Leaving Prescott I stopped for a few days in Sedona then traveled on to Moab before landing in Grand Junction of a solid week of course previews. I then detoured through Durango to Cortez, CO for a weekend of racing 12 hours of Mesa Verde with two other ladies as teammates. After a successful campaign on the women’s 3-4 person open category and a well received break from smashy Grand Junction trail escapades I headed back through Moab to Junction to settle in for the big weekend.
Often when I get through with cyclocross for the winter I excitedly hop on to my mountain bike just to find that much of my fluidity and effortlessness on the trails has been replaced with a hesitant, halting, and highly frustrating change in riding style. I attribute this yearly transition to the consequence of riding my cross bike on the trail, an activity I dearly love but one that also causes me to keep a sharp eye out for rocks that will flat the narrower tires or obstacles that might not be the best location to find yourself at speed on the rigid cross bike. After a few rides of realizing that the fatter tires and suspension soak up the trail with ease, I relax, my eyes break their grip on the path immediately in front of me, and my ability to flow through the ride returns.
The Grand Junction Off Road combines more technical trail features such as step-ups, drops, and complex rocky plunges with the need for rallying flowy cornering, maintaining good nutrition and hydration, a solid base of endurance, and certainly the mental capacity for perseverance. Basically, if you wanted to earn your badge for being a mountain biker in the most complete sense, this is the way to do it.
One of the most fascinating things I took away from year two of this race was that I basically went through the same pattern as the first year. I registered online after experiencing the Whiskey Off Road and loving the vibe that the race brought back to mountain biking. After a few disappointing years of multiple laps through two mile loops and miniscule showings on the start lines the Epic Rides race series was like a trip back in time to when mountain biking was popular. After registering, I ventured out to the race course to get a few laps on it and promptly decided I made a huge mistake signing up for a course I had never seen.
The first section of trail included a number of steep pitches culminating in a massive hike-a-bike that was barely walkable much less ridable. This led to a number of technical features I spent as much time staring at as I did riding. Heading out to the back part of the loop the technical features continued but was now coupled with the feeling of being pretty far out from civilization. After the extended fire road climb that is the central feature of the loop, you get to thank your legs by hovering over the saddle for another few miles of punchy and intense fire road descending. And if by thanking them you forgot to take every opportunity to spin them out, you are rewarded with the final four miles of climbing at 11-18% grade on a solid piece of slickrock. The last section of trail typically (it has changed) heads back into the area popular amongst the locals for short loops, big suspension, and max fun and for the second year (on different trail) at least one feature I was none too excited about riding.
The first ride led to a sense of panic. “I can’t hardly ride this, how am I going to race??” The second pre-ride look allowed me to identify lines through the rock with minimal hesitancy and while finding all of them while being in a hurry wasn’t seeming likely, it was reliving to know that it was possible. My third ride allotted me the ability to ride through without stopping and not just was my competency higher I was actually finding fun with my new found confidence as well as reassurance at the efficiency of my reduced time out on the course.
By race day I was locked and loaded and actually EXCITED to get out there and put all that practice to use. The race was no doubt hard but with higher consequences of being out on real technical trails you are forced to bring a higher level of focus which in turn lets me have a better race.
Fast forward to the current year…. I register, get out to pre-ride fully expecting that I had ridden the course before so it would be a walk in the park and BAM, I’m in the exact same boat as the first year. Knowing what I had gone through and that it ended positively let me maintain a degree of sanity but regardless, it was the same cup of tea. My saving grace came in the form of leaving to ride trails that I love for a different race, flowy, fast, and fun. While doing laps at Phil’s World in Cortez for 12 Hours of Mesa Verde I was reminded that I was indeed a good bike handler and likely I was being hard on myself. When I returned to Grand Junction the following week the rain, snow, and bentonite clay kept me off the course save one quick reminder run through the day before the race. I know I am capable of riding that one big plunge but I wasn’t feeling it. Questioning my abilities on something like this during the race will lead me to slow my pace and sometimes it’s just as good (and quick) to plan on running.
