Sunday, August 22, 2010

Fool's Gold

Like one of the many miners that flocked to Dahlonega, GA in search of gold during the early 1800s, I also traveled to the area this past weekend in search of gold at the Fool’s Gold NUE Series race. There were no big changes with how the race was run from previous years; however, the weather this year was beyond bad. Heavy rain fell the night before the race and then continued by falling heavily during the beginning of the race. This downpour of rain combined with the high mineral content of the soil in the area caused the brake pads of many racers to wear out before the completion of even the first 50 mile long loop.

I figured there would be a good chance of going through a set of brake pads during the race, so I had an extra set available at the halfway point just in case I did need to change them out. Unfortunately, the conditions were so bad that my pads completely wore out shortly after I passed checkpoint number two. At the time this occurred, I was riding in fourth place overall and was the second placed single speed rider. Needless to say, I was feeling really good and was prepared to complete a race that I knew was going to be very long and hard due to the horrible conditions.

When my pads had finally lost all braking power, between checkpoint #2 and #3, I had no choice but to walk all the downhills. I can’t explain how frustrated I was to be forced to end my race so early, especially since I had checked the condition of my brakes at the beginning of the day and had preparations in place for just such an incident at the midpoint of the race. Eventually, after doing some walking and some riding, I was safely able to make it to checkpoint #3. When I arrived, I was amazed to see the mass of riders there suffering from all sorts of mechanical issues and realized at this point that there would be few if any riders able to finish the complete 100 mile race.

By the time I made my way back to start/finish area, the leaders of the race had finished loop number one, but the race was stopped at this time by the race promoter for the overall safety of the riders. I do think that stopping the race was a wise one because it was certainly unsafe for riders to continue and in reality I doubt that few if any of the racers would have been able to continue anyway.

Out of all of the NUE Series Races that I have done, this is only my second DNF. The last one was last year when I cracked my bike frame at the Mohican 100. It is never fun to abandon a race, especially when it is due to a mechanical issue. The only positive things I can take from my race being cut short this weekend is that I did not get hurt at the race, I did get to talk to some really cool people while heading back to the start/ finish area and also did a ton of training for cyclocross by constantly dismounting/mounting my bike so many times while trying to make it safely out of the woods. I thought I had a good chance of winning gold this weekend for the NUE Series, but my quest for the treasure was only met with a huge pile of fool’s gold.

The next and last race of the NUE Series is the Shenandoah 100, which will be held over Labor Day Weekend in Harrisonburg, VA. This is the super bowl of the NUE Series and there will certainly be a lot of fireworks at the race and especially in the single speed race. Only Harlan Price and I have a shot at the overall series SS win, so the championship race will be very important for both of us. Hopefully, Mother Nature will cooperate a little more for this race and allow the race outcome to be determined by actual racing and not because of bike issues. I have had my fair share of fool’s gold this season and would really like to take home the real stuff the next time.

Happy Trails, Gerry

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Sweetness

It was a pleasure for me to compete in the sixth race of the NUE Series, the High Cascade 100, on August 7, 2010 in Bend, Oregon, on and around the slopes of Mt. Bachelor. I realize that many of the blog entries I write are about the pain and suffering I endure while competing in 100-mile bike races. Believe me, there were times when I was also hurting at this race, but for some reason the HC 100 never made me feel completely spent. I find this to be quite remarkable because my finishing time was close to 9 hours, which is a much slower time than I typically ride at most of the NUE Series Races. But, looking back at the race now, in hind sight, I can understand why my time out on the course went by so quickly and found the race to be such a great experience.

The HC 100 starts off at the ungodly hour of 5:30 in the morning with a mass start up a road climb. I arrived at the starting area with about 15 minutes to spare before the race started and was actually still getting all my gear together when the race promoter, Mike Ripley, started calling people to the line with his megaphone. I was barely able to make it to the starting line before the large pack of 200 riders began rolling out of the parking lot. With no warm-up and also having the sensation of needing to pee, I decided to go pretty hard up the first road climb to put my head and body into race mode. I do this often at the beginning of a race. Not so much because I have a plan to ride away from everybody, but because it clears my mind of other thoughts and at least puts me in the front group where I feel I need to be for a successful race.

