God Made Dirt and Dirt Don't Hurt (But Trees Do)
History: My first foray into competitive cycling was over 20 years ago, on a fat tired Specialized Stumpjumper M2 with one of the first Rockshox ever made. It was the Pando Challenge in Michigan and thanks to a season of running cross-county, I won some medal or something. I raced about 4 more times but didn't have many friends that were into it and even though I kept on digging mountain bikes it would be a long time until I was racing anything with two wheels again.
Current State: I'd made a commitment to race at least one or two MTB events this year, just to add some variety to the mind-numbing season of 4-6 corner crits that make up the Midwest race calendar. And although I was registered for Glencoe in the 2/3s, a nasty nasal infection, a trip to the Dr's office, and the weather forecast has me second guessing that decision mid-week. But on Sunday, just a couple hours north, was the closest WORS race on their calendar and the forecast was 60+ and Sunny. I chatted with Bill Barnes and he suggested that I upgrade from Cat 3 (First timer and Citizen) to Cat 2 (Sport and Comp) lest I start my dirt season as a sandbagger. On Friday afternoon, with a dose of antibiotics and some amount of regret, I made the decision to bail on the sufferfest that would be Glencoe and to give the dirtbag thing a shot. I drove up on Saturday evening because I was borrowing Bill's Specialized Epic Carbon 29'er with 1x10?, full-suspension wunderbike bike and he wisely hoped that I would get some practice laps in before racing his baby at speed. Halfway through my drive up I learned that pre-ride was cancelled due to course conditions...sweet. (More on this later)
WORS: First let me say that the MTB atmosphere is pretty amazing. It's like a CX race with hundreds of spectators lined up at key areas, a huge compound of sponsor tents, barbecues everywhere, and a generally more laid back atmosphere. (#NowIknowwhyroadisdead). Jessica and I were able to get in about 1/2 of a lap of practice before seeing junior racers (including the Scheers) on course but: 1) We were doing the "short course", which was not what we'd be racing on and 2) We didn't get to the most technical sections. (More on this later).
The action: Mountain bike racing is awesome. That is all. Ok not quite. The men's 35-49 were staged to go off first in the 11:30 wave and after the first row of call ups, I was able to sneak into the last slot in the second row. I'd heard the start was incredibly important, much like CX, but that it's even harder to pass once the race enters single-track which a LOT of this was. But, much to my chagrin this was an uphill start of about 200m with a short flat and another climb of 40m just after that and when the horn sounded I dropped the hammer and worked my way past my new friends and emerged form the top of the second climb leading the pack. There was about 3-4 minutes of relatively flat trails after that, and I did my best to act like I knew what I was doing but I could tell by the sounds of brakes and chains just behind me that I was holding up a few eager dudes. When things opened up again, two gentlemen kindly informed me that they were about to pass and I kindly moved aside and then watched them take the technical turns and berms at a speed that terrified me to watch, I held on to them for about...10 seconds.
But my early road-fitness inspired efforts (read as Vo2 max) had opened up a large gap and for the remainder of lap one I had only one other rider near me. he stayed on my wheel and I offered to let him pass but he declined, instead he gave me coaching about upcoming sections; "it's wide open for the next few minutes, no brakes, just let it flow" and "watch these trees, it's tight". Cajunkkkk, I smashed a tree with my bar and then my shoulder and grunted. He asked if I was ok and we continued on! About 3/4 of the way through the course he has seen enough, he knew I was a roadie and that I was going to hold him up. He asked to pass and I obliged but this time, with a little more confidence I stayed within 5-10m of him for the rest of the lap. He'd gap me in technical areas and I'd reel him in on the open single-track. This worked all the though much of the 2nd lap until...cajunkkk. My God, I'd hit the same tree (I'm certain of it). This time he opened up a big gap and I could never close it but I managed to clip 3-4 more trees for good measure. But despite that my 2nd lap was much faster, I felt confidence growing, both in myself and in the machine. Many of the rocky sections I tried to pick my way through on the first lap I was "bombing" and I was taking the berms much faster. ?I never caught the Trek rider but I came across the line 4th in that wave but those dudes were all younger so...1st in my age group. After the race the guys ahead of me were very complimentary of my roadie fitness/climbing and we all had some laughs about my bike handling and love of the trees.
??MTB is awesome, you should all try it.
But maybe before you enter a race you should ride a mountain bike a few times. Or at least once.
The Specialized Epic Carbon 29'er with 1x10, if you have the means I recommend picking one up (borrowing one works).
Pre-ride the course, the WHOLE course, especially tight or technical sections. Do it at race speed. (Jeremy Powers talks about this in Behind the Barriers).
MTB is awesome, you should all try it...