If you had my hand strength you'd climb on top of cars to loosen bike racks, too.
It seems like it's been a long season, but I've only done 16 mountain bike races this year. That's not that many, right? Considering how much time I've spent trying to make my bike(s) work, it feels more like 50. And this last one was no exception -- I had to fix a tubeless tire (or ride a tubed backup) and resurrect my front shifting (or ignore it and try to fix it with my barrel adjuster/limit screws on site).
Yeah, I should have finished the work-on-your bike season strong, but I took the easy way out and all those things in parenthesis above...happened. It was especially stupid because after last week I was nursing a 7 point lead over Sean in the race for Root 66 first-loser status. Domnarski Farm had 3000 feet of climbing in 20 miles and he underweighs me by 15 lbs (yeah, you think I'm skinny, huh? you should meet this guy) so functioning equipment would have been a good a good first step to leveling the playing field.
But hey, I had a "place to give," I didn't have to beat him, just finish right behind him, should be no problem right? We had seven guys on the start line, four of the usual suspects and three unknowns, so wasn't really too worried... not exactly hordes of people to finish between us.
The race started with some deceptively tough climbing on steep logging roads and atv trail, made even tougher by the overnight rain. It was a solid 15 minutes of steady ascent so I tried to keep a lid on things at the beginning, which of course meant a trip straight to the back. I hung out at the back of the train for a while with Eric and an unknown singlespeeder (they started with us) and tried to settle into things while keeping tabs on Sean. He was just a few places ahead in line so I remained unconcerned.
Then the climbing kept going. I dabbed once or twice, and the negative self-talk started. Oh, you have been so busy this week, no wonder your legs hurt! And all that coffee... and riding too hard on Thursday... man no wonder you can't climb. It's ok, finishing 3rd in the series is good too. Let's just slow down and feel bad about ourselves, mmmk?
We got to the next climb and I could see at least a minute up the hill -- and Sean was nowhere to be seen.
Eventually we topped out and went into some muddy jeep roads and greasy singletrack for a few miles. I thought my day was going poorly until I came across Thom on the side of the trail, who had started the race knowing he only needed to finish to win the pro series... and was now looking at a broken bike and 18 mile run (!) to finish. That'll put your problems in perspective.
Through the techier, flatter singletrack I pulled away from Eric and caught up to another guy from my class riding for Connecticut Coast. I figured he was probably the only obstacle between Sean and I, so all I had to do was get around him and I was golden.... except then we started climbing again and bam, he was gone. Crap. Now I had proof that I was going to lose 2nd place.
Things only got worse when my rear hub started buzzing crazily when I was coasting. The post-race diagnosis is dirt in the hub, not a big deal, but the mid-race diagnosis was more like OMG MY BIKE IS GOING TO EXPLODE AND STRAND ME. So that was a fun head game to play for the next 1.5 hours, as it only got worse with each additional mud puddle foray.
The second half of the course presented additional problems, mainly because it sucked*. It was 5 miles of blown out, mudholed jeep roads and washed out powerline trails, mixed with the odd atv track straight up the fall line. Yeah, I could climb some of those with a two-stroke, maybe. In fact, this part of the course is worthy of a whole new paragraph/aside! Let's do it.
What is up with race promoters getting "epic loop fever?" I'm starting to see this more, while the World Cup is trending toward 15 minute laps local promoters (Bikes for Bovines, I'm looking at you too) are busy making the craziest, longest loop possible, so long they start to have issues getting the length appropriate for each class (i.e. if sports ride two laps it will take too long, if they ride one it will be too short, we need a separate beginner course, we need to warn people this is a "longer than usual XC").
Ok, sometimes it works out -- Wompatuck's 25 mile loop is a thing of beauty, although the sport riders that were out there for 4 hours might disagree. Domnarski Farm, on the other, followed up an entirely decent 4 miles of single track with an all-around terrible 6 miles of jeep/atv/crap trail, for no apparent reason. It wasn't like we rode some crappy trails to get to some good trails, we rode some crap trails to get to some slightly less crappy ones. I looked at the GPS when I finished and we could have done a nice, high-quality loop just using the singletrack in the first four miles.
