Racing Redemption

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12 February 2017

Havasu Havoc – MBAA #3

There were 22 at the start and after the top five riders in the series standings were called up to the line, I slotted in behind one of them, hoping to get a good start.  The course did not become singletrack for several hundred yards and by the time we made the hard U-turn onto the narrow, rock lined, twisting trail, there were 6 of us that had already gapped the rest of the field.  I rode a few wheels to the singletrack “junior loop” trying to save a little gas for later.  I did not feel particularly good – or bad – so I had little clue how I might fare the day after my less than enthusiastic pre-ride.  I was a little concerned about the ten mile “long loop” that I had not checked out and I could not remember much about the course from 2014, except the steep descent marked with signs that offered two paths to the bottom.  In 2014, riders were treated to a bit of course marker’s humor that suggested one of these two routes was “Sane”, the other, steeper, rockier trail, “Insane.” There was also a very steep climb out of a wash that was a hike-a-bike section for all but the very strongest riders. That’s all I remember from my third place finish in 2014.

The same bike I rode in 2014, is now festooned with Ritchey stem and carbon bars, Reynolds carbon wheels and XTR cassette, and it was working perfectly.  I will not detour now to relate my experience changing to this wheelset and cassette, but suffice it to say, there is a reason longtime cyclist/racers suggest working on one’s bike more than a few days before a race.  Last minute frustrations before a race just sap one’s energy – and in my case – probably takes years off my life.  Thankfully, I had worked on my bike Wednesday and had enough short miles on it by race day to know that my work, though fraught with blood, sweat, e-mail, and swear words, had been a success.

Less than 24 hours after a recon ride of doubt and misgivings, the three mile “junior loop” had magically become a blast of berms, swoopy arcs, short punchy climbs and g-outs.  We – the quick six – were stretching our lead to about 100 yards (yes, I looked back to check) and we were soon passing backmarkers of the wave of 40-49 year olds that had started a few minutes before us.  I was patiently riding the wheel of Jody Sanderson, but after we were slowed by two youngsters who would not yield the trail, my patience waned and I moved off course about ten feet to the inside of a turn and sprinted uphill past all three.  Immediately, I heard – over the wheeze of my ragged breath, the end of a sentence shouted out from behind.  I only caught “…cut the course.”  Well, yeah, but it wasn’t like I was on the smoother path, I was out there in the rocks and soft stuff, among the thorns and other desert detritus, slogging past – cacti-whacking.  I pulled away rapidly, but with equal speed I began to wonder if said shouter would consider my pass unsportsmanlike and lodge a post-race protest.  I passed one more from our wave and guilt began to grow and I plotted to give back a place to my man who had cried foul. 

On a climb of the “long loop” I botched a shift and balked a much faster rider, from another class, bearing down to pass.  In his draft was Mr. Cry-Foul, so I moved off the trail, let them both by and made sure to let my accuser know “to take back that place – I “cut” the course a bit, bro.”  I wanted to use the English teacher’s four finger air quotes when I said “cut,” but handlebar control won out and I had to rely instead of inflected voice at “cut.”  I’m not sure if sarcasm translates mid-race, or if he even heard me.

Nearly the whole of the lap I was on the wheel of possible-protest-boy.  I was quicker on the descents and the momentum I carried would often have me on his wheel again, so this seemed a good place to stay for a while.  My Garmin told me that my heart rate was hovering around 108% of my max, so I tucked in and got “comfy” for a bit. 

I had one of those funny mid-race moments when a young gun from the Junior “Men” 15-18 class slid quickly in behind me and said, in the nicest, most respectful tone, “Passing left, sir.”  Not only did he squirt by as only the young and strong can do, but as he did so, he – in the same tone – cheered me with, “Good job, sir.”  He rode a red Trek and was sporting a Two Wheel Jones jersey, of which I took note, so that when this was all over, I could find this kid’s parents, or someone from the shop to thank them for bringing him up right and to the races.  It’s hard to express my extreme disappointment for this fine lad, when a few 100 yards and a tough climb later, I witnessed him stand to pass another brace of riders, only to have his chain snap and come to a too quick halt.  I almost wanted to stop and commiserate. Offer my condolences. Give him my chain.  Now I really wanted to meet his parents, write a letter to his high school counselor, hell, meet his grandparents after the race to let them all know what a fine young man they had in their charge. 

When the course that had been steadily climbing descended into a rocky arroyo and the going got technical, I found I had more speed and less brake than Mr. Cry-Foul, and he graciously moved aside to let me squirt by.  I quickly gapped him in these bumpy, rocky, twist bits and began to think I may just be able to keep him in arrears till the finish.  Feeling flush, I rolled up a steep, short climb out of this ditch and promptly missed a downshift – the victim of the dreaded “chain-suck.”  With little momentum, I tried to shift it back on a chain ring – any chainring – but instead I cursed, ground to halt and flailed away at the chain, brain addled with oxygen deprivation.  Fame and glory were fading quickly away and after what seemed an eternity, I managed to get the effing chain back on, remount and resume.  My nemesis had rolled past during this panicked scene and I began to wonder if he might have new cause to bring protest against me.  I was now Mr. Foul (mouth) and I worried if my flurry of expletives would engender a new reason for protest.  It would be my luck that someone in earshot would have taken offence to my blurted blue prose. 

Fortunately the trail dipped again into a devilish ditch and feeling good (again) I let go the brakes, passed a few struggling riders and as we climbed up a short rise, from the fog of memory, I recognized the crest of the hill that leads to “the descent.”  I did not see if this year the same comedians had marked the trail, but I took the path in years previous marked “insane” before I could even think about preserving mind or body. 

My aborted recon ride began to haunt me.  Though I was still feeling “good” I was feeling the effects of riding at, and over, my limit, deep into the red since not long after the start, and I was beginning to wonder, “how much longer?”  At the top of each rise, I scanned the horizon to see if I could spy the tops of RVs, or the flags of the assembled teams.  Troubled as I was that my memory failed me and I could not remember anything of this part of the course, I vowed to follow the advice of sage racers and ignore what’s behind me and just leave it all – heart, legs and lungs – out there.  And then, just there, I caught a glimpse of the top of an RV and then another and I knew we were nearly there. There was no one in sight in front of me, but I still rode as hard as I could to the line, spurred on by the glory of knowing the end was truly in sight.

I was spent. I was gasping. But I felt little of the exhaustion I felt at the end of many a mountain bike race.  Warming down, I wondered.  What informed my previous day’s pre-ride indifference?  Have all of the intervals, strength training, and core work paid off?  I finished my wonder-filled warm-down and found that the results had already been posted. 

I was fourth.  And happy.  I had not gone home.  I had stayed. I had ridden smart and hard. I had been called “sir” and been a good sport too. No podium, no. But a victory over the demons that plagued me yesterday seemed victory enough.

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