I loves me a good sufferfest though, and the Vermont 50 miler is a good one. I've raced the VT50 five times previously in both good and bad weather, going back to 2000. I was not stressing over how I was going to do this year in the race. It was just going to be whatever it was.
I did stress a little over which bike to bring. I've always raced the VT50 on a hardtail. A hardtail may not always be the most enjoyable bike to ride over mixed terrain, but it certainly makes for an efficient climber. There is over 8000ft of climbing in the course. Having so many riding hours on my long-travel Santa Cruz Tallboy LTc since I bought it last year, I pondered how well that bike would do on the course. Overkill, to be sure. It weighs several pounds more than my hardtail with monster truck 2.35" tires. But damn, that bike is fun to ride. Fun overruled efficiency. The sofa bike was hitting the VT50 course this year.
I lost a lot of time early in the race last year. The fog was bad and my glasses fog up horribly. This was compounded by a completely worthless nickle-battery light to illuminate my way. I think the whole field passed me in the first couple downhills of the race. I falsely assumed I could scavenge off other's lights. But no, bight lights behind me just left me riding into a huge, pitch black shadow of myself. My 0.000001 lumen light could not fill the shadow. So this year I brought my 1200 lumen DiNotte light. Again, overkill, but somebody else was going to be riding in their shadow from my light. The half pound of added weight would totally be worth it. To mitigate glasses fogging up, I applied some windshield anti-fog compound to an old pair glasses. Not recommended for plastic, but I thought I'd give it a try.
Stellar weather was on tap for Sunday. Lining up for 6:05am start, it wasn't even cold out. Most years there is frost on the ground or it is raining. Staying hydrated was a bigger concern, as temps were expected to rise above 80F later in the day.
My second wave of experts go off, a very large field, probably 100+ riders. The pace was ballistic right from go. I don't ever recall having to drill it on the paved downhill to stay with the field in such a huge draft in this race. I let my self get a bit far back. When we got to the first truly off-road climb, it turned into a 3-cross conga line. Argh, it should be all quite rideable. At least on the initial plummets I could see this year!
There were a few riders I don't typically beat in MTB races, maybe never, that I thought I'd keep my eye on. I figured if I could beat all three of these guys, I had slight chance at age group podium. They were Tyler, Zane and Mike. In the dark, I had no idea where these guys ended up, and I don't really know Mike. As it started to get light, I passed Tyler. Later I learned he suffered some kind of mishap. Zane, I was trading places with the whole race. Mid race he seemed to find turbo boost and I thought he was gone for good.
I have a love-hate relationship with these endurance events. I almost always cramp up 3hrs in or so. The duration is way beyond my sweet spot, such as the 30 minute hillclimb efforts I don't suck at. But an endurance race is an adventure, especially a single loop course like the VT50. At the 30 mile stop where I swapped Camelbaks, my hamstrings felt well along the path to cramping at any time. I started deliberately hopping off my bike on some of the steepest pitches to "run" up them, stretching my hammies in the process. This seemed to stave off cramping last year.
The sofa bike was absolutely crushing the downhills. I scared myself shitless multiple times. In fact, two riders were like "WTF Hill Junkie, you're killing the descents!" My response was it was the bike, not me, it lets me ride beyond my skill level. Nobody was passing me on the descents. That never happened in the VT50 before. Was the time gained going down making up for carrying all that extra heft up? Probably not, but it was more than worth it in fun-factor. Plus I was not getting beat to shit in the process. That 5+ inches of travel front and rear just soaked everything up.
I was on the hairy cusp of total cramping with about five miles to go. I caught a glimpse of one of my nemesis, Zane, on a switchback or two ahead. I thought at the time that could be a podium spot. Game on, cramping or not. Fortunately there was a lot of high speed technical downhill involved. The sofa bike knows what to do! I caught and passed Zane. Now the big worry was how do I keep him behind me with the big finishing climb coming up, while cramping, and he's on a skinny whippet hardtail that probably weighed 10 pounds less then my tank? I reached the point I couldn't even pedal while seated without my inner thighs locking up. Stand it would have to be. I reached the contouring rollers up top with my gap still intact. Now I just had to not screw up.
As the plummet to the finish line drew near, I noticed another rider gaining on me. Dang, a potential threat? No idea. The pressure was still on. I had to take risk all the way down. Strava later showed me I PR'd that last piece of the course too. I held him off.
I crossed the line in 4:36, five minutes faster than last year and a new personal fastest for me in the VT50. I was pretty happy with that. I've always treated the VT50 more as a personal individual time-trial rather than a race against others. This is how the course is optimally ridden in my opinion. I was surprised to see this time netted me only 6th place in the 45-54 year old age group and 30th overall out of 700 or so. I had a clean race, came out ahead of guys that normally beat me, and still came out further down than expected. Not disappointed though.
Repeat perfect weather of last year
When I first started racing the VT50 in 2000 and 2001, a sub-5hr finish would net you a top-10 overall finish. Now a sub-5hr finish will barely get you into the top 100 finishers. The course is even more technical, with more climbing, and with more singletrack today than in the early years. So what gives? The caliber of riders showing up at this event, that's what gives. Pretty cool that Mike Silverman and staff have built this stand-alone race up to this level. Getting in has become increasingly difficult. The race filled in 12 minutes this year.
With improvements in suspension design and technology, I'm finding less reason to keep a hardtail in the quiver. My Tallboy is the go-to bike for all trail riding. And now I posted my best on a "heavy", long-travel bike on a climbing course that I thought was the exclusive domain of hardtails and rigids. Maybe a racier 29er build should be in my plans for next year.