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

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