It comes every year, whether I'm ready or not, that first local "tester" race in the TBF MTB Kickstart at Granite Bay. Last Sunday was that first measuring stick for 2012. I'm only 4 weeks into training, actually, 4 weeks into riding period after a long long time off the bike. So to be honest I was a bit nervous, but I'm accepting of the fact that I can only work with the time that I've been given and I'm going to be happy with whatever comes of it. And if I stick with it, I just might have some even better results in the mid and late season this year when it really matters. I just can't try to rush the training, which is hard, because I like doing well.
The first rainy weekend of 2012 had to be, of course, the weekend of this race. But thankfully there was a Sunday morning break and since Granite Bay drains so well, conditions were just about perfect. I didn't even need to change from my favorite hard pack tire, the WTB Nano 29, and the Santa Cruz Highball hard tail would be the perfect choice. I pulled up to the start line next to the only other rider in the Pro/Open category, Ron Shevock, who's kind of the ying to my yang as far as strengths. So I knew this was going to be a fun challenge, especially since there isn't any snow and the former competitive skier has been riding his bike way more than normal this time of year. We started in the same wave as all other experts so it was a pretty big group, but I got the holeshot, which I thought was odd and wasn't exactly where I wanted to be. I was hoping to sit in for a while and I didn't think I was fast enough right now to dictate the pace of the race. After about a mile we broke out to the first bit of pavement and an expert rider sprinted on by. Ron and I discussed the likelihood that we would catch him on the upcoming climb, and we were right. Only Ron caught him about 10 seconds faster than I did and already had a gap by the top. That ying to my yang thing means that Ron typically crushes me on those short climbs, especially since he's on a single speed so he has 100% efficient power transfer. There was another expert that had managed to pass me on that climb, and I decided not to push the issue and pass him at the top before the downhill, but I regretted that decision. I was stuck behind him for the next mile or so at a pace slower than I wanted and I couldn't see Ron anymore. Finally I had the opportunity to pass on a short climb and dropped him quickly. I made my way out to the far end of the course called "Doton's Point" where usually we flip a U-Turn at the end of the single track and head up a short road section, and that's where I saw Ron. Only the course volunteers there were yelling at him "TURN AROUND!!!" Instantly I knew the course must go out around the dirt and not up the road and Ron had just been a creature of habit with his head down. By the time I got to the point Ron was rejoining the course and his lead was gone. I rode the rest of the first lap in the lead and into the 2nd lap until the main climb again when I said "see ya" to Ron as he motored up the hill. I was trying to keep from going beyond threshold during the race so I was going to save any effort like that for the end if needed. And I figured if I couldn't catch back up with him on the dowhills, flats and twisties which are my strengths I wasn't going to catch him anyways.
I had a good smooth lap 2 and was having fun, and I did catch Ron by the bottom of the climb on lap 3. We had a pretty huge gap on the rest of our start group so it was just going to be the two of us to battle it out. Which is pretty fun since it rarely happens in MTB racing. I decided that I was going to stick with Ron on this climb to keep that gap from forming again and then recover later. He gave it his normal stand-up effort for the first half of the climb and I stayed with him, not completely gassed, but the legs were burning pretty good. We had a bit of a discussion about how much this race seemed to hurt for the second half of the climb after we backed off the pace a little. I sat up on his wheel until we reached Doton Point again and I couldn't help myself and took the lead. But then as I rolled a small downhill with a 90 degree turn at the bottom there was a loud thud and wobble from the back of my bike. I said to Ron "that felt like my back wheel was trying to come off!" Everything seemed fine though and he confirmed, but he said he didn't have enough energy to really focus on it. Yeah sure Ron. :-). I never believe anyone when they say "oh my legs are burning" or talk about how gassed they are during a race. I always think they're trying to get in my head so I back off... "Lies! All lies!" I think to myself. But what was in my head now was that I thought my bike was falling apart. I wouldn't dare pick up my back wheel over any obstacle for the rest of the race or really go hard into a corner which messed with my flow and rhythm a bit but the bike held together. I stayed in front of Ron and made him go my pace on the climbs so that he couldn't get a gap, and then my strategy would be to try to break away on the last flat part of the course about a half mile from the finish. Once we got to that section though, there was of course a decent head wind that had picked up and I knew I had no chance of breaking away and he could just stick right into that massive slipstream my 6'3" frame throws out. Since I don't have the straight TT power to just pull away right now, it was going to come down to the last few turns and a likely sprint finish, not my strength either. I was in front which wasn't where I wanted to be when going into a sprint, and I had an idea that Ron would probably try to pass me on the gradual uphill after the last open area, and he did. At that point I thought it was going to come down to a finish chute sprint.
4 turns left, and two short climbs. I had to stay right with him. Left turn, he went wide through a puddle and I picked the better line, giving me a little momentum up the short climb. There was a lapped rider off to the left we would pass, Ron took the middle and there was room on the right leading into the right turn at the top. I had momentum and I had to take it. I squeezed on by and made the pass clean, but it was tight. I used the next stretch, left turn, and short flat of singletrack after that to recover since there wasn't anywhere to pass and got ready to give it everything I had up the last short knoll and finish chute. I stood up and laid down what power I had. The rear wheel stayed on as I shifted through the gears and I looked back expecting to see Ron pulling out to pass as we entered the chute but he was sitting up, so I rolled across the line taking 1st and feeling pretty good about 2012's first test. Especially since it turned out to be really fun and a back and forth "battle" with a good riding buddy.
Another thing I'm happy about is that my finish time was only 55 seconds slower than last year when I had been getting a lot more time in the saddle starting 2 months earlier. I do need to keep an eye on those high school kids though. They started in a different wave but their finish time was really close to ours, with their winner being only 1 second back from Ron. Kids these days...