Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I Love/Hate French Creek Pick One (Oh, and Racing with Teammates)

This blog post will not be particularly interesting, insightful, or humorous. Largely because I'm not feeling particularly interesting, insightful, or humorous. In fact, in the two days since the French Creek race I've been feeling rather listless and more than a little unmotivated. Too hard an effort? Probably. Meh...

I love and hate French Creek. Always have. Both are true, sometimes on the same ride. Like many others in the Pennsylvania/Maryland/Delaware mountain biking community (see one blog-post down), French Creek was the first area that I rode regularly after "discovering" mountain biking as an adolescent. (My first ride at French Creek was on a too-big burnished chrome Ross Mt. Hood that my mother pulled out of the trash. Sans helmet of course. I was an invincible teenager after all.) If you can regularly conjure the elusive rhythm necessary to flow through a ride on the French Creek trails I congratulate you and am a little jealous. For you are a better rider than I. Finding that rhythm was not a regular occurrence for me back then and still isn't. Finding it during a race, all but impossible. If you can find it though, if you can unlock the rocks, if only once in a great while, riding at French Creek is awesome and will bring you back again and again. (In fact one summer as a sophomore in college I rode French Creek literally everyday for like three months. I never spent so much on replacement parts as I did that summer. I think I went through three SRAM 9.0 derailleurs in three weeks). French creek is at the top of the list of places that people say is great to ride, but not so great to race. I totally agree. This Sunday's race was probably the hardest XC length race I've yet participated in. For those interested, a race report follows:

Kathleen, Patton, and me along with relative newbies Mike O'Connor and Jeff Stephens pre-rode the course (shh, don't tell) the Tuesday night before the race, which may not have been a good idea in this case. The course difficulty revealed by the pre-ride did nothing for my race confidence and I think Katheen and I were both looking at the race as something that needed to be done rather than something we were looking forward to doing. I warmed up well, lined up on the far right side of the course, the only single speed in the elite field as has become the norm, and when the sadistic course designer yelled "go" I got out uncharacteristically well. For a brief moment at the start I was actually in second place behind Mr. Shalk himself having made a beeline for the tangent cutting across the entire elite field from right to left (I was most assuredly the only one that noticed). Once I ran out of gear, which happened almost immediately, I was passed by six riders (Fawley, Draugelius, Snyder, Schempf, Gamahno, and teammate Showers). Seventh into the single-track with a sizable gap between myself and eighth, with Schempf and Showers just ahead. I yo-yo'd off the back of Schempf and Showers for the better part of four miles until the first of what would be many climbs. Halfway up the climb my right foot started feeling a little loose. I reached down and felt my cleat and sure enough it was loose. I clipped back in and rode to the top of the climb where I planned to stop and fix it. When I unclipped to make the repair the cleat, shoe plate, and both screws came completely off and fell in the dirt. This constitutes my first ever race mechanical. (I still have never flatted during a race. That's right, I said it. I thumb my nose at the mountain biking deities.) I was very lucky that the cleat fell off right as I unclipped and simply lay in the dirt right where I stopped. It took me a couple of seconds to find all the bits, but soon I was sitting in the dirt next to the trail with both shoes off attempting to reattach the cleat to my shoe. In the minute or two that this act took seven riders passed me, seven! I went from seventh to fifteenth just like that. I thought about pulling the plug, but I felt okay and figured that a couple of people would bail, suffer mechanicals, or blow-up and I'd make up a few more spots and possibly finish in the top ten. So I put my head down and ramped it up a bit to catch back on. By half way through the first lap I had caught all seven riders except Yozell (ridiculously fast forty something year old WTS!?!) and had caught back up to Showers. In the meantime Snyder and Gamahno had both suffered mechanicals and bailed. So I was back in seventh. I rode with Showers and Yozell ever so briefly until I couldn't hang anymore. Soon after that I completely unraveled and resigned myself to trudging through the second lap in no-mans-land alone with my too tall gear (34x18, a bad decision born mostly from apathy earlier that morning as I couldn't get 34x19 to result in a chain-stay length I was happy with and so through in the towel after only one try) and my ever present thoughts of bailing. After riding back into seventh I couldn't bring myself to pull the plug . On the second lap I went over the bars, ran/walked/shuffled up two climbs, got caught and passed by Cameron Dodge (ridiculously fast teenager WTS!?!), re-caught Cameron Dodge, and continuously lamented my single-speed until the finish. Narrowly besting Dodge for seventh by a mere five seconds. French Creek 2011 taught me that I still love and hate French Creek, and that geared bicycles do indeed have a place in bike racing. I should probably think about getting one.

Did I enjoy the race? No, not really. Am I glad I finished? Yes, yes I am. Am I looking forward to next year's French Creek race? Meh...

