In racing, the strongest rider wins, right? Wrong. The winner wins.
There are a lot of ways to win a race, and most of them have nothing to do with being the strongest. Mental fortitude is a huge component. Tactics always play a role. Pacing can’t be understated. Nutrition is also crucial. Equipment selection is paramount. Without a proper combination of these things, you will not win, regardless of how strong you are.
Now, typically stronger riders have been at the racing game longer, hence they have more experience and thus tend to nail all of these components down well simultaneously. But every once in a while, you get a strong and experienced rider who has a bad day, has a mechanical issue, or just blows up. And it is knowing that single fact that should keep the underdogs toeing the line every race, because you never know what will happen out on course.
I drove out to Shiner’s Revenge XXC and was in awe. Southern Virginia doesn’t disappoint in the beauty category, and the drive itself was worth the trip. I had read the course description of this race and found that this was a new course for 2016, and it started with an absolute beast of a climb. So they claimed. I’ve climbed some pretty tough climbs… so I wanted to see how hard this climb really was. I went out to the base of Belcher Mountain a bit before the start and began the drive to the top. Holy crap. This climb was no joke: 11% for 2 miles of dirt road! This would certainly blow the field apart. They weren't kidding.
Back at the start, I pulled up and saw Chris Tries was lining up. Ouch. Chris is a fast-man from Johnson City and had beat up on me pretty good at Iron Mountain earlier this year. Beating him didn’t seem like a possibility. Mentally, I immediately resigned myself to fighting for 2nd and being the underdog. (Note: never do this, anything can happen on course).
The group rolled out of the staging park for a neutral start that involved some of the hilliest roads I’ve ever ridden a bike on. We were either going straight up or down on windy country roads. They were actually really fun (at neutral pace). I was looking around, trying to size up the competition but being relatively new to the area, it was a sea of unknown. I knew Bob Moss was there, hammering out the singlespeed as usual, so I knew he would be a guy to look out.
With 3.5 miles to go until Belcher, the neutral zone ended and the race was on. At the front, Tries, Moss and I took turns setting the pace as we rolled along steep pavement and the group thinned and bunched back and forth with every climb and downhill. We turned onto Belcher and a junior racer, Charlie Ormsby, hit the front, setting a solid pace up the foothills of the mountain. The group was mostly together at that point even amidst the tough pace over the past 15 minutes of racing. I was already sitting at 4.3w/kg np for the race and the climb hadn’t even started! This was going to hurt.
The dirt started, the road pitched straight up to 15%, and the group exploded. Ormsby went hard at the base to get a gap, and Tries and I steadily upped the pace to bring him back. Within 2 minutes, it was us 3 tapping out a solid pace up the climb. A few minutes more and the pace relaxed a bit, so I hit the front hoping to put some pressure on those dangling onto the group. I looked back and to my surprise saw Tries letting the gap open a bit. Pleasantly surprised I kept pushing to see what would happen. I looked again, more daylight. This was good. There was an 8 minute downhill coming and I knew I would need all the time I could get to stay with Tries, so I held my pace and tried to get out of sight around the corners.
The gap continued to open and by the top, I had about 2 minutes on Tries. I took the KOM win, and got to work hammering my way along the ridge line to the downhill enduro section. Now, I would never consider myself to be an “enduro” guy. I’m kind of the opposite actually. But two things seem to be not only improving my downhill skill, but actually helping me ENJOY it as well: a good bike with a dropper and living in the mountains.
There is nothing like practicing something you’re terrible at. Now that I live in Roanoke, VA, being able to routinely hit long downhills that have big rocks, roots, drops and standard back country chunder, has dramatically improved my skill level on such terrain. Also earlier this year, Joe’s Bike Shop and Adam Lewandowski from Trek, put me onto the new Trek Top Fuel (review here) , and that is component number two. Having a bike with such capable and smooth suspension travel is CRUCIAL to soaking up any mistakes you make. I added a dropper post for good measure and I can’t say enough about how helpful a dropper post is. When you’re flying down Belcher Mountain at full speed, hitting big drops, hopping over boulders, and your knuckles aren’t white at the bottom but instead you’ve got a huge smile on your face…. The bike is doing some SERIOUS work for you! I think I even managed a top 5 in the Enduro section for the day! Long live the Trek Top Fuel.
Hitting the downhill I felt like a mouse being chased by a cat. Tries was coming. I could feel his superior downhill skills hunting me down. I needed to do well here. Calculated risks were being taken. I was bouncing through rocks, hopping big roots, trusting the Bontrager XR3 (review here) was the right tire for the job (it was) and asking for maximum traction in the turns. I hit the bottom and got down to business, hammering. I flew through a few orchards on course (which was amazingly well marked btw), onto some nice country road pavement for a second, before blasting down a gravel road, downing more Infinit GoFar in route.
Soon we were back in the rocks, crossing a couple of streams and my slick rock riding skills were put to the test. A few technical climbs later and it was back to gravel. I rolled along, ensuring I put down power on every climb. Tries must be in sight of me by now. Checked back, still nothing… weird. I was loving the course. It had literally everything! I turned onto some old logging roads (that had clearly been worked on for the race) and I felt like I was in Pisgah. Big rhododendrons and mossy rocks. Soon I popped out onto some singletrack and started my way back to the park. And wow, what a ride.
If you’ve ever ridden in the Baltimore/DC area, this single track was like a combination of Patapsco, Loch Raven and Fountain Head. A rollercoaster of tight, but fast singletrack that you can just fly through. And fly I did, a bit too hard; I was burning matches fast. I was cruising though, enjoying every second of this, but still looking back for chasers. I made it back to the start finish area, grabbed a bottle of Infinit JetFuel, and began one final full lap of the single track. I was feeling pretty good but riding such a physical XC style singletrack at nearly full speed was starting to wear on me in a big way. In such a short race like this, you have to go full gas the whole way. It's brutal.
I slammed more JetFuel and began conserving on the climbs a bit. They were steep, punchy and had plenty of rocks, so there was only so "easy" you could go. The first half of the lap is a lot of slower climbing, and the legs were getting heavier and heavier. Every once in a while I’d hit a switchback and be able to see a minute or so behind me and all was quiet. What a relief. I started losing focus a bit and my efforts were fading. Maybe I was in the clear? The thought crossed my mind briefly. Then I heard it.
There is nothing like the sound of a bike when you are being chased by a bike. My head swung around but there was nothing. I upped my pace again and kept looking back. Another switch back climb came and right at the top, I saw him. But it wasn’t Tries. It was John Haddock, ripping on his singlespeed! I still had about a minute on him, so I turned the gas back up to 100% and coerced my tired back to keep working just 20 more minutes. With fading legs, I just focused on doing what I could to ride smooth. No brakes, using the dropper in the turns to get the maximum lean that I could, staying light on the pedals and rubbing trees with my shoulders.
I burst out of the woods, and thankfully, John was still a minute back. I crossed the line in 2:40 for first overall in maybe the shortest race I’ve done in years, and got to finally enjoy not being chased! Haddock came through a minute later and apparently had no idea we were so close on the trail as he was focused on staying away from a chasing Bob Moss. Unfortunately Tries wasn’t feeling great after some time off the bike recently and after double flatting in the enduro section, he pulled the plug.
Eric O’Connell really did put on an awesome race that was truly a blast to ride. Everything from the course design, to the perfect singletrack, cash payouts on site(!), and the post-race food! It was a perfect event. I highly recommend it if you’re a racer who likes variety! Looking forward to next year already!