|Alan Brandt Photo|
Earlier this season I decided that I would only participate in long course mountain bike races. In order to be a successful dirt rider you have to put in trail time developing worthy technical skills. The smoother you ride, the less energy you waste, lower wasted energy equals faster performance. Everyday life, combined with two the three paved races a week cut into my dirt time, so I decided to step back – you can do a lot, but you can’t do it all – focus on road and criterium racing while tucking in some long trail rides in preparation for the High Cascades 100 mountain bike race in Bend, OR.
Prior to the race I’d only seen Bend under two to three feet of snow, and so I hadn’t realized what a cool summer hotspot the place is. I love mountain towns – Park City, Whistler, Steamboat, Ketchum – I just seem to feel at home surrounded by skiers, hikers, climbers, kayakers, and bikers – they be my people. The drive down from Seattle was long and the final hour smoky due to numerous uncontrolled forest fires. As we passed though Madras (an hour north of Bend) I could barely see the road and I was beginning to get worried – my asthma has been dormant for years but ten hours of huffing wood smoke could definitely result in me lying by the trail gasping for air.
We rolled into town mid-afternoon, picked up the race packet, ate an early dinner and went back to the condo to prepare my food for the next day. Over the years I’ve tried practically every gel, block and bar on the market and I’ve come to realize that nothing beats real food, so I packed chocolate waffles topped with peanut butter and honey and bacon rice cakes a la the Feed Zone Cookbook. I also loaded Ziploc bags with Twizzler Bites and sour cherry candy. I find that if my food is difficult to access (i.e. in a backpack) I simply don’t eat, and so I’ve started using the Bento Box that’s left over from my Ironman days. The Bento box is strapped to the top tube of the bike, which makes it super accessible; I loaded it with waffles, rice cakes, candy and an old Nuun tube filled with salt tablets. I also loaded three drop bags with the same.
All drop bags needed to be deposited by 5:30, so I was up at 4:00 and out the door by 5:00. Melony dropped me at the start line and promptly turned around and headed back to the condo for a few more hours sleep. The predawn air was wonderfully cool, the sky was clear; it was shaping up to be a spectacular day. After nursing a cup of coffee – provided free near the start line – and a preemptive honey bucket stop I met up with my buddy Trevor near the start line.
I was feeling good and uncharacteristically calm. Melony had noted the night before that I didn’t seem to be getting all worked up about this event, which is in direct contrast to usual fretful over planning methodology. This in fact was a planned approach: I’m in good shape, I have great equipment, I know how to eat and drink for the long haul, so don’t fret and sweat, just do.
The race started in the early morning light at 6:30, we rolled out of town following the paved highway leading to Mt. Bachelor. Trevor and I had started out near the back of the pack and in true road racer style we immediately began moving up: if you ain’t moving forward you’re moving backward. We hit the gravel in front third of the group and were immediately engulfed in dust. Much of the trail was covered in four or five inches of fine dirt powder and it was impossible to avoid eating dirt. Once I backed off on the wheel in front of me in order to allow some settling but all that did was provide a gap for another rider to fill. You had to ride the wheel and eat the dust; that was the only way. Now I see why some guys had shown up to the start line with Home Depot dust masks hanging around their necks.
Trevor took advantage of the early uphill fire roads in order to move up through the pack, while I took a more modest “we’re going to be out here all day” approach. In hindsight Trevor had the better strategy as once you established your position in the pack I’d be willing to bet that most riders either didn’t fall back or move forward more than half a dozen places. It seemed like most folks just fell into where they were and stayed there, so it was wise to move as far forward as possible early on.
The first challenge of the race came at mile 13 at an area appropriately named 31 Switchbacks. The gradient was steep, the turns were tight and close, the trail was dusty and it was wheel-to-wheel the entire way up. I ended up behind a big burly guy on a poorly fitted bike, he muscled through every turn, and I wanted to say “dude relax it’s a long day ahead,” but instead I left him to his own devices. We all have to figure out our own paths.
The remainder of the trip to the 25 Aide 1 Station was gradual and flowy, no big issues, just controlled riding on good trails. I was tempted, once or twice, to start bitching, to bemoan how hard this is, to ask repeatedly what did I get myself into, but I immediately checked myself with a dose of reality: I’m fit enough and affluent enough to be riding a four thousand dollar bike across some the world’s premier mountain bike terrain, just get busy and keep moving forward.
