Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Not My Last Dance

Photo Credit: Mike Briggs
If you read my last blog post, which was written about a year ago, I reported to everyone that I was retiring from competitive cycling.  At the time I wrote that post, I was still experiencing extreme pain from my L4-5 herniated lumbar disc and competitive cycling seemed like it would never be possible for me to do again. Additionally, my mind and body were worn out and the only thing I wanted was to be well again.

Luckily, I found an awesome physical therapist, Dr. Justin Deskovich, to help me through this difficult time.  I listened to what he said and followed his recovery plan religiously.  Still, after doing about a month of rehab, I wasn't experiencing any quick or noticeable results, so I decided to see a neurologist about my disc herniation and get his opinion.  The neurologist claimed to take a conservative approach to treating his patients; however, when he saw me, I was told the only way I would ever live pain free and function normally again was to have a laminectomy and discectomy surgery as soon as possible.  Surgery was then set for ten days after this appointment.

Immediately after that appointment, I had a bunch of pre-surgery medical tests completed and then contacted Justin to let him know about my decision.  He spoke honestly to me about the surgery, what I might experience, and also compared how my recovery through only doing physical rehab would be verse going through surgery. After listening to Justin, reading the lengthy surgery disclaimer I signed in the neurologist's office, and doing further research online about this surgery, I decided to delay it and give Justin's rehabilitation program more time.  Looking back at this situation now, I can't even believe I gave surgery any consideration at all and I have no regrets of not going under the knife.

Photo Credit: Dennis Smith
During my injury recovery, I was completely off my bike from mid December until mid February.  When I finally started riding again, it was on my trainer and only for short periods of time, like 10-20 minutes a day with very little resistance.  The first couple of rides were pretty scary because my left leg didn't seem to remember what to do and it was difficult for me to get on and off my bike. I've always been a very active guy and being so limited in my movement was discouraging and frustrating to me.

Deciding to not have surgery was an incredibly difficult decision to make, but after doing about another month of rehab, I started feeling much less pain in my left leg and began regaining strength in it too.  I was so happy to finally be able to walk normally again and assume most other daily postures and activities without discomfort. From this point, my progress seemed to really take off and by the beginning of April, I was well enough to discontinue my PT sessions.  I have, however, continued to do the exercises Justin taught me until this day because I never want to experience the pain of having a disc herniation again.

I can't say for certain when I started thinking about racing my bike again.  Riding my bike has always been a passion of mine and for some reason I inevitably start thinking about racing when I'm out riding. The first race I did was the ABRA Mountain State Dirty Double gravel stage race, which was held on May 16th-17th in Rowlesburg, WV.  I did the race mostly because I was curios to see how my back would feel after doing tough race efforts and to see how much top end fitness I had loss from doing a lot less riding.  Surprisingly, I felt pretty good during the race and ended up with a third place finish in the singlespeed class, even after I had a long delay trying to repair a major mechanical issue - my pedal fell off. After doing the gravel stage race, I waited until the middle of June to do my second race: The Big Bear 2x12 duo mtb race in Bruceton Mills, WV.  I teamed-up with my buddy Scott Benson and we raced our fatbikes in the 35+ vet class.  This race also went pretty well and it felt good to ride fast through the woods again.

But, after doing these two events, my racing appetite was pretty much satisfied.  They were fun and all, but I still wasn't feeling a big urge to return to the level of racing I once did.  I was just happy getting out for short rides of between 1-2 hours each day and doing other activities like running, stand-up paddleboarding, and yoga. My body was actually feeling stronger than ever from mixing-up my workouts and spending much less time on my bike.

I think it was this feeling of being stronger overall that gave me thoughts about racing again.  I also knew that I needed a change from the endurance type of racing I had focused on so intensely before being injured. Cyclocross racing seemed to be a perfect fit for my new racing aspirations.  Cyclocross races are shorter in duration, have a shorter season, and CX is also one of my favorite disciplines in the sport of cycling.  I was excited about focusing my racing emphasis on cyclocross and began training specifically for the season at the end of July.  I was also excited about going into cyclocross season with fresh legs from not doing a long and hard mountain bike racing season.

Photo Credit: Kevin Dillard
By the time the first CX race arrived at the end of August, I felt like my body was ready, but I had no idea how the race would go after doing only two races all year.  I wasn't having any issues with my back while training for CX, but I was concerned with how it was going to feel when I had to put out the super-hard efforts required to do well in a cyclocross race.  Of course, there was also the thought of what might happen if I was involved in a crash during the race sitting in the back of my mind too. I can't begin to explain how surprised, happy, and alive I felt after I won that first race.

