Monday, April 19, 2010

The Roadiest MTB Race

Root 66 series Winding Trails Fat Tire Classic
I struggled right up to the night before which bike to bring or even which field to race. I seriously contemplated bringing my singlespeed. After pleading with Charlie for some intel on gear selection, he only commented that my stock setup (46 inch-gear) would be woefully inadequate. Rummaging for rings and cogs, the biggest gear I had on hand was 51 inch-gear. For my anticipated average speed based on last year's race, this would still leave me spinning out wildly on many parts of the course and would put my cadence at a very high average for the race. I bagged the singlespeed idea.

This left me with two other choices. Last year I raced my 26" Dean Ti hardtail, which has been out to Dean for warranty repair six months now. Don't get me started on that one. So I have my new 29" Superfly hardtail or 26" Racer-X dualie. Yeah, I know, I'm spoiled to be faced with such a dilemma. I presumed that since it rained three days straight at my house, it did the same two hours away at the race venue. I didn't want to subject the newest addition to my fleet to the kind of torture it endured at the Burlingame MTB TT a couple weeks ago. The drivetrain on my dualie is due for an overhaul soon anyway, so it was selected for Sunday's abuse.

Arriving at Winding Trails in Farmington, CT, it was surprisingly dry. Locals said it really didn't rain at all Saturday or Sunday. The course looked firm and tacky. Sport riders coming through indicated not all of the course was in pristine condition though.

Warming up, I could have sworn I showed up for a road race. Roadies everywhere. I was definitely in the right place for a mountain bike race. Most of the riders in my field registered day-of like I did. There were 28 of us in the Cat 1 40+ group, nearly double last year's field. No Corner Cycle guys this time, but there were a few other worthy contenders to ensure a lively race. Kevin Hines opted to race in the Pro/Open category this year.

It was around 50F and very windy. The sky went from bits of sun to very dark and threatening rain and back again. Our race got started behind schedule, and we stood there close to 30 minutes in spandex freezing our asses off. Everybody was shivering. It would end soon enough once we got going.

The start was quite hairy. Too narrow, loose rocks and sand with riders squirreling all over the place. At least it was uphill and not fast. I'm not big on hole-shots. Mountain bikers have it all backwards. You should strive for negative time splits. It is essentially a time trial, right? Well, maybe at Winding Trails that is not quite true. More on that shortly.

One rider I was going to mark was Mark Gunsalus (Team Fuji). I knew a couple of the other riders in the field were quite strong, but I've never raced against them head to head. Mark was in my Battenkill field last weekend, and I tried to take a place away from him at Hilltowns last year but failed. Mike Rowell (NEBC) and Brian Cantele (Benidorm) were sure to mix it up at the front.

We go off and I got buried in the hole-shot. No worries. Except the slinky effect was extreme. Brake hard, accelerate hard. Non-stop. I started making some pretty sketchy passes. With younger Cat 1 fields staged just two minutes apart, it didn't take long in the first lap to start passing them. I completely lost track of where the faster guys in my field were. Mark was many riders ahead of me. The course doubles back on itself in many places, so you could keep tabs on guys you wanted to catch or stay away from. Towards the end of the first lap, I finally got on Mark's wheel. I buried myself to get there, a pace completely unsustainable for even another lap. We had three more laps to go.

The course was in mint condition, except for one spot. There was a small extension added to last year's course. Instead of coming down a steep bank into a muddy area, we continued along the ridgeline until popping out near the road. Then we doubled back along the park road, cutting back into the woods just in time to catch the giant wallow pit. This was something right out of a Midwest hog farm. Smelled almost as bad too. The goo was so deep you couldn't keep your feet out of it. It was tenaciously sticky. One pass through this 50ft stretch might as well have been an entire course of mud. It took a whole lap just for the chain to start sounding normal again and the brake rotors to stop making grinding sounds. Glad I took the older bike after all. To add insult to injury, there was a new hill in the course that was uber steep, just nicely doable in my middle ring. From the looks of tracks, most riders chose to run up this sucker.

After catching Mark, he took an inside line at the top of the starting climb and bobbled on the off-camber chicane. Maybe it was deliberate. I kinda wanted to sit on his wheel for a bit and recover. No such luck. I ramped it up, and putting any distance on him was painful. At least I was riding through less traffic now, having passed most of the 30+ age group. Completing the second lap, Mark was no longer in sight. My second lap was my fastest.

