Thursday, May 19, 2016

Races for the Groms

Last fall we were given the reins to a small operation putting on MTB events for middle school aged kids in Folsom.  It really opened up our eyes to a need for quality race experiences for young kids, who rarely get to race bikes on their own course designed for them and without being mixed in with adults.  So Jen and I started brainstorming how to best format events for kids and what would be the real goal.  Because neither of us believe that 8-14 year old's should be solely focused on competing, winning and getting prizes, but both of us feel that there's unmatched learning and positive experience that comes from competing with others and giving your all.

The goal we landed on was to provide an opportunity for youth mountain bikers to learn how to race in a safe, fun environment.  It sounds simple but executing those four key terms effectively is the key.

We put our own stamp on it with a new name, website and a fresh venue.  The Folsom Grom MTB Series was born.  I would set up three short track courses on Friday nights at Folsom Point on the south shore of Folsom Lake.  Which provided a nice place for families to hang out and parents to see their kids almost all the way around the course.  Each category would race for 25 minutes on the small course ticking off as many laps as possible.  And since we wanted to recognize each racer for their accomplishment regardless of placing, they would receive a small helmet sticker (think college football helmet badges) for each lap they'd complete.  And the top 10 would get a rank sticker to put on their number plate, making that a series trophy as well.

Before each category start, I'd have a pre-race meeting to make sure everyone understood the format and racing basics, then I'd lead them out around a lap and walk them through the features.
The pre-race meeting with the 8-10 boys.

Leading out the 8-10 boys on their first scouting lap.

The first week's course was just over a half mile long and after I led the first group around of 8-10 year old boys, they were stoked and so excited to race!  We were actually caught by surprise with how many laps they did, with the lead group cranking out 8!  They were executing water bottle handoffs with their parents on the climb and really getting into it.  It was awesome.

Grom racers on course alongside Folsom Lake

Groms descending the singletrack downhill on week 1.

11-12 year old boys racing, with Bear Development Team rider Bryce Lewis behind as a safety rider, with a couple 8-10 boys cheering along side.

The girls even showed up in numbers and were shredding it.

Grom girls racing the singletrack in the trees.

The level of excitement and accomplishment that the kids had after each category finished, regardless of placement, was awesome.  Hearing the kids debrief with their parents and fellow racers afterwards, talking about their struggles and successes during the race with such enthusiasm was very cool to hear.  I'll paraphrase some of what I heard into one youthful run-on sentence...


Week two was a little longer course at .65 miles and had one steep descent.  There were a couple kids who weren't quite up for it after their pre-lap with me, and took advantage of our scout lap refund policy.  But most of the kids were very excited, and thought it was cool to have a different course.  We had our biggest turnout of the series, with a really good showing from the girls!

Leading the Grom girls out for their week two scouting lap.

8-10 age category Grom racing towards the downhill with the Folsom Lake backdrop.

Groms raced on singletrack in the trees at each race

Week 2 girls 8-10 podium

At one point in the girls race, there was a crash right at the start/finish line.  Two girls seemed to clip bars and they both went down.  They both got up, but were panicked and shaken.  I helped rotate one girls handlebars back in place and she rode off.  And the other had hit her knee pretty hard and was working through it, crying, trying to shake it off.  Her Mom was there, asking if she wanted to stop and that would be ok.  But she, still crying, said no and swung her leg over and kept going to finish the race.  It was really cool to see, since that's the type of determination that will go way beyond cycling.  Another girl had dropped her chain half way through the lap and ran the rest of the lap with her bike until her Dad could fix it, and kept going.  They didn't quit when it got hard and finished what they started, truly giving their best under adversity.  One of the main experiences and learning opportunities we wanted to give kids with these races.
Grom racer descending after a crash

I also had a coworker who I had told about the races, and he brought his kids out that second week.  I bring this up because they're not a "cycling" family.  The kids were on bikes with coaster brakes and tires made for cruising around the neighborhood, and I was a little worried about them on that steep downhill.  But on their pre-lap I saw each of them navigate it with youthful fearlessness and continue on with smiles.  They both finished their races and loved it.  It was very cool to see that we'd made the races accessible to those families truly new to the sport.
A Grom riding the course on a coaster brake bike in her first race

Coming out of the trees and looking for the next corner, loving his first bike race

The final race was the longest course at 3/4 mile and a good climb in the middle.  That climb was tough for the youngest kids and really spread them out, but they all liked the added singletrack they rode leading up to the climb.  There were some pretty tight races in the series points standings, and those kids vying for a podium were focused and determined.  

