Sunday, December 06, 2009

Story - The Last (Mountain Bike) Race

So, yeah, I used to race mountain bikes.

My first time ever leading a mountain bike race, in Cranberry Park in Norwalk. Last time too. And the only picture I have of me on a mountain bike. Our team tent is in the background somewhere.

I was on a Jamis Dakar something-or-another, a full suspension pearl red bike. XT stuff, RockShox Judy fork, I think Paul or some other CNC machined brake levers, and some V-brake set-up.

But my mountain bike career started a decade or more before.

Pepto Cannondale

This was a long way from my first bike, a Pepto Bismal pink Cannondale. That bike had the first generation Suntour indexing system, one that barely worked on a good day.

One warm summer night, the guys did a Midnight Mountain Bike Ride from the shop. We had to wait until two guys built up their brand new DiamondBack bikes, and at about midnight we left for our ride. We rode all over the place, taking in two or three beaches, and getting chased by multiple policecars with spotlights out of a golf course. The most exciting part of the latter was sprinting at a wall of trees and hoping that you didn't hit a trunk. Once through the other side, we were home free.

Towards the end of the ride we were meandering around a small residential road in town, and the ride leader hollered to follow him. We were on a street-lit road, bordered by thick bushes. He blasted into a gap in said bushes and appeared to take a left. I blasted through the gap too.

And my front wheel dropped about eight feet. I landed hard on my chest, rolling onto my back, and watched as two more riders launched unknowingly off the eight foot drop off.

What we perceived as a left turn was in fact his butt hanging off the back of the bike as he made the drop off.

Laughing, we picked ourselves up and kept riding. At some point I mentioned that I wished I had a camera so I could have taken pictures of the ride. The ride leader looked at me.

"Why do you need a camera? We're going to do this all the time!"

Later, when I realized it was all poison ivy down there, and I was bathed in it, I wasn't laughing. And, no, we didn't do a lot of Midnight Mountain Bike Rides.

I went through that pink bike pretty quickly, toppling over while doing laps around my childhood home (I was still a kid). Broke the dropout, bang, and that was the end of the frame, end of story.

Cannondale 3.0

My next mountain bike was a black Cannondale, a beauty with the fat one inch fork blades.

My bike is in the foreground. You can't tell but there is about 18 psi in each tire. I met the guy in the background while I was riding around Boulder, CO, and we decided to go do a long climb. This is the top of that climb.

I built it up with Suntour, although this stuff worked well. My wheels were skinny M13s or something, the Sun Mistral copy of Keith Bontrager's cut down and re-connected Mavic MA40s (he'd get 700c clincher rims, separate them at the seam, cut out a couple eyelets worth of rim, and reconnect the ends to make a 26" mountain bike tire rim). I ran 2.1s, but just before the bike's demise I moved to a 2.35" set up.

One day, at work, I went out to the car. The trunk wasn't shut quite right, and I peeked inside. The bike, there in the morning, was gone.

Specialized M2

After the shock at losing the Cannondale, I toyed with the idea of getting a Bridgestone MB-0 or MB-1, the favorites for the guys at the shop. But I bucked the trend and got the massively overbuilt Specialized M2 bike. It had XT, a new Judy fork, and some superlight Specialized tires.

The coup d'etat? Spinergy Rev-X mountain bike wheels.

This bike was fast. Like really, really fast.

I raced this for the first time in a 30 mile, point to point race up in Vermont. I'd chosen some inexpensive clipless pedals, impossible to clip into and out of, and had to run all of the single track.

Later, in more conventional circuit races, I placed 12th in pretty much every race I entered. I usually started well, flatted, changed the flat, and passed people up to the finish.

In one of my last races, in Ringwood, NJ, I ended up losing my brakes in a wet and wild event. The finish was unconventional at best, with a 200 yard or so rocky descent to a dirt road, a hard right, and a 10 meter sprint to the line.

As the race went on, my (cantilever) brake pads melted into glooey grey globs in the muddy conditions. On the second last lap I hit the descent and realized I had virtually no brakes. With my levers slammed into my grips, I flew down the descent in absolute terror, totally out of control.

Of course the spectators all thought I was attacking, and cheered me on.

The last lap I actually passed a couple guys on the descent, terrified out of my wits. I got even more cheers from the peanut gallery, although the guy I passed in the last turn wasn't as much of a fan.

My fingers hurt from where the brake lever crushed them against the grips. I was really glad to finish that race.

I eventually sold the bike to an employee, who sold it to his brother. I wish I still had that bike.

Jamis Dakar

When I could get my hands on a Jamis, I did. I wanted a light, full suspension bike, and the Jamis seemed perfect. I made some upgrades to the bike, primarily in the wheels, brakes, and anything to do with fit (stem, saddle, bars). I also fiddled, pretty much unsuccessfully, with various suspension settings.

It had sweet Mavic rims, with 4 different color spoke nipples, 32H each. The bike had an XT drivetrain, which I kept. I cut down the bars, put on Paul levers, used super light Specialized tires....

And I only raced it once.

Due to time, stress, and energy constraints, I rarely rode the Jamis. But I decided that I'd go and do the Jack Rabbit Run race at the local park, a 10 minute mountain bike ride away from my house.

I remembered the first time I rode with a Cat 2 off road - we immediately hit 32-33 mph, and we were just flying through the woods. I realized that I had been doing it all wrong.

Therefore I went to recon the course with an open mind. I'd ridden the course before, of course, and therefore I had preconceived notions of how fast each section could be taken. My goal was to explore those limits, to go exponentially faster. This meant looking to use trees and berms as banking, using enormous gears in certain sections low gear sections of the course, and optimizing my attack of the 2 foot tall concrete cube that blocked the bottom of the hardest climb of the course (a short one).