Overall, my season continued to go well.  I ended up with a handful of wins and landed a spot on the podium at most of the races I did.  I decided to spend the majority of my season traveling east to do either the MAC or PACX cyclocross race series most weekends because these races have deeper fields and also gave me the ability to score better points than what was available at local races.  But, by mid November, all the traveling started to wear me down and it was begin to kill my strong desire to race.  This feeling kept me at the local ABRA races during the last part of November and the beginning of December.  Taking a break from traveling got me pumped-up to do the final MAC race of the season and for the up-and-coming USAC Cyclocross Nationals.

I absolutely thought my dancing days were done last December when I announced my retirement from cycling. My successful rehabilitation from my herniated disc and the ton of fun I had doing cyclocross races this season has changed my mind about leaving competitive cycling and it feels good to now report that I have not yet done my last dance.  I'm not exactly sure what my racing will entail for 2016, but as of now, my plan is to primarily focus on cyclocross racing again. This post wouldn't be complete without giving a big thanks to Dirty Harry's Bike Shop in Verona, PA for being my sponsor for the 2015 cyclocross season - thank you, guys!  I also need to thank Justin Deskovich for helping me fight through my pain without having surgery.

Happy trails and see you at the races, my friends! - Gerry

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Out with the old and in with the new...

After not updating my racing blog since August, I've finally found enough motivation to write some words I feel worthy of sharing with my friends and fellow racers.  To me, it seems like the beginning of a new year is the perfect time to look back at past experiences and to share new adventures, especially after not writing for such a long period of time. Interestingly enough, this new writing of mine may also be the last time I write a blog post about racing my bicycle.

Probably the best place to begin this post is by writing about the racing I've done since my last blog post. After doing the Hampshire 100 in August, I finished out the National Ultra Endurance Series (NUE) by doing the final two races of the series: the Shenandoah Mountain 100 and the Fool's Gold 100.  With my singlespeed category win at Hampshire, I was in a unique position going into the next two races of having a chance to be the first ever rider to stand on two separate NUE Series final podiums in the same season: the open men and singlespeed categories.  

The NUE final podium for the open men class.
My race at Shenandoah went well for me in the singlespeed category and I finished second there to fast SS man Gordon Wadsworth.  This gave me a lock on taking third overall on the NUE Series singlespeed podium position, behind Gordon and AJ Linnell, and allowed me to direct my concentration for the Fool's Gold race to the open class.  By taking fourth in the open class at Fool's Gold, I was able to move into the NUE Series third overall podium position for the open men category (behind Jeremiah Bishop and Tinker Juarez) and achieved my goal of being the first person to stand on two separate NUE Series podiums in the same season. This feat coupled with my five consecutive overall NUE Series SS category wins may be enough to get me into the NUE Series Hall of Fame one day,...haha.

Next up on my 2014 racing agenda was to start my season of cyclocross racing and to also complete the last two races of the American Ultra Cross Series: Iron Cross and the Gravel Grovel.  Cross season started very well for me and I took a double win at the first ABRA Cyclocross Series race in Point Marion, PA by winning the SS and Masters 40+ classes.  As in previous years, I was really looking forward to racing cyclocross during the fall season and was pleasantly surprised that my legs responded so well to the shorter effort racing demands cyclocross requires after competing in such a long endurance MTB season.

For whatever reason, the snappiness I felt in my legs only a week earlier did not come around for the much longer Iron Cross Ultracross Series Race. Perhaps it was due to the cool temperatures of the day; but for whatever reason, I didn't have the power to continue riding with a fast riding Mike Montalbano that day.  Once it became apparent that Mike was gone, I settled into racing for second place and knew finishing in this position would give me a virtual lock on winning my third overall American Ultra CX Series title (One in the 40+ Masters Class and two SS titles).  Unfortunately, my race for second place at IC became a lot more difficult when another rider slammed into the back of my bike as I slowed down to take a turn off a fast gravel down hill road onto a trail.  I went over the bars and hit the ground hard, cracking my helmet and suffering pretty severe road rash.  I also noticed I had pain in my hips and ribs after getting back on the bike, but I continued racing hard to eventually take second place in the SS category.

I learned the next day the pain I felt in my ribs was being caused from cracking a couple of them on my rear mid-thoracic area.  The pain was significant enough to keep me off my bike for a bit and definitely too much for me to consider doing any cyclocross races soon.  I did not think too much about my hip and lower back pain at the time because I had also felt this pain after the two hard crashes I had while racing at the Lumberjack 100 and the High Cascades 100 earlier in the year and it subsided each time. 

My crash at Iron Cross solidified the thoughts I was having most of the year about racing my bike in the future.  All year long, I was thinking 2014 might be my last serious year of racing and the pain I felt from this crash was enough to convince me that the time was right to move into a semi-retirement mode of racing.  With this in mind, I gave notice to the Rare Disease Cycling Team that I would be resigning from the team at the end of the season.

