Tuesday, August 31, 2010

SoNoMas Race Report - Chasing Levi

I'm so thankful that I had this weekend open to make the drive over to Lake Sonoma for this race (though I had to leave at 4:30am!).  This is one of those good ol' EPIC mountain bike races on a giant course where you say "see you in a few hours" to whoever you left at the start.  None of this 4 mile or less loop with a ton of laps that the sport seems to be progressing towards.  This type of race requires some serious thought and planning before the pedaling begins.  You have to know what the weather will be like, dress accordingly, and plan for enough food an water to get you through it.  Also, equipment choice is important because you don't want anything too fragile that would break easily when you loose focus for a second in the boonies.  For me, I went with my Giant Anthem (not that I have a choice) on WTB Nano tires.  The front tire was new, but the back tire I'd worn down and is a low tread semi slick which wasn't a good choice.  Conditions turned out to be quite loose.  Last year this race was run in 110 degree heat and the opposite direction to this year's course.  I was trying to gauge my water and fuel needs based on last years results but it was a guess at best.  Especially since last year's top 10 all got lost on the course and just rolled in together at 3hrs and 20min.  Hmm...

Course map, racing around Lake Sonoma
Thankfully, this years weather was awesome!  We started the race around 50 degrees and the fog had just lifted at 8am.  We rolled from the parking lot with a neutral start on the road and up the hill.  Santa Rosa local, Mr. Levi Leipheimer (Team Radio Shack), had decided to join us on the dirt for the days race as well.  He's just off a course record win at the Leadville 100 MTB race, among other things (Tour de France, etc...).  I was up front having a nice chat with him as we climbed up the hill about his race at Leadville, his bike, etc. which was pretty cool. 

The bridge, part of the neutral start and a sight for sore legs after 3 hours into the race!
We crossed over the bridge and shortly after that the pace picked up as the singletrack approached.  I hit the dirt in about 12th spot and wasn't worried, it's a long race and I like picking off people deep into the race (keeps me motivated).  That was the last time I got passed :-).  35 miles and 8000 ft. of climbing was projected, and an estimated top finish time of around 3 hours and 20 minutes.  The race director said that the climbing was anything but gradual.  Steep, hard, and the first 8 miles had the most technical and treacherous terrain.

Having never ridden any of these trails before I really didn't know what to expect or how to pace myself.  Not knowing if the climb you just started was one you could stand up and hammer over because it's short or sit and spin steady because it's a half mile long is a little disconcerting.  Oh well, just ride the bike... hard. 

The first singletrack was pretty fun, it was loose dirt (pretty common theme throughout) with leafy cover and some good switchbacks taking us down to a creek crossing.  Then up, steeply.  Maybe a switchback or two before getting to the top just to do it all over again, and again.  If the descents weren't in switchback form they were double track with ruts and big loose rocks with sharp edges.  Definitely fun and a good beginning to a great race.  What wasn't "fun" though were those steep climbs because they were so loose.  There were quite a few sections that were just not ridable, which my calves are still protesting now two days later after running up a number of steeps in bike shoes.  I was able to make a couple passes on some of those climbs that I was somehow able to ride that others weren't.  Corners on the downhills came up quickly and on one trail split I blew the corner big time and had to make a little new trail to get back on course.  Thankfully not losing any positions. 

We busted out of the trees and up to the road again for about a half mile stretch.  I could see to the other side where the turnoff was and I think I saw Levi right then, maybe about a minute or two ahead.  I had worked up to about 8th place at that point.  I got off the road and just after this picture...