I realized that by going high on tire pressure while relaxing the spring tension on the suspension, I could rock and roll over almost anything at high speed. The first bit of the course had some tight single track, with roots, a right-left, and a field of "baby head rocks". I experimented with this critical opening bit of the course and decided that a 100%, full out assault would work best. I'd hit the section at top speed, realistically about 32-34 mph, and blast through everything, relying on the suspension to deal with the big shocks.

I had to learn how to control my bike's tendency to drift at high speed - the long sweeping curves, if approached at crit-like speeds, ended up being the most challenging turns of the course. I could handle a little slide at 5 or 10 mph, but when my tires started edging sideways at 35 mph, it got a bit tricky.

I found other sections where I could make up time relative to my "old mind" experiences. A particular short bump hill, instead of slowing and creeping along in the small gear, I could sprint up in the big ring. Some flat, sweeping turns meant big gears, big speed.

I did have one weird commitment prior to the race, and when I say "prior", I mean like a hour or two before the race, not a day or two: I was doing the Bloomin Metric. Just the 25 mile route, mind you, but still.

I overhauled both bikes the day before, cleaning the drivetrain, checking all the bits and pieces for looseness or damage, and packed up late at night.

After a couple hours sleep, I dragged myself out of bed. We started the Bloomin Metric, but after over and hour of riding, I realized that at this pace I would miss my race start. With apologies to the group, I turned off and time trialed back to the car. I zipped to the race course, and of course the race had attracted the largest ever one day field in NORBA history, I think 1600 or 1800 riders. Cars stretched for literally a mile in each direction, parked on the side of the road.

I meandered to the park entrance, wondering what to do - I might as well park at home and ride over. I stopped, panic starting to set in.

Then, literally at the entrance of the park, a guy jumped into the first car next to the gate and pulled away. I pulled in before he was 40 feet down the road, jumped out, and started getting ready for the race.

I knew the race would be about an hour long, and I decided that I'd race to win, and only to win. No spare tube, no pump, no tools, no water, no nothing. Just me, my bike, and the course.

This, of course, simplified getting ready, and after I pumped up the tires I went looking for registration. My teammate Dave found me, and he directed me to the starting chute.

I looked at it appalled. There had to be 150 racers, all lined up in a one lane dirt driveway to nowhere. I thought I knew the course, but they were pointing the wrong way, so obviously I didn't know the course.


We sat and sat in the staging area. I climbed off my bike, knee to the ground, and propped my tired head against the bars. I drifted off to sleep, startling myself awake once when the bike started to tip over.

Then, in the hazy bluish world of "I just woke up", Dave started poking me.

"Get up, we're lining up!"

I staggered forward, following the masses, feeling like a lemming.

Then, glorious day.

A loud voice, on the PA, yelled out.

"Okay, now everyone turn around!"

We all looked at each other in confusion.

I turned around and looked in disbelief. The gravel driveway, the start of the course, was behind us.

I ain't no dummy. I picked up my bike and whirled it around. Sweet! I was in the second row of riders.

I heard a LOT of grumbling further back, but, hey, you take it when you get it.

Scott Montgomery, of Cannondale and Scott Bikes, happened to be a few riders away from me. He led the racers in a "thanks to the promoter" cheer. Then, after the Series leader moved to the front, we set off.

I fumbled a millisecond with my pedals and then I was flying.

I had started in the big ring, second big cog, and I literally sprinted away from the line. Pedal pedal SHIFT pedal pedal pedal SHIFT... I was maxed out, biggest gear, sprinting my brains out, looking to lead into the first section.

I passed by the team tent near the end of the straight. Then everyone started motioning, "Left, left, left!"

The course went around the parking lot, not through it like we rode, and I had to make that left. My tires started drifting in the loose pine needles. Apparently that's when I passed the photographer who took the picture above.

I went flying through this unfamiliar terrain, riding in a perfect Zen-like state. Then the course hopped into a couple empty parking spots before hopping the curb back into the woods, for the start of the real singletrack.

I flew onto the pavement, and then lifted the front wheel for the curb. The rear wheel didn't clear it and I heard a big BANG as the wheel hit. The bike didn't move too much, the suspension taking the impact.


I sprinted down the singletrack, did a big wheelie over the roots, again letting the rear suspension take the hits.

Dove into the left-right... and the bike was drifting way more than it should have.

Down the singletrack, around the left...

And for sure, the rear tire was flat. I rode into the Baby Head field, rim slapping against rocks, roots, and the ground.


I hopped off the bike to look.

Yep, it was flat. I jumped back on, thinking maybe I could get a tube from the guys at the team tent. Rode around a left, and then I heard the distinctive rumbling of tires on dirt. I moved out fo the way, and four riders went by me.

The Series Leader led the group, and they were the next group on the course.

Holy smokes! At the cost of the rear tube, I'd taken a 15-20 second lead in about half a mile!

I started walking up the step climb, where an anti-erosion log sat every five feet up a slight grade. I got up almost the whole grade, a good 30 seconds of walking, before the 6th place racer went by.

Holy smokes!

I walked to the top, saw the team tent, and decided I really wanted to take a nap. I strolled over, a guy let me take his lawn chair, and I fell asleep. Delirious with fatigue, I don't remember much of what happened that day, but eventually I rode my bike back to the car, and drove the car home.

That was the last mountain bike race I ever entered.

The Jamis ended up at in an IT colleague's hands. He used it to commute to work in Manhattan, and raved about the bike all the time.

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