I rode to my ability in the first portion of the race, I went in feeling almost cocky over my competence. While it sounds a touch narcissistic, this feeling usually leads to a better performance for me and indeed I was clearing all the technical bits where others around me weren’t. After doing so well on the first portion I started thinking too much about it as opposed to taking my brain out of the equation and started to lose some ground. I felt good the whole day, never quite in the red but therein lies my performance limiter with mountain bike racing: I never quite know when to go harder. The brain has a regulator that naturally tells you to not push too hard (for survival purposes) and I find mountain bike racing to be quite the test of ignoring this.
Finishing 15th with some of the best ladies in the world isn’t nearly as meaningful to me as the accomplishment of having ridden the course faster from the year prior. I rode my race plan to a T and had fantastic support throughout. My biggest takeaway at the conclusion of the event was not about my performance, it was about my perspective. I look at an obstacle, be it the course in its entirety, an intimidating rock drop, or a longer climb, and I think if it in terms of what I need to do to get through it. I think about the preparation, the anticipation, the feelings, the effort dedicated and the time spent, the relief when I’m beyond it. Through that thinking the obstacle grows and I allot more time to its accomplishment… which is not productive in racing. But what if instead of thinking of that obstacle as something I need to arrive at to overcome, I give it less significance in my head? I can choose to do this by looking at the bigger picture, each obstacle is just one blip on the radar and one way or another I will surpass it. Armed with this knowledge (and some practice!) I can choose to minimize its significance which will in turn allow me to push harder and ride faster. Racing is all about testing your limits and expanding your boundaries, even the ones you never knew were there.
While I have my fair share of relief at heading back out of town towards trails that flow fast and smooth, it’s not without an appreciation for switching it up, getting out of my comfort zone, pushing my limits, testing my skills, and learning that perseverance is the most cherished reward.
It was a quick turn around to leave Cali and head straight for Prescott, AZ. I arrived in time for a beautiful evening pre-ride and course scout session.
For a number of years I lived in the heart of America. Locations that provided convenience for a job that consisted of flying airplanes over the coast – ANY coast – on any given day as they were all equally accessible. I didn’t love these locations but like anywhere there is good to be found, if it isn’t in the terrain or weather then it’s the community. My riding during these years consisted of cardinal direction roads in endless one mile grids, single track loops in redundant scrub oaks and sandy dirt, and hill repeats on waterway crossings. Sameness plagued me and I traveled to race each and every weekend for countless hours of solo road trips to visit other places and have an excuse to ride new trails.
While I definitely love where I now live, I have not lost the love to travel and race, the thrill of riding a new area, or the joy of becoming proficiently familiar with navigating areas not your own. The Whiskey Off Road is impressive as many of the Epic Rides series races are in that you feel so far removed from the populace in such a short period of riding. The majority of the race gives you the impression you are out in the environment on your own with just your competitors for company. The trails are flowing and fast and the climbing is properly challenging.
With many trail options and plentiful connectors I typically split my Prescott pre-ride into two days, one day to ride the start and finish with a shortcut across in the middle, and another to ride the central portion of the course, albeit a bit out of order. I appreciate a look at the track before race day, it gives me confidence to have familiarity with the terrain and a chance to look over any natural changes in the trail. Last year the rain and sleet set me up for a very chilly pre-ride but this year it was perfect. Despite discovering my GPS map was not loaded, I headed out and had zero problems following the course flaggings, even across the cut through to the finish stretch of trail.
I was relieved that I was finally starting to feel comfortable with my fitness and excited to see what I could do race day. My expectations for performance goals are completely my own, while I know that some judge me on my results in comparison to the race field while others merely would love to see me succeed, I am thoroughly motivated by the idea of bettering my own performance. Confidence is one of my continuous struggles but I enjoy pleasantly surprising myself while working to channel these positive thoughts into the ability to push harder.
As the neutral start group began to thin I was pleased to place myself within the back of the lead pack and settle in for the final surge to the dirt. Once we hit the more rolling double track I moved through the group around me for the first descent. Being so surprised that I was in the clear as we started into first section of rough, narrow, singletrack, I proceeded to blow every corner I came onto. This culminated in biting off on a discarded branch of the track and placed me on the top of a boulder I had no intention of riding off of. I lost a few places in the errors but took the opportunity to laugh at myself and quickly caught back to the line of girls on the track. Passing wasn’t plentiful and I opted to save my energy for when it was a sure shot.
