Mountain Bike Season Update #3 | Sea Otter Classic

Following my time in L.A. I headed north to immerse myself in the wide range of California terrain, take in a local area race on the eastern border near Nevada City and then proceed to visit some of my sponsors while ending up in Monterey for the next mountain bike UCI weekend.  While California is known for being spectacular you don’t quite grasp the extent of it without full exposure.  I can’t express how amazing it is to be free to travel and explore as I please, working and training as I go. The areas I choose to stop in were not so much pre thought out as they were simply along my route and even then there was nothing to be disappointed in. The views, terrain, and changing climate were awe inspiring.  
There’s a little bit of irony you can’t ignore when looking at the current state of elite cross-country racing.  Gone is the day where racers were attracted to the beauty of the natural setting, the quality of the single track, and the contribution of self-reliance as a determining factor in race outcome. The courses of today have become shorter, the highlighted features are generally man-made, and technical support is offered in multiple locations for those with a means to provide it. While the shorter courses are arguably spectator friendly, there are still minimal spectators to be had and generally even less competitors.

I typically site many of these factors when justifying why I switched my focus from mountain biking to cyclocross. I still cherish cross country racing as my summer sport, a reason to travel, a means to learn and grow as an athlete, and an excuse to meet new people and visit new locations but I doesn’t provide the same determination that I get when I line up for a cross race.

Sea Otter is not just an opportunity for the cycling industry to display their wares and make announcements about new developments, or the opportunity to showcase the different disciplines, it’s a chance for participation in pretty much any event that involves two wheels. With the cross country taking place Saturday morning and cyclocross just a few hours later, I opted to not drag an extra bike around the country in past years. This year however I wasn’t going to miss out. The elite men and women raced together from the start line and while the course wasn’t quite as fun filled as one could hope, it was certainly the opportunity to throw down some “see what ya got mid-spring” watts and maybe grab a few dollars bills.

After getting caught up in the festival component of the event the day before and spending way too much time hanging out in spandex after the morning short track race, I decided my interest in the racing was definitely more along the lines of “spectacle” than competitor. Either way I was determined to leave what I had out there, I just wasn’t sure how much of that there would be.  Coming into the spring race season to build fitness as opposed to being fit, I was experiencing some frustration with myself despite knowing (and approving of) this plan. Either way I was out here and making the best of it.

I sat in the pack on the first trip up the wide-open start climb. Last year I fumbled my pedal so bad I was stuck in no-mans land watching the pack ride away as I desperately tried to catch them without blowing up before the real climbing began.  I sat in nicely this round and kept a level head, picked my own lines and entered the first bottleneck around mid-pack.  I was finding to my pleasant surprise that while I was more or less holding my own on the long start stretch, the shorter punchy climbs on the dirt were allowing me to pass those around me with ease.  I may have been having a bit too much fun bantering with a fellow racer but she was pulling and pacing me up the climbs and using my lines to help find her flow on the way down.  Together we worked past a few more racers and the teamwork aspect of having company to ride with made the race the most fun I’d had with a number plate on all year. 

Back at the van I suited up for round two, proudly featuring the number one race bib for the elite cross race unknowingly (and awkwardly) accompanied by the number one call up.  There is something special to me about toeing the line with our male counterparts, it leaves me with a feeling of equality that I used to cherish during my time in the military.  The race started fast and furious, having raced short track the day before on the exact course minus two added barriers, I knew that the first plunge off the pavement would be a mess of momentum and direction sucking gravel (in place to slow the cars that departed the speedway) and then a series of deeply rutted and now dry mud puddles.  Both of these obstacles resulted in more crashes than I would have liked to witness and starting in the front of the race was a nice way to minimize this risk.  I had a moment’s hesitation with the gun, each race this season has started off with a different noise and it’s fascinating how that can affect your focus.  I recovered enough to stay clean, hold my line, and let the group of men converge and speed off in front of me while I settled in with a few other girls. 

Group participation has never been my strong suite but with the only significant speed variable being an S turn sand pit and sand being a strength, it was nice to feel like a participant in the race as opposed to another lycra clad body.  The effort in cyclocross is much more measurable to me, without extensive climbing and a guarantee of recovery after a hard effort, I find it easier to throw myself in the red.  The “aahhhha” moment that accompanied this effort was in spite of the mornings cross country race, the monotony of the flat “road race type” course, lack of familiarity with pushing my fast on the narrow cross bike, and the insult to the unused muscles of dismounting and remounting at the barriers. I was truly having fun in a way I hadn’t since the previous cross season had ended.

Well dollar handups seem to have gone away with the beer throwing and smut cards of a few years back but just like that it all made sense. Despite telling myself I was racing XC for fitness I could now see I was. Holding onto a wheel was conceivable because with just a few more pedal strokes I could then apply the art of picking my own line. Holding my speed through the corners allowed me to close gaps and shoot up to another racer instead of sending me into the back of them.  Finesse over the barriers and through the sand were equalizers over pure strength, and my effort was as strong as the one I put forth without locking my fork or spinning my back wheel out on the dirt. 