Final instructions before the girl's start their last race

The two Grom girls leading the final race

13-14 boys on the additional singletrack for the final race

The racing was excellent.  At one point in the 13-14 boys group, I jumped in and followed the two leaders who were tied in series points.  They had been seesawing for about five laps so I wanted to see how it was going down.  And it happened that lap.  The eventual winner, Nick, was second wheel after the initial climb and singletrack.  He resisted the urge to pass when the course opened up again before the next tight spot, knowing the door would be open again.  Staying together, they navigated the singletrack and s-turns before the climb, and then as soon as they hit the climb, Nick attacked in full sprint.  Brandon, who was already pushing the pace, tried to match the attack.  A gap was forming.  I shouted some encouragement to Brandon, urging him to give it all right then.  That he HAD to match the speed and he could breathe on the downhill.  He just didn't have the horsepower in those young legs and the race was won right there.  Nick stretched out the gap to take the win and Brandon still kept up the pace for second.  

Nick pulling away with Brandon in chase. Followed closely by Clint Claassen, Race Director, observing the battle.
After their races, the kids put their final placement stickers on the number plates and donned their series podium t-shirts.  It was smiles all around.  So thankful to the sponsors in Folsom Bike, Mikes Bikes Folsom, Versa Care EMS, and Happy Trails Neutral Support that truly helped make these races happen.  The High School racers (Bear Development & Folsom High) who came out and volunteered with setup and mentoring the Groms as course sweeps were great role models.  And a big thank you to our all volunteer staff: Julie, Allyson, Brian, Shepherd, Robbie, Karen, Pam, Heather, and the Gross family for watching our mini Grom.

A Grom racer puts his final rank sticker on his number plate. Lap stickers also shown on his helmet and number plate.

The top five Groms in each category for the series were awarded custom t-shirts, supplied by Mike's Bikes.

This came together in less than two months, and we had 181 registered racers (78 unique) over the three races.  It was a lot of work, but a privilege for Jen and I to have the resources and opportunity to create these events and experiences for the kids.  I love being able to coach and truly grow the sport for the next generation, and we'll be looking for more opportunity to do that in the future.  If anyone is interested in joining in, let us know!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Santa Cruz Bronson v2 First Ride and Review - CA Enduro Series Round 2 Recap

The fresh Bronson build
I finally got the new Bronson all built up and rolling on Tuesday last week. Aside from playing around a little at the Folsom Grom MTB Race and discovering the rear tire could hit the dropper cable, "Pinky," as I now call her wouldn't see real trail time until Saturday's enduro race in Reno.  So I would roll out on the first transfer with some educated guesses for suspension setup and tire pressure, only to begin the days' long list of positive impressions this bike would reveal.

Impression 1 - Fit

I spent some time on the first generation Bronson and I never felt comfortable on it.  For the same frame size and fork length, I just felt perched on top and I didn't like it.  The v2 on the other hand is a longer wheel base and longer top tube, so I felt like I was sitting into the frame more and was instantly comfortable, even with a short 40mm stem.

Impression 2 - Pedaling

As we rolled out from the venue and started climbing up to our first timed stage, I was amazed at how well this thing went uphill.  The short rear end was responding to pedal pressure very efficiently, even with the Fox Float EVOC rear shock fully open.  Changing the shock platform to trail mode made the rear even more stiff and responsive to acceleration, and "climb" mode felt like hardtail mode.  When the climbing got steep and/or the enduro transfer shenanigans began (tire rubbing, brake checking, pushing each other off balance, etc.) I had no problems with balance or front wheel wandering.  Only a tight uphill switchback with rocks would cause a dab later in the day, but that would have been tough on any bike.

Impression 3 - Technical DH - Just let go bro!

Our first timed stage was the most technical, with numerous sections of all rock and no trail.  I didn't know the trail, so it was my cajones holding me back.  The bike was BEGGING me to just let go and sit back, but I just kept being a timid, stiff goober and making the rocks way more chunky than they needed to be.  Even still, the bike soaked up everything I hit square and at odd angles and I never felt out of control or like I needed to correct any input from the suspension.
Dropping in on stage 5 of the Battle Born Enduro - Photo: Called to Creation

Rolling over the "waterfall" on stage 5

With more speed, it would have just floated over all of that with ease.  Which I learned later in the day coming down a few of those sections again.

Impression 4 - Fun factor at speed

I finally opened it up later on down that first stage and then the whole next stage, which was a fast one, I really noticed the air cushion that floats you down the trail.  The bike doesn't wallow in slow speed compressions and with a little press in from your feet, you can pop right out and line up for the next turn.  Small bumps aren't noticeable at all, it just eats them up.  The "ramp up" of the suspension makes it seem bottomless even under a heavy rider.  Our second stage of the day was all speed and flow, following the hill contour with a tail wind.  So I had the post up a lot, pedaling, pressing in and popping out of the banked turns, and trying not to fly off the loose off cambers that were blinded by desert shrubbery.  I discovered that I need to reassess my definition of "fast" when railing this bike, because it can go faster and is more stable than any bike I have ever ridden, while still being maneuverable.

