I’ve been rather on the fence about racing mountain bikes this year. Last year I did most of the RME series, but with DK200 training and getting throttled year after year, my desire for a full series was pretty low. I had earmarked a few of the RME races (Ridgeline, Battle of the Bear) as they are fun races and are far enough out from DK so I didn’t need to worry about that, while a few others were too close to really take on.
Last week, with Ridgeline approaching, it was time to make a decision. While I feel pretty good with riding endurance right now, I knew this race starts fast and doesn’t really relent over the course of three hours. I’d had a couple good mountain bike rides, but not much in the way of hard efforts. The Friday before I decided to go pre-ride with some friends and see what the reverse direction of the course felt like on my singlespeed (SS). That wasn’t so bad, so why not race? And race SS for the first time?
I warmed up a bit and already I could feel my legs were a bit sluggish. I guess riding the day before wasn’t the smartest opener idea. The race started this year in front of the school and then up the bike path for almost a mile. The SS category is an open category, so I knew that there was going to be some guys dropping me right away (which happened) but I was probably in the final 3-4 onto the singletrack which wasn’t too surprising. One rider came by early, but I could kind of keep an eye on him. For a bit I thought I’d catch back up to a couple others. My heart rate was going crazy, but things were good going into the first big hill.
In the bottom third of the hill, things went wrong. My legs wanted to go faster (to get the hill out of the way) but my cardio wanted nothing to do with that effort. I couldn’t breath. There was no way I was making it up at speed and there was no way I was going to be able to grind out a slow cadence right then. I pulled off. Riders piled by. I couldn’t breath and it was only 2-3 miles into a 30 mile race!
I pushed on, thinking of excuses to quit. I can’t breath, that’s a good reason. I can’t keep going like this for a full race, that means I should quit. I passed through the lap halfway point and kept going. There wasn’t even any recognition in my mind beyond, “This is horrible – I should quit…”. The second half of the lap has only one long climb which I managed, barely. On a blind left hand turn, I grabbed my front brake and slide across the dirt, luckily the racer behind was aware enough to call it out so I didn’t have four people pile up on me. Crashing, that’s a good reason to quit. When I was finishing that first lap after what seemed like 10 hellish miles, a rider finishing their lap just in front of me first asked a junior (who was finishing his race) if they had to do another lap, then asked me how many I had to do and I think I just said “Three”, mad that someone didn’t know what was going on and that they would bother my sufferfest.
I kept going. I was probably 24 miles into the almost-30 miles before I realized I had maybe a dozen sips of water, finished one bottle of electrolytes and had no food during the entire race. It was an endless cyclocross race. When I approached the steep switchbacks on the back side of the course, I found two geared riders walking it and a few other geared riders riding around them (in some not so fun loose gravel). There was no way for me to pedal at a very slow cadence, over the “bad” line, behind the two riders. So I hopped off and walked the steep parts of the hill before hopping back on. Shortly after this is a fun downhill section followed by an uphill. I was pacing behind a rider when he sat up suddenly just as a rider behind both of us started to pass. My choice was to slam into this rider or just to the left, passing him without calling it out, and then letting the other rider by (who had followed my line). Slowly I was becoming that singlespeed rider who hates on all the geared riders.
With one final bit of walking on the last steep switchback, I realized that it was finally done. It was all downhill to the finish, a few geared riders hopped by with their final burst of energy (and gears since the downhill was just at the sweetspot where you can’t really pedal it with one gear). Around the final couple corners and across the line. A race I wanted to quit in the first 30 minutes was over, after almost 3 hours of pedaling. I hadn’t had a race like this. The first hour was such a searing experience, while the rest of the race was managed almost on autopilot.
Mountain bike races are still fun, but I think I need to reacquaint myself with the idea of challenging myself rather than focusing on my placing among other riders and finding the balance of fun and training. Riding bikes is fun and I don’t mind doing some work to make goals happen (e.g., training is fun) but I think I just need to find what’s right, which is probably always a moving target.