A Gift on my Birthday

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Mountain Bike Racing 1st Place Trophy for Cat 3, 55-59 Kenda Cup #2 in Fontana, CA on April 2nd, 2017

2 April 2017 – Kenda Cup West #2 – Fontana City National

It happened again.  I arrived at the race course in Fontana and had another of those nightmarish reconnaissance rides that made me question why I had signed up for this event.  The course was mostly singletrack and featured a lot of fairly steep but none-too-technical climbing, followed by very several technical descents.  Most of the climbs were reasonable, but still I struggled – I became the poster boy for “don’t look where you don’t want to go” and I slammed into every momentum-killing rock and rut.  I put my foot down and came to a halt on so many ascents I lost count.  The descents were equally, if not more frustrating – I can’t imagine anyone being able to ride this course in reverse. So I was off my bike or at a standstill and wondering aloud frequently, “What kind of cross country course is this?”  That’s the PG version of my thoughts. I walked two or three of the steeper downhill sections and mused over how many racers behind me I would hold up on race day.  The singletrack sections were not pieced together by many sections of wider trail that would make passing possible for faster riders – should there be any behind me.  And I’m in California where start line chutes are often filled to capacity with the furiously fast.  Just like at Havasu a few races back, if I would have been closer to home, I might have just packed up and left.

But also like at Havasu, come race day, things change. There is something curiously inspiring about lining up with others in a dash to see who crosses the finish line first.  When I train, I struggle hard sometimes to get my heart rate up to redline and keep it there, but during a race, I often see my heart rate registering in the 160+ BPM and staying there. Just like my competition heart rate, something in me gets up for race day and most of my fears subside.

Still, I did not get to the front of my wave of riders at the start – and I could have.  There was room, but I moved back to row two and told myself the contradictory thoughts “This is a long race and there will be plenty of time to get to the front” and “Relax, this in really only a training, ride masquerading as a race.”  Apparently, I planned on “Zen-ing” to the front in a relaxed manner.

So I did not go WFO at the gun, as is my normal way, and just settled into a pace that matched the first 10 or so riders.  On the third, wide smooth turn before we came to singletrack, I found the only rut inhabited by rolling rocks, bobbled the turn, put a quick-dab foot down and became a moving obstacle for others to avoid.  Oh goodness, I thought, this is going to be a long, painful day, full of frustrated calls from those mired behind my wobbling wheels.

I passed a few riders on the ascents, but still I held off passing more, thinking that I would surely hold them up on the technical descents to come.  So I settled in behind a slower rider up the asphalt road to the water tower that overlooked the course, figuring I would be dropped as soon as the drops and switchbacks appeared to thwart me like the day of my recon ride.  And even though I did hold up a rider or two, the race brought out the better descender in me and I rode every nasty, gnarly drop off and rutted trail without once walking or putting a foot down and when the trail levelled out or rose, I squirted away again, eventually getting space enough to relax, knowing I wouldn’t be “that guy” plodding along and holding a long string of frustrated racers up. 

After the first lap, the second and the third were more confident filled and I rode the technical bits with something approaching joy.  White knuckle joy at times, but my mood lifted and all the misgivings of my pre-ride pain were assuaged.  I fell on an ascent when a walking rider balked me, but I scrambled up the embankment, admonishing and encouraging myself with out loud cries of, “Get up, get up, get up!”  I must have seemed a curious, scrambling sight and sound.

When I pre-rode the course, I was hopeful that we would only do a lap – or two at most – but on race day, I felt as if I could easily do another lap in addition to the three my class had to complete. I felt that good.  Because there were so many age groups and classes on the course at one time, I had no idea where I was in relation to my competitors.  There were six different classes in my start group alone, as well as several age groups that had started in front of mine.  In the racing series in Arizona, riders have their class black-markered on their right legs, so it is easy to tell who’s who.

At the start of the final long, straight climb, I spied three other riders spaced about equally in front of me, the farthest in front several hundred yards away.  What classes they were in, I had no idea, but I was feeling good and I did not want to miss a good finish by just sitting in when I could maybe reel these fellows in and steal a higher place finish.  I had the horsepower left to stand for nearly the whole of that long climb.  It is curious the things I think of at times like this, but I felt so light on the pedals out of the saddle, that I thought of that dancer on the pedals, that master of climbing, Alberto Contador. Inspired by visions of pro tour power and finesse, I rolled past all three of my prey, bombed the wide and fast descent on the wheel of a young-gun terror, powered up the short and steep and rocky final climb and sprinted solo for the finish, as if a man possessed. 

I cooled down, ever so happy to have survived and enjoyed this torturous technical, singletrack, nightmare of an XC course.  I had no idea where I had finished, so I grabbed two bottles of Cytomax chilling in the camper fridge and after a few minutes, rolled over to the podium area to see where I had placed.  I watched the others collect their trophies and medals and clapped with enthusiasm for my brothers and sisters in arms and legs.  When it came time for my age group’s win, place, and show call ups, I had some hopes that I would be in the top 5 or so.  I wanted to be on the podium, but when the announcer called up the third place rider, then the second place rider, my hopes fell and I started to look around for where they taped up the printed results sheet. 

And then I heard the announcer say, “And the winner of the Cat 3, 55-59 race – James Hart.”

I won.  I have not felt that kind of real, unmitigated joy in a long, long time.  Until that moment, April 2nd, my birthday, was just another day in the life. But now I had the best gift this racer-boy could ever get.  After a long season of failure and disappointment, I was the winner.  Top step of the podium.  At last. 

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