After leaving the pavement, the large pack of riders turned onto a rough dirt fire road. Almost immediately, a cloud of churned up dust made visibility on the course nearly impossible. An email sent out earlier in the week by the race promoter suggested that riders should consider wearing a dust mask for the start. I had one packed in my jersey pocket and was real close to putting it on, but did not because I was afraid to take my hands off my handlebars in order to remove it from my jersey and place it on my head, since it was hard to see what was coming up on the trail. Since we were still climbing, things split up pretty good anyway, so the mask was really not needed after the first off road mile or so.

Eventually, the long initial climb came out in the parking lot of the Mt Bachelor Ski Area. I looked over my shoulder while riding through the parking lot and noticed that I was the lead singlespeed racer and did not see any others around me. I also noticed that the cold morning temperature of around 35-degrees had caused my fingers to go numb. This is not a great feeling to have before entering the first long technical section of singletrack. Shortly after entering this singletrack containing many section of lava rock outcrops, I saw two of the overall pre-race favorites ( Schaulk and Tostado) fixing flats on the trail side. After getting a flat the weekend before, I could empathize with the frustration they were probably feeling and also began to worry about the possibility of one of my tires being torn by the razor sharp lava covering this section of the course. Perhaps it was this feeling that caused me to ride a little bit conservatively through the many lava rock outcroppings on the trail. In any regards, I soon heard someone heckling me from behind. I looked over my shoulder to find Team Niner rider and fellow singlespeed racer Deejay Birch fresh on my wheel. Deejay was the only other SS rider I knew in the race and I also knew that he would be giving me a run for the money at the event.

Deejay and I rode the singletrack together for about 30 minutes or so, before his bike started making a bad squeaking noise. He stopped to check his equipment over as I continued down the trail. At this point, I knew there was a lot of time remaining in the race, so I didn’t push myself too hard. I figured the break from head-to-head competition would provide a chance for me to eat, drink and return to riding the more technical stuff a little more conservatively. During this time, I was also able to get some great views of high alpine lakes and enjoy the natural beauty of the Cascades, which would have been hard to do with another rider with me. Before I knew it, I was done with the first loop and arriving back to the main checkpoint and transition area. I did a quick grab of a filled camelback and two bottles, before rushing off to do loop number two.

Without a doubt, loop number two was the toughest of the three and this immediately became evident on the first trail leading out of the transition area, which is called ‘Ugly.’ This trail is basically a logging road that climbs partway up the mountain again. It is called Ugly because it is cover by 3-6 inches of moon dust, which covers hidden roots and rocks under all the mess. I was so happy to be on a singlespeed with all the dust being kicked up. I could not imagine the havoc it would cause to the drivetrain of a geared bike. At the top, things did not get much better as the trail descended down into a pit filled with small to medium-sized loose lava rocks. I was able to handle the descent down with no problems, but the steep climb out of the large pit was covered with the same rock and it became a hike-a-bike portion for me. It was at this point that I realized I forgot to remove my long sleeved Salsa jersey at the transition area and I began to notice it was warming up fast. I thought about ditching the jersey by a tree or bridge and picking it up later, but figured instead it would be better to wait a little while and leave it at the next checkpoint, which was only about 20 miles away.

Loop two continued to climb up the mountain and I eventually came to a section the race promoter warned all the riders about at the pre-race meeting. Apparently, there was an angry grouse at this section of trail and she was reported to be very protective of her territory. I checked for the bird and was glad that she had decided to let me pass her home without consequence. Other riders reported after the race that they were not so lucky. After making it passed the angry grouse section, I came to what I thought might be the top of the climb. I decided to stop here and resolve two issues I was having. The first priority was to remove a small stone that somehow had entered my shoe and felt like it was digging a hole into the bottom of my foot for the last 15-20 miles. After removing my shoe and knocking all the junk out of it, I took care of issue number two. During a 100-mile race, there are times when it becomes necessary to relieve the body of excess liquids. I figured this was as good of a place as any to allow myself this relief, since it appeared that I was all alone and in the middle of nowhere. It always feels good to take a quick pit stop, but sometimes it is hard to allow the time for the relief.
Not long after I jumped back on my bike after my pit stop, I heard the familiar heckling of Deejay behind me again. It was actually good to hear his voice and I yelled back at him, “Where have you been?” We then rode some of the best singletrack on the mountain together for about the next hour or so. It seemed during this time that we were in a constant state of descending. But, I knew eventually the long fun ride down the mountain would end and when it did I knew we would have a long journey back up to the top. My guess about the course wasn’t wrong, but I had no idea that the course was basically going to go up for the next two hours of ride time.

