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.
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!
Some years when January rolls around, cyclocross ends for me and I embrace the “off season” with open arms. I take that one precious week (day) of not riding and then the Colorado weather takes a turn for the mid 70’s and I’m off adventuring. I love the bike for a lot of reasons and at the end of the day I’m happy to have an excuse to be outside, the feeling of purpose that comes from logging miles, and a reason to take a shower.
I finished up my cyclocross season strongly. Even though I planned to race a summer of mountain bikes that arguably starts and is concentrated long before summer begins, the motivation to get right back to business is for once absent. I’m excited to race and be on the road traveling but I would like to keep my focus on cyclocross in the fall and preserving my fitness for the quick turn around to race on the trail seems less important. Regardless I’ll be there, I will be happy to be there, but I’m okay with not being awesome and focusing on results. Rather, with inspiration taken from and in memory of Amy D., I would love to travel, be part of the scene, reconnect with the crew of racers I only see in the summer, build my form, and represent my sponsors, while prepping for the upcoming cyclocross season (hashtagcrossiscoming).
There aren’t a whole lot of places west of Colorado that I don’t love and since I’ve acquired the van I’ve been wide eyed with the prospect of heading the opposite direction from all the fall east coast cross travel. After one month at home to get some semblance of regrouping, I left the winter boots and spare puffy jackets in the closet and stocked back up on sunscreen. As per the usual Colorado winter weather inconsistencies, it was a beautiful blue bird short sleeve day when I left to head south for 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo just north of Tucson.
I’ve done this race a few times in the past years and I’ll never forget the moment I first caught sight of the venue eight miles as the crow flies from the main road. I thought for sure it was a nascar race on a track that I just couldn’t see from the road. Somewhere around 4k people and campers make for quite the spectacle in the otherwise vast empty desert landscape. Once in the venue it is even more eye opening, roads not made for low profile vehicles inundated with car traffic, everyone trying to find their party and join in on terrain highly susceptible to (and effected by) runoff erosion while parking in a highly entertaining anything goes private property style manner. The atmosphere is alive with pre-race anticipation, an underlying buzz of laughter, a constant whirr of coasting bikes, the slam of portapotty doors, generators roaring, the clanking of tents being set up, and the delicious smell of campfires. For an event that typically scores the rights to “first travel to an off-road bike race of the year” it definitely comes with an air of excitement.
I’ve raced OP on a fast coed five-person team and once also as an add-on to a corporate team for fun but never in the highly competitive four person category. Ultra endurance isn’t quite my gig, I have zero desire to bust out a solo or even a duo attempt in a 24 hour race. For me the four-person team is a happy medium between a classic xc race and an ultra event, you do a fairly typical XC effort, rest, recover, and repeat. The course is fast and flowy and fun, 99.9% of the other competitors are gracious and polite, being a member of a group effort is highly appealing to me, great training is had, and plenty of miles are logged.
My three teammates began their drive down behind me in a rented RV and after I filled the gas tank to the brim and headed south in the dark through the desolation and reservations in New Mexico, I sent them a “find my friends” tracker and found a location to pull over and sleep. I arrived, stepped out of the van to stretch and admire the brilliance of the unobstructed Milky Way and the complete silence and beauty of truly being alone, turned to walk back to the van and promptly set the car alarm off with the key fob.
The others joined me while I slept and we woke up to a frosty canyon on one side and a field of thousands of years old lava on the other. The location was beautiful and I’m glad I didn’t miss that portion of the drive to the night. In attempt to keep my perishables from perishing, I placed some items on the roof of the van. Considering the morning temperatures were below freezing and the inside of the van was fairly close to that of a refrigerator, I took great enjoyment in consuming literal frozen yogurt for breakfast.
My teammates took turns joining me in the van and the rest of the drive went by quickly with great anticipation in a way only winter dwellers can have of catching sight of that very first saguaro. We rolled into camp just in time to get 15 minutes of spinning which equated more accurately to 14 minutes of photo taking and 1 minute of productive riding. We chatted, ate microwave dinners from Wal-Mart heated in the RV’s under powered appliance, posted photos, and plotted out our plan of attack.
Friday morning we saddled up to pre-ride and check out the sights. The “town” had grown even larger over night and a steady caravan of cars was inbound as far as the eye could see. We were on the trail early as far as the festive, rowdy, beer drinking party crew was concerned and we rolled out amid parents herding the impressive showing of juniors who most certainly had a late night of giggles, campfires, smores, and hotdogs out of their tents and to breakfast. With so few people on the trails we set a chill but brisk pace while seeking out the lines to pass, huck, and hammer on the 16.2 mile loop. We GoPro-ed some riding and got back in time to get organized, catch up on work, socialize, and relax.
The race began at high noon and I was unanimously nominated as the resident cyclocross racer to participate in the quarter mile, shove filled, bike shoe awkward, Le Mons stampede to the stash of start line bikes. I hesitantly agreed to my assigned role as starter with the condition that the ordeal be videoed. Being the embarrassingly prepared van owner, I provided a broom which we ceremoniously hung a floro pink jersey on. One teammate held my bike ready for a grab and run to minimalize tangling with the surrounding shenanigans, another held the broom frantically waving the jersey high in the air as a beacon for my dash, and the third was assigned to camera duties.
