Tuesday, August 23, 2011

NUE #9, Fool's Gold

The short and sweet of NUE #9, the Fool’s Gold 100, in Dahlonega, GA is that it was an awesome 100 mile mtb race with some incredible single track, 16,000 feet of climbing and even a swimming pool awaiting the finish of the riders at a beautiful wine vineyard. I must admit that when I first learned about the start/finish venue changing to a new location at the vineyard, I was a little concerned the race would not be quite as good as the old location at a camp ground. But, after completing the event, I can say that the new venue made the race even better than it was before.

The old starting location was at a camp ground at the base of the first big climb on the course. It was a nice starting location because after completing the first 50 mile loop racers went back through the camp ground and could restock on supplies. There were also showers available at the camp to use after the race for cleaning-up. Having showers available after a long race is a huge bonus in my book. The starting location was moved to Montaluce Winery, which is not too far from the original race start at the camp ground. Don’t get me wrong; the winery is nice and all, but I thought it might be a little too nice for a large group of mountain bikers to converge upon for a race. Typically, a camp ground will show less use (abuse) from a large group of outdoor oriented people being there, but I didn’t think this would be the case for a place as nice as Montaluce, especially with a beautiful swimming pool on stand-by for 300 dirty riders to return from their day in the woods.

I am not the race promoter, though, so I didn’t lose any sleep over what the end result of the race would be for the winery. I had enough to worry about with 100 miles of mountain bike racing ahead anyway. For me, it’s not the race itself that requires the majority of the planning, but more the logistics of traveling, booking hotel rooms and just making sure everything I use for the race is ready. Once the starting gun goes off, everything else just seems to fall into place. This is probably because of the pre-planning I do before the event.

So, when I think about the weather in Georgia in August, I imagine hot and humid conditions. When I did this race a couple of years ago, however, I was actually surprised to find that while it was hot, it wasn’t much different than doing a race around where I live in Western PA during the hot summer months. I was hoping for a similar experience this year, but I knew this probably wasn’t likely with the weather forecast calling for a high of 91 degrees and a high amount humidity. I was also hoping that the race would not become a mud fest like it was last year when a ton of rain fell the night before and at the start of the race. Again, with a forecast showing a 30% chance of rain, I couldn’t count out the possibility of gettin wet and muddy.

The race started with a neutral start in the winery on paved roads for about 4 miles or so, before we reached the gravel roads and the pace car pulled off the road to officially start the racing. Things were fast right away, especially for me being on a single speed and trying to keep up with the geared riders on the front of the pack. After being on the gravel for a short distance, we reached the first big climb of the race by the old starting location. I noticed pretty quickly that I felt a lot better getting a warm-up in before hitting the big climb this year compared to past years when we started at the base of this climb.

Things immediately started splitting apart in the race almost as soon as we started climbing. A group of about 5 riders got a gap on the rest of the field and everything behind that lead group was splinting apart fast too. I was maybe like 20 bike lengths off the lead group, but knew that I should be in the lead group because I was feeling good, so I did a huge effort to join the breakaway. After riding with the lead group for a mile or so, I decided to ride off the front and see if I could sneak away to win the KOM prize. I stayed off the front for about another mile, but was soon caught by this fast group of geared riders. I guess my decision to go for the KOM was made a little too early on the climb. I then had to go into recovery mode for a bit after that effort and lost contact with the fastest three riders, but was able to continue climbing very well.

At the top of the mountain, the terrain is mostly rolling with some longer flat sections mixed in also. With my light gearing, I struggled to keep up with the geared riders for a bit, but eventually decided to ride my own race. I went into the single track feeling good and just kept my pace as fast as I could with the gear I had. I knew that I was somewhere in the top fifteen riders overall or so, but had no idea where any of the other single speed racers were behind me. So, I kept my pace high and tried to chase down the geared riders in front of me.