Everyone has their thing and this one is mine.  I discovered the pure joy I feel from racing when I didn’t even fully realize it was missing. The same extent to which I will always take bike racing seriously is matched for how small potatoes I realize it is to the bigger picture of life.  We do it because we learn, we have fun, we enjoy the challenge, we don’t fit in with the coordination or societal function of conventional sports.  We want to be outside, to be dedicated to self-betterment, to be fit, to not be caught up in the crazy that seems to be taking over the world.  While everyone’s life path is vastly different, that feeling of elation when you find something that just makes sense… is hard to argue with. 

Being happy with your result is a nice way to finish out a day of racing but more importantly is being happy with your performance.  I have without exception raced better when I was having fun and in turn, when I am having fun I race better.  Even if you focus your training to one particular event, or it seems so much is riding on that particular result, it pays to dig in to find the joy, to reward yourself for small accomplishments as you achieve them, and to recognize that every challenge is a contribution to overall growth.  There will always be another race but only while you are racing can you make the most of it.  

Mountain Bike Season Update #2 | Fontana

After a month in Arizona and a short stint in St. George, Utah, I continued west to California. Last season on the Thursday before this race weekend I got online, registered for racing the following three weekends at Fontana, Bonelli, and Sea Otter, and then went out to ride for four hours.  I had picked out a trail from Strava heatmaps that would take me up and over the mountains from the valley I was staying in and descend towards the California coast.  Two hours out, right as I was about to turn around on the seemingly scarcely used, largely washed out, highly overgrown trail, I hooked a handlebar in some shrubs and crashed hard landing with my arm above my head.  I took the impact largely with my upper ribs which cramped impressively as I stood back up.  It was tough to inhale or make big movements with my arms so I limped back up the trail in the waning daylight happy the final hour would be descending. 

The course at Fontana has been in place for years, always featuring graffiti, piles of broken glass, and a bit of urban discard in the form of rusty box springs or old televisions. The area has actually been cleaned up and polished a bit with the encroachment of neighborhoods to the base of the mountain.  There is now definitively a park rather than a mere clump of rocks and while the graffiti remains, the glass is largely minimalized, no longer are there paintballers shooting at the racers, and much of the trash has been removed. 

2016 was the first year I made the pilgrimage to Cali for the spring races in a number of years, likely around ten.  The course is very punchy with numerous spots where the trail narrows and steepens, requiring a scramble or strong technique to carry speed from each of the rollers or rocky descents before.  Coming to this very tight course feeling on edge from the pain in my ribs made for an intimidating pre-ride circuit. Intimidation is known to contribute to poor technique and I wasn’t riding up to my ability.  I was determined to race regardless of how I felt with the secret hope that everything would just magically be better in the morning. I slept on an ice pack and alternated that with heat to try to release the cramp my side was tight with.

I loosened up a bit as the race progressed that year but never felt very strong and was consequently pulled from the field.  My main focus isn’t on being fast for the spring and summer racing anymore but still, being pulled was ultimately embarrassing.  As I stood to find and relieve my feed zone help, something popped in my sternum and a clicking began with my breathing.  The following day was brutal and I spent it with my fingers crossed that I would be better the next weekend.

Fast forward a year and I’m healthy and happy, coming off a strong cyclocross season and “vanlifing” my way through the warmer parts of the southwest.  With a few mountain bike races under my belt I lined up with the top ten women in the country and ten more who were just getting started. My intimidation of the course is still there however, likely four additional laps of practice on this short course would have made a world of a difference. Alas, I don’t have the inspiration to spend time on a hot, dusty, two mile rock outcrop in the middle of working class California neighborhood when there are mountains to explore without the need to drive. 

As I progressed through this years race with the front end completely out of reach and my motivation lacking, I realize that most of my intimidation is self-imposed and likely residual from being hurt the previous year.  I can ride everything on this course comfortably and after a bit I relaxed enough to have some fun.  I figured I would be pulled as I had been the year prior, on such a short loop if you aren’t trying your hardest you tend to loose out on that chance.  As I began to focus on not getting pulled I rode each lap as if it were my last one. This didn’t translate to particularly fast but rather more consistency and embracement of the fact that racing bikes hurts.  I particularly like the motto of “I ONLY get to do this X more times” as I go around as opposed to “oh man, I HAVE to do this X more times.” My fifth lap began as the winners were crossing the line and I relaxed a bit knowing if nothing else I bettered last years performance by staying in the race until the end. 

This gave me a lot to think about.  I love cyclocross for it’s wide open courses and room to let the rider decide how to make the most of the space.  Technical courses are usually my forte and definitely more time and a better look at this course would have helped.  The wake up call was not just from a change of ten feet to a one foot course width, but also the time and effort it takes to go around this track in practice.  Coming into a race with your sites set on surviving rather than thriving doesn’t typically pan out to a great performance.   Fortunately those are some good lessons learned and the following weekends course is more to my liking.  Here’s to reinforcing positive thinking and preparation!