This year I would be racing my Highball because I'd been racing the last few weeks on it and was really comfortable. And last year, on the Tallboy, I remember thinking that it wasn't too rough overall and that I wished I had the hard tail for those steep climbs. I arrived at 7am and quickly realized I forgot socks! DOH! Luckily my buddy Brian Butler was there with his race rig... an old panel van filled with... well... everything from the garage. So I asked, and of course, I had a selection to choose from. Nice. I then moved on to the snails pace reg line and resolved myself to "it is what it is" and tried not to get worked up about the quickly approaching 8am start. My fault... should have left earlier (than 4:30! ugh). Fast forward... 7:52... time to start the warmup. I "pinch test" my WTB Nano tires, a little soft but I've been running them like that lately so I figured I was ok, and I was feeling rushed even though trying not to. Everyone's already lined up so I just spin a couple minutes and then join in. I'll just have to use the 10 minute road-race start as my "warm up."
This race usually contains some fast Cat 1 and/or Pro roadies, as well as some notable MTB strongmen. This year was no different. Once we started up the road climb, the pace was pushed and I just tried not to totally blow up since this was my "warm up." So I hung on to the back of the lead group and planned to get to the front, or close to it, on the last pitch before we hit the dirt. So my warmup finally ended and I hit the dirt in maybe 6th or so, and began ripping down the first fun filled singletrack trail of switchbacks, loose rocks and root drops. At least it was fun until I was held up by the first roadie with a handling vs. fitness imbalance. After a couple steep sections of roller coaster I was finally able to make the pass and set my sights ahead. I soon caught up to Jim Hewitt and passed him as well, but he's very experienced and good at pacing so I was concerned that I might be going too hard too early. But I pressed on, feeling like I'd been held up too much and too much time was lost to the leaders. Before long, at about mile 5, I caught up to Aren Timmel and Michael Hosey on a climb with a convenient place to pass so I went on by. But as I passed, I asked Aren "Anyone else up ahead?" Figuring there were at least a couple, but to my surprise he said "Nope." Still wanting rabbits to chase and knowing it's a long race to be leading this early I said "Just tell me there are..." and I kept the power down. Michael jumped on my wheel and we stayed together for the next couple miles, pulling a decent gap. As we made it to the short road transition, I discussed with Michael the potentially frustrating sight ahead of us. That being the short course riders we had now caught. This year was the first year they offered the short course, a 10 mile shorter route which started at the same time. I caught up to a group of three just before the turn off the pavement, but was only able to pass two before the third made his way to the dirt pile that goes up and over the curb and guard rail. I hollered "Riders back! Go go go!" to try to, um, encourage him on what could be a challenging obstacle to clear for even a seasoned rider if you don't hit it right. I swung out wide to give him room, he made it most of the way up before having to put a foot down, then I was right up on him. Thankfully he had heard me and was moving off to the left, but my attention was more on him than what I was about to run into as I charged up... DING-DING! No, not a doorbell, that's my rims bottoming out on the square edged curb because I was slightly off line. Can you see the concern in my face?
"Oh no..." I thought to myself. I took a second before charging down the loose downhill and didn't hear any air rushing out, but my front seemed a little more squishy.
Quickly back to the task at hand... negotiating slow traffic on a fast downhill with loose jagged rocks. Michael chimed up "I don't like this..." My sentiments exactly. But we charged ahead.