Climbing up the bank from the road at about mile 6.
was my first close call of the race.  A fast, rutted and rocky downhill took us down from the road.  It was the first wide open downhill where I could actually see enough to get some real speed going and I was happy to let 'er fly.  My happiness soon transferred to white knuckle adrenaline as I looked for a good line through some rocks and ruts, and wasn't finding one.  I was sure this was going to be where I get a flat, or worse.  The back tire skidded and got squirley, the bike now airborne and pitched a little sideways to the right after going over some rocks but my shoulders still pointed downhill and it was time to just let off the brakes and stay loose.  When the wheels touched again I saw a line in between some rocks and that took me across the big rut.  I hopped the rut and it was clear sailing down the other side after boosting a couple more rocks and my smile returned.  Still at speed, a series of off camber, foot dragging two wheel drift turns and then on the brakes hard for at steep creek crossing and then one more.  But at the next one I didn't see the sign on the tree saying "you better walk this."  It was a real bike swallower!  Luckily I was going slow enough for a quick dismount as I basically fell into the hole and then ran up the other side.  Got away with one there too...

Coming into the aid station at about mile 8
I was catching up to fellow racer Kevin Smallman and one other rider.  Kevin usually starts faster than I do and then I, at least in the last few races, am able to reel him back in towards the end.  So I was really happy to catch him pretty early on in the race.  I made the pass at the top of this long climb and kept on chuggin'. 

The climb where I passed into 6th place.
The view from the mile 8 aid station.  See the bridge way down there?
The course leading up, down, and over to the third aid station was mostly a hillside traverse with random switchback climbs thrown in for good measure.  Many small ditch crossings with steep pitches and tight hillside singletrack.  It reminded me a lot of the Kirkwood course last week with the tall vegetation along the trail concealing the tightness of the upcoming turns.  Only here the "vegetation" was wild grain with a slick straw covering on the trail, also hiding rocks and holes.  Every feature here was momentum eating and it was a chore to get through.  After about a half hour of riding by myself wondering if I'm still catching anyone I finally got to see some dust.  Then I could see a group of three at the top of a switchback climb as I got to the bottom.  I recognized one as Menso de Jong (who would finish 3rd) so I figured I was approaching the top 5.  But I still had no idea where I was on the course.  I think Menso attacked shortly after that because when I caught the first of those riders he was by himself.  So I continued on by and made it to the last aid station which was staffed by the guys from Camelbak.  It's always rejuvenating when you come around a corner in the middle of nowhere and hear music blasting and see Coca-Cola's and beer lining the trail for the taking.  I didn't partake, but the scene granted a smile for sure.  I went through their station complete with cowbells and cheers, got a bottle and took a swig but I had nowhere to put it.  Just enough time for one quick drink before that bottle is discarded because the trail quickly required "hands on" attention again. 

If I recall correctly the race director said there was about 12 miles left after that last aid station.  And man was that slow going.  I hit that third aid station at 1hr and 55min so I was feeling good mentally about my time and position, but wondering what the last third of the course had in store.  It was all singletrack and on the shaded north face which was great, but just so loose and gravely.  After racing for over two hours some serious fatigue starts to set in, both physically and mentally.  One could really get into trouble here as the trail was narrow, true singletrack, cut in on the hillside with blind turns.  I really had to keep my speed in check and stay focused because overshooting some of those turns could end up with quite the tumble down the hill.  I was cursing my back tire's lack of grip as I slid around under hard braking, and then slipped out on the next climb, again and again.  As I passed another rider I asked "any clue where we are?!"  He said we had 11 miles to go, but the last two were on pavement.  Sweet.  But then he said the rest of the course was just like "this."  And "this" meaning the sketchy, no flow, loose singletrack I had just let out a yell of frustration about after having to run up another climb due to slipping out, again.  I figured it'd be about an hour to the finish after that, which turned out to be a pretty close estimate. 

