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...


  1. Clint well done!
    On both the race and the report.

    It was a worn, slick tire that cost me a broken leg so I'm going to say "Stop riding on worn tires!!"


  2. Thanks George!

    The tire is worn mostly in the middle with decent corner tread still. Now that I know the course I would choose a different tire completely. One with bigger, wider spaced tread.

  3. Clint,
    Thanks for your great race report and taking the time to write it. It made me (a 60 year old man) feel good that a pro like yourself thought that this course was hard.
    Congratulations on your finish and your time. I was right behind you! By 2.5 hours. I finished in 5.38 hours.
    Thanks again Clint.
    Greg Keeler

  4. I enjoyed reliving the race with your report. The Camelback aid stop was indeed much appreciate by us slower riders. Food, water, gel blocks and gu got us through those arduous 16 miles to the finish. J.L. de Jong

  5. Thanks Greg! Great job tackling this race and finishing! Hopefully you had fun too. It's my hope that I'll be able to ride a course like this in 35 years :-).

  6. Nice work Clint! You're mixing it up with some serious company. Keep it up. With a good back tire I'm sure you would have been 20 minutes faster.

  7. Congrats Clint! Great race report and super impressive results. What's next :-) Kris Morin

  8. What's next? US Cup Finals / Cal State Champs at Bonelli Park in San Dimas, CA on the 12th with a couple Prairie City races thrown in before that.

  9. Clint,
    Thanks for the encouraging words. I had a blast. I was stoked all the way ,even though it was torture. Still stoked today. I'm sure you'll be riding strong for more than 35 years.
    I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.