I took a weekend off of racing after the brutal GoPro games to rest my legs and body. Last week has been very hot in Colorado. On Tuesday night I headed over to the local Meridian group ride which I’ve been doing for years but with temps around 95 degrees I was, in a sense, playing with fire. I kept burning myself off the front for no apparent reason except to chase down the current US National Champ, Greg Daniels. By the end of the night I was overheated and dehydrated. My legs were so tight and stiff in the morning it was a struggle to get out of bed. Lucky for me by Thursday a cold front moved through we saw temps only reach the low 50’s for the day. Ah, just what I needed! I purposely went out on my ride without gloves and it felt good to feel the cold on my hands again.
I’ve already had a bunch of mountain bike racing under my belt this season and I have learned so much. The hardest change is how my body feels the day after a race. The pounding of the trails is something I have not gotten used to yet. Normally after a Saturday Road Race or Criterium I could wake up on a Sunday morning and still get in a long slow distance day or a hard ride if I choose to. But as I write this the morning after a mountain bike race on a Sunday morning at 5:30AM my body is definitely feeling a little out of balance. I have been keeping up with my core and stretching 2–3 times per week which seems to be help speed up the recovery process after a race.
I heard about the Winter Park races for a long time. I knew they had a hill climb as one of them but didn’t know much past that. Winter Park is approx 75 miles from my house. You take I-70 west up into the mountains and then get off on Highway 40 which takes you over Berthound Pass towards Winter Park. Berthound Pass has some amazing views and is probably one of the more challenging passes to drive in Colorado. It has crazy steep grades with tight switch-backs. But the views and light summer traffic make it a mostly pleasant route to take.
(Not my photos)
If you have to drive to a trailhead from your house on a Saturday or Sunday morning you will most likely see caravans of cars with road and mountain bikes on them. Its the coolest feeling knowing there are so many other cyclists out there doing the same thing you love to do. As I made the drive on I-70 into the mountains I started seeing less and less drivers with road bikes and many more people with mountain bikes attached to their cars. I thought about this as I made my drive yesterday. How many were going to race? How many were just going to ride?
I’ve had a mellow week of training on the bike and with my shakeout ride on Friday I was feeling fresh and ready to go for Saturday morning. I arrived at Winter Park to a relaxed and mellow scene. This seems to be the trend no matter the location of the mountain bike race. I did my warmup mainly on the road because there was a nice gradual climb where I could do my efforts and not many other people around. I normally like to be by myself while warming up. Some riders tend to ride together when warming up but I feel my routine needs to be specific for me. Its the one time I feel an athlete needs to be selfish and worry only about themselves before competition.
The course was 17 miles which included fire-roads and single-track. I signed up for the expert category which I feel is where I want to be in regards to my abilities. Personally I feel I need another year of mountain bike racing before I consider moving into the Pro / Open category.
The race started on a wide fire-road and once the whistle blew we began climbing together with 19–29 and 30–39 expert categories. I like when they stage us based on our age group (mine is 30–39) but the good thing about starting with other age groups is that you can measure you pace off riders who might be faster.
The pace of the group was hard but manageable. I have never ridden at Winter Park so I did not know how long we would be climbing on the fire-road or what the course was like. As we rounded the turn on the dirt fire-road I noticed we still had a long way to the top before hitting single-track so I went to the front and started pushing the pace. As always on climbs I want to weed out those weaker climbers as well as give myself the most clear line into the single-track that I can. Riding at high altitude is always tough and my heart rate quickly went north of 180BPM. These high altitude races are hard to describe unless you have competed in a event where you start at 9,000ft. Its a humbling experience when you know mentally you should be pushing harder but physically you can’t because your body cannot get in enough oxygen.
As we got close to the singletrack a rider in a Primal jersey made a very hard fast surge past me and got to the single-track first. I knew who this rider was from racing in the P 1/2’s on the road but this was the first time I had seen him in a mountain bike race. Within five minutes following him on singletrack I could tell I was riding slower than I wanted. He could sense this as well and sooner after he allowed me to pass. I started taking some risks on the downhill sections hoping I could distance myself from him. It worked but then I took a sharp turn too fast and started riding into the brush and almost hit a tree. I unclipped and ran back to the trail as he went by. But I soon caught back to his wheel and the trail opened back to another fire-road. We rode together for a while without anyone else in sight and I was feeling good. Although it was fire-road I set the tempo on the front, knowing he would draft off my wheel. I didn’t mind too much because I wanted to ensure I had first position once we hit singletrack again.
The next section of singletrack was downhill and quite fast. It wasn’t technical but since I have a dropper post I figured why not! I kept pushing the downhill section hard and once we hit the next climb he wasn’t on my wheel. Sweet I thought, but I knew I would have to really dig deep on this climb if I wanted to maintain my lead because I knew he was a strong climber. I pushed really hard into the red and it paid off because as I crested the top I didn’t see him behind me. However, I did see another rider gaining on me quickly. Once the rider was in sight I recognized him right away. It was the rider I went back and forth with at the GoPro Games. Ugh! I knew once he caught me he would try and drop me and I was completely right. He passed me fast and started to hammer as if to demoralize my current situation. This rider was not in my age group and I could have let him go but I wanted redemption more than anything since he beat me in Vail. I didn’t try and go after him right away. Instead I began to grind out a hard but even tempo and within five minutes I was on his wheel. Once I caught him I made a hard move and passed him as if to say “Yep I’m still here and feeling good.” Feeling good was the last thing on my mind as my lungs were burning and my legs felt tired from the hard effort. He sat on my wheel and began to talk about some stuff but I wasn’t listening. I was just focused on setting a hard tempo. I was mostly thinking about gaining as much time as I could on the Primal guy who was in my age group.
We kept riding together and he allowed me to set the pace. Once I settled in I started to think about when I should make a move to try and drop him. But all of a sudden we hit this short steep hill and I had to gear down quickly. Well, my rear derailleur didn’t like this sudden shift and my chain was caught in too hard of a gear. Ugh! I had to get off the bike and spin the crank while shifting and within 5 seconds it was back to normal. Of course he capitalized on my mechanical and pushed very hard to distance himself from me. About a mile into the next downhill section I saw him running with his bike as he yelled out to me “Got a flat!” I was actually disappointed as I wanted a fair battle to the finish with him. I’m sure we will race each other again.
The last climb was from mile 10 to mile 12 (approx). This was also the highest point in the race at just over 10,000ft. This climb was brutal and was so steep at times I looked like a boxer weaving my body side to side to try and get as much momentum from my upper body so my legs would get some respite from the pain and agony I was putting them through. I kept looking back and I could see riders closing the distance on me. I couldn’t tell who they were but I was determined to get to the top of this climb without anyone passing me. Finally I hit the top of the climb and it again opened up to a dirt fire-road. I knew the last 3–4 miles were all downhill. I caught up to a rider in the pro category just as we hit the downhill singletrack and he was a great wheel to follow. I rode directly behind him the entire way to the finish and it definitely helped me secure first place as second and third place were only about 40 seconds behind me.
Overall I was happy about my performance given the race only lasted one hour and twenty two minutes. I wish it would have been another loop as I feel I’m best suited to medium / long xc style races. My downhill riding and confidence also continues to improve. My next big race is the Firecracker 50. Stay tuned!