However, after not racing for three weekends and somewhat recovering from my crash, I decided to do a local CX race in Blairsville, PA called the Coal Town Cyclocross Race.  It was a small event and I thought it would be a good way to test my fitness and also test my feelings towards the sport I've done for the past 34 years.  I must admit that it felt great winning the race, even though it was just a small event. Around the same time, I was also contacted by a new team interested in having me join their ranks, which gave me about the same sponsorship deal I had racing with the Rare Disease Team. Additionally, I was talking with Jake Wade and Dan Rapp about changing up our endurance racing by using fatbikes in the NUE Series and starting an unrecognized NUE fatbike category for us and other riders interested in doing something different.  All these recent developments renewed my interest in racing again and suddenly I was excited about racing in 2015.

The day after doing the Coal Town CX Race, I decided to move a heavy log stuck in the river which adjoins my property.  To do so meant I had to first wade through very cold water, which was over my knees, to position myself in a way that I could attempt to move the 50 foot, 3 foot in diameter log. I bent over without bending my knees and started pulling-up on the huge log.  I immediately felt a pop in my back and was almost stuck in the bent over position I used to lift the log.  But, being the Happy Idiot I am, I re-entered the water two more times to eventually get the log to move and continue its trip down the river.

The final ABRA CX race and my friendly battle with Travis.

By the time I walked back to my house, I knew something was messed up in my back. It didn't feel like anything major and actually felt like my back did after my crashes at Iron Cross, the High Cascades 100 and the Lumberjack 100.  I took it somewhat easy for two weeks, but felt well enough to do the final ABRA Cyclocross Series Race in Pittsburgh. I took a third place finish in the singlespeed race and a second place finish in the masters race, so I assumed my back injury was nothing major and decided it was okay to travel to Indiana State the following weekend to do the final race of the American Ultra CX Series.

The open woman, male and SS GG winners.
Dan Rapp and I decided to do our trip out to the Gravel Grovel Ultra CX Race together, as we did last year.  Dan and I had a good trip out to the race and we both raced well.  Dan finished third in the race and second in the series, and I took the race win and the overall American Ultra Cross Series win. Needless to say, these fine results got me even more stoked for continuing my racing into the 2015 season.

But, as my luck of 2014 would have it, my assumed "insignificant back injury" took an awful turn for the worst during the long seven hour drive home from the Gravel Grovel and by the time I got home, the muscles in my left leg and lower back were so tight that I could barely get myself out of the car and walk into my home. The pain was so severe that night I also couldn't sleep.  I should have known after this pain continued for more than a week that I was dealing with something more than just a muscle issue. But, I didn't, or maybe I refused to believe that there was a more serious issue causing an almost constant pain in my leg. I just couldn't understand how in such a short period of time I could go from winning a race, with no issues of pain during the event, to feeling like I'd rather have my entire leg amputated rather than continue feeling the pain I was experiencing.  Yes, the pain was that bad and I can best describe the sensation I was feeling to what it would probably feel like to have my leg crushed in a the rear hydraulic trash compactor of a garbage truck over and over again.

Being in my state of denial about what was causing the pain, I used my typical methods of healing by continuing to ride, receiving massage and getting acupuncture.  I was also consuming large amounts of ibuprofen.  None of these things gave me relief from the pain and I'm quite certain now that the riding I continued to do the first two weeks only made my issue worse.

This never ending pain eventually got so bad that I finally decided to visit my racing buddy, Scott Benson, at the ER where he works.  He took some X-rays, a CT scan and gave me a couple of prescriptions to help me along until I was able to see an orthopedic doctor he recommended to further evaluate my injury.  My trip to the ER was made a bit more pleasant when I was surprised to see the smiling face of Betsy Shogren who was also working there.  Being cared for by friends, especially friends that understand my level of fitness, definitely made this ER visit a good experience.

The orthopedic doctor I saw ordered an MRI, since the X-ray and CT scan taken at the ER had negative results, and also referred me to an excellent physical therapist named Justin Deskovich. This PT listened to how my injury occurred and then did some quick physical examinations and was quickly able to say I was showing signs of a herniated lumbar disc at the L5 level, which was compressing a nerve exiting my spine.

An MRI I had on 12/23/2014 confirmed what my PT had told me earlier and I felt relieved to finally know what was actually causing my pain.  My guess is that the nasty crashes I had this year, along with my core strength being decreased, from two separate incidents of breaking my ribs this year, weakened this area of my body enough to cause the herniation when I pushed the log stuck in the river.  The minor symptoms of this injury I was initially experiencing did not completely materialize until I aggravated the herniated disc and nerve even further by sitting with bad posture during my fourteen plus hours of driving getting to and from the Gravel Grovel Race along with doing nearly four hours of hard singlespeed racing.

