So, it's somehow become a tradition, that about once a year, Jessica talks me into borrowing someone's mountain bike and going to do an off road race with her. In the past, I've gotten 2nd during my first attempt (Matt Stevenson's awesome carbon stumpjumper on a flat course), DNF'd my second attempt (Tom's gigantic aluminum downhill full suspension bike in a hilly race), but managed to enjoy myself every time.
This time, at the last moment I wound up borrowing Brian P's brand new, never ridden (since he's been too busy being a roadie) 29'er hardtail, and drove three hours out to Peoria to meet the folks from PAMBA and get in a race since I was there.
Things I knew ahead of time:
1 - Jessica needed to do this race to qualify for MTB Master's Nationals as a cat 1. I'm a cat 2, basically just because I picked that option after hitting the podium at my first attempt and felt like I had some innate off road ability (I was wrong). So for me, this was my once or twice a year fun time, but for her, this was serious business.
2 - The bike I am racing on has never been ridden by me, or anyone else.
3 - I'm pretty out of shape, and at the end of a "Let's force ourselves back into shape" block of training that's left me pretty much unable to get up my stairs.
4 - This race starts on pavement for a long haul like a UCI cross race.
Things I didn't know ahead of time:
1 - On a clear, sunny day, the folks in Peoria consider this course pretty hard.
2 - There would be lots and lots of elevation changes.
3 - It would rain enough that likely, if this were Palos, the trail would be closed, but since it's not, that meant racing in mud.
4 - Brian's brand new bike was REALLY brand new. (more on that later)
Anyway, off the races.
I pre-rode part of the course, and not being a regular disc brake user, noticed the brakes were a little on the grabby side, but was more focused on seatpost height and how comfortably I could manipulate the shift levers to think about this, then got in my position to start the race. At the last second, I see Jessica's wave, sans Jessica, about to start, and that she's talking to another Chicago racer about eye-sight away. I start waving around like an idiot, and eventually she notices me and my sign language for "You're about to miss your start, we drove 3 hours to get here, so hurry up and get over here in the next 2 minutes" is received and understood by Jessica, so I watch her race over to the start in time to leave with her cat 1 group. (I would later find out she had interpreted this as "Do you think I'm running the right pressure? Can you remind me again how people race without drafting?", but the result was the same)
Knowing Jessica is faster than me on a good day when we're not on road bikes, and faster than me on a bad day we're on anything but road bikes, I was glad that her group was going off in front of mine, as it would spare me the historical indignity of her catching me and having to hear about that for a three hour drive home. My group ultimately started a few minutes after hers, and being a cat 2, I had only two laps of this 8ish mile course to do to her three, so I was already going to finish ahead of her and my masculinity would remain intact as far as anyone knew.
Or so I thought. This course, in no uncertain terms, kicked the crap out of me. I'm not sure why I continue to think jumping on a bike I've never ridden, on a course I've never seen, is a good idea. Not to mention, apparently with new disc brakes one must "bed them in" meaning stop a lot to wear down the pads to make them even and get good brake modulation. Something that a brand new borrowed bike hasn't yet had done.
So, 20 minutes into my first hour lap, the brakes are finally starting to work good, instead of instantly locking up the wheels and making them skid all over the mud. I am finally getting used to the handling of this new bike, with stock ultra-wide handlebars, at about the same point in the race where I'm pretty much completely spent. Every climb is either a feat of sheer willpower or a rage-inducing walk up a steep muddy hill behind my other back of the pack companions who've unclipped at least a full second or two before I would have had to and thus forced me to spend at least a full second or two hauling the bike up a climb on foot.
I really want to blame someone else, at this point, but I'm starting to remember I don't know what I'm doing here, am on a new bike, and also have no idea what I'm doing here.
Anyway, fast forward to about the 40 minute point, and I'm now able to modulate the brakes well, need to use them less as I've remembered the basics of riding a mountain bike, and kind of getting into the race. All the while, my head is on complete fire as there's no wind, no relief from climbing, and nothing but muddy, technical turns down rutted singletrack to remind me that even though I'm feeling better, I'm still really, really bad at this. I am overheating badly, and sipping on the camelbak much more than I probably should be, but every single drink feels AMAZING. When having a sip of water 40 minutes into a race feels that good, you can take note that you're probably in a pretty bad way, hydration-wise.
I decide to ignore that basic knowledge, since now I remember how to ride a mountain bike, and the brakes work, and I'm gonna catch the main field, and come back into this race. Really, I am.
Then there's this one turn that I don't anticipate, and in a split second I'm no longer burdened with this bicycle, but flying. The lightness I feel is offset only by the last second realization that I'm actually supposed to be on a bike, and that tree ahead looks like it might break my glasses, so I should put my head down a littl....smash. I'm suddenly no longer moving, and holy crap, please tell me that the brand new bike I borrowed is ok. Dang, there's a huge foam piece hanging from the sky right onto the front wheel. Brian is going to be pissed. Except, it moves with my head, for some reason. And there's nothing foam on the bike. The bike is fine, there's not a scratch on it, but my helmet is dangling in pieces from my head. I stop for a second, take off my helmet after glancing around (I saw starship troopers, you must always think carefully before removing a malfunctioning helmet) and examine it. The front of it is broken into several pieces. I tear them off completely and shove them in my jersey pocket in the event that I might suffer some concussion later and some doctor wants to examine them. This all makes complete sense to me as I hop back on the bike, ensure there's not a thing wrong with it, and get going again.
I am soft pedaling and just waiting to finish lap one with my busted helmet and new found Completely Valid Excuse To End All Of This Suffering And DNF that it's afforded me. Then I hear a voice up ahead. It's a voice I know well, saying "yeah, it's just a flat." Crap. I've caught Jessica. She's just out of sight around this corner talking to the guy that just asked ME if I was ok. She's on lap one, I know she needs to finish this race well to qualify for nationals, and I know if she sees my busted helmet, she's going to worry about me and quit.
So I do the only pro thing I can think of, and turn my head away as I pass her saying "You good?" after seeing she's fixed the flat mid race and about to hop back on. I probably come off as the most insensitive boyfriend ever not bothering to stop and check, but we're racing, and this is me being a good team mate by making sure she doesn't realize that my helmet is in pieces and I've crashed my head into a tree moments before. I continue to soft pedal and once again turn to the right, hiding my broken helmet, as I pull over motioning for her to pass me on the left. She does, and I'm finally safe to roll into the finish halfway through my race to quit and make sure my skull isn't in similar shape to my helmet. (It isn't, and I'm fine - Helmets FTW)
Two hours later, her race finishes and I admit to the crash and DNF, showing her my helmet. Her response proves what I've been thinking for the last hour:
"You really need to get your own bike."