I discovered this year it's pretty hard to make a race season last from March to October and stay in top form the whole time. I was struggling with motivation to train, maintain a "performance based" diet, and push myself in races. October 2nd was the final race in the Sierra Cup Series and I had committed myself to racing the whole series and I wanted to finish it out strong to put a good cap on my 2011 season. It would effectively be my last race this year. The 41st race. I may still do a race here or there (maybe one while we're in Thailand!) and maybe of a different sport (running or triathlon) just for fun.
Turns out though, when you have a well laid out course on awesome trails, a "matters" race can be fun too! This was definitely the case with the Sawtooth Ridge Challenge held at Northstar. This race capped off a seven race northern CA and NV series where I had found myself in 2nd place overall to Gregg Stone in 1st. I found some motivation in the couple weeks prior to the race to stay on the bike and not lose too much fitness so I was feeling pretty decent when the start gun went off at 6,300 ft. I took the lead right away heading up a fire road climb for about 1/8 mile and I turned into the first singletrack with a little gap. The course would be 4 laps long for me on a 6.5 mile loop comprised mainly of one big 1000 ft or so climb of varying trail type (smooth and rough singletrack, and fire road) before turning down a winding trail of gradual descent. Before the race I was thinking about my strategy and if I would just ride with Gregg until the last lap and see what I could do or if I should just peg it from the start. I decided on the latter, and to just race my race. I knew that I would (should... hopefully) be stronger on the climb and Gregg would likely be faster on the descent. So I needed to play to my strengths, especially since this is Gregg's backyard.
I pushed it up the climb at a strong steady pace and put a serious time gap on the rest of the field and couldn't see anyone behind me on the longest open stretch. As I hammer down a fire road after what feels like the crest of the climb I see a left turn arrow and then bam there's the trail to my left... as I jam the brakes and skid about 15 feet past the turn! Doh! Turns out I would do the same thing on all but my last lap! That's what climbing fatigue does to you, turning you into a reactionary rider if you're not careful.
The downhill trail was just awesome with berms, jumps, little table top jumps, hip jumps, and a couple drops. The upper portion was pretty smooth and had a ton of flow and it got more rocky and technical as the elevation dropped. After being spoiled for 5 minutes by fun downhill there was a sucker punch of a fire road climb though of a distance right in between that go all out sprint pace or the usual diesel chug. Because you could see the top once you started, but you still had maybe 500 yards at a decent incline to go. When I got to the top each lap though I would look back and still couldn't see Gregg, just wasn't enough open space. As I mentioned the lower half was more rocky and technical and my first lap I was still learning the trail so I didn't feel too terrible when I turned for lap 2 at the bottom and saw Gregg only about 15 seconds back. I set out to get all that time back on the 2nd lap climb. The 2nd lap was much like the first as I put time back on the climb and missed that same turn. But I felt a lot better on the downhill and knew I was faster. But so was Gregg apparently because when I turned for lap 3 I saw him go over the table top jump at almost the exact same spot as when I started lap 2. Dang it!
Lap 3... I love my Tallboy!! It was working flawlessly and was so efficient on the rocky climbing, soaking up everything and keeping the power down. Then when I opened up the travel on the fork it was just hammering the downhill. I was having a ton of fun! Yet still working pretty damn hard. Drifting into the loose, banked turns and finding the flow and speed in the trail. But at the bottom Gregg was even closer! Ahhh! As I turned into the first singletrack for the last lap climb I yelled back at Gregg, "Gregg would you slow down!?" Trying to keep the racing light-hearted... I didn't get a response. I was actually a bit frustrated and I guess that was the motivation I needed and I gave it everything I had on that last lap. I gassed it everywhere I could on the climb and when I hit the downhill... stoked at not missing that turn again (the small victories) I was still hammering. Standing up and pedaling out of the turns and letting the Tallboy fly I was ripping the downhill and "racing scared" because even though I couldn't see him when I would look back, I swore that Gregg was going to catch me on the last downhill. I reached the bottom and crossed the finish line alone... and spent. Six and a half minutes later Gregg rolled in and later told me "Man you crushed my soul on that last lap climb..." and he watched me ride away as his legs cramped up. I have to admit that was a bit satisfying to hear :-)
I ended up 2nd overall for the series since there was just too much points spread to make up between us. Congrats to Gregg. Next year I really hope they do this series again and I will make it more of my racing focus. The race courses are just awesome, very well run, and I really want a regional champion jersey!