As I took an alternate line around a rider on the brakes, my bike skipping over the rocks, DING! Another rim strike. But this one was followed by the dredded PPSHSSHSHSHHHHH.... I could barely navigate the next off camber turn without the tire rolling off the rim so I had to pull off. Dang. I was really bummed, but trying not to be. I flipped the bike over and gave it a shot of Co2 only to hear it running right out of a hole in the center of the tread from the sharp rock, as well as the bead. I took the wheel off and was shaking the sealant around as passing riders offered their sentiments of "Bummer," "Sorry Bro," "Aww already?!" etc. The tire seemed to seal up and I filled it to what seemed to be a good pressure. Stop time (according to my Garmin) 1min 16 seconds and I was on my way again playing catch up. I passed a handful of riders back fairly quickly, but the trail turned downhill with off camber turns and was putting too much force on the still fragile seal, so it lost pressure again. I was off again, still swishing and pleading with the sealant to hold because I really didn't want to put a tube in. This stop was 1min 20 seconds and I put more air in and tried to give the sealant a little more time to do its job. I rolled through the first aid station on a mission. I knew fairly gradual fire road climb was coming up where I'd have an opportunity to pass a few people back if I could before the next singletrack. I made those passes stick on about five riders before the switchback at the top to enter the narrow trail again. Mark Weir saw me as he turned in and with a shout of encouragement let me by to keep up my pace. I was held up a little by a couple guys before I'd have good passing opportunities but I just tried not to panic. It was still only about mile 10 of a 35 mile race.
At about mile 13 I was behind Will Curtis and Jesse Smith on a winding dirt road when I see a trail diving off to the left and a course marker hanging on a tree branch... as we go by it. On the brakes, I holler at them "This way guys!!!" And I drop in. I spend the next few seconds, while navigating the downhill switchbacks, second guessing myself looking for tire tracks in the dirt. It just felt right though. But since my attention was distracted, I wander up the side of a rut putting extra force on that front tire and it burps air out again. Ahhh!!! The next bit of trail was climbing and traversing so I decided to keep going until I was forced to stop. I made it a couple miles before Will and Jesse had caught back up to me and it was clear the tire was slowing me up so I'd better stop again. A handfull of riders passed again during this 1 minute stop, but I put even more pressure in that front tire praying this would be the last time, and I gave the back tire an extra shot of air too just in case (my head was playing games and I thought the back tire was going down too). Thankfully, this was my last stop. I had 20 miles left and I steadily picked off everyone I had already passed... again. I guess I got my wish of still having rabbits to chase!
With the race being moved up the calendar the trail was a bit different than years past. It wasn't quite as loose on the steep climbs, but the cattle hoof marks were a bit more present. The weeds were also taller which obstructed the view of the trail in the turns and the creek crossings were deeper. Different challenges to overcome on a trail that gives and takes elevation very quickly (steep). I was still feeling good though as the miles ticked off. I was fueling well with Hammer Gel and HEED, only having gone through about 1.5 bottles by the mile 21 Camelback aid station. I ditched my half full (not half empty... see what I did there?) bottle in exchange for one of their cool podium bottles before plunging into one of the deepest creek crossings on the course. I had just passed Aren back and could see Jim up ahead on the climb. When I caught Jim he said Michael was about a minute and a half up so I kept pushing my pace. At about mile 25 or so, I made my way down into another creek gulley to see Michael off the side of the trail in a ditch, his bike backwards and the rear wheel off. It looked like he had crashed badly and I asked if he was ok. With exasperation he told me he was good and to just keep going. So I did. Turns out his rear derailleur hanger had broken and it wasn't a crash.
So I was all alone off the front. Well sort of. I was still catching short course riders here and there. These were the leaders of their race though and most of them, with early notice from me, would pull off and let me pass without much hold up. I'd give a shout of thanks and encouragement as I passed and tried to keep the hammer down, worried that Jim (or someone else) was going to make a late race charge and catch me. My Highball was working so well and I was very happy to be able to stand up and really power up out of the steep gulleys with such efficiency. I passed that 31 mile point where I had to start running last year and was battling with my urge to keep going as hard as I can with the need to make sure I take care of my equipment. Smooth is fast... and it was fast enough to hold on for the win by 6 minutes after 3 hours and 3 minutes. The record time, set by Levi Leipheimer, is 2 hours 57 minutes... so not bad considering my stops and slowed pace with the tire issues.
I returned the now soiled (to say the least) socks to Brian and went into recovery mode to get ready for the next days race. Continuously eating, keeping the feet up, and getting one of the best sports massages I've had from Samagse Mobile Massage who was on site. Awesome! Oh and I'd say that a podium celebration is good recovery as well!
Next up... part 2... Sierra Cup #4 - Peavine Challenge in Reno.