Impression 5 - Long climber

The transfer climb up to our third stage was a four mile, 1200ft vert climb.  I got into a groove and just kept chugging at a nice zone 3 pace, never uncomfortable, and the big enduro bike never held me up at all.  I never felt the weight of it or the slack angles and got to the top in a little over 30 minutes, as fast as I ever have.  Why would I bring this up? Because it points to the Bronson's ability to be an all day go anywhere bike.
At the top of the long climb, with Reno down below

Impression 6 - Balanced and Tough

The next stage was a long one, and I hit a sharp rock near the top and heard some air pissing out of the front tire rotationally.  It finally sealed up after loosing about half its pressure and I kept charging.  I leaned back a little more over few bits of rough trail on this stage to protect the front tire, and it transferred the weight and traction wonderfully as I used the rear end to steer a bit more than normal (maybe this should be where I am all the time!).  But as the trail weaved down a canyon like a bobsled run, the turning forces on the front tire leaked out more and more air until there wasn't much left.  I could just push down on the bars and hit the rim on the ground, but if I just sat back it would ride on the few psi within the sidewalls.  With a few turns to go, I got off balance in a deep channel of trail approaching a turn and the flat front tire folded over trying to get traction, sending me into the bushes.  I ditched the bike out front as we hit on the drive side and slid to a stop.  I popped back up, turned the bars back around and rolled the next few turns into the stage finish, learning my lesson that I really need to put some THICK tires on this thing so I can hit whatever I want!
Getting up to race speed - Photo: Patrick D Rosso

The next stage was a fast and pedally one.  By then I was really getting the hang of the bike and had some fun leaning back and popping off the sides of the ditch we rode down.  It would be my best stage finish of the day.  Which was followed by my worst stage of the day, where I'd flat the rear 1/4 of the way down loosing all air pressure and ride the rear rim all the way down.  Seen here:
Limping down stage 3 with a rear flat - Photo: Called to Creation

This just reinforced two things.  One being the need for stronger tires, again.  And two, that ENVE's are awesome.  I did take it a little easy, but I didn't walk it and there were plenty of rocks pinging the rim and making me cringe.  There's not a scratch on it :-).

Impression 7 - Jumper

The final stage stared with a few small jumps.  And I'm so comfortable on the bike and how it's going to react and stay stable on take off, that I WANT to jump it!  I've never had a bike that wasn't a full DH rig, where this was the case and I'm looking forward to more.  Those of you that know me will see this as a big step.

Final Impression - All day fun!

Sprinting across the open valley of stage 4 - Photo: Called to Creation

After 26 miles and over 4,000ft of climbing, I was charging on the final stage.  The bike was never power sapping and it encouraged more speed and playfulness.  I hit the familiar lower sections with a lot more speed and caught more air than I ever have.  Two wheel drifting over a negative g-force crest just for fun and coming into a rocky channel too hot (or not?) but the bike forgiving me as I just wall-ride the rocks back to the desired line and let out a "woohoo!"

I may be grabbing this bike to ride much more than I expected...

The build:

Frame - Santa Cruz Bronson v2 - XL
Fork - Fox Float 36 160mm
Shock - Fox Float EVOC w/ adjust
Seatpost - Fox D.O.S.S. 5 inch
Brakes - Shimano XTR - 180/160 rotors
Drivetrain - Shimano XT 1x11 - 34t front
Wheelset - ENVE m70 on DT Swiss 350 hubs.
Bars - ENVE DH 800mm
Stem - ENVE 40mm
Saddle - WTB Silverado Carbon
Headset - Cane Creek 110
Pedals - Crank Brothers Mallet E

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

2016 Sea Otter Recap - The Dirt Omnium

My first Sea Otter Classic was ten years ago, and it was the first big race event I'd ever been to.  I raced XC in the Sport Clydesdale category and got 13th.  I also raced DH on the same bike (which was two sizes too small for me btw), and got 17th in Beginner.  

It's easy to see a lot has changed since then, but one thing that hasn't is that I love racing different disciplines and being well rounded.  It was that way from the beginning.  So this years Sea Otter Classic was no different, where I was signed up to race Enduro, Short Track, XC and Cyclocross.  The "Dirt Omnium" as I like to call it.  

First up was Enduro.  I was riding my slacked out Tallboy setup with the Fox 36 140 up front which works well for the smooth course.  

