Monday, January 18, 2010

Ready or Not

With the official start to my 2010 race season only a few hours away, I loaded up the truck early Sunday morning with Lunchbox and the Greatest Short Track Bike on Earth, and headed out to the site of the 2010 Winter Short Track Series. I arrived early enough to register and to also take care of some last minute bike maintenance, i.e. airing up the tires and oiling my chain. It had rained pretty much all night, up until about 5 a.m., so I was preparing myself to ride in the mud-soaked trail. I brought along all of my racing attire, as I had still not made a decision as to what I would wear. I know, that’s awful girly of me.

It was slightly chilly outside that morning, but it wasn’t quite cold enough to don my new Cane Creek long sleeve super-insulated jersey. I opted instead for the bright white team kit I have from Middle Ring Cycles, and accenting it with some Cane Creek arm warmers and white (yeah, white) Cane Creek socks. I was a rolling billboard for my sponsors, sorta like NASCAR. As I rolled up to the start/finish line to prepare for a warm up lap, race promoter extraordinaire Neal Boyd started laughing. I aksed him what was so funny and he replied, “That’s the prettiest you’re gonna look all day.” I guess he had already seen first hand how bad the trail conditions were. The race must go on though.

I headed out onto the trail for a leisurely-paced warm-up lap to check the conditions for myself. I also wanted to see if there were any surprises, such as course modifications of which I was unaware. It turns out that the one thing I had going for me was the fact that the course had remained unchanged. Good, I thought, since I was very familiar with it. That would be the best luck I would have all day. I cruised through the race course at a decent speed, trying to familiarize myself with the muddy spots. I would have no problems remembering them, since the whole trail was pretty much a sloppy mess. After one lap I exited the trail and had a good laugh at myself. Neal was right, since I was already covered in mud.

I pedaled around the parking lot for a little while until the start of the race. My group was the first to go, so I wanted to stay warmed up until we started. I finished up and headed over to the start/finish line. I took a spot on the front line as my group started lining up. I looked to my left and I saw one of my arch-rivals from the Summer Series, Patrick. He seemed to have the same nervous look as I did, and he wasn’t too much into our traditional pre-race smack-talking. We discussed how we weren’t really ready for this season to start. I guess I had to be ready at this point, since the race was about to start.

I took a deep breath and waited for the pre-race announcements. We would race for thirty minutes, and after that we would do two laps, depending on whether or not you were lapped by the leader. Shortly after that tidbit of information, Neal said, “Racers ready!” When he said, “Go!” I took off as fast as I could pedal. I usually don’t get a very good start in these races, since the smaller guys are usually a lot faster than me. That wasn’t the case this time. As I tore off down the sidewalk to the trail entrance, I left everyone way behind. I hit the singletrack with no one even close to me. While I was excited about this, I concentrated on maintaining my lead throughout the course. There was no room for error, especially on such a sloppy race course.

I took each turn as fast as I could while still maintaining control. The mud was really slick, and it made climbing some of the sections very difficult. The course winds around through the woods and has quite a few jumps and berms, and I used them all to my advantage. I still didn’t have anyone close to me, but I kept up my crazy fast pace anyway. As I exited the trail and hit the fire road, the soggy grass suddenly sapped all of my energy. That, coupled with the fact that I had been red-lining since the start, was a recipe for disaster.

The fire-road climb back to the start/finish line was painful and full of my favorite racing bonus, suffering. Soon there was the sound of other racers behind me, and they were closing in. The road took a right turn as it headed back to the beginning, and that’s when I was passed by two racers. A few seconds later, two more passed me, then another. I had been dropped to sixth place in a matter of seconds, after leading the field for over four minutes. I’m sure these guys secretly laughed at me as they passed by, but they may have also been concerned that I would turn it on again and regain my lead. As they all dug in to make the final climb out in the swamp, I felt even more of my energy being sapped. A few more racers breezed right on by me, seemingly unhindered by the soupy conditions. Now I was questioning my sanity in my quest to become a competitive mountain bike racer. Now I was in full-on survival mode.

I rounded the corner at the start/finish line at the crowd was cheering, but I didn’t gain any advantage from it. Lunchbox looked at me and I could tell that he saw the pain I was feeling. I put it all out there too soon, and I was paying for it now. I even wondered if I would recover enough to finish the race. As I passed the first crowd I shifted into the big ring to gain some speed while I recovered a little more. I started to feel slightly better as I hit the singletrack again, but I got passed by a few more riders. At this point I thought I would end up finishing dead last, if I finished at all.

As I hit the normally fun downhill section, I noticed that the trail conditions had actually gotten worse. It was all I could do to stay on the trail at this point. Couple that with the fact that I was still trying to recover, it’s safe to say that I was not having a great deal of fun. While I enjoy racing, I wasn’t at this point in time. I approached a creek crossing that has a little jump before it, and I tried to double it. I barely got off the ground. I needed to just maintain a good pace and prevent anyone else from passing me until I could recover a bit more. Just as I started to feel good again, I hit the soggy fire road climb and immediately felt its wrath. I decided to ignore the pain and give it whatever I had left, which wasn’t much at this point. The soggy trail kept sucking the life out of me.

I slowly started to recover as the race went on, and I actually didn’t get passed anymore. I couldn’t help but go fast on the downhill section, since I noticed that my brakes weren’t functioning properly. I was squeezing the levers with all my might, but I barely slowed down. Although that was a scary thing in these conditions, it ended up being a benefit. I would have been more cautious otherwise. This unplanned speeding actually helped me regain some of my lost time, and I passed a few riders on the trail. I didn’t have enough to fight my way back up to the leaders, but I knew at this point that I wouldn’t finish dead last. I kept plugging away until the final lap. The end was in sight, and I couldn’t have been happier. I crossed the finish line and kept on riding for a bit to cool down.

While I was glad the first suffer-fest of the season was over, I was even happier that I didn’t cross the line in last place. I would have to wait a bit to see the final results, but I needed time to wash off all the mud anyway. After I rinsed off the Greatest Short Track Bike on Earth (and my muddy clothing), I headed back up to the tent to look at the results. I finished in 9th place, out of over twenty racers. Not bad considering that at one point I didn’t think I would even finish at all. We hung out for the rest of the day to watch the other races, and it appeared as if they had it worse than we did, at least with the mud anyway. I’m looking forward to next week already.

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