Last night may not have been the best preparation for the first race of the season. A pianist friend was in town from D.C. and he and some of his young gun musicians were performing at The Nash – a Phoenix Valley oasis of art in an otherwise cultural desert. Initially I had wanted see Lexie play, but as race day approached, I begged off, and changed my statement to, “we’ll see how I feel on Friday.” This bought me some time to reflect. But, my love of live jazz won out and come Friday night I had dinner at a new Jamaican bistro in anticipation of some front row jazz. The menu was not what you might find on the training tables of even the Jamaican bob-sled team, so I dove into jerked braised pork belly, butter bean mash with guava reduction and washed it all down with a cup that runnethed over with pre-race guilt. The jazz show was an evening of improvisation and cutting edge complexity, that somehow worked in satisfying ways, and went a long way toward assuaging my race meal remorse.
In so many ways this is stupid. I’m 58 and my racing age is 59. I love jazz. I love cycling. I love to eat adventurously. There has to be a balance in there somewhere. While I want to win every race I enter, the reality, in my many years of racing, is that I have only been on the top step of the podium once.
In the mid-90s.
I did not sleep well – I seldom do and so I arose too early, made a pot of steel-cut porridge and checked and rechecked my gear bag, my bike, and my spares. I loaded up the Eurovan camper with bike and gear and food and – anxiety. Regretting the jazz and jerk last night, lamenting the messy kitchen, bemoaning the shortened, and sickness infused workouts of mid-December. What the Buddhists call “monkey mind.”
But, I had trued the wheels of my bike. I had trued the rotors too, warped by holy-moly downhills at the Mountain Bike Oregon bike festival. The driveline of my 2014 Giant Anthem Advanced was pristine. The suspension was setup to perfection and the Ritchey bars, stem and the so-light Ritchey tires were new- a sweet compromise between just enough traction and just enough weight. These 50x650b tires don’t have the ultimate grip of others I have ridden, but their rounded profile make for a predictable tire that never scares with suddenly-sideways surprises.
One last check of the online registrations. The economy must be smiling on cycling – I have never seen a start list with 50 in my age group. There was even an email sent last night from the MBAA, asking riders of later races to not clog registration and wait to check in at 9am. I dutifully obliged, collected my number plate and timing chip, signed my release and looked around the pits at the sea of color and noise.
I love this.
In the grand scheme of things, mountain bike racing is madness. Grown men who still say “bunny-hop” and “wheelie” are a questionable lot. Rank amateurs with $10,000 bicycles that are destined to a life of dirt and harsh use, have clearly messed up priorities.
Still. I love this.
I “donned… my gay apparel” and stewed over how much to wear. It was cloudy, windy and cold, at least to we desert dwellers, who look for jackets when the mercury veers towards 70. I warmed up (too little).
Instead of the usual elbows-out jostling of riders wedging their way to the front row of the start line, most of the riders seemed to hold back, happy to let others go before. So, I was blessed to be on the starting line in the first row, next to the fencing. Usually, the front row is a bunch of hyped up boys with bars that nearly overlap and body parts bumping. Not today. Strange.
Stranger still, I got the holeshot. I learned long ago that getting to the front in mountain bike racing is key to avoiding the cluster-fuck that happens when the wide, smooth start chute funnels into the narrow, rutted singletrack. Singletrack that is – in typical Sonoran Desert style – lined with cacti, festooned with hook and spike and needle. Veering off course to squeeze by another rider is verboten. Or perhaps only loved by those whose background included self-mutilation. The start chute at McDowell Mountain is too short and the though it is uphill, things don’t get sorted out much when the beloved singletrack arrives. Especially when 50 riders are charging to it. I could not believe that I was in front and by a wider margin than my jazz and pork-belly glutted mind could wrap around.
It didn’t last long.
I did get through about 45 seconds of singletrack, first place glory, when the first of several “on your lefts” brought me back to reality. My burning legs and ragged breath complimented this fading glory and I tried to settle in and just find a sustainable rhythm. Soon we were passing the riders that had started before us and I began to pass right legs labelled with 3D. And while this is fun – sorta – I still got the occasional “on your right” and moved over a little to let a 3E by.
I wish I had video of two or three points along the 13 mile long course. I was ON. And though I wasn’t leading anymore, I can’t remember a time when bike and I worked together in such sync. I have a tendency to tap the brakes to settle the bike for sharp turns and dips and jumps and rocks and other “obstacles,” but today I avoided the brakes and let it roll, and still, never scared myself once. On the second lap, I passed a few more 3Es and honestly knew that I could not have gone any harder. I often get in a place during a race where I sense my fate is sealed and I “sit in” (some bike-language-idiom borrowed from road racing doesn’t suit, but we all know what it means). Not today. I stayed focused and kept it pegged at redline.
As they say, I “left it all out there,” strewn all over the McDowell Mountain Park’s Competitive, Technical and Long loops.
Cresting each hill in anxious anticipation of the finish, I started to look and listen for the vestiges of motorhome tops, easy-up awnings and the strains of finish-line music piped throughout the pits. Wishful thinking caused me to look down for the first time at my Garmin in hopes that I would spy a timer in the late 50 minute range. I saw 55 and sighed between breaths, knowing that – thankfully – I had less than 10 minutes left of pounding heart and searing legs.
Okay, make that eleven minutes.
I saw the finish line banner. Between me and the line was a rider in my crosshairs and so I stood up and gave it my best impersonation of Peter Sagan, stormed past my prey and finished strong. The most curious thoughts go through our heads at the strangest times. As I wound up bigger gear after bigger gear in that finish line sprint, I found myself thinking, “Neil would want me to go hard now – after all, racing is the best way to train.”
I finished 12th.
Out of fifty, mind you. I need to remind you of that, if only to assuage my disappointment of not being in the top 5, or 10.
Winner’s time – 57:57
My Time – 1:05:29