For that last hour I was all by myself, except for the random member of the EMT crew standing in the middle of nowhere with a backboard.  Good to see.  This race was definitely well staffed for medic crew.  The creek crossings had more water in them than on the first half of the course but I was able to ride them all except one.  That one being a really big gully with a sandy bottom and no clear way, that I could see anyways, up the other side.  I saw a spot where it looked like the right spot and scrambled up the 5 ft ledge.  I got tangled up in the limbs and vines and my bike seat and bars kept getting hooked as I tried to get through.  Ahhh!!! So frustrating!! I was sure someone was going to catch me because of this.  I finally got through and about 20 ft down the gully would have been a much better place to climb up, dang.  But after some more rolling hills and good fun singletrack, dodging the limbs and rocks Menso had knocked onto the trail, I FINALLY came around a corner to see the bridge.  YES!!!  I got quite the burst of energy from that, until the trail turned up and away from the bridge!  But, but... no!  Not fair!  My brain gets kind of whiny when this happens.  It wasn't long though before I came up onto the road and made my way back down to the base of the dam, finishing in 3 hours and 12 minutes in 4th place overall.  And as Menso (3rd in 3:08) pointed out, the 2nd non "pro tour" rider to finish.  Levi finished in 2:57 and Christopher Jones (Team Type 1) in 3:03.  I'm really happy with how things turned out and I don't think I could have given it much more effort, the metaphorical "fork" was in me. 

Pretty cool to be standing up there with the big shots.

The top 4
The top 10
Here's a couple pics I took of Levi's custom paint scheme on the Trek Top Fuel he was riding.

No question of who's bike this is...

Sunday, August 29, 2010

108+ degree racing... and 2011 Cannondale Flash 29 demo

Post is a little late, oh well, it was a busy week last week.

We've had a pretty cool summer here in Sacramento, but apparently the weather tried to make up for it all in two days.  Tuesday was around 104 and 108 on Wednesday.  All the weather people advised not to be outside in the afternoon if at all possible.  But Wednesday was the first of the Prairie City Fall Flash series races, so outside we were... and racing!  It was definitely a scorcher, and there was no relief in the shade and there was no breeze.

There was one "cool" part of the day though, and that was the Cannondale demo truck with a sweet new 2011 Flash 29 Carbon in size XL for me to demo!  And thanks to C'dale rep Dez Wilder for letting me race on it!

Here's what I thought:

It's a 21 lb. XL 29er out of the box, sweet.  Because of the lightness, it was super quick and accelerated up the climbs and out of the corners like a rocket.  But it didn't feel twitchy at all.  The geometry was spot on and I felt right at home and in control.  The big wheels definitely take the edge off the fact it's a hardtail.  The frame was stiff and responsive, but had good bump/vibration damping.  The seatpost it comes with has a compressed "bend" in it which allows for a little more flex than a standard post and that made it easy on the back too.  The "Lefty" carbon on the front is set at 80mm, but according to Dez it can be increased up to 110mm through internal spacer adjustment.  This bike was set up with remote handlebar lockout which was really handy and the button was easy to push.  The drivetrain consisted of a 2x10 gear setup with some Cannondale SL cranks (I didn't really inspect those too much) that were stiff and did the job well and SRAM's new XO 10 speed rear shifting.  All the shifts were easy and quick but the chain did have a little problem dropping off the big ring when making a bumpy left turn.

It's a fantastic race bike, and I wouldn't mind having one at all.  But I did miss suspension.  That's probably me just not being used to hardtail riding though.  I'm sure I could get used to it if I had a 20lb carbon rocket to  pedal of my own :-).  Oh, and I really like the big 29er wheels, I'm sold on that technology.

As far as the race, I had a whopping 8 minutes of time on the bike before the start and didn't quite get the seat high enough.  So I was a little uncomfortable because of that, oh and the fact we were in an oven.  Keith Hillier (2009 Series Champ) and I pulled away from the rest and I towed him around until the 4th lap.  He passed me on the 4th lap and attacked, which I matched for a few seconds but began to feel the effects of the heat.  I started to feel some chills which is not good, so I backed it off a little and ended up taking 2nd on the day.  I was quite thankful the EMT's were there after the finish line as I promptly put some ice bags on my neck, my body temp was red lining.  There were a number of finishers and dnf's having the same problem but thankfully nobody with serious heat exhaustion and no crashes and injuries.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Kirkwood Challenge XC Race Report

Today I had the chance to get up the hill to Kirkwood and check out what they have to offer.  The resort has been building bike trails in the summer and trying to break into the resort bike park market.  Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to take the lift up and ride the rest of the trails not in today's race, but what I did ride I definitely liked.  All natural, loose, rocky, technical alpine terrain.  They've got a lot of work to do in order to draw the downhill crowd away from Northstar if that's something they want to do.  But right now they've got a great start for the "trail" riders out there.

