Whatever you thought of yourself as a rider, racer, of your skills, endurance and abilities got quickly snapped off, crumbled and thrown out the window like an old race number that you don’t care for any longer.
No matter how many races or whole race series you completed before, on how many different terrains you rode in how many parks and states and how good you did, here you had to start from scratch. All of it in the moment your front tire hit the single track, did not matter anymore.
I went to the race with clear knowledge that I was jumping into deep water. After all I just finished season racing as a Cat2 racer and was only able to ride in one qualifying race as a Cat 1 rider. Obviously I didn’t have the skill or experience of a true Cat 1 rider yet and there were plenty of those there who had. Amazing and fast ladies who I had the opportunity to meet and ride with were solid and experienced racers, they competed for years in national events and some of them rode for decades as experts. One thing however that we all had in common has been the fact that we all agreed that the course was like nothing anyone has ever seen before… It was extremely technical, rocky, bumpy, and difficult to ride on… Actually it was the most technical national championship course ever designed.
We arrived relatively late to the race venue. First time I was able to pre-ride the course was during the Thursday evening practice. It was pretty much coming off the plane, driving some half an hour to the hotel, building my bike up (thank you my pit crew Pax!) and driving another 45 minutes to the resort.
Since northeast was experiencing an agonizing heat wave at that time I felt like I walked into a sauna when we arrived in Pennsylvania. We were overwhelmed by the heat and were melting like little popsicles. Like it or not it was time to ride… In an instance the course headed upwards, first uphill was a true leg burner, after that we had super bumpy and rocky single track that was trickling up and up. It was a very challenging trail. One of the rock gardens was so long and so wet that after attempting to ride it up five times and huffing and puffing I simply gave up. When things got slightly easier and we were still heading uphill the trail suddenly turned to the right and I experienced my first “aww” moment. I stood there like a deer in headlights wondering what they expected of me as a rider to do now. It was some 20 feet long heading slightly downwards ocean of big rocks, spaced just enough and tall enough that your tire would almost never hit the dirt, but the rocks were in so many different shapes and sizes and were sticking up like sails on the water. After hanging there in disbelief I saw people approaching it and riding it and somehow making it through. Seeing person after person riding the section I really had to talk myself into riding it and thankfully I did and even though I was very scared, I managed to stay upright.
What followed was pretty much what seemed like a never ending climb that actually did end on some 3 mile mark on the top of the chairlift. The final pitch up was brutal and stung greatly, there was not much time for celebrating and the course in an instant turned downwards. This is where the worst and most technical parts of the course were hiding… It would take a whole book to describe the trails that followed. What I remember from it the most is the rocks, more rocks and piles of never ending rocks. You are holding your bars as hard as you can and this time around not with enjoyment, and cool speed and awesome flow like you normally do on your local rides. This time you are holding on to your bike like a little baby that needs a mother’s hug and your bike only thrashes, kicks and shakes around the course like a crazy donkey which is really not having great day…
And then you get to dip in the trail and an uphill rocky passage that takes you to a man-made bridge with wire on it and is some 40 feet long and aims downwards to a spilled rocky river. After that we have more rocks and rock gardens (well whole trail system is a rock garden and if someone really wanted they could build whole village of those rocks instead of keeping them on the trail) and the two tricky and steep drops. One was loose and steep and ended with boulders on the bottom, second started smooth, but ended with double boulder drop off that ended on the wooden bridge when you hit the ground. On this second one, your front and back wheel hits and bounces off different boulders and the same time and this is not fun feeling when you are on a steep angle heading down. You pretty much look like a crazy frog hopping up and down, difference is you are not a frog and you are on the bike…
Then there were more rocks, bridges, giant wet root bounds, boulders to squeeze in between and go over, sickly intimidating boulder gardens… It never ended. All those 6.5 miles that normally you would have done in no time felt like I rode at least 21 and took me so long that I got back before dark all “humbled” almost 3 hours later… Thankfully at some point of my adventure I met this cool gal Susan which I had a good time with and we rode together to the end of the day…
When I got to the hotel I couldn’t even talk, I didn’t want to talk, and I was lost for words. I thought I was not going to take part in this race, I didn’t feel it, I didn’t understand it, I didn’t feel comfortable on it, I couldn’t get speed or experience flow. There was no zone and definitely no race zone there for me. I couldn’t believe it, I was stunned, and I didn’t feel like a biker anymore… It was a very sad and “humbling” time for me…
But the sun did come up and there was another day. I decided to give it another try. Very luckily for me I was accompanied this time by an amazing coach and Pro rider Andy Johnston. His good and positive spirit allowed my mind to open up to possibilities. It was not always on the first try, but he assured me that I already had what it takes to actually ride this course and he just needed to pull it out and prove to me that I am capable rider. It felt good, very good, we practiced and by the end of the day I was able to ride a hundred percent of the course! I’m not going to say that I felt super comfortable on it, I still had a lot of fear and respect for it, but at least I could bike it fully…
Only bad part of it was that it was already Friday afternoon and I had a race Saturday morning. Like anyone can image after all this practice in heat, elevation and a bumpy course my body was already quite fatigued and sore. I knew I was not going to be as rested as I would want to be for the race.