My PT had the same injury some years ago and has been great in helping me recover, but I've learned there is no quick or easy method to heal from this type of injury and that it will be sometime before I can completely resume the active lifestyle I'm used to living.  The last thing I want to do now is rush back to racing this year and take the chance of causing my injury to get worse.  Once I learned exactly what my injury was, I've given a lot more thought about racing bikes and my future in general over the past couple of weeks . After doing much consideration, I've come to the final conclusion that it's time for me to retire from competitive bike racing.

I feel good about this decision.  I've had a blast racing my bike over the past 34 years; have made some great friends; and can also say I'm proud of the race results I've accumulated over the years. This doesn't mean I'm going to stop riding my bike.  I love the freedom and sense of adventure I feel when I ride too much to ever give up riding.  It may be a few months until I can ride again, but I assure you I'll be back at it as soon as possible.  I'm just not interested in being faster than the other guy anymore and feel like the time has come for me to just go out and enjoy the ride.

Before I end this post, I want to thank a few folks that have played an important role in helping me race over the years.  First, I'd like to thank my family and especially my wife of 22 years, Tracy, who has done so much to allow me to race my bike.  I've had a lot of support from many sponsors over the years, but the support I've been given the last five years while racing for the Salsa Cycles Factory Team and the Team CF/Rare Disease Cycling Teams was vital in helping me race so well, so I definitely need to say a big thank you to these guys. Specialized Bikes and Lauf Forks were also very important sponsors and supplied me with equipment that has without a doubt helped me win races.

I'll be doing plenty of this again soon!
It's been a pfun ride, but I'm looking forward to my new future of just riding a bike without racing it! What I'm most bummed about right now is that I won't be able to enjoy my winter sport activities of skiing and fatbike riding until next winter. The only physical activity I'm able to do right now is walking and even that induces pain after doing about two miles in distance.  I will eventually heal enough to ride again and when I do, please come and join me for a scenic and fun ride somewhere in the Laurel Highlands.

Enjoy your ride, my friends!  Happy New Year and Happy Trails...  Gerry

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Variety & The Hampshire 100

I decided to change things up for the Hampshire 100 and race in the singlespeed class, instead of racing my geared bike in the open class.  Not racing my singlespeed since the Cohutta 100 has been an interesting change for me, but I've got to admit that I felt more at home racing on a SS bike again.  In addition to my change back to a SS bike, the 2014 edition of the Hampshire 100 had some of its own changes in store for the racers this year.

I've done the Hampshire 100 the past two years and it is always a hard 100 mile race, but the new course layout made this race even tougher than it was in previous years.  Most of the 100 mile racers had finishing times about an hour slower than previous years.  The slower times were due to a few issues including: the removal of about 10 miles of rail-to-trail, the addition of some very freshly cut trail, and the course receiving over 3 inches of rain a couple of days before the event.

At the beginning of the race, Dan Rapp was able to get into the single track a head of me and put a little time between himself and the rest of the SS field.   I was eventually able to catch him after exiting the first section of new trail with the help of another singlespeed racer, Will Crissman.  From that point, the three of us worked together until we were caught by a group of geared riders that also contained singlespeed rider Ernesto Marenchin.  This occurred at the end of a long rail-to-trail section and before heading up a steep and loose climb about 20 miles into the race.

Upon getting caught by this group, Dan Rapp and I increased the pace by running and fast-walking up the climb and only Crissman followed.  The next split in the singlespeed race came on the powerline climb, which was mostly another hike-a-bike section.  On this part of the course, Crissman was not able to run/walk as fast as us up the hill and he fell from the pace Dan and I were setting.  From that point, Dan and I rode together at a fairly steady pace until the aid station at around mile 50.  I was able to leave the aid station a bit quicker than he was, which gave me an opportunity to put distance between my fast singlespeeding competitor and friend.

I was certain Dan was going to bridge back up to me, so I kept my speed high as possible, which quickly moved me past three other open class riders and into fourth place overall.  I never saw any other singlespeed racers after leaving Dan and managed to hold-on to my lead for the rest of the race to take the win.  After doing the past five NUE Series Races on a geared bike, it felt good to be back on a singlespeed again.  It has been said that variety is the spice of life and this has certainly been true for my 2014 NUE Series race season!
It always feels good to give a victory salute!
Even though the course was much tougher and finishing times were significantly slower than previous years, it was still a fun race and definitely interesting to ride.  The cool thing about doing these 100 mile NUE Series Races is that each course is a little different and has its own feel.  They have different ways of making a rider suffer: some with long climbs, others with high altitude, and others with soft, freshly cut trail, like at the Hampshire 100.  The challenge is to do your best at the race no matter how the conditions happen to be.