The sixteen mile trip to Aide 2 was rough. The loose, dust covered, rutted jeep trails were, at times, like trying to ride a bike up a sand dune. On many occasions I just relaxed my grip, and spun in a low gear through seemingly bottomless powder. Once again you couldn’t force it, if you pushed the trail pushed back, instead you had to find that zen balance between moving forward and spinning out and falling over. I pulled into Aide 2 feeling fine, I grabbed a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwich squares, ate a bunch of pickles and moved on.
The trip to Aide 3 at mile 53 was no problem: gradual climbing nice single track riding. By now the pack had thinned out and most of my riding was all by my lonesome. I was sandwiched between a strong gal from Boise and a local dude who seemed to know exactly where he was going. I ate and drank a lot and soaked up the atmosphere, blissfully unaware of what lie ahead.
Aide 3 was filled with aid station campers – folks who drop their bikes and sit down. Man you don’t want to do that. Sit for even a few minutes and rigor mortis sets in. Also, as any triathlete will tell you, if you think you’ve spent two minutes in transition you’ve actually spent ten. Stopping is like a time black hole. I got a chain lube, shoved in as much food as my mouth could hold and moved on. The real race had officially started.
The first few miles out of Aide 3 were easy climbing on smooth gravel roads, and after a few twists and turns the road straightened out and ascended into the vast distance. I couldn’t contain the smile; I can grunt up a gravel road as good as most, all you gotta do is find that gear and keep turning the pedals. Within a half mile my luck ran out – an arrow pointed right, onto single track. So this is how it was gonna be.
Mile 57 to 70 were uphill single track with approximately a dozen snow portages, and three steep-bank stream crossings. The fourth stream crossing was where the race director had come in and cut a path out of a snow bridge, the water was about well over mid-calf deep. We’d been warned not to cross the remains of the snow bridge but hell I’ve crossed many a bridge more dicey than this one, screw it I ain’t wading through that ice water. As I was crossing someone behind yelled “hey you’re not supposed to do that” yeah yeah I’m already across. I was at the point of not caring.
My stomach had started churning at around mile 40 and so I cut back my food and increased my water intake. As a result I think I was bonking at around mile 65. That trail just kept going up. The high Cascade scenery was spectacular, and I made it a point to appreciate what I was passing through.
The mile 70 aide station was a welcome site. Even more welcome was the can of Coke a volunteer handed me. The place looked like a MASH unit, bikes were scattered willy nilly, riders were either sitting or wandering around. One guy was walking aimlessly saying “I hit a tree I hit a tree.” I guarded my Coke like it was some prison home brew. I spent way too much time at this aide station, a volunteer grabbed my food bag immediately and I loaded up my Bento Box, but instead of riding away I wandered back and forth between the food table and my bike shoving bananas and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into my mouth. The mechanic said “it’s all downhill from here” and I chose to believe him.
The trip to the mile 80 aide station was relatively tame, most was downhill on soft dusty jeep trails, there were a few steep uphill sections but so long as you kept your wits about you you could bomb most of the descents. I was smelling the barn at the mile 80 aide station and stopped only to top off my water bottle.
The next fifteen miles would have been sweet flowy downhill had I not been on my bike for nine hours beforehand. The section known as Tiddly Winks was especially nice with prefab banked corners and nice groomed kickers, but by this point I was strictly in keeping both tires on the ground mode. At around mile 90 I second guessed a rock drop and went over the side and down a scree field. Dang I kept falling, one foot still clipped in dragging my bike as I went. I lost a bit of skin and now my sails were fully deflated. Survival mode.
I now was baby stepping my way down anything even remotely technical; all I had to do now was get back to Bend. At around mile 95 some grizzled old guy was standing by the trail saying “road ahead.”
|Another one checked off the list|
“What the hell does that mean?” I asked the guy behind me.
“Fuck if I know” was the reply.
Well as it turns out the old guy was saying that we were hitting the paved road back into Bend.
Once I hit pavement I caught my sixth wind. I locked out the suspension and put the hammer down. All of a sudden it was summer and the liv’n was easy. I was hauling and the only person who could hold my wheel was a hard girl from Issaquah donning a Hagens Berman kit. We alternated pulls all the way into town.
I hit the finish line ten and a half hours after starting out. I was handed a cold towel and a Coke, both of which were appreciated. After a few minutes of sitting around I called Mel. Thankfully she didn’t make me ride the five miles back to the condo.