Throughout the race I would catch a geared racer here and there, but it wasn’t until the second time up the biggest climb on the course that I noticed how well I was actually riding. Going up that climb I probably caught about 8 riders and by the top of the climb, I was told by a checkpoint volunteer that I was in fifth overall and only 2 minutes behind fourth place. I was excited to hear about how well I was doing and used this information to keep me motivated during the second lap. At this time I was focused on going fast, but at the same time was smiling ear to ear as I enjoyed the sweet single track on the course. The dry course made the trails fast and fun.

About part way into the second lap, however, the trail conditions quickly changed from being just about perfect to a sea of slippery blood red mud when a heavy down pour of rain fell for about an hour. To make matters worse, I was having issues with my rear wheel and wondered if it would hold together for the rest of the race. A few weeks before the race I broke a couple of spokes on the same wheel. I thought that I did a good job fixing the wheel because it held-up well on the technical trails of the Wilderness 101 and at the Pierre’s Hole Races, so I did not hesitate using it at this race. But, I guess the long, rocky descents on the Bull Mountain descent on this course was too much for the wheel to handle. After the descent off this trail, I went into the checkpoint/aid station and asked for a spoke wrench to attempt a quick repair of my wheel, but none were available.

When I started having my wheel trouble, I had moved into fourth place overall and was told by other riders that third place was less than two minutes ahead. I wanted so much to stay on the gas to move into third overall, but I knew doing so might cause my wheel to completely fall apart. It was already rubbing on my frame and shimming all over the place when I descended at high speed. So, I made the decision to back off the pace that I was riding to minimize further damage and to at least finish the race. Even though I was not real happy about the mud I was riding in at this time, I think it was the only thing that allowed for me to stay in the position I was in overall because it was slowing down the speed of everyone else. During my time on the slick muddy trails, I did get caught by one of the geared guys I had passed earlier, Drew Edsall, and I was starting to wonder if other riders were closing in on me, too.

I did manage to limp into the finish with my damaged wheel, which I think speaks volumes about how strong the Stan’s Notubes Wheels are. I don’t think another brand of rim would have held up as well as this one did with the amount of damage it had. Surprisingly, even my tubeless tire set-up didn’t start leaking air either because of the damage. By the end of the 100 mile race, I held on to 5th place overall and managed to finish as the winner of the single speed class.

After the race, I cleaned myself up with a hose near the swimming pool area, ate some post-race grub provided by the race organizers and then sat in the beautiful swimming pool with a bunch of friendly racing folks, sharing stories of our adventures on the mountain. It definitely was a fun day of racing and I thank my friends Eddie and Namrita O’Dea for doing the hard work of organizing this top notch event. I can’t wait to do it again next year.

Happy Trails.... Gerry

Monday, August 8, 2011

Pierre's Hole

This past weekend I travelled out to Alta, Wyoming to do a new addition to the National Ultra Endurance Race Series Calendar, the Pierre’s Hole 100. It was my fourth NUE Series Race in four consecutive weekends and the 8th NUE Race of the season for me. For this reason and because the race course comprised of more than 16,000 feet of climbing, I knew this race would be a difficult test of my fitness and endurance. I always enjoy racing on new challenging courses and I was very excited to test myself out on a course described by some to be harder than Breckenridge.

But, as excited as I was to do this race, I almost did not make the trip because of feeling exhausted from the three previous 100 mile races I did and because I learned at the beginning of last week that a friend I was going to meet in Salt Lake City for the trip could not make the race due to an injury. To make matters worse, I started feeling the symptoms of a minor cold a couple of days after doing the W101 last weekend and wondered if racing somewhat ill at altitude would be a good idea. But, I was determined to complete my goal of doing four NUE races in a row, so I decided to man-up and make the trip alone, feeling less than 100%.

When I finally made it to the race venue at the Grand Targhee Ski Resort on Friday Afternoon and saw the grandeur of the Teton Peaks and the surrounding mountains covered with wide-spread wild flowers in full bloom, I was glad that I stuck to my guns and made the trip. I became even happier with my decision after I rode a majority of the course and got to witness the beauty of the area close-up from the seat of my bike. I found the trails and views to be nothing more than amazing.