I can't end this post without saying a big thank you to the race promoter, Randi Whitney, and all her help for making the Hampshire 100 run so smoothly and be a great 100 mile race experience!  To see how awesome this race was, check out The Hampshire 100 Video by Thom Parsons of

Happy Trails... Gerry

Friday, August 1, 2014

The 101

I simply named this post the 101 for two reason.  First, and most obviously,  it is about the Wilderness 101 NUE Series race I did on July 26, 2014, in Coburn, PA. Secondly, this post was named the 101 because it is the 101st post I've written for my Pfun with Pflug Blog Page. And, really, the Wilderness 101 back country mtb race can be recognized with just the use of 101 because it is one of the original 100 mile mtb races in the country and a true east coast epic!

It's hard for me to believe that I've written 101 posts about my racing experiences just for this blog page.  In addition to this page, I also used to relay my racing experiences on another blog called Two Mountain Goats and I wrote 65 posts for that blog. One day, when I'm not racing any longer, I'm sure it will be interesting to read over all of the old posts to remember the racing I once did.  Looking back at my 34 years of racing now, I kind of wish my blog writing would have started before 2007.  With that said, I can only recommend to other racers to start writing about your experiences, even if it something you write privately for yourself.

So, I've written enough about my past blog posts and it's time now to write my current race report about how the Wilderness 101 went for me this year.  The initial pace of the race seemed to be slower this year due to the pack being on Jeremiah Bishop watch. Rob Spreng and I were riding at the front of the pack and I told him to roll off the front to see if he could get a gap. My plan worked and Rob was able to get a nice little gap.  Soon after this gap was created I bridged up to him and then we were joined by Keck Baker, Andy Gorski and Anthony Grinnell a few seconds later. Our group worked well together and stayed clear until the top of the rocky climb after aid station #1, about 20 miles into the race.

Riding the Three Bridges Trail with Anthony Grinnell
Once we made it to the top of that climb, we were joined by Christian Tanguy, Bishop and Gordon Wadsworth. Our newly formed lead group stayed together from that point until we hit the big climb between aid station two and three, at about mile 42. Christian splinted the small group with his power and speed up that climb and only Baker and Bishop followed him. I rode alone in the race from that point until aid station #5, where I caught Grinnell, which moved me into fifth place.

Overall, I had no issues during the race.  I had no crashes, my Specialized Epic and the Lauf Fork work very well over all the rocky terrain and up all the long climbs.  Before the start, and even during the first half of the race, I was certain my finishing time would be seven hours or less this year, considering my 2013 time on a SS bike was 7:14.  I did notice during the race that my legs were still tired and sore from doing the High Cascades 100 only a week earlier.  I've raced back-to-back hundies many times over the last five years, but it seems like my body just isn't recovering as quickly as it used to do from these hard efforts.  Interestingly enough, my open class finishing time from this year was 12 minutes slower than my W101 singlespeed race time from last year. My guess is that my slower time was either due to still being tired from doing the High Cascades 100 the weekend before the W101, or maybe because I'm just faster on a SS bike.

The Open Mens Podium
At the end, it was very cool to see team Rare Disease Cycling taking three of the top five positions on the podium with Christian in third, Rob in fourth and me in fifth.  No words can describe how awesome the Wilderness 101 race is.  Chris Scott does a fantastic job with his races and the W101 is no exception.  There is not a race promoter out there that does a better job with his course layout, course markings and aid stations than Chris does with his races.  The W101 has always been one of my favorite 100 mile mtb races and this year was a great experience as well.  Many thanks also need to be given to all the volunteers that help Chris make this race a top notch event!

Happy Trails...  Gerry

Thursday, July 24, 2014

High Cascades 100

I traveled out to one of my favorite places to ride a mtb, Bend, Oregon, this past weekend for the seventh race of the National Ultra Endurance Series, The High Cascades 100.  I've done this race three other times, but was not able to do this race last year.  I was very excited about traveling to Bend this year not only to do the race, but also to ride a bunch of the sweet Bend single track.  I'm just amazed every time I go to Bend at how much mtb riding there is to do there and how well groomed the trails are.  I've always made this race trip a few days longer than other trips, so I can spend more time enjoying this incredible network of trails.

I was so psyched about riding the trails in Bend that I almost forgot about the 100 mile race I was there to do, but I didn't let the race keep me from also doing some good rides before and after the race.  I was able to ride the Bend goodness for three days before the race, the day after the race, and of course, on the very well laid out High Cascades 100 course on race day.  All the rides were pretty awesome and made my trip a great vacation break from work.

My race, however, could have gone a lot better.  It wasn't awful, but I was certainly expecting to finish better than I did.  I'm sure there are things I could have done to have a better race than I did, but I've got to say the competition was pretty quick and would have made this race difficult even if I did have better luck.  If I could change one thing about the mid-summer riding in Bend, it would be the elimination of all the dust.  It effects my vision, my breathing and makes riding a little tricky.  

