Photo Cred

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Uff Da

The Stats:

Holy moly.  Qué estupido.  What the hell?


This year's Marathon National Championships was an eye-opener for me--I wasn't really expecting such a slap in the face, but it became apparent shortly after the start that choosing to race 3 out of the last 4 weekends had been an error in judgment, and that the Tatanka 100 took way more out of me that I had thought.

Photo: Erica Linnell

The gun fired precisely at 8am and we were off, once again a small handful of singlespeeders spinning frantically down the bike path in whatever gear we had privately chosen for the day's course, finally turning up Cold Springs where the race really started.

The Cold Springs climb begins with a dirt road stretch that peters down to a ski area cat-track with a couple of brief, really steep climbs, and then turns into gorgeous, flowing singletrack for the majority of the ascent.  When we started up the dirt road Cary and Tom carried what I thought was a pretty stiff pace for that time in the morning, and I felt awful.  There was no spring in my step, no fire in my shorts; my legs felt like they were filled with sand and my torso begged for relief.

And then the grade of the climb kicked up to really steep and Cary and Tom maintained their pace and I came to the realization that I should not be racing.  It's not that my body hurt, just that I couldn't go any harder.  I was slow and heavy, and I didn't like it one bit.

I've had friends describe the experience as, "That's when I started going backwards."  I understand the sentiment, and in that moment I really understood it, but that isn't precisely how I would describe it.  I mean, I was going forwards.  We were all going forwards.  It's just that Cary and Tom were going forwards faster.

It was like my worst CrossFit nightmare.  (I'm presuming here, having never actually done a CrossFit workout.)  Like trying to race my bike uphill while dragging my fatigue behind me like a truck tire in the dirt.  Or one of those Chariot Stroller things filled with squalling triplets.  The rabbits were there, right in front of me, and I knew I was supposed to give chase, I wanted to give chase, but the tire was dragging and those triplets were shrieking and my legs were filled with sand and my arms and shoulders and back were so damn tired and it just wasn't happening.

That's when I gave myself a good talking-to.  "Listen pal, it's time for you to Harden The Fuck Up and get your head together.  You're having a rough morning?  Boo-freaking-hoo.  It's your own crappy decision-making that landed you here, and you're damn well not going to bail.  In fact, you're going to give this race the best you have to give on this day.  If those guys are holding too fast a pace, then find your own damn pace and see if you can suck it up enough to not totally suck it up."

So I backed off the pace and settled into something more manageable, keeping Cary and Tom in sight but not pushing.  And then 20 minutes later the triplets went silent and the tire disappeared.  Once I focused my energy on riding my own race, pushing the pace that felt right to me, everything got better.  I still didn't have much fire in my shorts, but I felt smoother and as long as I stayed seated and spun along I was actually able to ride faster.  There's a lesson in there somewhere.

I was 40 minutes into a 3+-hour race and glad to be spinning along, ticking off the distance and digging the flow of the forested singletrack.   I finally felt like racing, and so I revved it up.  Slowly, slowly I closed the gap to Tom and passed him about a mile before the top of the climb.  Then slowly, slowly was closing the gap to Cary and got to within 100 yards of him and was starting to feel confident, when the climb ended and he was gone.

Now, I'm well aware that downhilling is not my strength.  I've gotten better, but there's no doubt that I'm better on the up.  But Cary just disappeared!  Initially there was some dust in the air to suggest that he had been there, but it wasn't long before even that trace was gone.  Damn, that guy is fast on the down.

Dropping through the rock garden with Tom hot on my heels.  (Hidden behind the tree.)
Photo: Erica Linnell

Towards the bottom of the descent (it's long--we're talking 35+ minutes of downhill) I started to hear Tom's freewheel buzzing away a switchback above, which meant that Tom was also descending faster than I was.  We finished out the lap together and then rolled back onto the asphalt for one more wild session of spinning back to the bottom of Cold Springs.

It was clear that either one of those guys would be able to beat me on the downhill, so I knew that I had to make time on the climb if I wanted to compete.  So once I got through the steep little bastard climbs early-on, my focus shifted to spinning smoothly, but putting everything I had into propelling myself forward.  If there was ever a time to start burning matches this was it, and the more I burned the less I would have to carry uphill, right?

I had gotten out of the base area ahead of Tom, but that skinny little bearded guy stayed latched-on, hanging 20 seconds, 30 seconds back every time I turned a switchback.  Eventually Cary came into view up the trail, and I slowly started reeling him in, making up a little time on every turn until he was about a quarter-mile up when he rolled over the top and was gone.