And then Saturday comes… It was another hot (93F) and sunny day. We got to the race site and the energy level was high. Very quickly I went for a warm-up, the sun was beating down brutally and I felt I was just burning away. I saw how men cat 1 riders were suffering in this heat. Apparently we were supposed to bike 3 x 6.5 mile brutal laps but time for women’s start was getting closer and closer and it was taking over 3 hours for the guys to compete the race. At some point the race crew started pulling riders off the course. Our start was getting delayed. We circled the grassy field impatiently on our bikes waiting to be called into the shoot. This was an amazingly difficult ordeal since from 250 male riders that went out on the course today, 60 didn’t finish the race. The amount of heat exhaustion, mechanicals and injuries was truly overwhelming.
Also I just found out that it down poured the night before on the whole mountain and now all the rocks were as stated by the rider “greased up” and very difficult to ride on. This is the last thing that I really needed to hear after my crash only a month ago in Richmond and after getting stiches in my head because of the wet conditions on the course. At that split second I knew my race was going to be off, really off and even more difficult.
What I loved however that finally we got called in for staging, which is a fancy word for being positioned in your race group and given a number on your leg. After that when you stay there all nervous and watch group by group being sent off to the start I heard my favorite song by Metric “Help I’m alive” and I had tears pulling from my eyes. My husband even ran over and asked if I heard it…
Next thing was a “call up” which is a very new thing for me and is super cool. Every seated (ranked) rider is being actually announced one by one and called to the start line. One after the other girls were pulling forward, I was the 4th racer that was called. You definitely feel important, almost as a pro in a moment like that. I’m very happy I got to experience it. This bliss didn’t last for too long however and shortly it was going to be all business from then on. Not long after we heard "one minute to start", "thirty seconds to start", "fifteen seconds", oh your heart is pounding fast now, and we are off!
Too late now to change your mind, you are in the race, it will hurt and you know it…
There were quite a few moments that stuck in my memory from this adventure.
It started off with my foot not clipping in after the whistle went off. I was trying to plant it back in the pedal while other girls were flying by me. I definitely lost some time here. Clipped back in and stood up through two turns on the gravel to regain my position. Thankfully I was able to go by a few riders on the side and by the time we reached the first steep climb I was in the 6th position. The riding was not easy today especially after reaching the first single track that was made of mostly rock gardens and tree roots which were unfortunately wet today. It was a battle to keep pushing forward; it was dark under the dense foliage and glasses started to fog up slightly, tires were spinning on the wet rocks when you try to power through rock by rock to keep slowly moving forward and upwards. This didn’t end almost until the top of the mountain where we had few openings with additional climbs and the last one that made some girls walk their bikes on the second lap. It was a quad burner! After three miles of huffing and puffing and the leg burn we reached the top of the mountain with a water station. Since I’m used to racing Xterras and we announce ahead of time to volunteers what we wanted to drink and they hand it to us I saw a guy next to the table and yelled “water please”. He looked at me like I was crazy, I kept staring at him and he didn’t even move an inch and he was way behind the table to far to hand me anything. Apparently I had to help myself and ride over and grab the little styrofoam cup filled with water and made an immediate right turn to the downhill part of the mean trail system. Since I get cups in Xterras only during the running portion of the race and bottles during the bike leg it was weird to me and I was so exhausted that intuitively I took one sip from the cup and splashed the rest of the water on my overheated face. Just three seconds later I was regretting greatly the move, “holly shoot” I had wet face, wet glasses, yeah it did feel good for second but I couldn’t see well now and I just started riding over those giant boulders just protruding in every inch of the trail. You are running your back brake, skidding the wheel, maneuvering the front in between and over the rocks and after time your arms just start to hurt from all this goodness. This is where some riders made a pass on me, they just took off downwards like the rocks were not there! I wanted to ask, “Did you notice the rocks???” The lower I got on the mountain the more slippery those rocks were. I was sliding left and right hoping to stay wheels down but unfortunately I crashed. Later on in even muddier and more slippery section I crashed again. You could not take for granted any longer the smallest rock or root; it was like riding on an ice ring.
