Thursday, March 27, 2008

Story - First Mountain Bike Race

A long time ago I actually mountain biked on a mountain bike on mountain bike trails. Meaning now I ride my mountain bike on paved roads only. Back then I was exploring all types of racing and I wanted to give mountain biking a shot.

It helped that I knew someone who mountain biked extensively - heck, some of our most prolific placers on the team were strictly off road racers. So when they recommended a race up north - Vermont or New Hampshire, I couldn't tell you - I decided to go. It was the warm season and doing a mountain bike race, a novel thing for me, would beat doing Gimbles again. Plus I thought it might be a bit cooler up north. Closer to Canada, the Arctic, you know.


I started doing some math on speeds. Because I never had a cyclometer on a mountain bike, I had no idea what to expect. I never had one because I couldn't do single track very well and carried my bike everywhere - and if you're carrying the bike, a cyclometer wouldn't do much. I guess a Garmin would be cool, but back then GPS was still a novelty. Or military secret. Something like that. Anyway, I figured out that anything more than 8 mph was pretty fast, and since I could go pretty fast on the rideable parts of a trail, I thought things would be manageable.

That's when I learned that it was a one loop course. And the loop was 30 miles long.

This made me think a bit.

Okay, if I flat 15 miles out, and I'm out of tubes... that's 15 miles of walking. The idea of walking a bike with a flopping dead tire clinging to the rim didn't appeal to me then (and still doesn't now). I figured maybe I could pack hay in the thing (some pro did that at some race). I decided to carry three tubes, just in case.

Water... well, I'll carry two bottles. And since they eject all the time, if they do, I'll stop and pick them up. Can't finish if you can't finish.

Tools - I had enough to adjust or reinstall pretty much everything on the bike. If I broke something, that was a different story. Chain is vital so I packed an extra pin or two. Rest of it, I figured I could fake it if I had to. At that time you'd hear the occasional "I used two big rocks to fix my chain" and not think it was unusual. Truing your wheel against a big flat rock was also somewhat common, and in fact I was fortunate enough to get some practice doing this.

Properly prepared we trundled up to this face. It was so far away we went to a little motel kind of place (cabins really, in the middle of the woods) the night before.

Race day came and it was bright, sunny, and hot. So much for the "cooler north". We got ready, I drank a lot of water, and we got ready to go. I was the only one on my team to have signed up for my class (maybe Beginner, I don't remember, but it wasn't NORBA sanctioned) so I felt kind of lonely in the huge mass of riders.

Suddenly we were off.

I remember very little of the start. I'm sure I got going pretty well because I went flying into the single track just a few places behind the leader. For about 15 seconds I thought, "Wow, I might win this thing." That's when I slammed my foot into a rock as the trail went to single track and I bounced off line and fell. I looked back at the thundering herd of racers barreling down the single track and realized that I'd have to wait forever to get back in line.

Somehow I was back on the bike, in that line, probably amongst some cursing and stuff, and started going again. I had no idea where to go so I had to follow bikers, tracks, and some ribbon stuff strung between trees. Whenever the trail got narrow or went over a log, I had to dismount. Every time this happened another 10 or 15 riders would pass me - I couldn't believe how many riders were back there, it was like a circus clown car or something.

One flying forcible dismount (i.e. crash) twisted my cleat so much I thought it fell off the shoe - I couldn't clip in any more. I gamely soldiered on while pedaling without clipping in my right foot.

It was at a very rocky section (baby head rocks) that I found out, the hard way, that the cleat had not come off but that it had twisted on the shoe. I'd given up trying to clip in and was pedaling with the shoe on top of the pedal. At some point the bike bounced one way, I went the other, my foot was twisted about 40 degrees on the pedal, and I weighted the foot just as I was about to save myself.

Then the cleat clipped in.

I promptly fell over, my foot impossibly twisted on my pedal. My toe wouldn't even clear the frame.

I should point out that I had these absolutely worthless MKS clipless pedals. Might as well have been clipless since you couldn't clip out of them. I pounded on the shoe until I got out, swore I'd get SPDs like everyone else, and got going again, running over all the rocks, my bike bouncing off to the side (too tired to carry it).

After that, to avoid any replication of said accidental twist in, I ran all the single track.

The problem with not clipping in was that I lost a lot of power on the hills, and I really made up ground when the trail went uphill. I was flying past these out of shape guys who had blown by me on the single track, and I was doing it with only my left foot clipped in. I figured I could keep up my fast uphill riding and I'd gain back a hundred or so spots (I figured after the first single track I was probably in 150th place).