Anyway, I might be in the minority, but I'd rather ride a bunch of laps on the good stuff than a long lap stringing together every little section that you thing might be interesting. Turn this course into a four mile lap and you've really got something. Ok.... rant off.
Where was I? Oh yeah, breaking bike, broken legs, disappearing Sean, general misery. All the hallmarks of a good race report! After some ridiculous mud-bogging I had thoroughly destroyed my braking power to add to my long list of problems, but I came around a corner on the straight-down-the-fall-line descent (trail design? what?) to find a dude from my category standing next to his bike, looking pretty shaken.
"You ok?" I asked.
"I think so..." he said weakly, as he delicately peered down the front of his shorts, clearly afraid of what he might see.
So hey, I didn't break my bike like Thom and I didn't take a wicked nut shot like that guy, so maybe I should suck it up and race my damn bike, huh? I finished lap one in 1:10 and headed out for lap two, back on the good part of the course. And it was good to me! I had a bunch of 40+ dudes to leapfrog back and forth with so I wasn't lonely, I knew the course this time around, and best of all I started seeing the Connecticut Coast dude through the woods. All is not lost!
Except for my maddeningly loud rear hub I didn't have many excuses left. I was getting genuinely hungry (11:30 starts confuse my fueling strategy) but with four gels on board I figured I could hold on. I passed the Connecticut Coast rider, who didn't have a super important series place on the line and breathed a sigh of relief.
My bike was ghost shifting like crazy (remember the opening paragraph?) so I had to walk some of the steep hills, yeah, that's it, that's the only reason... I was plodding up one of these when I looked back to check on Connecticut Coast dude and who should I see but Thom "never say die" Parsons, riding his stupid-speed up this hill. I told him to hurry up because I had shifting problems (he's my mechanic) and he actually said "really? want me to look at it?" in the middle of a race. He's also so fast he can break his bike, build a new one out of duct tape, twigs, and a spare tube and still catch me with five miles to go.
I told him to shut up and ride, and then he was like "come on, let's go!" as if I was somehow going to ride at Semi Pro speed on command. Then he disappeared, leaving me with my masters friends once more.
I hit the stupid powerline climb for the last time and looked up -- and right at the very top I could see a Bikeman jersey. It was Sean, a few minutes ahead but with no one between us. I think I saw him looking back, but my nondescript-from-afar kit blended into the scenery and I continued to stalk him, undetected, like a housecat stalking a laser pointer.
With the end of the misery fast approaching and second place in the series locked up, I took the opportunity to ride really hard anyway. One problem though, my brakes were pretty well useless at this point, so I started practicing my cyclocross skills unintentionally by realizing that if I didn't dismount and brake with my feet I was going to fly off into the woods. After that I started running the downhills intentionally, which was considerably faster than sliding 2 miles an hour down each pitch griding my brake levers into the bar. I ended up blazing down the last hill only 50 seconds behind Sean, and his reaction realizing I was that close behind after not seeing me since about the 3 minute mark was priceless. Unlike me he's a nice guy so I didn't get punched while pointing and taunting as I crossed the line. Yeah, I should be a roadie, with celebrations like that.
So that's that. Post-race Mike Rowell and I took turns whining about how much our legs were going to hurt at the Amesbury 1/2/3 cross race the next day, I ate some brownies and lemonade, we did like an hour of series awards, and I walked away with a check for $250. $250! That's virtually an entire season of race entry fees right there, just for being 2nd in Expert 19-29... whoever (whatever?) puts up all that cash for Root 66 is awesome and you should totally race the series next year, unless you're in my class, in which case don't because I like money. Yeah Cary, I'm talking to you.
* - Except for a crappy 2nd half of the course, the promoter did a great job. I have utmost confidence that he'll incorporate some racer feedback and have an even better even next year.