The Ecstasy and the Agony (respectively)
Clear blue skies and lower 70's temps brought about the day of Dragon's Tale; a 37 mile mountain bike race that truly redefines "mountain".
A neutral rollout started from the sleepy mountain town of New Castle, VA. For the first 4 miles nerves subsided, and friendly chatter was the hum of the peloton of about 100 riders. Mile 4 hit, our pace car pulled away, and you would think it was the beginning of Paris Roubaix. The group swung hard onto a dirt road and immediately exploded. Pacelines, a front group, and a dozen chasing groups formed as we hammered towards the awaiting Dragon.
It was dusty, and the heat was beginning to make itself known just as we plunged into the first of six deep river crossings. The icy mountain waters soaked us from our knees down as we tried to ride/hike through the raging river. Five more times of this dipping stretched the front group out and I was fortunate enough to be on the back sitting in.
Still, the pace was so high my HR was through the roof trying to remain at the front of affairs. 8 miles of dirt road and river crossings were the prologue and lead in to the first climb. The front group split a few times and I entered the first climb somewhere in the top 12.
The first climb began, and it was everything I had heard: rocky, long and unrelenting. Switch back after switch back, so steep, you had to dismount and run up to the next level if you wanted to stay on the mountain and not tumble down. Somewhere along the way, I was caught fumbling on one of the switch backs and allowed a few riders to pass who had caught me dangling on the back of my group of 3. We pressed on and my HR was so high just to spin my easiest gear (a 42 of my XX1) up the mountain, I was beginning to worry how I would fair the remainder of the day.
Finally, the ridge came and I began my VERY rocky traverse over to the descent trail. When I say rocky, I mean brutally slow; balance was the skill of the day. I was sincerely impressed that my effort was only netting me 6.4 mph as I went over the 350 ft of climbing in 1.3 miles on the "flat" ridge.
Meanwhile, I rubbed my front tire against a rock, puncturing the tire. I jumped off as the unmistakable sound of air hissing out of a tubeless tire pierced the quiet woods. Stans sealant sprayed everywhere painting the leaves a nice taupe color. Thankfully, the hissing stopped as the sealant did its job. I hopped back on the bike and took off after the rider who had passed during my debacle.
The descent began all too soon and I found myself ripping down tight trails with even tighter switchbacks. About halfway down two guys asked to pass and disappeared faster than they came. I was legitimately fearful for their lives as they flew down the mountain on their full suspension bikes, sliding between trees, they looked like slalom skiers.
Near the bottom, the good word came from a spectator: "17th". On the rollers back to the first climb again (we did it twice), I reeled the two downhill monsters back in and passed them, "good, 15th", i thought to myself. The second time up the climb was a bit more enjoyable as I knew what to expect. I passed another fellow which was a good boost for the morale and began pushing myself up the Dragons. On steep climbs, you really can never be light enough. This was maybe the only time during the race I was grateful to have a hard tail, but I sure loved the fact that my Stumpjumper weighs in around the 20lb mark for a 21". You just can't beat that when climbing.
At the top of the climb, the real survival began. Rocks, rocks, and a few million more rocks jolted and tossed me about as I tried to ride as smoothly as possible. I picked up another 2 riders who were struggling along and smiled as I slipped into 12th. A few minutes later, a younger rider caught me and we rode together for quite sometime.
At this point, the hiking began. There were so many steep pitches with rocks that the only option was to walk. Slow. Plodding. Nothing destroys your calves like steep hiking in carbon soled shoes. And nothing can begin to deter you like running low on water (as I was). Aid 2 could not come soon enough.
I kept putting in little digs every chance I got to distance myself and demoralize the guy on my tail. It worked and I eventually crested a hike section before he came into view below, which I figured would hurt his morale of catching me. After what seemed like 10 hours of ridge riding i hit the descent before aid 2. Right before I started it, I looked up the trail to see another rider stopped and working out a few cramps. I got distracted and clipped my handlebar on a tree and went down into the dirt. Ugh, like I needed anything else to hurt on my body. I pulled myself together and got on with the descent. Thankfully, most of the descents were bench trails that had smooth sections, making them fast and reasonable.
After being passed by two guys on the descent, I hit aid 2 and saw that there were 4 of us there. For those of you keeping track, that means I could leave and be in 10th. How fast do you think I turned that stop around? 50 seconds. Took a bottle, filled a bottle, slammed down the best cup of coke I have ever had in my entire life, and was off again. The next section was rough, but knowing I was in 10th gave me a bit of pep in my pedal... in the form of 3.9 mph climbing speed (which turned out to be one of the fastest times on the day). Right near the top I picked up another rider and slipped into 9th. I was pumped!
I rode hard on the ridge and knew there wasn't much but downhill and flat to go. I got to the last climb when the worst sound erupted again from my front tire. It had another hole. I jumped off and began to vigorously shake the stans to the hole, but watched it all simply gush out. It was just too big to hold. But then, it began to sputter... and after an agonizing 6 minutes on the side of the trail losing a few places, I had it stopped. I hopped back on and began riding hard up the last climb. One small detail of my incident was that I had used my 2nd co2 canister and now was out of air. But my front tire was very low, probably 10 psi (i started the day at 23).
I crested the climb and began my final descent but even the slightest of turns had the tire bending and rolling, threatening to jump off the bead. I took it as easy as I could but right at the bottom, it "burped" and all the air came out. I was defeated. I lost another 17 minutes waiting for another rider who might spare me some co2 or a pump (Laura Hamm was awesome to stop and give me a pump even while racing for 2nd place!). From there I fumbled for a while trying to get the tire in, got it pumped and dropped the HAMMER. A guy in 22nd had passed me a few minutes earlier and I was determined to pull him back. I was in full on TT mode, tucked, chin on the bars, flying as fast as I could go. But with only 2 miles to bring him back, a 21.5 mph average simply didn't cut it.
23rd on the day, dissapointed, but happy that my fitness is there. Need to get a full suspension rig for these rocky races! 2 weeks until the Cohutta 100, and I don't wanna see another rock for a year.