Glancing back when I crested the top I couldn't see Tom any more, so I had a bit of confidence dropping into the final big descent.  If I could really pin it on the down I might be able to hold 2nd-place through the finish.  Things were rolling along nicely and I thought I was cooking downhill pretty good, pumping the rolls and rallying the corners when I hammered through a particularly rocky section and

Pfft!  (Pfft!  Pfft!  Pfft!  Pfft!  Pfft!  Pfft!  Pfft!  Pfft!  Pfft!  Pfft!)

Flat tire.  It's enough to make you cry.

I rolled downhill a bit, slowly, vainly searching for a patch of flattish ground where I could pull off the trail to perform the repair, but on this endless sidehill there was no emergency lane in sight so eventually I just stepped into the bushes on the downhill side and set to work.

Find the hole, spin it to the bottom so that the sealant pools and hopefully plugs the hole, hit the tire with CO2, and get back in the groove.  At least that's the theory.  

The sealant did its job and my tire stopped hemorrhaging air and I busted out a CO2 cartridge and started airing it back up when Tom went ripping past, yelled something sympathetic, and was gone.  So much second-place.  I topped off the tire, got my crap back together, and rallied off down the trail after him and was having a ball on the rollers when

Pfft!  (Pfft!  Pfft!  Pfft!  Pfft!  Pfft!  Pfft!  Pfft!  Pfft!  Pfft!  Pfft!)

C'mon!  I think I might have said a bad word at this point.

I had blown out the plug of sealant, which I had heard about before but never experienced.  Thankfully Dave Byers had turned me onto this cool little tool that saved me from having to take the time to install a tube.

Use the forked needle to push one of the bacon strings into the hole, and then pull the fork back out.  The sealant does the rest and voilá!  No more hole.

This was the first time I've had to use it--totally worth carrying.  Exponentially faster than installing a tube, with none of the mess.

And I was off again, a bit more tentative at first to see if the plug would hold, and then opening it up for the final trip down the forested switchbacks to the bottom.  Having not heard any signs of 4th-place sneaking up behind me, I did some mental calculus and decided that while I had nothing to gain from riding the bizarre man-made rock garden into the finish zone I had quite a lot to lose if I blew the line and broke my body or my bike 2 weeks before High Cascades, so I took the "B-line" around which is really more fun anyway even if it does take 30 seconds longer.

Not this time.
Photo: Erica Linnell

Done.  And DONE.
Photo: Erica Linnell

And then, thankfully, it was over.  3rd-place singlespeed, slower than last year, but the course is so great and with Nationals only a few hours away from home how could I say no?  Racing this weekend was undoubtedly the wrong decision in the bigger picture, but you know what they say: judgment is the product of reflecting on experience, and experience is the product of bad judgment.

Photo: Erica Linnell

That race was an experience.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Mud, Blood, and Soggy Diapers

The Stats:

This one was a real adventure.  The Bailey Hundo and last year's Tatanka 100 were both fast, straightforward races for me with perfect trails and bluebird skies.  This year's Tatanka 100 couldn't have been more different.

Hamilton and I drove through an endless series of rainstorms on our way across Wyoming on Thursday, spasmodically checking the weather forecast over and over.  Sure, they were getting a ton of rain in Sturgis, but if it just cleared up overnight maybe we'd have tacky hero dirt on Saturday?  Spinning around the parking lot at Woodle Field at 4:45am, trying to "warm up" in the pouring rain, it was clear that this was going to be a wet, tough race.

There was no way I could have anticipated just how hard it ended up being.

It took about 1/4-mile for the chamois in my bibs to get saturated and turn into a primo case of soggy diapers.  And with all of the spray coming up off of everybody's wheels my glasses were quickly coated in brown water.  I found that it was better to skip drafting and just ride in the breeze, with fresh rainfall washing my glasses and teeth clean.  Thankfully at the last minute I had chosen to keep wearing a vest and armwarmers rather than stripping down.

I entered the Centennial Trail singletrack a bit behind Gerry Pflug and Daniel Rapp and ended up riding with those guys for a few miles of fun, albeit slippery, Black Hills gold.  One of the high points of the day was rollicking along through those early miles, but eventually I felt the need to ramp up the pace, as much to stay warm as anything, and passed on a short climb.

I went back and forth with Tinker Juarez a couple of times during his unfortunate mechanical issues, and then somewhere after the Dalton Lake Aide my own drama started.  Just before entering the day's rockiest two-track descent my rear tire blew, and when I went to try airing it up again the valve stem was gone!  It must have gotten tagged by a branch and sheared off?  Gerry passed me just as I was finishing putting a tube in and gave me the encouragement to hurry the hell up with my repair because Daniel was only a few minutes back.