It was during all of this climbing that I was able to get a pretty good gap on my closest SS competitor. It was also another great section of amazing trail, which eventual lead all the way back up to Mt Bachelor and even passed a handful of snow piles along the way. The pristine beauty of the high mountains has always been a favorite of mine and the Cascades did not disappoint me with the views I saw on that trail.

After leaving the Mt Bachelor checkpoint, it was mostly downhill again leading back down to the ‘Ugly’ trail, which then led to the main and final checkpoint. I was shocked as I rode down Ugly and saw other racers just starting a trail that I had entered about 4 hours earlier. I felt like stopping to warn them of the obstacles ahead, but decided they would be better off not knowing what loop two had in store for them. It felt great coming back into the transition area and the final checkpoint, leading to the super fun loop number three.

Since loop number three is only 13 miles long, I did a pre-ride of the loop the day before the race with my fast friend Josh Tostado. It was great having at least an idea of what to expect going into the last leg of the race. But, at the same time, I had no idea what my gap was on Deejay and feared the possibility of being caught with so little course remaining. So, to maintain my lead, I stayed on the gas and tried to keep things smooth on the BMX-ish style loop. This section of the course is so awesome because it has tons of banked berms, large tabletop and double jumps, and basically just has a nice flow to it. There is no way to become bored with riding on this trail, even after completing 87 miles prior to starting it.

I was able to finish loop three without any trouble and secure the hard-earned singlespeed victory with a winning time of 8 hours and 55 minutes. After finishing, I rode up the parking lot a short ways turned around and then noticed that my friend and competitor of the day, Deejay, had finished a short two minutes and one second later. On a course containing so much climbing, I was surprised to see that my finishing time was actually good enough for a 6th place overall finish out of 200 riders.

It was a great feeling to finally get another win at a NUE Series Race after struggling at many of the races this season. It was also nice to not have to dig so deep within myself to find the energy and courage to finish a race for a change. These feelings coupled with the course layout and the amazing singletrack trails of the race may lead for me to refer to this race as the sweetness, instead of the HC 100. Yeah, it really was that good.
Happy Trails, Gerry

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Wildness of the Wilderness 101

Out of all of the NUE Series 100 Mile MTB Races, the Wilderness 101 in Coburn, PA is one of my favorites. The course has a great combination of everything to make the race interesting, fun and challenging over the big 100 mile loop. The race starts off on a long climb and basically goes up and down for the rest of the race, as the elevation profile of the race course pictured above shows quite nicely. At the 101, most of the climbs are of the fire road variety and the descents are usually rocky and technical trails, which creates a good mix of riding terrain in my opinion. This year the perfect weather of the day and the super dry course conditions made the race course even faster than it usually is.

Here is my version of how things went down in the single speed race.

After the first big climb, three other single speeders (Matt Ferrari, Justin Pokrivka and Montana Miller) and I separated ourselves from the rest of the large single speed contingency at the race. Justin was the first to drop from our single speed group on a big climb before the Three Bridges Trail. Matt was the next victim to drop from the pace as Montana and I exited the technical trail onto a fast fire road section. Then, a few miles from checkpoint #2 (around 42 miles or so into the race), Montana could not hold the pace being set by two geared guys we were drafting and was also dropped. I had a quick stop at check point two and quickly jump on another geared riders draft out of check point #2 without any other single speeders in sight.

I was feeling good at this point in the race and thought that I might have an easy victory ahead if I continued my fast ride and rode smart. But, I soon found out the race was far from being over when Matt and Montana caught back up to me before mile 55 or so. After a hard effort on a big climb before check point #3, I was able to get clear from Matt and Montana again, but knew that they were probably still hot on my trail. So, I did a quick pit stop at checkpoint #3 (around mile 62) and was able to leave the checkpoint before any other riders arrived.