And also there was a very super rocky and technical section with two drops where all the fans congregated. Usually in Xterras I love to bike through the sections with the crowd, this time around actually since I was already irritated and beat by the course I got even more unhappy. I was frustrated that I couldn’t ride my race that nothing worked the way I would want to. It was mentally disarming.
I lost a good amount of time and went through the checkpoint and was off for the second lap. I think my climbing was still up to par, maybe just slightly off from the previous lap but descending definitely was not. This time around on the positive note I grabbed the cup on the top of the mountain, took a sip out of it and poured it over back of my neck… Lesson learned…
Something else that I recall from the race how nice, polite and kind the expert female riders were. The communication on the trails was very good and ladies had a very calm and super cool approach to racing and cooperating on the trails. I was so positively surprised with this.
Funny part is that the situation with water guy repeated. Maybe half way through the climb there was a water station in the open grassy area where what seems like a whole family was volunteering, dad, mom and son. I called once more “water please” thinking the guy on the top was a fluke. Everyone looked at me, the table was far off to the right so I would have to ride off the course to get the cap, the kind lady when she realized that I was serious rushed to me as quick and she could and dropped the cup right before being able to hand it to me. I kept on spinning up slowly and kept looking at the son and he finally grabs another cup and looks at me and I’m slowly getting further and further away, now I’m like five feet away, I looked one more time back with reaching my arm saying “would you mind handing it to me?”, there was no way I was going to turn around to go back for water. He did run up quickly and gave me the water, I was grateful, but it seems like I had a very unusual request. I guess bike racing is little different than triathlon, so I miss tri volunteers for that reason.
So after falling previously and sliding on the smallest things on the first lap I took my time on the second lap. Was I happy riding way slower than I knew I could? Definitely not! But I really didn’t want to get seriously hurt, especially keeping in mind my crash from Richmond only a month ago. You don’t want concussion after concussion and this race was just asking for disaster. I had a moment after one of the falls when my bike started making a weird noise, it took me two stops to figure it quickly out and fix the problem. Thankfully it was nothing big and I could keep racing but I knew I was way further that I wanted to be…
Of course this race was filled with tons of people much better than me, especially on that day when only Pro and Cat 1 riders were racing. But to my honest surprise there were people just like me that didn’t have the best day on the mountain, people that struggled, and people that didn’t handle the course well, people that didn’t finish. At one of the climb I remember seeing a girl walking her bike in the opposite direction, I asked her if she was OK and she lifted her saddle in the air and smiled. It was a tough day for everyone really. When I crossed the finish line I didn’t rush I just smiled. I was happy I made it, I went to hell and back and was still in one peace. I was happy I did finish and I didn’t give up.
|Rich and I from NoTubes|
What we all need to remember from all of it, is that we always think that some neat things in life belong only to the chosen ones, professional athletes, to the amazing bikers that rode for teams for all their lives. But actually all of it is so far from the truth. You can be almost at any level and any ability and compete in quite amazing, prestigious and unforgettable events that one can often just dream of.
Just two seasons ago I was a total noob, starting out my first biking season as a Cat 3 rider who just learned how to clip in and biked until than with my running Salomon’s on. Last season I raced as a competitive Cat 2 racer and was on top of my race group. And today, not that much later I am racing in Cat 1 National Championships. It’s quite insane if you ask me! I did dream however everything I do, because it’s how it all starts.
Everything in life is being born just from a small idea, little passion that all of us carry. I saw people competing in ridiculously awesome events and I told myself, “oh how amazing it would be to do something like this!” And you know what, not that much later I’m standing on the start line of the National Championships, among incredible and fast ladies who just like me love riding their bikes. I met fascinating women up there, some of them who were pros for all their lives, some of them that just like me were about to conquer their first Cat 1 mountain biking race, some of them that were moms and biked for fun but over the years developed skills to race on a great level. Everyone had their unique way of how and why they got there.
But what matters is the fact that they took on the challenge just like I did and fought through this physical and mental roller-coaster, just to cross the finish line and share their stories with others, sit back, reflect and say with the smile on their face, "I did it!
Good Link with a lot of other pictures of the course - The Boulders and Rocks !!!
|Pro Women Start including Georgia Gould and Lea Davison|