Monday, May 28, 2012

5/26 - Sierra Cup #3 - La Grange Spring Classic

Round three of the Sierra Cup Series would take me way up North to Weaverville, CA.  About 45 minutes west of Redding, near Whiskeytown Lake where I had raced a month earlier at the Shasta Lemurian (Hard and VERY fun).  Don't let this spec on the map fool you though, not only is there some of the best MTB riding but the Trinity Valley is absolutely gorgeous! 

La Grange, the fall version, was one of my first few races way back in 2006 when I was still a Clydesdale.  I remembered that the trails were very fun, despite an endo on a downhill switchback (yep, sucked at those back then too!).  And I think my finish time was 2hrs and 13min if I remember correctly.  So I had a target time to beat at least. 

After the 3 1/2 hour drive up and an adaquate amount of coffee... I swung a leg over the Highball and set out for a warm up and to check out as much of the course as I could.  It's a "lollypop" style course where we'd head out about 3 miles on the same trail we'd return after riding the big loop.  It's funny how well I remembered the trails after so many years, and they were still great.  It wasn't like I remembered where every bump, rock, root, etc. was but more the general stuff like creek crossings and the general topography.  Race time came under cloudy skies and I sprinted up the first hill and set into 3rd wheel.  Once we got to the plateau, I was able to keep that pace and pulled up into the lead and made sure to hold it long enough to be first into the singletrack.  I kept the pace high but Billy Damon, last year's Open Category 30-39 Super D National Champion and shredder from Auburn (so he can climb too), was right on my wheel.  At least I could hear him breathing hard... I certainly was!  I stayed in the lead and we put a big gap on the rest of the field in short time, railing the twisting trails of the rolling hills and I only slid off the trail once after overcooking a switchback.  After crossing a road we turned up, and I mean really up on a steep climb that just seemed to get steeper until finally giving a little break and a bit of fun downhill which landed us on another dirt road for more, and more climbing.  Billy pulled up alongside on his Santa Cruz Blur TRc and we chatted a bit on the steady incline.  I asked if he was going to put me to shame today but he said "Nah 45 minutes is about all I've got at this pace."  Of course I didn't believe him, but we were about 45 minutes in when the climbing got steep again and I made sure to keep the pace up.  He slowly faded back as I climbed the ridge up to the top of the course and was maybe 30 seconds back before most of the climbing was done and out of sight when we'd get into the trees.

The course transitioned to contouring fire road as it began to sprinkle lightly.  I came up over a knoll and around a right hand corner when a black bear cub went running across the trail about 30 yards in front of me... WHOA!!  Uhh... where's mama bear?!?!  I immediately sat up and was looking around for the big beast but didn't see her as I kept rolling and yelling "HEY BEAR!!" loudly hoping to scare them off.  As I continued down the trail I was wondering to myself if it was possible to outrun a bear on a mountain bike.  They can take shortcuts... hmm.  We'll thankfully I didn't have to answer this question, but needless to say this put new meaning to the term "racing scared."  The pull tag the promoter had us pin to our shoulder flapping in the wind was freaking me out too, right next to my ear.  It sounded like a bear running through the leaves... must, ride, faster!  It wasn't long before I rolled down into a creek crossing which required a dissmount, trapsing through ankle high freezing cold water and running up the steep trail on the other side.  Good thing that imaginary bear was chasing me or I might have let it get to me how much I hate having cold wet feet!

The course then gave me something else to focus on though as it got back into singletrack, and I mean single.  Hardly cut in wide enough for a tire width in places and riding on the spine of an old mining flume was pretty tricky at race speed, especially when it started sleeting!  And then hailing!  What happened to 67 and sunny?!  Weather forcast fail... you never know what you're going to get in the Trinity Valley though.  The frozen precipitation only lasted for a few minutes however and turned into a steady light rain as I turned downhill on those tight switchbacks that claimed some of my skin five years ago.  I think there's about 10 of them with a few sweepers thrown in the mix that add to the fun, and no crashing this time, guess I've improved a bit.  Turns out the rain tacked up the trail PERFECTLY!  The Nano's held the dirt like velcro all the way down to the creek trail which resembled the trails I have back home out my front door.  Like a giant pump track, twisting around trees with small climbs, descents and tons of flow.  I remembered this trail, but forgot how fun it was!  About a mile on this one and it was back onto the stem of the "lollypop" and I was boosting the water bars on the descent back to the finish line where they told me I had set a new course record.  1hr 36min... a bit of an improvement over the last time I was here!