To avoid as much dust at the beginning of the race as possible, I took an early flyer on the paved road section before the beginning of the dusty trails.  My attack to get away from the group occurred a little earlier than I had planned, but I don't think this effected my race much.  Once I got away from the pack a couple of miles after the start, I rode for about seven miles alone before being caught by the fast leading group of six riders in the woods.  I then rode with this group for a couple of miles, but found the dust being kicked up from the trail to be not very agreeable. Not only was it hard to see the trail in front of me, but it was also difficult for me to breath in the dusty air.  

Aid #4, only 28 miles to go!
I decided it would be best to not ride in the dust of this group for much longer in order for me to have my best race, so I slowed my pace a bit and watched the lead group ride away from me.  This is always hard to do and does mess with my mind a little, but I couldn't deal with the dust anymore.  From this point in the race, I went back and forth with a couple of other riders, but basically rode by myself for the remainder of the race.  Riding alone is something I like doing.  It allows me to just enjoy the ride and not worry about what others are doing.  Being alone in race allows me to just focus on the trails, my riding and enjoying my time on the bike.

By checkpoint #5, at around 80 miles into the race, I had moved into sixth place overall.  I was feeling good and didn't even stop at the checkpoint, so that I could hopefully maintain my position into the finish.  Unfortunately, I crashed hard a short distance after the checkpoint on a loose sandy section of a downhill and fell back to ninth place.  I lost a few minutes because of the crash, but also lost more time after getting back on my bike after the crash.  My body was sore and I was having a difficult time trusting the soft, dusty trails I was riding, since putting too much trust and speed in them earlier is what had caused my crash.

Finishing a little battered, but not broken!
I was able to muster enough strength, however, to hold my ninth place position into the finish.  It wasn't the position where I expected to finish the race, but I still had a smile on my face when I crossed the finishing line.  How could I not be happy after getting to ride some incredible trails on such a beautiful day?  Sure, my crash hurt and made the last 19 miles a little uncomfortable, but I've learned to accept, over my many years of racing, that crashing is an inevitable part of bike racing.  Like I've said before, if you don't crash, then you're not going fast enough!

Before I end this post, I've got to say thanks to Mike Ripley and all the people that helped him put on such an incredible race.  The aid station help was great and the whole racer experience was a good one.  Next up for me is another one of my favorite NUE Races the Wilderness 101 coming up this weekend.  I hope to see you there, my friends...

Happy Trails...  Gerry

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Riding the Bull at the Tatanka 100

Ride the bull is the motto for the sixth stop of the National Ultra Endurance Series, the Tatanka 100, which was held in Sturgis, SD this past weekend. This race motto fit the course conditions perfectly this year because there was nothing easy about doing Tatanka.  The Tatanka 100 course was made even more difficult than usual with heavy rain falling the night before and during the race, which made the trails muddy and slick.

After doing this difficult course last year on a single speed, I was very excited about riding it with a full-suspension geared bike this year.  I was certain my ride time would be faster than last year because I figured the long steep hills on the first part of the course and the 22 miles of flat bike trail on the second part of the course could be ridden much faster with the use of a geared bike.  I thought there was a chance of possibly beating the eight hour mark and winning the gold ring for being the first person to do so.  But, while standing at the starting line in poring down rain and with the temperature only being 55 degrees, I knew that eight hour winning time would go unbeaten for another year. 

The cold, wet start of the race did not initially take away from the speed of the race.  A group six riders, including me, was able to breakaway from the other brave riders starting this race in miserable conditions.  I stayed with this group until we entered the single track and then I backed my speed off a bit.  I decided going at my own pace would be a better way to conserve energy for later in the race and my legs were still feeling a bit tired from doing the Lumberjack 100 the weekend before this race.  It's always hard to let other racers out of my sight, but I knew the race was going to be a long one and I didn't want to burn through all my matches this early in the day.

Riding along with AJ and D-Rapp early in the race.
Once I started riding the trails, I was shocked to see how much worse the conditions were from when I rode on them Friday morning.  Many of the steep hills I was excited about riding on my geared bike were so muddy that I could not even ride them with gears.  As the course continued through the mud, muck and deep fast flowing streams we had to cross, I was beginning to think my single speed bike would have been a better machine to use for the race this year.  In addition to my drivetrain being covered in mud, I could tell my brake pads were wearing quickly from the extra grit and I wondered if they would last until the finish. 

When I got to checkpoint #2, I saw Tinker Jaurez standing there because he had worn through his brake pads and could not continue.  I was also given the time splits for the other riders in front of me, which motivated me to ride harder.  For some reason, however, it just didn't seem like my pedaling stroke was right, or that I was able generate any power.  I figured out a bit later that my seat post had slipped almost an inch from where it is normally placed, so I stopped and adjusted it and immediately felt better. I don't know how long I was riding with my seat in a lower position, but I did know that my pedaling felt way better and was now riding faster.