On to the race...

The course was posted as 5.1 miles per lap and we were originally going to do 4 laps.  But the promoter's decided to reduce the laps to 3 for us (and they reduced the beginner and sport laps in their race too) because the course was slow due to its technicality and lack of "flow."  The start elevation was 7800ft and right from the gun we climbed up to 8320ft.

My goal for today's race was to work on my weaknesses.  So my first task was to sprint from the line and work on my starts.  I put in a pretty good effort though I didn't get out of the saddle, but after about 100 yards I was in the lead and pulling away.  When I looked back for the first time a few minutes into the climb, I had already put a pretty good gap on the field.  I began to think this race might turn into a race between me and my heart rate monitor.  So it was on to task #2... after I learn the course.

After the climb we turn into the single track which has the classic loose covering of dirt you typically find in the Sierra's.  I was happy I switch wheels so that I was running the bigger, nobbier WTB Wolverine 2.2 tires which pierce the soil a little better than the Nano's I have on the other wheels.  The single track in the open areas crossing the ski runs and in the meadows also had the added tricky factor of being tightly hugged by vegetation.  So when the trail twists around you really can't see where you are going, or if there are rocks ready to throw you off the trail or damage your tires or wheels.

After a short traverse there was some fun downhill switchbacks to play on, with some small climbs and wooded traversing before another short fire road climb.  Then more downhill... SWEET!  Rocks, loose dirt for drifting, roots, and even a couple small rock drops and a log drop.  All the stuff a good mountain bike trail should have.  Then it got into my other weakness... short, punchy climbs.  Ugh.  There were a number of hard braking sections into a tight turn (remember that the bushes hide the trail), with rocks, and then the trail would turn straight up hill after taking all your momentum away.  Oh, and the dirt was still really loose too.  On the first lap, because I couldn't see where the trail was leading, I continuously found myself in the wrong gear for these features because I'd put it back on my big ring for the goodness leading up to it.  Then BRAKE... turn... ROCK... crap, uphill... SHIFT, STAND (hope the chain doesn't break), spin out on loose dirt... keep mashing on the pedals, just a couple more seconds, avoid the rocks and crest.  Ok remember that one for the next two laps... and so on.  There were a couple of those that were just not ridable because the dirt was too loose for how steep it was.  Then another good, twisty and fairly high speed descent lead into some meadow horse trail and back to home base for another lap.

So working on task #2 (keep pushing) kept my eyes on that heart rate monitor whenever I could take a glance.  I wasn't very fresh coming into the race from a hard week of training so my numbers weren't high (max was 169 for the race).  But I was able to sustain that range (avg 158) and keep pushing, maintaining consistent 35 minute lap times finishing in an hour and 45 minutes with the uncontested win.  Just in time too, as I had drifted a little too far on one of the loose/rocky descents and smacked a rock with my front wheel on the last lap, and I only had maybe 10psi left in my front tire by the end.

Oh and it had started to hail!! (if you look closely you can see the hail coming down in this pic)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Howell Mountain Challenge

Wow what an amazing weekend for California weather!  Absolutely beautiful!  Saturday Jen and I were down at Rancho Seco Park running the registration for the TBF Tri 4 Fun and I was in a sweatshirt and wishing I had jeans instead of shorts!  In August!  Granted we got there at 5:30am, but even when the sun was out it was slow to warm up.  But once registration was over I saddled up on the Scott CR1 and headed home.  I soaked up the beautiful weather and breeze and had a great 62 mile ride home, just cruisin' for a little under 3 hours.  After some good recovery (waffles with berries, nap, then basil/spinach/mushroom & chicken crepes) I was ready for Sunday's race.

