2015 Fairhill Classic Race Report - Redemption

The bike floated below me as rocks and roots bumped it up and down, back and forth. My legs and arms resembled rubber bands, shaking loosely as I hung on to the Chunky’s for the ride. The turn surprised me. It came up fast and was a full 90 degrees. Overshooting it would mean dropping down a steep slope into who knows what. I locked the MT8’s, the Epic’s suspension compressed, the tires broke free as the slide began. Dust churned off the ground (the Screws shielding my eyes). Then, as if perfectly planned, I slid through the turn inches from the edge. A slight smile crept onto my face as I realized I had averted near disaster, again. The Fairhill Classic course was tricky, but on Saturday, I was railing it.

fairhill classic sunrise

Rewind to 2014, and I was lining up at Fairhill for the first time. I had never ridden this labyrinth of trails, littered with more roots than I have ever seen on a trail. From the moment I started that edition, my stomach revolted, limiting my calorie intake, and the antibiotics I was on depleted my power. Simply, it was a BAD day on the bike.

This year’s edition had it’s own challenges too. I only decided to race the night before, and I was coming off of a big workout from Wednesday, that had been one of my best all year. I was fatigued and decided to race for 4 hours instead of doing my scheduled 4 hour training ride as my final tune up for the Shenandoah 100 this coming weekend. Unsure of how my body would respond to such a long effort, I lined up with little expectations.

Fairhill Classic

The start was much more reasonable than last year, and soon there was a group of 8 on the trail. Not surprisingly Ryan Serbel took the holeshot and lead wire to wire, big congrats to him. A few miles in, we crossed a stream and I found the hole everyone else missed and it literally bucked me off my bike! I landed on the other side of the stream and scrambled up the steep embankment to try to regain contact with the leaders. But at that pace, losing 8 seconds snapped the connection to the front 3 riders.

Pushing hard, I clawed my way back to Jed Prentice and Heath Thumel and we rode as a trio for the first hour. About 45 minutes in I saw Jed drift back, so I attacked Heath to get some separation. I put some day light in between us and kept up the pace to stay out of sight, but it wasn’t enough and they both came back, eventually dropping me about 90 minutes in!  Fairhill is a drivers course and I was clearly not the best driver of that trio.

Fairhill Classic Bike
Fairhill Classic Prologue

I pressed on alone, feeling like I was racing full gas the whole day. The race director is very ambiguous about how long the course actually is. Last year it was 38 miles, This year it was longer, but I had no idea how much longer! I had 3 bottles of Infinit with me and was wondering how I would fair past the 3 hour mark if the course was much longer than last year. Fortunately, once again, Infinit was perfect. I never got close to bonking and felt good all day. Up, down, twisting, rocks, roots, big power, no power, gravel, loose turn; it was a bit of everything out there. And the legs just kept giving and giving. At the end I was amazed my legs hadn’t given up with such a hard pace. I must be in the best form I’ve ever had, big thanks to Cameron Cogburn for that one.

I ended up coming in at 3:44, on a course that was at least 30 minutes longer than last year, which was good enough for 6th. With no prep, and on a course that exploits all of my weaknesses, I was quite happy with that! I can now firmly erase my bad memory of 2014 and replace it with this one.

2015 Wilderness 101 Race Report: Rocks

The mistake had been made, now all I could do was hope to recover. The rocks got bigger, more irregular, and required more precious energy that I didn’t have. I was behind on nutrition and desperately needed a break. But you can’t stop, you just have to dig deeper.

The Wilderness 101 isn’t for the faint of heart. A 100 mile backcountry (and I mean BACK country) mountain bike race staged out of Coburn, PA is the setting for one of the oldest and difficult endurance races on the east coast. With over 10,000 feet of climbing, lots of rocks and teeth chattering descents, it’s a long day in the saddle.

Setup:

Bike: Specialized Epic World Cup – full sus is HIGHLY recommended

Tires: Racing Ralph – No flats, great traction.

Grips: ESI Chunky – CRUCIAL to hand survival in the high speed rocks

Brakes: Magura MT8 – Steep + rocks = give me all the power I can get in a brake

Glasses: Spy Screws - perfect for humid and densely wooded courses

Nutrition: Infinit GoFar, as always

 

Seconds matter, even in 100 mile races. Most think that a few seconds here and there during an all day race don’t matter, given that the top finishing times are well over 6-7 hours. But in reality, 1 second can be the difference, so 1 minute can be HUGE. These long races are about managing every second to get a great result. Every turn, descent, aid station stop, it all matters.