I wasn't sure when but at some point I thought I should stop and fix my cleat. So, after passing over two rocks separated by a 2 foot by 1 foot by 1 foot pile of rear derailleurs (Derailleur Graveyard?), I decided I'd break my rhythm, stop, and untwist my cleat.

I'll admit a driving force to this decision was the fact that I flatted a tire.

Nonetheless I stopped at some wider point in the trail, just before an uphill.

I watched a bit painfully as all the guys I worked so hard to pass went streaming up the hill. I, on the other hand, dug into my heavily loaded seat bag and pulled out a tube, freed up my pump, and found that I'd packed the cheapest ever folding allen wrench set I'd ever had. I never expected to use it so I didn't carry a nice one around.

The flat tire was easy. About 5 minutes of huffing and puffing and the tire had some reasonable amount of air in it. The shoe was next. I sat down, twisted my foot so I could see the cleat.

Great. Rocks in the allen bolt head. I felt like an archaeologist, chipping away at my precious soon to be fossilized cleat, trying to clear the head enough to get the wrench in. After a painful few minutes I finally loosened the first bolt.

And then I started working on the second bolt. Whatever happened to one bolt cleats?

Right, they loosened up too often.

At some point someone leaned over and asked what I was doing. Without looking up I told him my cleat loosened up. He asked if he could use the tool after. Sure, I told him. I figured I'd just give him the tool, it was a $2 tool anyway. I pointed out that since I'd be giving him the tool, I would need to tighten my other cleat extra tight. He nodded okay and sat down, waiting for me.

Another guy came over.

Jeepers, I thought, doesn't anyone carry allen wrenches anymore?

"What are you doing?", he asked me, rather impolitely.

I looked up. I mean his voice kind of demanded it, so I looked up. He had a purple shirt on that said "Course Marshal" on it.

I wondered if maybe I was sitting on some endangered flower or something.

"Um, my cleat's loose. I'm tightening it."
"Is that your tool?"

He looked at the other guy. "What about you?"

"I'm waiting for him to finish with the tool."
"You can't take aid from another rider. If you take aid, you'll be disqualified. Your finish and your time won't be scored."

The two started to argue.

Hm. I read something about how mountain biking was like the old Tour de France. You know, get penalized for having a little boy pump the bellows of the fire while you reforge your fork. I thought about this as I played Kathleen Kenyon sitting in her Jericho excavation.

I thought of the derailleur pile I'd passed maybe 1/2 mile back.

"Wait!" I said. The two looked at me. I looked at the Course Marshal guy.

"I know it's illegal for me to give him my wrench, right?"
"But say I broke a derailleur, like a pulley came off. There are like a thousand derailleurs back there jammed between two rocks. If I went back there and got a pulley and a bolt from one, would that be illegal?"
"So what if, theoretically, someone was working on their bike, put their tool away, and the tool fell onto the ground. Would it be illegal for him to use that tool?"

At this point I think my new best friend lost himself the race. If he'd stayed quiet or discretely headed up the trail a bit, he'd have been fine. But no. He couldn't contain himself and started arguing for the "lost and found tool" theory. And the Marshal started getting a bit impatient. But I kept going.

"So what I'm saying is say I rode a bit and my allen wrench fell out of my bag. Anyone could pick it up, not just him, but anyone, right?"

Clearly this Marshal had not been at this point of such an argument. And although it was obvious that we were trying to work around the rules, we weren't racing for a place. This was just some 30 mile death march through the hot forests of wherever we were, struggling to get to the finish without having to walk the whole way.

The Marshal wouldn't budge.

"You can't lend or give him your tool. And I'll be keeping my eye on you. I got both your numbers."

Dejected the other guy whispered to me.

"What should we do?"

Like it was my problem. If he'd just gone forward a bit (enough to get around the bend or something) then it'd be fine. But he insisted on guarding "the guy with the tool", kind of like the way our cat guards his play stick.

Finally finished with my shoe tightening, I straightened back up, got everything back into the seatbag (save the tool), and got back up. The Marshal was still there. Same with the poor guy guarding his potential tool.

"You can't give him your tool!" the Marshal cried out.
"I know, I know."

I threw a leg over the bike, got in with one foot, and started pedaling up the hill. My tool was under my hand, tight against my grip. I clipped in the other shoe - the right one, and it was pretty straight - and started going up the hill. The tool hurt my palm. I tossed it up over my shoulder.

"Oops, I dropped the tool," I said, just to make it clear.

I kept pedaling, never looking back.

The rest of the route was a complete disaster for me. I ran down pretty much every down hill marked with any kind of a danger sign, ran across every single track. Flew up the climbs. I started getting tired.