Jen was out the door at 4:45am and off to Rancho Seco again to work the Sunday TBF triathlon and a couple hours later I was making my way towards Pacific Union College in Angwin, CA (NE of Napa) for the Howell Mountain Challenge.  A 3 lap, 33 mile, 2+ hour race which last year was run in temps over 100 degrees.  This year there was mist on the windshield and I was running the heater in my truck!  I was thankful that I grabbed my windbreaker as I was heading out the door because I definitely needed it during my warm up.  And thanks to my teammate Ron Shevok for lending me his rose-lensed glasses since I only brought my darks.

This race starts out with a 300 yard climb or so on the road that everyone sprints.  I need to work on my starts in a bad way because I go into the singletrack towards the back of the pack.  But I know this course has a pretty steady climb right away that I usually make up ground on, which I did.  By the time we get into the heavy wooded singletrack on the lap loop I'm in about 7th overall I think.  I make a couple passes and then on a sharp, gravely right hander I loose my front wheel and take a good tumble.  Of course, I can't have any sort of mishap on my Anthem without the chain coming off (seriously getting tired of this, maybe it's time for 1x9 with a chain guide).  After a few more seconds of fiddling I'm back on and a number of places back.  So the catch up game begins.  

The PUC campus grounds where we are riding have amazing trails and I love riding there.  Definitely proper mountain biking with plenty of tight switchbacks, both up and down, in narrow channels of woods and roots.  This is one place I'm glad I don't have super wide handlebars because there are a number of spots where you have to snake your way between the thinly spaced trees.  The trail soil also adds to the fun and technicality with its loose over hard pack granular dirt with the added leafy cover on top of that.  Oh and then the pine cones can really throw you off too!  So in all that fun stuff you make your way down the back of Howell Mountain and then, oh yeah, the not so fun part of climbing back up.  There's some pretty steep sections too that'll really put you in the red zone if you push it.  Once you're done with the steady climbing you get the "whoops" which are three gigantic rocky rollers you just have to go into with as much speed as you can muster and stand up and mash up the rocky face on the other side... x3.  

By the start of my 3rd lap I was catching up to Kevin Smallman who I figured was in the top 3 or so.  I was able to reel him in and make the pass in the woods and put some distance on him.  About half way through the lap I went into the steep downhill switchback section which had developed some pretty good ruts from a couple hundred racers skidding instead of riding.  And into the last lefty my front tire got caught in a rut wrong and "psssshhhhhshshsh!"  The tire rolled off the bead and I burped out all the air (ordering some new WTB Nano's tomorrow!).  Dang.  I give one shot of CO2 hoping the bead would pop back on with no luck.  Good thing I'm pretty decent at changing tubes!  Well I got it changed and started rolling again just as the guys who would end up finishing 4th and 5th caught me.  We were just about done with the wooded singletrack at that point and made our way down the backside of the hill.  The 4th place rider was giving me a good run and we'd dropped 5th place.  But once we got to my forte, that long climb, I was able to put out a steady strong effort and drop 4th place.  I ended up putting around 4 minutes on the 5th place guy and 2.5 or so on 4th by the finish.  As I crossed the valley getting to the end of the lap loop I could see Kevin again and gave it all I had.  I saw him look back in the trees but I wasn't sure he spotted me, but then there was a 180 degree switchback with less than a mile to go and he saw me coming.  At that point I was only about 20 yards back.  I pulled him in on the last singletrack and entered the finishing loop on his wheel and was able to sprint by for a 2nd place pro finish.  Santa Cruz rider Menzo de Jong rode off the front on his Tallboy (I'm just a little jealous of that bike) for 1st.  But considering everything that happened and my 3hr ride the day before I'm pretty happy with my finish and that my 3 year old Giant Anthem is still holding up to the beatings I give it!

Time to go work on my sprint starts...