The course itself consisted of one 25 mile loop, which would be repeated 4 times to attain the 100 mile race distance. Generally, I like doing big loop races better than lap races, but I didn’t mind doing multiple laps on this course because it was challenging and fun to ride. Repeating the laps gave me a chance to dial in the course and feel more comfortable with the fast downhills and tight single track. Most of the course was on well-manicured trails, but there were also a few technical sections to keep things interesting. There course also contained a few miles of paved road that climbed out of the valley back to the resort on each lap. This section gave me a mental break from the trail riding and also gave me a chance to eat/drink because doing so on the trails was next to impossible. One thing that I really like about races that do multiple loops is the fact that I can use a cooler to get exactly what I want for food and drink. On the races that do one big loop, this is much harder to do with the drop bag system.

So, when the gun went off at 6:15 am, all the 100 mile racers started at once and immediately started climbing a cat track trail in front of the ski resort. The climb lasted for about 5 minutes or so before it turned back down the mountain on the blazing fast Mill Creek Trail. I was able to hang with the lead group of riders up the first climb and came out at the bottom of Mill Creek as the second place SS racer. Dejay Birch was totally ripping up the descent like a mad man and he put a little gap on me during this section of the race. Luckily, my geared (and sometimes SS) racer friend, Rob Spreng, came out of the Mill Creek Trail at the same time as me and was kind enough to give me a fast pull on the dirt road leading to the long road climb. From there, I was able to bridge up to Dejay and ride with him to the next trail entrance.

The trail at this section was also a fast downhill with many big water bars crossing the trail that could easily send a rider flying off the bike if speed wasn’t kept in check. I used some caution on this trail and once again Dejay put a little time on me by the bottom. I knew the biggest and steepest climb was ahead, though, so I felt confident that I would catch Dejay again. I did catch him on the steepest section of the climb and quickly was able to get a time gap on him. I pushed the pace for the remainder of the climb and by the time I climbed back to the ski resort, Dejay was no longer in view. I then made a quick pit stop at the aid station before finishing the 7 miles of super fun single track leading to the start finish line.

At this point, I might have become a little too comfortable with my lead and rode the second descent down the Mill Creek Trail too conservatively because by the bottom of the hill, I heard Dejay ringing his handlebar bell to let me know he was right behind me. I couldn’t believe he had made-up that much time on me going down the hill and I knew that if I wanted to win I would need to immediately put the pressure on during the road climb. My strategy seemed to work and by the time I went back onto the fast downhill trail with the water bars, Dejay was not in sight again. From that point on, I did not see any other 100 mile SS racers and did my racing with the lead geared guys to keep my pace high. I learned after the race that Dejay had a pretty nasty crash on that descent after going over one of those big water bars at high speed. He did not get seriously injured and was able to finish the race, but I am sure the crash took some of the steam out of his ride.

Since I did not know what was going on behind me, I continued to push my pace for the next two laps. One of the rewards of finishing this race is an awesome custom belt buckle for any rider beating the time of 9 hours 45 minutes. One of my main goals was to win one of these belt buckles, so I continued to push myself hard to ensure that I got one. I was somewhat surprised during the race that I felt so good considering how tough the course was and the fact that I was racing with congested lungs at a fairly high altitude of between 6000-8500 feet. I’m sure the reason for this was because my body has become pretty accustomed to doing these long and hard races after doing so many of them this year.

Anyway, with no problems occurring during the rest of the race, I was able to win a belt buckle by finishing with a time of 9:01, which was also good enough to be the first SS racer and 7th overall. I thought this course was a blast to ride and I would definitely recommend it to anyone thinking about doing it in the future. Oh, and BTW, this course was hard, but I didn’t think it was nearly as hard as Breckenridge, which is a good thing in my book. My only regret of the trip is that I couldn’t stay longer to do more riding in the area. Oh well, I guess that gives me an excuse to go back again.

Happy Trails...

Photo Credit: MTB Race News - top photo