A couple hours in I got to the top of a longish descent (half mile, tops - to a Connecticut native that is a longish descent). Lots of rocks, some the size of baseballs, some the size of bowling balls, and others even larger than that. A couple logs here and there, but nothing blocking the trail. It looked like a trail back at home, and I knew I could go down such a trail.

So instead of dismounting I decided to try and ride it.

I started down kind of slow. Like riding one rock at a time. Just a little faster than walking pace. As my confidence went up, so did my speed. I'd let the brakes go for more than a tenth of a second at a time, letting the bike build up steam for 15 feet before slamming them on again. Then, balancing while barely moving, I'd ease off the brakes again.

At some point I saw some woman walking her bike down the path. This was not a big deal except a walking cyclist takes up half the room on the trail. I obligingly moved to the other side. Let the brakes go. Let the bike build up steam. And slowed again. Nice right?

Yeah, well right after I passed her, I let the bike go again, let it go maybe 30 feet, and augured into a rock the size of a grown man laying in the middle of the trail. The front tire just stopped and I started going over the bars.

Wham! My privates slammed the stem.

The bike started going over, my body following it in super slow motion. For a horrifying moment I hung in the air then slowly flipped over onto my back.

Wham! My body slammed into the rocks.

My eyes were closed. I opened them just in time to see my bike do a Super Fly Snuka on me.

Wham! My bike landed on top of me.

I felt like Wiley Coyote.

The world started turning with dizzying speed, pain spreading, the intense all numbing pain so familiar to any male out there. I curled up on the rocks, not feeling them at all - I could have been in bed for all I could feel on my side. My body was just trying to preserve its gene line and I couldn't do anything else.

"Are you okay?"

I looked up to the dainty voice. A girl smiled at me. Woman, who knows, it was hard to make out while in such agony. Female at any rate.

I was breathing hard, trying to control the pain. I remembered reading a ninja book where they said that a blow to the groin is usually a fight decider, and that if so struck, you should mount an immediate and desperate attack since it takes a couple seconds for the pain to hit.

In my pain riddled state of mind I mentally checked off that, yes, it takes a couple seconds to hit. And when it does, it's a doozy.

"Yeah, I'll be okay," I finally managed.

"See, that's why I was walking the bike. I saw someone else do that. Boy, that looked like it hurt a lot. I think you'll be okay though. Bye."

She could have been talking on the phone about shopping for all the intonation in her voice. You know, like, "So then I saw someone else buy it and I thought, boy, did that hurt. But you'll be okay. Bye."

And with that she walked daintily on her way.

I don't remember passing her afterwards so I must have been on the ground for quite a while. Luckily no one else rode by in that time.

I stood back up, my shoulders and sides and back suddenly aching from laying on the jagged rocks. I wondered what the heck I was doing in the middle of the woods in some forest that I've never seen in my life before. Not only that, I had to ride my bike out of there. I looked down the hill.

And walked to the bottom, dragging my poor beat up bike beside me.

I remounted the bike gingerly, and pedaled my way to the nearby finish.

I want to say I placed 12th because I think I placed 12th in virtually all the mountain bike races I did except the last one. But honestly I think I didn't. It was something okay, 30th or 50th or something, but not 12th.

I never did find out if the kid got disqualified for taking my tool. But I did see one DQ on the list when I checked results. Anyway, when I saw the DQ, I just hoped it wasn't the tool guarding rider.

Come to think of it, I think they mailed you a copy of the results.

Pre-internet, you know. How quaint.


Colin R said...

I opened them just in time to see my bike do a Super Fly Snuka on me.

Ahhhh I laughed out loud.

Anonymous said...

Judging by your story please ignore my earlier recommendation on Pennwood State Forest up on RT 189 between Simsbury and Bloomfield. Rocks, rocks, drop offs, logs, and rocks.

However, the MDC Resevoir out on Farmington Ave by Central Wheel is pretty tame paved and buff (when dry) trails except for the very top except at the very top of the mountain by Kilkenny Rock. Its kind of a racy fast 8 mile loop that is a good strength workout in the summer. Not technical at all.

ltc tim...

Aki said...

colin - yeah, that was not a fun moment for me. But afterwards it was pretty funny. I think my bike, at the time, weighed well over 30 pounds loaded up so it was a cringing experience.

tim - lol I'd mountain biked very, very little at that point, and the clipless pedals were simply horrible. I bought two sets and I couldn't even bring myself to sell them to someone - I simply tossed them in the metal recycling garbage.

Now I just don't have a decent mountain bike for off road riding. And I'm a city boy - don't like bugs, grass on my shins, getting too muddy, etc etc, so I haven't mountain biked in a while. I used to do all that stuff but now, not too keen on it. In the winter I may give it a shot again (no bugs, no mud, no grass).