally gets the better of me, so I try to pull through and reel Harvard dude back in.
Five minutes of hanging out in the hurtbox later, I'm back on the wheel of the Harvard guy. Hmm, I guess I wasn't in that bad of shape on the flats... now I feel like a lame wheelsucker for my complete lack on contribution on the 2nd lap. Oh well. Even worse, the guy who pulled me for the whole 2nd lap couldn't stay with me and is still 20 yards back.
Well anyway. I pull past Harvard dude to show I mean business and try to put the hurt on him in one of the "tougher" (they're all pretty easy) singletrack sections. I get a tiny gap so I hammer some more double track and another singletrack section and pretty much succeed in putting some serious hurt on him... and me.
So I give up, he's still on my wheel. I'd rather sprint it out than hurt this much for the rest of the race. He leads for a while as we navigate lapped traffic on the way to the finish. We have an exciting exchange with a lapped woman when he says "on your left" and she screams "NO!!" at him. I just hang out in back.
He's taking himself pretty seriously with regards to lapped traffic, basically yelling "left" at anyone in front of him regardless of trail width, which is pretty silly since the only guy he needs to worry about (me) is right behind him. Trying to pass people who are a lap down in a sport race at high speed in singletrack is not an easy proposition, they're fast enough to not want to stop and clumsy enough to get in your way... so Harvard dude's hyper-aggressive passing finally costs him, big time, when he tries to squeeze past a masters rider in a space that's too small, hooks his bar on a tree, and flies over the bars with a volley of curses.
That pretty much gift-wraps third place for me. Harvard guy went down pretty hard and other dude is 20 seconds or so back, so I ride smart for the last 4 minutes and finish in a blistering 65 minutes. Cross-tastic!
Meanwhile, Linnea stomps the women's sport field and probably could've been in the middle of the expert field, all on a bike that her brother got for free from a scrap heap at Dartmouth. So I'm the underachiever here.
I guess what all this means is that I'm in surprisingly decent shape given all my excuses. I think if I can ride well on a hilly, long and/or technical course (since this was none of those) I'll have to think about moving up to expert. So I can really get it handed to me.
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