5/19 - Sierra Cup Series #2 - Pine Nut Cracker

Coming off of a great 1st round of racing for the Sierra Cup Series at the Rockhopper Classic in Vacaville, I had my sights set on round two and another fun course at the Pine Nut Cracker in Gardnerville, NV.  But I really had to focus on my recovery during the week, that effort at Rockhopper capping off a 17+ hour week of riding really took it out of me.  Thankfully it was perfectly timed with an off week from Wednesday night races at Prairie City, so Jen and I went sailing in SF bay instead... and it was even a race!  A very fun and necessary break, both mentally and physically.

Anyways... back to Nevada at 5200ft... In years prior I had always ridden a full suspension on this course because it's pretty gradual climbing and almost constant seated pedaling over moto trails (a.k.a.- lots of small roller bumps).  But since it's not very rocky, I decided to give the Highball a shot this year.  And I was happy I did.  Combined with the fast rolling WTB Nano's... it was a rocket!

I took the lead right from the gun and tried to push through that first 5 minutes of leg burn that always seems to hurt the worst.  I guess it's the body saying "Oh not this again..."  But I got through it and onto the singletrack and I could hear one person in tow, but I was trying not to look back and just keep the power down.  The first half of the loop is a deceptive climb.  With all the rollers, small and big, there are lots of false flats where you don't think you're climbing but you are.  There's one steep and loose climb which I made up in lap 1 (but not 2&3 due to it getting chewed up by other racers hiking) and a couple other good pitches that sear the lungs, legs, and let you know you're climbing at elevation.  But the payoff is a long, gradual downhill with banked turns, rollers to pump and double and bushes to duck under while brake drifting.

I set off down the hill, still in the lead, and decided I was going to try to keep up with the lead moto who rides out front making sure the trail is clear from other users.  So at every opportunity I was sprinting and pushing the pace, absolutely railing this trail (pats self on back) and staying on his wheel.  Off road motor-pacing?!?!?! YES PLEASE!!!  BRAAAP!!! 

I swear I was smiling ear to ear, well, if I could.  I was totally gassed and going all out.  I was getting a bit dusted from the moto and couldn't really see the trail  in the faster sections.  But since I knew there weren't really many rocks to be had I just listened to his throttle and watched his suspension to know what was coming for me.  I was up and out of the saddle hammering but staying loose ready to absorb anything.  He would look back every now and then and I could see his eyes widen and he'd hit the throttle, surprised to see me so close (I talked with him after the race) until we hit the open rocky meadow with a gradual climb.  Couldn't keep up with him as easily there... but after a few more rollers there was a fast (top gear and pedaling) downhill and I was back on his wheel again to the last steep descent where I decided I could go as fast as he was willing to take those off camber turns too.  Again... FUN!!  Except he just got to twist the throttle up the last leg burning climbs to complete the lap.  Cheater.

I've always told myself that smooth and fun is fast, and that was certainly true here.  As I started lap two, my chasers were nowhere in sight.  Even as far back as I could see on the dirt road before entering the singletrack again.  But I still had my lead moto and I kept my pace as high as I could. 

He stayed a little farther ahead of me on this lap but I still was in super shred mode and put in a 36 minute lap time, starting lap 3 at 1hr 16min into the race.  Which meant that I had a good chance of finishing in under two hours if I kept the pace up.  This was great motivation though and I knew it would be hard.  I always believe that someone is going to sneak up and catch me near the end, so it helped to have something to shoot for and help me keep the pace up.  Thankfully nobody appeared after a fun 31 miles and I rolled across the line with about 4 minutes to spare before that 2hr mark for the win.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

5/12 - Sierra Cup Series #1 - Rockhopper Super D and XC

A couple Saturdays ago (late post... super busy...) the Rockhopper Classic, in it's second year of revival after a dormant decade, presented a new challenge to racers... Super D.  We would start at the top of the radio tower hill at hammer nearly all hillside singletrack dropping about 700ft elevation as fast as we could to the flat finish.  I had pre-ridden some of the trails about a month earlier and they were hardly rideable due to damage from cattle hoof holes.  So I was concerned about the conditions and bike choice, especially for the XC race later in the day.  But the Montecelo Cycling Club who was putting on the race, and numerous volunteers, did an absolutely fantastic job of trail work to smooth out the course to make it more than bearable.  Awesome!

