One of my favorite races rolled around this past weekend in Napa, CA. The Skyline Park trails are the real deal. Where there's climbing it's steep, and there's plenty of rocky, rooty, twisty technical stuff to keep you on your toes. I would be doing three laps of the 7.3 mile course which is a nice full body workout. I was also happy as this was the first race since Bonelli that Jen has been able to come to. I always love seeing her right after I finish!
It was beautiful and sunny in Sacramento but of course, once we got to Napa it was overcast and a little chilly. I was glad I threw in my windbreaker at the last minute. By the 10am race start the sun had decided to show up... finally. I got checked in and suited up with about an hour to go and set off easy to warm up. I was heading up the first fire road, spinning easily and fine tuning the shifting adjustments when suddenly a massive racket comes from the rear of the bike. I can't even describe the sound, just think bad! I looked down and the rear derailleur was twisted up and on top of the cassette, along with the chain. "What the?!?!? Are you kidding me?!" Figures, at home I was still thinking about bringing both of my bikes but I decided just to bring the Tallboy so I wouldn't be indecisive at the race. I took a deep breath, removed the rear wheel, slung the bike over my shoulder and started walking back. At least I didn't get very far! As I'm walking back, fellow pro rider Kevin Smallman rolls by with a "Already? That sucks!" comment. Hah! Thanks Kevin! I get back to the car where Jen is talking with my teammate Asa Salas and I tell them what happened. The derailleur hanger had failed, twisting back, causing the derailleur to curl up, chain to be pulled through the cage as it bends links and the cage goes into a couple spokes on the rear wheel. Asa was the only person at the venue who might have the knowledge and tools to bend something back or make it work somehow. But it was too badly damaged and she could tell right away. Without hesitation, she said "You can use mine, your race is more important." She all but insisted and ran off to start cannibalizing her Santa Cruz Highball. She came back in a few minutes with her identical derailleur and hanger and got to work fitting them up to mine.
We (pretty much just Asa) got the bike working again with just a rear wheel wobble and I was good to go. Except it was 9:50! My warmup would be the 200yd pedal down to the start line for the riders meeting, but at least I'd get to race! Thanks Asa!!!
I squeezed into the front row next to Dario Frederick and did what I could to get the blood flowing in my quads. That pretty much meant I beat on them and fidgeted around like an goober. I knew the start was going to be fast and it gets into some good steady climbing right away, and that was gonna hurt! I was just going to try and stay with the front group if I could but see how I felt and back off if I was going to blow up too early.
We set off and of course Dario and a group of his Whole Athlete development team sprinted to the front and began pushing the pace. Those kids are fast! In the mix were a bunch of fast guys, Smallman, Kenny Burt, Brian Astell (last year's winner), oh and some bearded guy named Mark Weir. I managed to keep in fairly close contact with the front group up the first bit of fire road and then the climbing got steep up Passini Trail. I had to hike this climb last year but my Tallboy stuck like Velcro and I nailed it. We kept climbing up the switchbacks and I got into a pretty good rhythm before the first breather on the traverse over to Skyline Trail. I think I was in about 5th or 6th place at that point but I couldn't see the leaders through the trees. I finally finished the steep climbing and on the decent back down to the lake at the top of the course I almost lost it on a loose corner and dirt-track slid into the weeds but stayed upright. Whoa! Forgot about that one! I finally made the turn around the lake and after one more switchback (too gnarly and steep to ride) it was time for the fun DH. I pushed out the Fox Talas fork to 120mm and let her rip. The trail back is just awesome mountain biking. Pretty much all narrow singletrack riddled with rocks, steep hillsides, roots, stream crossings and switchbacks. There are a couple steep climbs going back as well and they're pretty tough to clean because of the cross beams and ledges in the trail. And then the final downhill has a rocky section of "stairs" that I always manage to pogo on my front wheel.
It was a lot easier on the Tallboy as the bigger wheels roll over it all much easier but I still manage to pogo that section anyway. I guess it's just the way I ride it and the line I take. After a few more switchbacks down it opens up a little and you really get some speed going, rail a couple berms, drop a couple log ledges and then BRAKE!!! Uh oh... I forgot about that sharp left turn to the bridge over the creek and I skidded right off the edge! I knew I had way too much speed and just slid straight onto the bank instead of trying to make the turn on the bridge and falling off in the middle. I lost only a few seconds and got back on track for the last half mile to the start/finish.
About 40 minutes into the race and I was feeling pretty good. Maybe in about 4th or 5th. I got a new bottle from Jen and set off up the climb after pulling the fork back down to 95mm. Laps 2 and 3 take a slightly different route up to the top, turning off the fire road right away and heads up Buckeye Trail's steep singletrack. I set off on a good pace and made my way back up to the top, catching Smallman again. I let him lead on the singletrack and kept him in sight all the way back for the final lap. I turned it up and gave it all I had up the climb, dropping Kevin and Whole Athlete rider Will Curtis. I was catching quite a few lapped riders also and for the most part passing them without incident. But I caught one just going into an uphill switchback and he lost his balance and blocked the whole trail, causing me to dismount and have to run up past the next switchback. Not much I could do about it but it's just frustrating. One of the riders who was up front must have cracked and I closed the gap on him quickly by the top of Skyline. I had looked back though and thought I saw someone coming but I couldn't tell who it was. On the fire road almost to the top I came upon a lapped rider, I yelled "on your right" as we came up on a right turn that I knew there was a short climb on the other side with the preferred line on the left. I was giving the lapped rider the better line but as I continued to yell "right, Right, RIGHT!!!" She went right anyway, stalled out on the climb and began to dismount and swing her right leg out as I was coming by and kicked me in the side. I saw it coming and was on the brakes already but I still had to un-clip and duck-walk up a few steps to the top loosing what would soon become valuable seconds. I made the turn back and headed down into the creek crossing, pushing it, and in the water I hit a rock wrong and suddenly the bike was sideways pointing right. But just as quickly as it got out of shape the back wheel hit another rock which kicked it back on line and after I let out a little laugh and audible "WHOA!" in amazement I got right back to pedaling. I could feel the heat coming and at the base of the last steep climb I was caught.
There was room and he asked so nicely so I let him by, he was clearly faster. He attacked up the climb on his hard tail and I tried to match it but didn't quite have the speed. I rode that section the best I had all day though! To the base of the hill I made it across the bridge without incident one final time and he was half way up the last hill. I poured the coals on and sprinted to the top and was gaining ground. The legs were cramping up but I kept the power going as best I could on the last 1/4 mile of flat before the finish. We turned onto the grass and with about 150ft to go he looked over his shoulder to see me coming and sprinted the last little bit to keep his position. Dang. So close! Turns out that rider was Gregg Stone that was for the Pro win. Gregg finished 2nd to me in the first Sierra Cup race, so now we're tied in the series... it's on now! The results show three seconds between us but it was closer than that. And Dario Frederick ended up taking the overall win, but still close being just 35 seconds ahead.
It was a great race and my legs didn't have any more to give that's for sure! I was still a little disappointed though because it just doesn't feel good to be passed right at the end. And I just kept thinking back to the bridge error on lap 1, the lapped rider incidents that slowed me up, and other minor errors I had throughout the race. In the end, I'm just happy that I GOT to race at all, thanks to Asa!
And my favorite person was there to greet me at the finish :-).