Continuing my pattern of doing MTB races after self flagellation in a road, TT or hillclimb races, I made the short trip up to Sunapee for the Horror at Harding Hill race. The day was beautiful. The course conditions were less than beautiful. I had serious reservations about doing this race on the account of torrential rain about 36hrs earlier. I last did Harding Hill in 2000 and 2001. I recalled the course was uber greasy in 2000 in light drizzle. It was actually my last sport category race and points earned bumped me to expert just before my first Vermont 50 race in 2000.
In the eight years since I've raced here, I've become quite the roadie. Descents in rotor deep mud with the consistency of peanut butter were never my forte even when I raced only off-road. When I saw bikes coming back from pre-ride laps such that you couldn't identify what brand of bike it was, I nearly packed up and went back home. To make matters worse, I brought my still in pristine condition Titus Racer-X. Sure, I built it up to race, but I don't relish the thought of wallowing in the mud with such a finely tuned machine.
Only 40-50 riders were pre-reg'd for the race, but another 100+ came out day-of. Some CX superstars were there, like Mosher, Stotz and Morse (Corner Cycle) and multi-athlete Alec Petro (Team Psycho). The elite field was pretty small, but the other fields were pretty good size.
To add to my horror, we are lined up to start across a field about 70 meters from the entrance to doubletrack. I think we were lined up about 30 across. And do you think we'd get age group starts? Nope. It was major cluster-o-ramma. All experts went in one launch. I was lucky if I made top 30 going into the woods. For a while, the world turned into doubletrack mayhem, cross-eyed anaerobia. I managed to pass a couple people, but passing another that was passing another while getting passed didn't leave much room. I'm pretty sure I heard pedal in spokes or spokes on derailleur a couple times. At least I didn't see a pile up like allegedly happened in the sport start.
I had not pre-ridden the course and had no idea what was coming up. The first few minutes were wicked fast and we hit one rideable mud bog. Then we hit the big downhill slide. This stuff smelled bad and sucked the life right out of ya. Despite being downhill, most riders found it faster to dismount and run. Few cleaned the treacherous boulder field at the bottom. In four laps, I never cleaned this whole stretch. Can't say I even tried. I do recall trying to pick up my bike one time. I couldn't. The wheels were completely packed in with black peanut butter. It must have weighed over 40 lbs.
A little later in the first lap, I'm feeling pretty good on a sweet section of singletrack. Without warning, I'm on the ground sliding towards a tree. Dang. How did that happen? No time to inspect. Three riders passed me just like that. I just laughed that one off. No damage.
Just before the start/finish, there's a nice descent with a little stone ledge to hop up. Piece of cake when you can pick your own line. The sport and novice riders were circulated out onto the course behind us, so elites and experts had the course to ourselves on the first lap. Traffic would go way up shortly.
Things settled down a bit on the second lap. I kept trading places with a NorEast rider. He appeared to have fresher legs than I did, as he could put a few seconds on me on the climbs, yet amazingly I would catch him back every time we came to a mud bog. There were about six of these on the course. It did not take long on our second lap to begin passing novice riders. I figured out what tripped me up on my first lap. A root, of course. I was probably looking at where I wanted to go, not at what not to hit. That is what you are supposed to do. In this case, it failed me. I managed to not fall off my bike in lap two.
Lap three I'm starting to not feel good any more. Why do we do this again? Oh right, it's fun wallowing in mud that could have been trucked in from a pig farm. I'm tailing the NorEast guy. There's a place mid-course where you come down a hill, cross a muddy spot with short logs armoring the trail, then the singletrack drops some more. The NorEast guy is getting back on his bike. That's odd I thought. So I bomb down through where he just go back on his bike. Before I knew it, I'm sliding through the weeds and mud on my head and shoulder. I went down going fast and hit hard. Good thing there weren't any women or children around. I did not laugh that one off. Again, I had no idea what I hit. I remounted and realized my left fingers weren't working very well. Seems I bent half them over backwards.
NorEast guy now puts distance on me and I'm on the verge of hemorrhaging more places. Not that I really cared about how I placed anyway, but at least I wanted to give it my best shot. I come through the start/finish knowing I had only one more lap. Could I survive just that much more?
By now the course started thinning out again, as sport and novice riders were finishing. Getting to know the course helps too. I actually picked up the pace. I believe the NorEast guy bobbled in one of the bottomless mud pits and I passed him. Another guy who might have been Andreas Hau was right on my wheel. The way he gained on me meant I had no hope of holding him off to the line. He passed me and proceeded to blast through the remaining stink pits. I followed suit. So that's how you do it! Why didn't somebody show me that in the first lap? Anyway, he finished seconds ahead of me. I came in 5th in the Expert Vet-II field, actually the biggest field of the day with 19 starters. 11th overall expert isn't too bad for me since this was far from a roadie friendly course. Alec Petro, my age, was the fastest expert for the day, about 10 minutes up on me. No surprise there I suppose. His RAAM team crossed the country in something like 5 days. He'll certainly be a force to reckon with at the Vermont 50 this fall.
Hopefully my fingers recover more quickly than my thumb which I injured four months in my last ski race. It was worth coming out. Looks like everybody had fun. I debated at one point to bring a singlespeed. Dave Penney brought his and took third in the SS division. I surely would have crashed one or two more times on my SS.
So how do you top off a fine day in the mud? You hit a lovely hill on the way home, of course. I found a water hole to dunk wash my bike first before leaving the venue. Mt Kearsarge is just off Exit 9 where you access I-89. Rather than park at the commuter lot right there, I opted to park at the toll entrance to save the five mile slog on a full suspension mountain bike. I paid the $4 toll, pumped the tires to 50psi, locked out the suspension goodies and climbed. At first, my legs rebelled. About 15 minutes in, they relented and caved in to my orders. Took about 30 minutes to reach the upper parking lot (really slow). It was full of cars. I then proceeded to ride the hiking trail to the summit, about 0.5mi away. I had done this before, but many years ago. I quickly realized very little of it was rideable. Did I actually ride this 9 years ago? Maybe it wasn't so badly eroded then. Or I just really suck now. Anyway, about 90% of the trail was hike-a-bike heading up. A slightly greater percentage was rideable back down. With some body armor and full-up DH bike, a skilled rider could probably ride nearly 100% back down.
The view up top is second only to Mt Monadnock in southern NH. A bald granite summit offers 360 degree views except for some antenna structures that obstruct the view to the east. There were over 50 people up there. The summit area is a mountain biker's playground. Lots of smooth, sculpted granite to play on. Many hikers were easily amused by my meager abilities. It was actually quite chilly up there while it was 85F back in Nashua. I hiked/biked back down to the road. The new pavement is nice even with squirrely knobby tires. Disk brakes are very nice for 12% curvy grades. In one hill, I more than doubled my climbing for the day. I believe the last time I went all the way to the summit was when I race Moody Park in Claremont about 9 years ago. I'll leave you with a few pictures from Mt Kearsarge. Thanks for reading.
Portion of trail heading up
What most of descent looked like, maybe 15% grade
Summit area from lookout tower looking west