I was elated when I saw aid 4 come into view. Having never ridden the course I felt like I was blindly fumbling through a series of trails, hoping to find the finish line eventually. Course changes and a thick canopy of trees made for everyone’s GPS units being way off on mileage. I never quite knew when I’d hit the next climb, see an aid station or even finish the race. So pulling up to aid 4 after getting beaten repeatedly by rocks was a huge relief. My hands were tired, my fingers hurt, and I needed my next set of bottles badly.

Let’s rewind though. The W101 started in what could be described as the PERFECT conditions. 58 degrees at the start under sunny blue-bird skies! We rolled out of town like a parade, the pace was fun, people chatted, caught up with friends and the mood was light. The first climb came too quickly and the several hundred riders exploded in the first half mile. Tanguy pushed the pace and had me doing 330w for the first 20 minutes. Everyone was awake after that.

The lead group over the top of the climb was down to 10 or so and we relaxed on the gravel roads that followed. Soon after our group swelled with chasers and before I knew it we had probably 50+ riders back together! Another few climbs came and saw me sitting in low threshold to stick with the leaders, that wasn’t good, but I had heard you needed a strong group for the road sections until mile 40. So I pressed on.

Mile 25 saw a crash as our now smaller but still large group hit an S curve. One guys inattention was found out and he hit the deck and Pat Blair literally jumped over him with nowhere else to go! That was funny. The crash split the group and two groups formed a few seconds apart. I got to work slowly closing the gap not wanting to expend too much energy. The closer I got though, the faster the pace became as we did yet another 5ish minute climb. Once I got back up to threshold I decided it wasn’t worth it and backed off.

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 5.30.40 PM.png

I quickly joined forces with John Petrylak and a few others and began the final road section to the Three Bridges Trail. This is the first single track of the race and the first rocky part. It was much more manageable than I had anticipated and being in the second hour of the race makes you still feel like superman. I rode everything smooth. We hit a fast downhill through thick and narrow foliage and which had me following Aaron Snyder FULL speed into a huge rock garden. 3 of us hit this garden at over 15 mph and though we all bottomed out our wheels on rocks and nearly killed ourselves, we escaped unscathed though Aaron broke a few spokes.

From there we were on gravel roads, pacelining and motoring on. We hit the first major climb at mile 42ish and the group slowly fell apart. John went off the front and followed in second. And then it happened. We hit the first rocky downhill and I realized it would be a brutal day.

I like rocks and have some experience with them. But when you’re racing 100 miles, adding something as energy sucking as rocks to the mix is completely exhausting. The last thing you need is another way to tire yourself out. So here we are flying down this descent with huge, chunky, loose rocks, getting our brains rattled around. Despite being on a full sus bike, I was STILL getting beaten up! It was just gnarly.

This was the race. Climb gravel, go down rocks, rinse, repeat. I made the massive error of climbing too hard up to a ridge where we proceeded to do a long trail of rocks followed by more rocks on a downhill. It felt like 18 hours, and this was only mile 55 or so. It was mentally exhausting. Lesson learned though, take in a lot of calories before it gets technical!

The race went on and I worked with various people over the miles. The last 20 miles were pretty uneventful. I only saw 1 person, passed 1 rattle snake, crossed 1 river and started feeling GREAT with 10 miles to go. I had finally caught up on Infinit and that was a good thing! I also had the pleasure of eating a Fig Newton and Mike and Ike at the same time. While I wouldn’t recommend such things when in your right mind, 6 hours into a race it tasted great!

Having lost so many placings bumbling my way half bonked through the rocks, I was pretty content to roll in for 12th in the open men and 19th overall. The rocks had rattled some bolts loose on my bike moving my seat and jamming a bottle cage in my crank which ultimately robbed me of a few precious minutes to keep me out of the top ten. Every second counted.