Around mile 45 or so, I went off course when I missed a turn.  Luckily, after riding about a mile, I realized there were no tire tracks on the ground and I quickly turned around to make my way back on course.  During this time, the sun had finally come out and I was starting to feel warm.  The heat felt good on my cold wet body and I am sure this is another reason I felt like riding faster.  A few miles after getting back on course, I moved into third place overall when I caught Drew Edsall.  

When I got to the 50 mile checkpoint, I removed my rain jacket, had my chain lubed and was told that second place was only a few minutes a head of me.  Hearing this news and knowing that the toughest part of the course was over only encouraged me to ride harder.  I finally moved into second place at the beginning of the Michelson Trail when I caught Matt Woodruff.  

The Michelson trail is a recreational gravel bike trail that climbs gradually to the highest point on the course.  It makes up just over 20 miles of the course and was very brutal to ride this year because of the driving head wind.  I had to go into full-on time trail mode to keep on pushing myself to go fast.  I was very happy to make it to the 75 mile checkpoint and to put this section of the course behind me.
A shot taken shortly after the 75 mile checkpoint.

Shortly after leaving the checkpoint and entering the trails again, it started to rain hard.  I left my rain jacket at the checkpoint where I removed it because I thought the rain was over for the day. I was beginning to regret that decision.  The cold heavy rain was making me shiver and I couldn't wait to start descending the mountain to warmer temperatures and finally end this hard day of riding. 

At around mile 83, I climbed up a long hill and when I got to the top, there was a split in the trail. Neither direction was marked and I started to panic, thinking I had missed another turn. I stopped and looked around and then saw the race leader, James Meyer, coming towards me.  He stopped and said we were off course and needed to descend the long hill I had just climbed.  As we headed down the hill we first ran into single speed racer AJ Linnel, then Drew Edsall and then Matt Woodruff.  We told them the course was mismarked and they all turned around.  The five of us made it back to the last course marking we saw and discussed things. James Meyer had the course GPS file loaded on his Garmin and it was telling us to go down a trail marked with a "W", meaning the wrong the way.

The group then decided to follow the directions being given on Meyer's Garmin, but also decided that we should change the mixed-up course markings, so other riders would not make the same mistake.  A short while after getting back on course, Drew Edsall recommended to the group that we should all ride to the finish together and maintain our placing prior to going off course.  Everyone agreed with him and a gentlemen's agreement was made to keep the pace up, but to finish together.

It felt strange to not be racing into the finish, but I do think it was the best choice.  From the point where the course mistake occurred, I doubt if there would have been any change in the finish anyway. The course is very fast from that point and mostly downhill, which would have made it very difficult for any time to be made-up on riders ahead.  It was actually kind of nice having some company during that part of the race too.  It was such a long and hard day, of mostly riding alone for me, that I enjoyed being part of such a good group of people.

You've just got to love the irony of the podium shot having blue skies!
Even though the conditions for the Tatanka 100 were super tough this year, I still say this race was awesome to do.  The trails are challenging and fun to ride and the race promoter, Kevin Forrester, and all his staff/volunteers do a great job at putting together a great race.  I must say a big thank you to everyone that helped all the riders make it through this difficult day of racing!  Tatanka!!!

