Dew settles on carbon frames as the rising sun awakens the sleeping campers. Hot coffee begins bubbling near warm campfires, food is forced past butterflies, and racers ready their steeds for battle. 100 kilometers, 2100 meters of climbing, and an unforgiving trail await those brave enough to enter the starting corral. Over 600 riders will attempt the slog through thick sand, harsh granite, and leg cracking grades, but how many will finish? Endurance will not be enough today, the racers need grit.
The start line features multiple weapons of mass destruction. Colin Strickland, who is fueled by a small fission reaction, looks calm but ready for his first mountain bike race. Cole Paton is more than in his element and seems to be literally fused with his bike, half machine and half man. Behind them, Olivier Lavigueur smiles for the cameras and readies his monstrous legs for the toll he is about to extract.
I came prepared for pain but this field will flog me. My coach at Williams Racing Academy pulls no punches and told me I was going to suffer due to my FTP. While that is being developed, a different approach has to be taken. The plan was to come out of the gates hot, make sure I stay competitive for the first 15 minutes, then settle into a pace I know will kill me a few kilometers before the line. Focusing on nutrition, momentum, and pacing was all I could do to mitigate disaster. It felt like preparing a cardboard shield against a well-aimed claymore. But, bike racing is not all about results for me. Mostly it is about taking my limits and smashing them, making sure I cross the finish line and collapse, proud of what I have done because it was my absolute best. Looking back on tactics and efficiency, trying to squeeze more speed out of myself and my competitors, is also vital. It means I come into each new race better than I was, ready for the good fight once more.
Gunfire lets loose the racers, each finding their pedals and cranking into the first few meters of a long day. Olivier and I risk a rickety bridge on its last leg, trying to gain a few precious seconds. The race flies down jeep roads, bikes power sliding through sandy corners and gliding over rock shelves. Cole and Olivier enjoy conversation up a small climb, Colin says he is having fun, I am trying to continue breathing. As we drop into tighter trails the pace picks up, each rider vying for position. My advantage is on the descents and technical terrain. At least against everyone except Cole, who is leading with confidence. He packs both devastating power and stylish finesse. I push on the climbs to stay close for the first few winding descents, before backing the pace off and letting Olivier and Colin by. I knew a longer descent was coming up and my plan was to catch these two by the bottom, preparing myself for the many beatings to come. Halfway down everything was going well, the small gap was closing steadily.
A meaty stick decides to ruin my dastardly plan, locking up my rear wheel, bending my derailleur hanger, and burping my rear tire all in one violent jerk.
Trying to remain calm, I wrestle the log from my spokes, get my hanger reasonably straight, and make sure my tire can hold my flesh prison. 5th place has careened by me already, placing me in last. What a great start, nowhere to go but up! I set out again with a saggy rear, focused on regaining my lost rhythm. The groove slowly sets in and I get used to how 12 psi handles. I wiggle around a bit but the kushcore in my rims is holding me up surprisingly well. My derailleur is mostly working, but with massive amounts of complaining in last gear. I am going to need that gear a lot today, and the noise is making images of a snapping derailleur flash through my mind. There is no time for fear. I just need to focus on the trail. Pace the climbs, come over with intention, and set down with furious precision. As I pull up behind 4th place, he waves me around. For the next half hour all that exist is the trail in front of me. Céline, my spectacular girlfriend, is waiting in the feed zone ready to hand me bottles. The plan had been to do on-the-go handups, but my rear tire sorely needs air. The bike goes to the ground and I go into my car. My clothes and bags are in between me and the pump so, with very little dignity, they are YEETed out of the vehicle.
“Joe Biden is going to be the president!”
Air is slammed into my tire.
“Colin took a wrong turn and is out of contention.”
“Good lord, so I’m running from Colin now?”
“No, he is still ahead of you, just disqualified.”
Well, that’s mountain biking for you. My first MTB win flashes before my eyes. 7 years old, in last place, and not having too much fun. As I crossed the line sobbing, people were congratulating me. Turns out everyone else in the race took a wrong turn, and doubled their race distance. Once again, knowing the course had paid off a small amount.
Céline has changed my bottles out, it is time to get going again. A shout of “HOPP, HOPP, HOPP…” from Céline's parents cranks the stoke-watts to maximum and the second lap begins with a flourish of speed.
The pace settles quickly and I pass 3rd place, the same guy I had passed on lap 1. He was much faster out of the feed zone without the tire mishap. A tire with air in it actually rolls much faster than one without, and the pace is swiftly too much for the other man. Again, the world is void outside of the few meters of trail before me, and the purifying zen of trail consumes me. Out of the blue, the whiplash of a cramp yanks me out of zen. Will I be able to finish the race? The remaining 40k is a tall ask for cramping legs. The pace slows significantly as I set up to limp into the feed where I can mitigate this disaster.
Going into the third lap with deepening cramps is terrifying. This course is brutal on the legs, and I am going to need every watt.
I adjust my back to a flatter position and suddenly the cramps disappear. That is good, time to make the legs explode! Grunts and groans leak out of me over the top of every ascent. At this point I am beginning to lap people. Each new person gives me hope for catching 2nd, only to be crushed when it is someone from a different category. The pain intensifies with each passing kilometer, but there is less and less time before I have to be unable to stand. Must. Push. Harder. 5k to go, which has been taking me about 15 minutes, and Olivier crops up on the horizon. 2nd is within reach. As I pass he latches on, this was going to be a battle. He says cramps and nausea slowed him the last few miles, but he is holding on very solidly. An acceleration may be enough to crack him, but I am so close to falling apart myself. Up one of the final climbs I set a solid pace, and slowly begin to ramp it up.
Either I will break or he will.
An audible sigh and an “all yours buddy” says it all. Racing to the line is very important to me, and I continue the pace as it was set, imploding in the last few kilometers.
The dirt embraces me like an old friend. The announcer asks if a medic needs to be called. What a great day on the bike!
When power sliding around corners, you want to be sure you are safe if you go rubber side up. SMITH's helmets and glasses not only look stylish, but offer astounding protection and comfort. Having worn every brand of helmet under the sun, I can say with confidence SMITH makes my favorites.
Power sliding through corners is not possible without being sure of your tires. For longer/technical events, the grip and reliability of the Teravail Honcho means you can save momentum when cornering or going through tech. The Ehline makes a better rear (in my opinion) because of the rolling speed - I like my rear to let loose before my front, making my bike predictable and FAST.
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The people at Williams are not "gear", but I feel compelled to talk about them. They know how to race bikes, and more importantly, they know how to prepare YOU to race them. With coaching that covers so much more than just fitness, they create well-rounded cyclists that are more mentally, physically, nutritionally, and tactically prepared than the rest.
When initially pre-riding the course, I was not excited to race. The track was loose dirt, off-camber turning, sizable loose stones, lots of power climbing, and very little technical challenge. Not exactly my speciality. If something makes you nervous because it does not suit your strengths, but you will still have fun, I say SEND IT. The fist step to being good at something is to suck at it. Minus the flat tire and complaining rearD (which are my fault), the plan Williams cooked up worked to perfection. I picked off the exploded and stayed on course, making for a very difficult second place.