As the single track opened to a fire road dubbed “the wall,” the group reshuffled to begin the climb. I was feeling good but being overly cautious as usual and not pushing super hard. As the road got steeper the distance between riders grew and I rode my own pace keeping an eye on the racers in front of me. They were still well within my reach when my shifting started to go, I knew I came into the race with a few preexisting, undiagnosed issues and I was trying not to aggravate them as best as I could. But racing is racing and the stress placed on the bike is as high as the one placed on the rider. Working to be smooth through the undulating trail, I tweaked it just right and the chain came off the front. It didn’t take me long to get the chain seated back on but definitely long enough to lose sight of the girls in front of me. Without that contact it is easy to allow yourself to slow to a more casual pace, it can be a challenge to keep a sense of urgency without an external stimulus to motivate you.
The trail keeps you busy navigating the flowing drops, step-ups, rock gardens, technical scrambles, and a final wide-open scrub brush covered hillside with screaming bermed corners and leg aching descents. As I rolled through the bottom I closed in on one racer just as another closed in on me. We hit the next section of fire road climbing and I settled in for what was to be the warm up for the big effort of the day. I loaded up with water at the intermission before heading down the Skull Valley out and back which passes back through the same feed zone and then culminates in the highest elevation of the day before descending more single track to the finish.
As Skull Valley is a dirt road, I had not felt the need to pre-ride it and this cost me as I reacted to a water crossing by swerving to pick a line to my left. With oncoming traffic currently in the form of the men’s race, I performed the swerve in an arc to reclaim my position on the correct side of the road and consequently exposed my right rear sidewall to the unknown rocks in the water. The telltale protest from my sidewall gave me a moments grimace but I continued to press with the excitement that I was in a good position, was feeling fresh, and could potentially put a dent into my personal best on the climb by working with other girls who have the same interests in throwing down.
The tire became bouncy which indicates a loss of air and I decided to ride it out to the top of the rise in the road I was currently facing. I hopped off, blasted the tire with CO2 as I inspected it to see the damage. The sidewall cut was less likely to hold with the sealant but I would chance it before taking the time to remove the wheel and insert a tube. I made it another hundred feet before it was flat again.
So be it. Mountain biking is a survivors game, racing is a test of perseverance. Not just of your ability to push yourself to the max but of your preparation for the unexpected and your willingness to continue. You can measure your self-worth by comparison to others but that isn’t a quantitative measure. Everyone’s performance is relative to infinite factors and while it’s fun to come out on top the result itself does not define the type of person you are.
I up shifted, pulled over, popped the wheel out and unthreaded the valve as I started the inflate with my mouth. Tube in, tire on, the last of my CO2….it wasn’t enough but it would get me rolling. I was keeping an eye on the passing riders, more the women going down then the men going up. I pocketed any trash and my gloves and went to see what I could do. It wasn’t too much, the tire was low and bouncy putting me at risk for a pinch flat if I hit anything just right. While it was good traction for the climb it wasn’t super fast. I limped back to the aid station at the mid point to the final climb with the plan to holler for a floor pump. The volunteers came running at me from all sides with pumps in hand. I asked for 27-30 psi to keep me rolling through the sharp rocks I was about to descend through. I was pumped up, both my bottles were replaced, a gel shoved into my hand, a spare CO2 cartridge thrust at me. These folks….they don’t even know me, I’m not anywhere near winning much less being in the money and they are here to ensure my success. Imagine their disappointment if I hadn’t been interested in continuing? As a professional cyclist you get to this point by perseverance. Unlike other sports when the decisions are made by coaches and programs, I get to decide how far I am willing to take this and how hard I am willing to work for it. I even get to define success in my own terms.
I finished up the race with the enthusiasm of salvaging my performance. I’m stoked to be out here. I’m thrilled to have the strength to try, the capacity to endure, and the ability to inspire. What more could anyone ask for?