Monster Cross 2015

My eyes narrowed like a hawk, noticing every movement of the two bodies in front of me. I was third wheel in a train during the closing miles of Monster Cross. We flew, twisting through the park, waiting for the inevitable. John worked on the front just hard enough to keep us at speed, easy enough that we knew he was waiting. The last big pitch came and Dave glanced over his shoulder at my face, analyzing my fatigue from the grimace now painted on. I gave him a good show, pretending not to see him checking on me, gritting my teeth. The truth was I had been recovering a bit from the train-wreck this race had become, and wanted to salvage it somehow. So when Dave accelerated, intending to pop me off the back of our group, I smiled and matched his effort with relative ease.

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 10.37.04 PM
Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 10.37.04 PM

Looking down, we were now doing 400 watts coming over the top of one of the last climbs before the finish. Dave and John noted my presence and the top and the pace eased again, John still working the front. The last section of trail came and unsurprisingly, Dave attacked. Pouncing on his pedals he shot around John fast enough that no drafting benefit could be retained. It was clean, it was fast, and John didn’t respond. I stayed put.

In a race, even if you know the terrain, the finish often seems like it will never come. As fatigue and exhaustion set in, your mind plays tricks on you and even the simplest calculations become impossible. When Dave jumped off the front, I couldn’t figure out how much further we had to go. “Somewhere in the 5-30 minute range” was what I concluded.

John wasn’t making any efforts to close the gap now forming between us and Dave, so I made my decision, got some speed, and attacked John. I did feel bad for him. He had worked on the front for the past 15 minutes and here we were taking advantage of his tired state. But, that’s racing.

monster cross
monster cross

I moved quickly and decisively, eyeing Dave carefully up the trail and made quick work of closing the gap. When I got within 10 meters, my heart sank. We burst onto an open field and I realized we only had 300 meters of racing left. Panicked, I shoved my face against my bar, summoning any aerodynamic advantage I could get and pushed with all I had. At 200 meters to go, I was two bike lengths behind Dave. One more hard left and we were on the final stretch. Dave started his sprint early which I knew was a mistake. He quickly sat, too tired to keep standing and I barreled toward him, finish line in sight. I could taste it. It was possible. I could pass him right before the line. I was right on top of him now!

Then the unforgivable. A spectator told him I was close, that I was about to overtake him. One glance was all it took. Dave stood again and mashed the pedals, rocking fiercely with all he had. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to close the door on me. That was it. I settled for a pathetic 19th overall.

I didn’t go to Monster Cross looking to sprint for scraps. In fact, a mere 3 hours earlier I thought I was positioned to be well inside the top 10. I wanted a good start to the season, to verify that countless hours spent riding in sub freezing weather had been worth it. But instead I got nothing of the sort. I felt like I hadn’t trained all winter.

Monster Cross is a fantastic race of attrition. There are no long climbs, no technical trails, nothing to make it hard really. Ridden on dirt and gravel, the race is staged outside Richmond on a relatively flat course. Dry conditions would make for winning speeds in the 17mph average range. But not today. The question of the race is what kind of bike to bring, cyclocross or mountain. With these conditions, and that course, I was very glad I chose to race my Superfly, with XO1 and the perfectly tacky ESI grips. Sliding around turns, climbing, descending, it all felt good and there were no mechanical issues with the mud to speak of. Big win!

We started fast, a paved prologue loop made for an almost criterium styled beginning as we whipped around, ultimately dropping into the woods a few minutes into the race. Immediately the group lurched to a grind. Mud. Everywhere. All over you and your face (or on your Spy glasses!) From then on, every pedal stroke counted. Each little circle kept your precious momentum intact as we wound around the park. No downhill brought relief, no flat provided respite. It was just a matter of pushing and pushing. No brakes were really needed during the race as the moment you stopped pedaling, your speed evaporated.

We dropped onto the dirt and 15 minutes later of 330 watts, I gave up on the lead group. I watched them grind up some climb, and wondered why I felt so horrible. That’s when I joined Dave and John. We had all been spit out the back, and we stayed together from that moment for the rest of the race. We suffered, pushed and rode our legs dead.

Early season races are tough. The body isn’t accustomed to the rigors of racing, nor is the mind. Convincing oneself to push hard despite your bodies pleadings is never easy. But one step at a time, we recalibrate ourselves. We remind ourselves that this is racing, and the season is finally here. Looking back 19th out of a few hundred racers is a great first step in the season. Can't wait to see where we go from here!

Strava File