Lap three was mostly riding in no-man's land. Every few minutes I would catch and pass another rider from a younger age group or a single speeder that was staged ahead of me. I'm not sure, but I think one of the riders I passed was Mike Wonderly (Nerac/Earth Cycling). Towards the end of lap three, Mike was back on my wheel. He was in my age group, so I had to do something about this. The deal was, I was smoked. We were going so flat-out hard that I couldn't even drink from my Camelbak. I would have just inhaled it into my lungs. So my plan was sinister. The average speed on this course was clearly high enough where drafting mattered. I would attempt to sit on Mike's wheel and then use my newly discovered explosive sprint to take him on the slight uphill finish. Sounded like a plan, eh? I had no idea what place we were going for, but I was reasonably confident it was a podium position.

The fourth lap was a hold on to Mike's wheel and pray ordeal. 25mph and 12" off somebody else's wheel through the woods? Yep, roadie skills to the rescue. Mike made a few sweet passing moves, nearly severing the aero bungee cord I so desperately needed. There were two moderate climbs on the course besides the new wall just before the finish. I could easily stay with Mike on these, so my confidence grew in the outcome at the finish. It was the high speed brushing shoulders on trees stuff that I had trouble with. Mike was super smooth in the tight stuff.

So now we're about 300m out. I've spent a whole lap shamelessly glued to this wheel. Will I have the goods? Mike discretely locked out his fork. Oh, good idea, me too. And my shock. Then he jumps up to the big ring. Oh-oh. If this was going to be a big ring affair, I was doomed. I stayed in my middle ring so I could accelerate more quickly. Mike jumps, I do too, choosing to come up his left side. The finishing chute goes off to the right, and on the previous three times we went through here, we forked to the left. We were clearly warned at the start how to finish.  Finish to the right! So I'm rapidly coming up Mike's left as he starts drifting left. Next thing you know, I'm looking at stakes and yellow tape. WTF! I thought he's going to run me into the tape to keep me from passing him? I didn't want to take both of us down, so I braked hard as he completely cuts across my line. He was finishing in the lap lane! By the time he realized it and tried to come back under the tape, I crossed the line. I guess it was one of those anaerobically induced haze events.  It was all good after we caught our breath.

That was probably the hardest 100 minute steady state effort I have ever done on a bike. There is zero recovery on the course, always on the rivet. The tacky conditions allowed great speed to be carried almost everywhere, but it also increased the rolling friction. This meant you had to work disproportionately harder to carry that speed vs. last years concrete hard dust bowl conditions.

When results were posted, it turns out Mark Stotz finished just ahead of Mike and I to take the last podium spot. Rowell and Cantele took first and second. So fourth place for me again just like last year. My average speed was slightly faster this year, but I had to work way harder for it. It was 40 degrees colder this year too. I would have thought I'd be quite a bit faster this year, as I raced the day before last year and it was so hot. But you can't discount the tackiness of the surface. Great for control, but not necessarily efficiency. Last year I beat singlespeed rider Charlie by 60 seconds. This year, 64 seconds. Spooky how similar my last two races were compared to same races last year. Same place finish, slightly faster. Wonder if that means I'll win Turtle Pond next weekend?

Other than starting a little late, the event seemed to be very well organized. There were over 350 finishers this year. That is more than last year, which was significantly more than the year before. A lot of roadies come out to this one. Winding Trails and the old Watershed Wahoo course are the only two I could go all-out for 100 minutes and not dab once. This race nicely fills the void left when the Wahoo ceased to exist, although the Wahoo played perfectly into my hand with two monster climbs per lap. It was easy to win the Wahoo. Winding Trails has just enough tight twisty stuff to temper the pure hillclimber types.


CB2 said...

During pre-ride, I was riding the "wall", but I don't think any ss'er was able to ride it in the condition it was on Sunday.
One nice thing about the ss race was I was never in no man's land.
Matt Domnarski's race is a climber's race; Mark won it last year. It is pretty technical though.

CB2 said...

Oh, and the 40-49 was the largest class, followed by the Cat1 ss (which was also filled with 40= geezers)