This weekend provided a rare springtime chance to fire up the ol' "it's all good if you don't suck on Sunday" maxim, so I jumped at the chance to race the Orchard Assault out in Amherst Sunday, instead of dwelling on the fact that I lasted all of six miles at Sterling the day before.
The Orchard Assault is a small event in every sense of the word -- small venue, small course, small fields, and small organization. It's basically a bunch of college kids on top of a hill next to the dorms taking your money, and then sending you out to race a zillion times up and down said hill. Luckily, the singletrack is plentiful and fun, so nothing else really matters*.
Depending on who you ask we had either 12 or 14 starters in the Pro/1 race, which is almost Root-66 numbers, so maybe I should take back my "small fields" comment. In any case, it was enough dudes that the 200-yard holeshot to the first singletrack kind of mattered.
But I'm a big believer in the "you'll finish the same no matter how the start goes" view of mountain biking. It's not like cross where the draft and positioning can make or break your day. Dropping 20 seconds in traffic on lap one ain't gonna change a thing.
So obviously I hit the singletrack second-to-last, because I was only sprinting at 90% of I-am-being-chased-by-bear speed. This cost me all of three seconds of waiting for traffic to string out, and then I was off at exactly as fast as I always ride. I was *right* behind Jeff Landfried and let him know that I was probably going to maim him if he crashed on the first downhill. He didn't crash.
After a few minutes Jeff, Jon Rowe and I had consolidated our position as the "last place group," with the gap to everyone else growing disturbingly fast. With all the hairpins and transitions, it kind of felt like a cross race (albeit a 2-hour one), so cross-brain kicked in and I was like, crap, I need to close that! So I rode too hard for a little bit, launching myself from the last place group to "no man's land." Much better.
After two laps of rolling around in no man's land (it was a seven lap race... like I said... crossy) I remembered that I could do the super-pro "time gap check" to the guys ahead of me every time I saw them through the woods. Usually this results in predictable information like "they are ahead of you for a reason. The gap is going up," but for the first time EVER I actually clocked a shrinking gap, going from 1:15 behind Matt Green to 1:05 in a few minutes. So exciting! Except now I have to hurt a bunch to catch him.
For the rest of the race I slowly reeled in Matt and Noah Tautfest, keeping myself motivated with plentiful time gap checks. After an hour at redline I finally made contact with one lap to go. Awesome, since I've been knocking 20 seconds a lap off that gap, I'm surely gonna beat them by 20 seconds! Right?
Of course I've been riding as hard as I possibly can, and they've been riding with/against each other. The first sign that perhaps all was not going to turn out so well was Matt greeting me with "you're riding a really nice race, Colin" when I pulled up behind him. Wait, what? "How was Carolina?" he asked me a few minutes later. Dear god, I'm fighting cramps and trying to hang onto your wheel, and you're asking about my vacation? If that's not great psychological warfare, I don't know what is.
At least Noah was nice enough to crack a bit and fall off the pace, if he'd joined in the discussion I might've just quit right there. Instead I clung grimly to Matt's wheel while steadily losing confidence in my ability to win the upcoming sprint.
The "sprint" is a really long uphill (90 seconds?) on grass, with a narrow, steep off-camber spot near the end and then 30 yards to the finish. We got caught by the leading Cat 1 just in time to make it a 3-up sprint, fabulous! Matt led it out from the bottom and my cramping quads made it clear that I was either going to get the job done seated, or not at all.
The Cat 1 guy (on a rigid singlespeed! of course) came around, then Matt came back around, and all the while I spun frantically at the back. Finally we reached the off-camber bottleneck, they stood and accelerated out of it, and there was nothing I could do except stand up, cramp, and sit back down. I crossed the line a few seconds back and flopped around like a fish out of water, in what I think was 8th place.
Hell of a lot more rewarding than the 8th place I got in my last mountain bike race, and in 2/3rds the time with 500% more bike handling! I missed you, New England.
At the fast end of the race, James Harmon continued to be scary fast and finally bagged his first Pro/1 win, ahead of Mike Mooradian. James was so fast that the timer didn't believe he had ridden 7 laps; we had to send Mike up to vouch for him before they'd give him the win. Like I said, it was really just a bunch of college kids on a hill -- but everything worked out in the end.
*that being said, next year, maybe UMBRC could get actual release forms, divide the two-way section, have lap cards, count the leader's laps correctly, and put me on the final results? That would be cool. I love you guys either way, though.
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