The registration process took a little longer than anticipated so I didn't have time to get a full run of the Super D course to check it all out.  But on my climb up to the top I popped on course to check out the ramp they built for the "steeze jump" competition and decided that I would be coming into it way to fast and would end up pile-driving my face into the next hill most likely, good to know.  Continuing the climb up, backwards on the course, I discovered that while smoothed out, the turns and switchbacks on the steep hillside were loose and flat... a recipe for a washout and tumble down the hill in just about every turn.  So while the course really didn't have any technical aspects as far as rocks and obstacles, it was still going to be a challenge to maintain speed.  And finally at the top I discovered that the first 50 yards of the course consisted of 4 small bmx style double jumps.  Not good for this penguin.  I got a couple practice passes on them but it was definitely just going to be a "get through it" section for me and I'll have to make up time somewhere else.  I was about the sixth guy to start so I was able to watch a few others on the first couple turns.  One guy had already ended up washing out on one of those flat turns, confirming my course analysis.  It was my time to start and as I rolled into the start shoot I just wasn't feeling it.  Not a whole lot of fire, and as I was already thinking about it, Mark Weir shouted to me "Kill it Clint! But leave something for the XC!"  Right... don't blow up the legs with the XC less than 3 hours later.  3-2-1-Go!  I clip in and get a couple pedal strokes and gear shifts before having to brake check my speed on the rollers because I suck.  But I got through them and back on the pedals... feeling like everyone watching me at the start was probably laughing at me regarding my non-jumping skills.  Guess I need to spend some time at the local BMX/Pump Track.  Into the first 180 degree turn I felt like I was on the brakes way too much and not pushing it, but I was smooth and clean.  That was pretty much the same feeling on every corner as I made my way down the hill.  Whether it was a tight switchback (there were a lot of them) or a sweeper... I just felt slow, but smooth (and still upright!).

The Tallboy was handling the hoof-chatter that was still on the trail with ease and the WTB Prowler SL's were digging into the loose dirt perfectly.  I put the power down everywhere I could but just still felt off.  I came into the "steeze jump" section and took my bypass line with a lot of speed and still had to brake check before the big dip at the bottom and bottomed out my fork.  Thus confirming I would have done a good javelin impersonation into the next hill if I'd hit the jump for sure.  I finished off the hillside singletrack and hammered the last 1/8th mile or so of flat grassy course before crossing the finish.

I had no idea of my time or placement for about 2hrs after the race due to a timing system snafu, so when asked I just described my run as feeling slow and "eh" and I just went into recovery mode to prep for the XC race a few hours later.  Eventually results were posted so I strolled over to find out I was 2nd!!!  Just 8 seconds back from Mr. Weir.  Needless to say I was pretty happy with that result, but I also felt like knew exactly where I left 8 seconds out on the course... oh well... I got a cool custom pint glass for my efforts!

The XC start was set for 11am but that time came and went with the registration line still with at least 30 people waiting.  So the start time was moved back to 11:30, which was fine, except I was getting a little hungry and it was beginning to get hot.  The predicted temp for the day was 92 and there wasn't any wind to help.  I prepped the Highball and set out on the XC course to make sure it was going to be the right choice and not punish me too much from the rough trail that remained.  I wanted to run as low of a tire pressure as possible to help with this and the WTB Nano TCS tires with their strong bead were going to do the trick.  I think I ended up with just 22psi in the rear tire and the bike just floated over those small bumps.  I was good to go and continued to hydrate and pre-fuel with my Hammer favorites (HEED, Gel and Perpetuem Solids) in anticipation for the high effort in high heat to come.

Eventually I rolled up to the start and lined up with a few other top step contenders I recognized... Kevin Smallman, Cody Kaiser and Alex Wild were just a few but I knew there were some younger racers in the mix as well ready to pounce.  There was also an older guy with rainbow stripes on his sleeve (Masters world champ)... always a threat!  The gun went off and it was on.