Contemplating a hair late why I didn’t remove my winter season toe spikes to make running less about tripping, and despite joining the front of the line of runners, I slid back and a few girls more determined than I charged by. The run itself wasn’t nearly as stressful as reaching the bikes and having to jump over, around, and elbow my way through a group of 500+ folks trying to untangle their steeds from the racks on the side of the route and right them in the path of another 200 runners trying to push through. My girls were further down as per our plan so fortunately when I reached them the crowd of runners was mainly still trapped in the center of the chaos. I nailed an impressive “don’t kick anyone in the face” cyclocross mount amid the throngs of riders bending over to pick up their bikes.
At least half of the foot traffic who surged by me disappeared quickly in the dust on the first portion of double track. By the entrance to the singletrack the line was moving efficiently at a consistent pace and minimal passing was necessary. I made a few friends, had a moment of feeling overdressed as the sun came out for a full 30 seconds, discovered I was the lead girl being tightly pursued by the lead lady for the solo race, had more than a few moments of awe at this fact, discussed the fact that she knew my teammates and even cooler we were wearing the same gloves, and arrived back in 24 hour town to hand off the baton to our anchor and fastest rider. That went smoothly and as according to plan as we could imagine, the jotted guestimate of lap times in and out on a ripped off piece of a whole foods paper bag electrical tapped to the fridge in the RV was impressively accurate.
We were grouped in to camp with the four person men’s team gunning for the top step as well and as the rain rolled in and the wind picked up, we repositioned the least pro set up in the venue to block a bit more of the elements. Awesome in it’s lack of forethought and any form of organization, we configured the vehicles to provide additional points to tie a generic backyard pop-up tent and zip tie some tarps to it in a random fashion that kept at least one spot of dirt in the center semi dry while making it more difficult to walk into the pile of cactus we were centered around in the dark, but also way easier to trip over the bikes laying in various states covering our entire piece of real estate.
Our team held and built on our lead as we went due to consistent riding, a positive outlook, great communication, and zero mechanical issues. The boys were doing their part to hold off the most publicized team in the race and before I realized it, the day faded into night. Being that person who tends to do training rides late in the day I usually pop a light or two in my pocket to navigate home with and thinking those would be effective on a course I already had the familiarity of a few laps on was likely a touch naïve. My first night lap was steady desert rain, not enough to be dripping down your helmet vents or pooling on the trail but the perfect amount to keep the dirt fast and my gloves wet. That lap was busy with racers getting their first electronically illuminated miles out of the way and passing was almost constant. Three fourths of the way through, my fatigue came to a head and I began to get passed by faster folks for the first time as we headed into the mild, sustained climb that welcomed us to the last three miles of the course.
The second night lap was much less hectic with fewer riders braving the rain and dark. A sleepy zombie like state permeated the transition tent; the techno music blaring from the sound system was met with glares and the constant commotion of inbound riders struggling to comply with the “TURN OFF YOUR LIGHTS” regulators guarding the door was less frequent. After catching a full 20 minutes of dozing for the night following my fourth lap, my usual routine of eat food, change clothes, eat food, baby wipe bath, eat food, warm dry fuzzy clothes happiness, eat food, prep for next go, and eat food now IN bed, the daylight was a welcome sight. As the race drew into its final hours the venue buzz grew to it’s peak and anticipation returned to the faces of those waiting in the handoff tent. Riders concluded that minutes shaved could equal podium spots and the air became frantic once again with the shouts of race numbers, the jitter of nervous athletes, and the shove of teammates exiting the holding area to grab the baton handoff from incoming racers.
My teammates held near or even improved on their lap times as we progressed. My month of “sorry coach” hit pretty hard after that initial two laps of system shock and I felt I might have been the one showing my fatigue most significantly. We were planning on getting 20 laps total – 5 per racer and we came up a few moments and one lap of bonking, cramping legs short. None of us minded though, we were doing what we came to do and none of us were feeling like we were going to miss out by not partaking in that 80th mile. By mid morning our anchor rider sealed the deal by overtaking the trailing team by a lap. As our 19th lap came in for the celebratory finish at 15 minutes past noon we hiked our weary legs down there to welcome her.
Race promoters are noble in their efforts to carry on what has become a sport of passion and not as much profit. The Epic Rides series is a true testament to making the sport enjoyable to more than just the racers. Respecting the fast folks while evening out the playing field for the masses to compete at the same level, all while providing marketing and interaction exposure for the industry, ample entertainment, beverages, solid venues, family fun, and good vibes is the secret to success. Team opportunities in such an individualized sport like mountain bike racing are treasured and contribute to my being able to say with enthusiasm that I love this event.
We just received a postcard from Benson Liao from South America. Benson is riding a fully loaded KHS Tour101 touring bike through Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. From the looks of it, Benson is really enjoying the tour and his KHS.