Happy Trails...  Gerry

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Lumberjack 100 2014

     This past weekend I did the Lumberjack 100 NUE Series Race for the sixth time.  On my first two attempts, I used a geared mtb and then I did it three years in row with a singlespeed mtb.  I missed this race the past two years due to other obligations, but finally made it back to Wellston, Michigan this year for the 10th anniversary of the race.  I returned to the race with my hardtail Specialized Carve, a Lauf Suspension Fork, a 1x10 drivetrain and a desire to finish the race with a time of less than seven hours.  I’ve been close to breaking the seven hour threshold on all of my LJ100 attempts, but could never quite get there.  
My last three LJ100 races were completed on a singlespeed mtb.  Lumberjack is a pretty good course for a singlespeed, but I was pretty certain that my fastest time on the course could be achieved on a geared mtb.  I also added my unique Lauf Suspension Fork to my ride, as opposed to the rigid forks I’ve used at the past few LJ100 races.  I also gave some thought to using my full-suspension Specialized Epic at the LJ100, but thought that I didn’t need that much suspension for the fast single track making up the LJ 100 course.  Overall, my Carve was a pretty good ride, but looking back at things now, I think the Epic would have been even a faster bike.  
For those of you not familiar with the LJ100 course, it is pretty much an all tight single track course, on a 33 mile loop, which is completed 3 times.  The race actually starts with a mile or two of pavement before heading into the woods and there are a couple sandy fire roads mixed-in with all the tight trails, but I would say at least 95% of the race is single track.  To change things up a little this year, the race promoter, Rick Plite, reversed the direction of the course.  The change in direction seemed to make the climbing easier and also seemed to be well liked by all the racers.
The start of the race was not super-fast.  I stayed near the front until we entered the parking lot at the trail head and then threw an attack to get the hole-shot into the single track.  I was surprised my attack worked and that I was leading the race.  I wasn’t planning on going for the $200 KOM preme, but decided to give it a go with my good position.  My thoughts of winning the preme were quickly erased, however, when Jorden Wakeley came around me at the base of the hill with a couple of other riders.  I then rode the rest of the climb in recovery mode, wondering why I wasted so much energy leading out everyone for the preme.  I should’ve known better than doing that.
Jack Kunnen Photography: Lumberjack 100 2014 &emdash; IMG_7624                           Getting the Hole Shot!
After Jorden won the preme, he just kept going and my teammate, Christian Tanguy, was in hot pursuit.  That left me in a chase pack with about seven other racers.  The pack was moving along at a good clip, but not quite as fast as I wanted.  So, I made my way to the front and started setting a faster pace for a couple of miles, hoping my pace would split things up a bit.  The fast and flowing trails were not very good for splitting things up, but the crash I had shortly after going to the front sure did spit me off the back of the pack.
Jack Kunnen Photography: Lumberjack 100 2014 &emdash; IMG_7921                                 The lead chase group going into Aid Station #2
At my last two attempts at the LJ100, I’ve crashed hard by catching my pedal on two different hidden tree stumps. Both of those crashes slowed down my race and were probably a big reason I did not finish faster than seven hours.  I can’t tell you how shocked I was to be flying over-the-bars a third time this year by also having my pedal catch a third hidden tree stump.  This time my crash occurred about five miles into the 100 mile race.  It did cause some pain and mechanical issues, but I’m lucky that nothing more serious happened to me or my bike.
After my crash, I took a quick inventory of my body parts and everything seemed to be attached, so I jumped back on my bike and immediately noticed that my handlebars were pointed in one direction and my saddle in another direction.  So much for staying with the chase group, I said to myself.  I quickly straightened my bars and saddle, while I watched other riders pass.  Once my repairs were completed, I jumped back on my bike and gave chase and unexpectedly caught the chase group within a few miles.  Of course, putting out this effort wasted more valuable energy than I wanted, but I knew it was a necessary expenditure.
After recovering from my chase for a couple of minutes, I decided to go back to the front of the group to pick up the pace a bit.  In retrospect, I probably should have just chilled out a bit longer, but that’s easier said than done when my adrenaline is flowing.  So with our pack cruising along at a good clip, I started feeling pretty good about the race again.  My good feeling about the race quickly changed, however, when I attempted to shift into an easier gear on one of the last few steep climbs before end of the first lap  and I heard my chain go into the spokes of my rear wheel.  Apparently, my earlier crash had also bent my rear derailleur, which caused my derailleur to over shift.  I was then once again forced to do another repair and watch the other racers ride away from me.
I was able to catch back up to the lead chase group about two miles into lap number two.  From this point, I decided to slow my pace a bit and just ride tempo with this group. I needed to recover from doing another hard effort of chasing and I was hoping the accumulation of miles would start taking its toll on the group. But, the new course direction and mild temperatures did not seem to be as harsh as usual and the size of the lead chase group did not start falling apart until the end of lap number two. Eventually, the only remaining riders in the group were Gordon Wadsworth, Jan Roubal, and me.  
Throughout the race, Gordon didn't seem too concerned with getting away from the lead chase group.  He basically stayed at the back of our group and moved up when someone fell off the pace.  With a couple miles to go until the finish of the race, Gordon threw a hard attack.  Jan and I didn't respond to it because we knew he was not in our category and because the steep hill we were riding up at the time was a difficult place for accelerating quickly.  Once Gordon got his gap on us, Jan and I played a little cat and mouse.  Finally, I made a move at the top of the last big climb before the race finish.  I got the gap needed, but Jan was able to close the gap on the final fast descent.  Since I was still in the lead, I decided to lead out the sprint and increased my speed to 26 mph heading into the finishing area.  I hoped this speed would be enough to hold off Jan until the finish, but it was not.  I couldn't match the final effort given by Jan and I came across the finishing line in fourth.  I was still happy with my ride, however, because I was finally able to break the seven hour finishing threshold for a 100 mile race, with a time of 6:47.
Jack Kunnen Photography: Lumberjack 100 2014 &emdash; IMG_8340                   Losing the sprint for third place to Jan Roubal.
It is no surprise that the Lumberjack 100 celebrated 10 years of existence this year.  It is an incredible 100 mile mtb race and a ton of fun to ride.  Thanks to Rick Plite and his large group of volunteers for doing everything necessary to make the Lumberjack 100 an awesome experience for me and all the other racers.
Jack Kunnen Photography: Lumberjack 100 2014 &emdash; IMG_8055                      The podium for the open men class, minus Tanguy.

Happy Trails... Gerry

Thanks to Jack Kunnen for sharing all the photos used in this blog post!