Looking over the USA Cycling Race Calendar early in the year to see what local races were planned for the coming season, I came upon the Keyesville Classic, a weekend MTB Stage Race out in the mountains above Bakersfield. The race was also full of history with this year being the 29th running of the event and featuring MTB legends such as Joe Breeze (racing a vintage Soft-Ride in the Vintage Race class) and Tinker Jaurez (who won the Pro Short Track and proceeded to beat me in every other race at 55+ years old).
After working a busy shift at the bike shop Friday, I left Folsom around 6:30 and made the roughly 6 hour trek down to Lake Isabella, where the race was held. After rolling into camp in the early morning hours I awoke to race announcements and the smell of sizzling bacon. Rolling right of bed I hopped on my bike, in my pajamas still, and rode down to reg to get checked in and scope out the event. The first stage was that morning with a 30 minute short track race. After cooking up some delicious pancakes and eggs (man do I love camping) I got ready to race and headed down to the short course to warm up. The course was super fun with a small climb and awesome berms, rocks, and rollers to the finish line. I could tell this would be a fast and a FUN stage. Lining up at the start it was pretty special to be bar to bar with MTB legend Tinker Juarez and other Pro racers like Menso De Jong of Team Clif Bar. After the gun went off I got caught behind a small crash at the start and had to work to catch back on to the main field. The pace was quick and the pack was close, with the lead group bumping bars through most of he course. This pace held until about half way through when I attacked on the main climb of the course, causing everyone else to jump out of the saddle and respond. After accelerating the pace for a lap I jumped back in the main field and prepared for the final attacks on the last lap. Sitting in the main group with 2 to go I knew the move was goingto happen soon. Feeling strong, I went around on the rougher part of the course on the outside and caught up to about 3rd place in the lead pack when, in a moment of awful timing, I suffered a minor mechanical. I hopped off the bike, and had it sorted out in about 30 seconds, but at that point I was off the back. I jumped back in and chased my hardest but with only 1 to go at that point I didn't stand a chance and ended up 11th. That was still one heck of a race though with super fast competition and a killer course.
Next up was the Super D. The Super D course required a steep ride or hike-a-bike up to the top before dropping in to the roughly one mile race run. The run was pretty open towards the top with some pedally sections, a rock garden towards the middle featuring the infamous 'Snake Pit', a steep and narrow granite slot canyon requiring the rider to make a turn halfway down while dragging his feet and bars against the edges, then a steep and fast run out to the finish. All of us racers ended up arriving to the top way too early for our start, and ended up sitting around for about an hour and a half, giving us time to share stories and talk about the finer things in life, like which color of ESI grips are lighter. Going into my race run I knew I would be outgunned, as several guys were running full on DH bikes and DH gear. I knew I would have to be fast in the pedally stuff and be careful in the snake pit. After talking to several of the other Pro racers it seemed the consensus was to run the snake pit if you were gunning for the overall the minimize risk. After waiting for seemed like an eternity, the timer, a dude on his cellphone talking to the guys below, sent me off and I hit the gas hard. My heart rate immediately shot to my limit as I pedaled my ass off going down the hill as fast as my oxygen deprived brain would allow. I was fairly smooth all the way down, making a few mistakes as I had only done one practice run, and ended up running the snake pit CX style. I ended up towards the back on this stage but my time was consistent with the other XC racers who did the run, even matching some of the guys who rode through the Pit; not a bad result for an XC guy who just entered a Pro Downhill Race.
After an afternoon of racing, relaxing, and swimming in the lake I enjoyed a mellow evening hanging out, eating great food, and listening to the band. The next morning was the XC race, which I was going into blind, without any idea of the course. The course featured 3, 8 mile laps, with about 1000 feet of climbing per lap. The climbs were very punchy and never seemed to end. With that being said though the riding was awesome. The dirt was tacky, the trails were flowy, and the creek crossings gave you just enough temperature control to motivate yourself to finish. As soon as the race started, the pace was fast. After the first creek crossing we hit the main climb on course, and Tinker and Menso made a move. Knowing it to be critical to make this group, I jumped up and caught on to their break. Two other riders joined me there making it a group of 5. After blowing myself apart to make the lead group, I blew up pretty quickly on the steep stuff that followed. The leaders just kept pushing the pace and I was really starting to feel the previous day's efforts. After dropping off a bit to 7th place, I stayed there, riding in no man's land, for the next two laps. It took a lot of mental toughness to keep pushing myself to stay in it and push on to catch whoever I could. Towards the very end of the last lap, I saw another rider in my race ahead of me. Emptying the tank on the fire road to get around him, and staying on it until the end, I ended up in 6th place, just shy of the podium.
All in all it was a successful weekend for me as I was able to gain some more experience racing a new type of race, experiencing a stage race, and testing my legs against some of biggest names out there. I was able to perform how I wanted for the most part, and stick with the main group when the going got tough. Albeit a few errors due to mechanicals and fatigue, I am happy with the results. This event was super fun and I'm glad I was able to make it down there. I will definitely be putting this one on my calendar for next year. Next up, Fontana!