Community and Fun. Those were the two words uttered by Guest of Honor and Mountain Bike Hall of Fame Inductee Zapata Espinoza at the Pro Rider's Meeting on Friday. That was the core of his message to the nearly 150 pro riders in attendance, and the reasons he says mountain bike racing has the allure and draw it does for him and why he has been involved in the sport for so long. After the ceremonial flask of whiskey (the underage riders didn't partake, don't worry) was passed around the room and made its way back to Zap, empty, Zap handed the microphone back to Race Director Todd who proceeded to lay out the plan for the event weekend and raise the stoke level in all of us. With thousands of riders and even more spectators in attendance for the pro and amateur races and event weekend, and most of downtown shut down on our behalf, not to mention the beautiful weather, this was shaping up to be an epic weekend.
The weekend started out on Friday with the Fat Tire Crit, a popular event among racers due to its unusual format of close quarter Crit style racing on crowd lined city streets, all on mountain bikes. The Crit course featured 8 corners and a steep kicker of a climb 2 turns in, dishing out the pain each and every one of the 11 laps. The race started with a ceremonial shotgun blast from a man dressed in cowboy attire, adding to the event vibes. The pace started out extremely fast, and everyone rocketed up the climb, jockeying for position. The climb was followed by a high speed descent into downtown and several more 90 degree corners before the finish arch. Everyone was full-aero tuck into the descent and on the gas as soon as the road straightened out. I worked to stay with my group throughout the first half of the race, pushing the pace up the Union Street climb every lap. About halfway in Geoff Kabush (Scott) and Christoph Sauser (Specialized) attacked on the hill and bridged up from the chase group we were sitting in to the front of the race. I jumped on their wheel and tried to follow on up to the front but I ran out of steam at the top of the hill and fell back into the chase group. I took turns taking pulls the rest of the race, attacking up the hill where the spectators were cheering and shouting, and focusing on being as fast as possible through the fast descent. I hung on to my group and crossed the line about mid pack overall, exhausted from the 25 minutes of lung-burning craziness and fun. Also I'd like to extend a huge thanks to Chris at Fox for helping me get my lock-out dialed after a last minute mishap before my race, Mike at SRAM for the last minute derailleur tune (I promise I take care of my stuff), and Kenny at Stan's for replacing two spokes that I managed to break during my Crit race and helping swap over my XC tires from the Crit tires. Without the support from people and companies like these I wouldn't be able to do what I do.
Saturday was the day of racing for the Amateurs and an opportunity for rest and final course recon for everyone else. I was able to recover from the previous day's effort and get out on course to pre-ride the first 15 miles of the backcountry race and take the time to enjoy the awesome mountain trails and the beautiful views, something I wouldn't be able to do on Sunday bombing along at race pace. After the PreRide I enjoyed some time in downtown checking out the live music and talking with sponsors and vendors. Hanging out at the hotel getting the Spark dialed for the backcountry race, I was set up next to the Specialized mechanics and was able to chat with them for a minute, talk bike, and borrow some tools (I forgot a shock pump and functioning tire pump, oops). They were truly genuine characters and a testament to the mantra of the weekend, community and fun, not caring what team I rode for, just stoked I was out there racing.
Sunday morning was the backcountry race, a 50 mile affair that ascended almost 7500 ft in its entirety. The race started off with a pavement climb where riders sorted themselves out somewhat and everyone prepped for the race ahead. Once we dropped into the dirt climb, I worked my way around several groups to better my position going into the single track. I knew this part of the trail ok as I had ridden it the day before and I was able to ride smoothly and maintain position and even pass a few guys. We then hit another dirt road climb, featuring the infamous 'wall' where most of the field was forced to get off and run up the short pitch. Through the next 5-10 miles the trail was single track and meandered up and down the steep hillside. I was moving up through the field on the climbs and gaining sight of the next group on each descent. At this point in the race, we were about an hour and 15 minutes in and were getting ready to go down the infamous out and back at Skull Valley. Going into the descent, Barry Wicks (Kona) came to the front of our group of 5 or so and helped push the pace down the long 8.5 mile descent. Going down the road we passed the lead of the race coming up and I counted about 35-40 riders ahead of us, meaning I was sitting around the top 40 or so of the race.
I wasn't able to grab my drink mix feed at the aid station and instead took a neutral water bottle, a mistake that I would feel later on. The climb from Skull Valley to the top took over an hour and was one of the hardest ride segments I've done in a long time. My legs started cramping about halfway up but I was able to ease up and eat some food and push through it. I motored up the climb, sitting in about 40-45th going into the final descent when disaster struck. On one of the final descents, about 45 miles in, my legs and arms started going into total muscle crampage. On the next climb I had to hop off and try to hobble up the hill. My legs had a different idea and they instead locked up completely, fully rigid with me unable to do anything about it. I tried punching them, drinking and eating, and yelled obscenities in the middle of the forest trying to coax my convulsing legs into some semblance of forward progress. Finally after about 5 minutes of this they finally gave in and my knees unlocked, and I was able to crawl along the trail. My method from here on out was to walk a few hundred yards, stop when my legs inevitably cramped up again, hop on the bike to coast the descents, and repeat. I was moving at a snails pace but it was progress. I was going to finish. After floundering down the mountainside resembling an overgrown child on a strider bike, and several embarrassing half-crashes in creek crossings, I finally reached the road. I mustered up everything I had left and pedaled towards the finish. I almost caught the group of 5 just 15 seconds ahead of me at the finish, but my sputtering legs had nothing left to give. I finished that day in 58 out of 98 registered and more importantly all in one piece.
My first Whiskey was definitely a huge learning experience but also a validation to my goals and training thus far. I saw what I was capable of in a competitive field and learned more about how by body reacts when pushed to the extreme (not well if the feeling of my legs 24 hours after is any indication). I also was able to hone in my nutrition strategy and equipment choices for these endurance races. Overall the event definitely lived up to Zap's overarching message of fun and community, with smiles and stoke at every turn. I can't wait for Grand Junction in 3 weeks!