Once I was back on the bike I was pretty motivated to rally the descent to see if I could reel Gerry back in (what was I thinking trying to catch up to a fast guy on a geared full suspension bike on a wet, rocky descent?!) so I got rolling downhill pretty good and then steered myself into a bad line and


Over the handlebars and face-first in the mud. 

I leapt to my feet in shock, did a quick check for bike or body damage, and took off in pursuit again. Once again I was rallying after Gerry and got rolling along pretty good and then steered myself into another bad line about a quarter-mile later and


Over the handlebars and face-first in the mud, again.

Again I got up, checked for damage, and took off down the hill at a slightly more reasonable clip until I got onto smoother dirt and let off the brakes and was rolling along pretty good and steered to avoid a particularly deep, mud puddle-filled rut a mile later and


My front tire washed out and I went down hard.  That one hurt.  I had to take a few deep breaths after standing up out of the puddle, with blood freshly flowing from both knees and a bruise coming on my hip.

It was wet out there! Through it all, the LES singlespeedLauf fork; and American Classic wheels were a killer combo--sick performance and total reliability. Way better than some of the geared bikes...
Photo: John Bush

That made me decide to back it off a bit and catch my breath, which was good, because soon after that I lost my rear brake and had to ride the remaining 60 miles with only the front.  Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze all the way to the handlebars and that righthand brake lever did nothing.  Nada.  Zilch.

Now, before this starts to sound like a heinous, why-didn't-you-quit, soggy-diapers-and-big-tears-rolling-down-my-muddy-cheeks story I have to say that there were some really great times, too.  Romping those early miles with Gerry and Daniel.  The singletrack descent through the forest to Silver City when the sun came out.  (Even with just the front brake--my chamois dried out!)  Spinning up the canyon-bottom singletrack in the sun to the gnarly hike-a-bike.  I even enjoyed shouldering my bike for the gnarly climb to the canyon rim.  And though the Mickelson Rail-Trail was as long as I remembered it being, it felt really good to crank some miles from the saddle, just spinning away.

Done with the Mickelson, ready for some downhill!
Photo: Ryan O'dell

Once I crested the top of the Mickelson climb and descended to the Englewood Aide, I hit the day's lowest point. The rain started coming down hard again, with a breeze that made it just that much chillier, and my body temp dropped considerably.  I hadn't seen anybody for a long while when all of a sudden Jim and Gerry were riding back down towards me from a wrong turn that we had all managed to take.

So I spun around and rode with them back to the wrong-turn junction where we re-found Matt and Drew Edsall, and then spent a few minutes figuring out where we were and where we needed to go.  (I suspect course tampering; these guys do a great job of marking the course, but we hadn't seen any Tatanka skull markings for an uncharacteristically long time before coming upon a left-turn arrow.  Turns out that it was supposed to be a right-turn arrow.)  Once we figured things out, Jim spun the arrow to face the correct direction and we took the righthand option instead.  

I was pretty stoked to be in 3rd-place overall up to that point, but had gotten so cold that my jaw was cramped shut and I was shivering uncontrollably--there was no way I would be able to maintain any kind of speed in that condition with only one brake.  (I had boldly dropped the vest and armwarmers at the sunny Silver City aide station.)  Right around here was when I felt the first doubts about whether I would be able to finish.

But as JayP likes to say, "No negative thoughts!"  So I gritted my teeth and tried to ride smart, focusing on staying upright and hoping to maintain my position in the Singlespeed division.

Salvation came at the Galena Aide Station.  Through clenched teeth I asked the volunteers there if they had a plastic trash bag and the dude pulled the one out of their trash can, dumped out a bit of refuse, and ripped a head hole and arm holes in it for me.  Then the other volunteer pulled a plastic emergency poncho out of her first-aid kit and put that on me too!


Where I had been questioning whether I would be able to finish, now I was raucously flapping in the breeze and warming back up delightfully.  I got passed by a couple more geared guys during the final dirt-road descents and then blissfully rolled into Sturgis under blue skies and full sun, ecstatic to be wearing two layers of plastic and no longer shivering.  

10 hours of muddy racing completed.  Awesome.
Photo: AJ Linnell

My goals of finishing under 8 hours to win The Ring and placing in the top 3 overall weren't even close to being realized, but there was no disappointment in my day's outcome.  Instead, I was happy to have finished at all, and really happy to have kept my hold on the Singlespeed win.  Two hours slower than last year, but dammit I felt strong throughout and was able to overcome my own share of adversity to get it done.

The Tatanka 100 Singlespeed podium, with Daniel Rapp, and Trevor Rockwell.  (Hamilton joined us up there after kindly taking this photo.)
Photo: Hamilton Smith

Will I be back?  Hell yes!  The Black Hills riding is too good to turn down, and I still want that Ring...

Tatanka 100 Gearlist on AXLPATH