The first stage is the DH course, which is filled with built jumps.  I'm not a jumper so it's my "get through it" stage.  I just try to fly low and stay out of perma-xc-position my body defaults to.  But hitting the berms, clearing the jumps that aren't too big, and bombing down the ridge line is as sweet as it was 10 years ago.  At the start I realized I was starting 20 seconds ahead of Giant factory team rider Josh Carlson, who I knew would be in contention for the win (he got 2nd).  I wasn't going to be the guy that held him up so we discussed where he might catch me.  And since I'm about as fast as his teammate Carl Decker in these types of courses (out of our xc element), the prediction was spot on and he passed in the perfect spot, wide open on the paved crossing half way down.  

After a nice pedal over to stage 2, I was the first rider there.  I won the transfer, but unfortunately get nothing for it except a nice clear trail ahead with no dust.  Stages two and three are both on flowy singletrack, but relatively flat and pedally so the challenge is to carry as much speed through corners and be back on the power quick.  The legs didn't really feel like sprinting, not like they ever really do, but I felt pretty decent.  I had a few close calls from near washouts or my handlebars catching on bushes to keep things interesting.  

Speaking of interesting... I'm not sure what's going on here on the transfer to stage 3. "Stretching?"

Stage 4 is on the dual slalom course.  Again, totally out of my element but a blast to ride.  Each time I do it, I want the chance to ride it the rest of the day and try to perfect it.

One thing I really like about Enduro is that it brings us all together, even though we each focus on different areas of racing and rarely get to ride together.  Logan loved to be riding with the guys too.

Next up was Short Track on Friday.  It was the best short track course they've ever had at Sea Otter.  With no ridiculous choke points 100 yards after the start.  Still, starting at the back of 100 guys, it inevitably happens and you just have to wait.  We came to a stop in the gravel, briefly, about 200 yards into it but at least there was no turn.  And then again about half way through the course at the bridge over the track wall, where I had to get off and run it in the traffic.  But once the first lap sorting was done, I started to have a pretty good race.  I was making passes and whenever it was up to me, I was moving forward.  So that felt good.  A result of 75th and getting pulled doesn't, but whatever.  I got to race my bike,  and afterward we took Logan to his own short track where he raced too.

Saturday was my double day of XC and CX.  Jen and Logan geared up in the morning to head out from the campsite as I prepped the day's bikes.

XC was first with a field of 115 racers from all over the world.  It was a UCI HC race so the top guys were there chasing points for the Olympics.  And we would be racing a small 3.2 mile course that never left the venue.  It was a much better layout than the one four years ago, and actually had some mini rock gardens and fun stuff.  We started on the track and rode the pavement up the hill to the top of the corkscrew before dropping into the dirt.  I totally guessed the pace strategy wrong, figuring they would ease into the climb and wait for the steep part to push it.  So I was fighting to stay on the back from the get go.  But the choke point in the wall at the top brought us all back together.  Barry Wicks and Carl Decker were at the back with me, so I was doing my best to hang on their wheel and learn from even older and wiser-er racers working through the field.  We saved energy where everyone was pushing, and made passes where most rest.  They still managed to ride away from me by the third lap, but Jen and I nailed the bottle handoff (small victories).

Like short track, I was moving forward when I wasn't inhibited by course choke points.  And was actually starting to feel good about 40 minutes into it and getting faster.  But by then, the field is so strung out that the small course layout means you get pulled.  96th, ouch.  

So on to Cyclocross just a couple hours later.  My Stigmata SS was all set up and ready to rip.  And though you'd think I would be tired and the legs drained, I apparently needed a few days of hard riding in them before starting to feel good! I took the lead by the 2nd lap and thought had pulled a little gap on second place.  So I dialed back the pace a little to recover, only to be passed by a guy I hadn't accounted for!

He put in a strong dig right then as I needed to recover, so a pretty good gap formed.  I would gain ground on the power sections of the course but he was getting through the tech spots a little cleaner.  Especially the sand pit before the final turn.  On the final lap I gave it everything I had, and could tell I was reeling him in.  Coming out of the infield and onto the second to last straightaway, I was able to get a pull from a geared rider in the cat 5's we were racing with, passed him going up the hill towards the sand pit and just hammered through the sand with as much speed as I could carry.  It was the best I'd made it through the sand all race, and now the leader was right there on the final corner!  He looked back, and since I can't hide in bright yellow, he knew.  We were sprinting and spinning our single speeds like hamsters in a wheel for the final 200 yards!  I was gaining... gaining... the crowd was roaring... AHHHHHH!!!! 2nd by a bike length!  So close but what a great race!  The Stigmata was awesome and I was kind of bummed to not get the win, but stoked to be back up on a Sea Otter podium.