The climb out of checkpoint three is a hard one. It is a steep single track trail covered with roots and rocks. It is a hard trail to climb with a geared bike, so using a single speed on it is pretty brutal. Half way up the trail I tried to get over a section of big roots while standing out of the saddle to get more power out of my pedal strokes. During this attempt, my rear wheel lost traction, which caused all of my body weight to go forward and for me to then go over the bars. I hit my knee on my handlebar stem during this crash, but was able to walk off the pain after pushing my bike for about 10 yards up the hill. I was happy that I was not seriously injured and that my bike also made it through the crash without any damage.

After the hard climb out of checkpoint #3, the course goes into some technical single track, which eventually leads to a super steep downhill. I decided to ride the downhills fairly conservatively after getting my gap on the other single speeders to avoid race ending mechanicals and crashes. I might have been a little too conservative, though, because my Pro Bike Teammate, Justin Pokrivka (J-Pok) caught me by the bottom of the descent. I let him ride by me in the technical single track that followed the descent because he rides the stuff like a mad man.

This section of technical single track was followed by another fire road climb; however, and I was able to gain my time back on J-Pok and actually put a little time on him before entering the next section of single track. But, soon after going into the single track J-Pok was on my wheel again and I again gave him room for a pass on the trail known as Beautiful. This is probably the most technical trail in the race and J-Pok easily put some time on me again by the bottom of the hill. Knowing that another friend and geared racer Andy Gorski was close behind, though, I knew catching a draft on the fire road section leading to check point #4 would not be a problem. Andy did a great job pulling me along and I was thankful he was around for the help.

After our quick stop at checkpoint #4, Andy and I started climbing the long rocky trail that followed. When we started the climb, we could see J-Pok about 30 seconds up the trail. Andy told me to go ahead and that he would see me at the finish. So, I left Andy behind and climbed hard in an attempt to catch J-Pok again. By the top of the climb, I finally caught him and even put a little time on him before descending back down the ridge.

I knew that I would have to descend fast to keep pace with J-pok, so I let my bike fly a little faster down the descent this time. About part way down the descent, I heard a loud popping noise and figure it was either a rock busting my tire or Justin's. At the bottom of the hill, J-Pok says to me, "Hey, do you know you have a flat." I said, "No, I thought it was yours." I probably was aware that my tire was losing air quickly, but said "no" to J-Pok because I was in a state of denial about it.

As much as I like doing the Wilderness 101, I have had constant issues with getting flats at the race. I have flatted at each of my last three attempts at doing the 101. Before the race, I made sure the tires on my bike were in good condition and even filled them with a higher pressure than I typically run to eliminate my chance of getting another flat this year. Unfortunately, however, this year turned out to be no different than my past three 101 attempts and I was again forced to fix my flat at about mile 70.

When I stopped, J-Pok was courteous enough to stop with me and ask if I had everything. I said that I was good and had what I needed for the repair. He then asked if I wanted him to wait for me to fix the flat, so we could ride in together. I appreciated his offer and wanted to say yes to his kindness, but instead I said "No, go ahead. This is your day, man. Go get it." J-Pok took off and I began my frustrating tire change.

I thought that if I rode hard after my flat repair I might have a chance to catch J-Pok again. I did chase hard for the next 30 miles, but I never did see my teammate again. At the end, J-Pok finished the race strong with a finishing time of 7 hours and 30 minutes. I came in about 4 minutes later in second, but very content with the outcome of the race. J-Pok is a good friend, a good racer and was definitely the fastest racer of the day.

The next 100 mile race for me will be the High Cascade 100 in Bend, OR this coming Saturday, August 7th. I am really excited to race on the trails around Bend. I have heard great things about them and it will be cool to experience them first hand. Hopefully, I will be recovered from my Wilderness 101 effort to have another fast race there, especially since I will be going against the Team Niner Duo of Fuzzy and Deejay. Wish me luck!

Happy Trails, Gerry