After the first corner I settled into 3rd position and was feeling pretty good.  It wasn't very long before we'd get into the steep climbs and I took the lead up the first one, standing up and taking full advantage of the Highball's stiffness and efficiency.  I charged the next fast downhill and jumped the paved path and hammered up the next climb.  At the top I glanced back and it seemed like I was starting to pull away which didn't make sense... I'm never a fast starter!  The first trip down "hamburger hill" and the nasty corner at the bottom (hamburger... as in what your face looks like if you don't respect the steepness and lack of traction) was clean and I popped out of the trees onto a gravel road for about a 1/4 mile.  I had a couple seconds on the next group but I knew I was no match on this flat stretch if they worked together so I didn't waste any effort.  Kevin Smallman came around and took the lead but I got it back as we made our way up the next climb.  This fire road climb steadily steepens to a real nasty pitch at the end on a small stretch of singletrack.  Right before that I let two racers by and I had this feeling that was a bad decision because I knew there was a rooted and steep downhill with a couple small drops after this climb.  When we turned downhill we navigated the first turn and open section fine with decent speed but the tricky right turn with a small drop was ahead.  I tried to ease up a bit to allow room for a fumble up ahead but Alex, who was leading, didn't clear the drop and turn and ran into the next tree.  He didn't go down but blocked the trail and the 2nd place rider and myself ran into him.  Alex got going quickly and so did I, but in that melee my chain had come off... which I didn't know.  So as I attempted to clip back into the pedals there was no resistance and it wasn't happening.  There wasn't the time or room to stop there as the rest of the group was right behind me and I continued to rock this downhill bouncing on the seatpost with my feet out to the side as skids feeling like a total goober.  I still almost ran into the back of Alex at the bottom but I pulled off at the turn and scoped out the bike.  The chain was completely off and outside of the pedals.  Trying not to rush and risk breaking something, I calmly took my time to get it back on right and when everything seemed ok I was back on my way but now in about 9th place and a lot of time back.   I passed a few before we got out of the steepest climbs and when it opened up I could see a lead group of 4 riders about a minute or more up.  So I pushed the pace as hard as I could... trying not to get discouraged because I really wanted to win this race.

By lap 2 I had passed a couple more and was trying to reel in that lead group.  I could see Cody, Kevin and Alex there with one other I didn't recognize.  I hammered the steep climbs and by the half way mark I had passed Cody who had fallen off the lead pace.  I eventually caught the lead 3 on a perfect stretch of trail where I could pass them all at once before heading into some climbing and switchbacks.  I was feeling really strong, but as I had figured Kevin was just cruising with that lead group and conserving.  He jumped on my wheel as I passed and stayed there all the way up to the top.  He is a very good descender so I didn't want to let him by on the long DH for risk of him pulling away.  I attacked the downhill and all the nasty switchbacks hard and kept the pressure on him.  It was pretty fun though, we were sliding into berms and squealing brakes all the way down and I would stand up and sprint out of every corner.  After the race Kevin told me that I was absolutely nailing those switchbacks, which made me really happy because I think I suck at them.

He was still there on my wheel as we began the final lap and I knew I had to pull away on the climbing far enough so that he couldn't catch back up on any downhills.  So I hit those steep climbs with everything I had left and attacked all the downhills as well.  Riding scared, and really wanting to win.  I made it through the final lap clean and only started to cramp at the very end.  And 50ft after crossing the line in 1st overall after over 2hrs of pain I was handed a Corona... don't mind if I do!!  (Thanks Murphy!).  I was so stoked to have won this race.  Not only because it starts me off in good standing for the series, but that it was my first race after Jen had broken her foot last year and for some reason it meant something to me.  I guess I wanted to replace that painful memory with a positive one with a win... and to go along with the fact she finally was doing well enough to have the metal plate removed from her foot the day before this race!
I'm so happy with the double podium day and am looking forward to throwing down for the rest of the series.  Thanks to everyone who made this race and course possible, it was a great event.  And thanks for the custom labeled Rockhopper Macchia Zinfandel winner's wine!  It was really good... and no I didn't drink it from my Super D pint glass!