In response to some post race discussions and emails, I had a whole blog-post drafted that explored the age old question of Nature (Showers) vs. Nurture (Harding) as it relates to racing mountain bikes, but decided to scrap it. The truth is that nobody (least of all Showers and Harding) really cares. Sure a friendly gentleman's rivalry fueled by a spirit of competition exists (after all we are both first born males from families with all male siblings, type A, highly competitive individuals, that have competed in endurance sports since high school). That's why we race down 322 on our single-speeds like we're leading out a field sprint and otherwise attempt to rip each other's legs off on Wednesday nights like a couple of tools. That rivalry makes all of this all that much more fun. At the end of the day though I think we both feel fortunate to occasionally find ourselves in the top ten (even more occasionally the top five) given the level of competition we take part in. The fact that there's a friendly face there wearing the same jersey is a bonus. That said, could either of us tell you who has won what and where the imaginary "count" lies? You bet your ass.


Monday, May 9, 2011

Traveling Through Time; Racing 'On the Rocks at French Creek'

I love French Creek State Park. This place has been a part of my life for as long as I care to remember. Looking back, Some of my fondest memories are of camping here with my father and my brothers. Throughout the nineties we camped here regularly, year round. As kids, we'd go for a hike and when I picked up running in High School, we'd explore at about 7:00 mile pace. As a young teen, it was awesome to be out there in the seemingly endless wilderness. The feeling of freedom I found while exploring these trails is a memory that remains fresh in my mind. My love of French Creek was forged in these explorations.

After High School, life took me in a different direction. The camping trips came to an end and it would be nearly a decade before I'd find my way back to French Creek. I'd long since hung up my racing shoes and I found myself yearning for a competitive outlet. Enter: cycling.

One day in the fall the fall of 2006, I walked into LoweRiders to change my life forever. I treated myself to a modest singlespeed 29er - a bright green Kona Unit 2-9. One of the first places I took that bike was to the trails of French Creek. I went there alone - which I never do, even to this day - as if to take a ride into my past. As I pedaled through the trails of my childhood, I brushed shoulders with my future. In a fleeting moment out there in the wilderness of French Creek that day, I found my true love...


I was perplexed about how nervous I felt Saturday morning. Kim reassured me, but that only helped marginally. The drive to the park was pure torture. When Kim joked that she might lose her breakfast, I chuckled nervously to downplay her nerves but secretly I thought the same thing. It wasn't until we got on our bikes that they subsided. After that, everything just felt right. Before Kim and I parted ways, we shared our good luck sentiments and reiterated our goals to finish the race in one piece.

On the start grid I found myself oddly relaxed as I sat upon my top tube, waiting for the green light. Marcus started his countdown; 3, 2, 1, GO! I had a decent start hitting the singletrack just inside the top ten.
(entering the Single track with Ron in tow)

For the first few miles, I felt great sitting in 5th place. Felt great, that is until I was on the rocks at French Creek - literally. At the bottom of a fast decent, I hit a rock garden with way too much speed. My bike went left, my body went right. I slid head first across some rocks while my bike came to rest upside down in the middle of the trail. It's too bad I didn't have a camera. All I've got to show for it are some nasty bruises and abrasions. Luckily the only thing that came home in two pieces was my bike... considering the speed at which I crashed, I'll gladly take the $50 replacement fee for this lever blade...
It took me a minute or so to collect myself, and get back on the bike. In the meantime the race was still going, Mike Yozell and Cameron Dodge caught up. Apparently I looked a bit disheveled because both of them kindly checked in to see if I was OK. Shook up, I persevered and rode with Mike for the rest of the first lap and part of the second. I don't think I ever fully regained my composure out there, and Mike's descending skills were way too hot for me to handle... On the second lap he rode away from me and I was relegated to sixth place for the day. I feel like I was very fortunate to have finished the race and the sixth place finish was a nice bonus.

Looking back on the day, I think Marcus designed the course this year with one intention: to punish people... I picture him sitting at a table on Wednesday night, with a beer in his hand saying: "eff em... I'm making this year the hardest yet." I think he succeeded...

Our Mother's Day recovery couldn't have been more perfect...
Hope you had a good one. I know we did.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Wawayanda Spring Cleaning H2H series #1

The alarm went off at 5am. I really wished it hadn't... I loathe that cell phone jingle, alarm thing. I would have loved to stay in bed for a couple more hours, but no, that was not to be. I rolled over, stumbled out of bed and threw on the clothes I had laid out the previous night. I staggered around the house, searching for the kitchen and ultimately, some breakfast. I sourced some mediocre scrambled eggs, a nice buttered multi-grain bagel, a pint of OJ and a shitty cup of french press coffee - why can't I make a good cup of coffee anymore? I pinched my nose and pounded the coffee in an effort to jumpstart my race morning with some UCI legal stimulant.

I had just about everything I needed prepared and ready to go the night before. It's so nice - and so different from the norm - to not have to scramble the morning of a race. Apparently, some of the good in Kim is rubbing off on me. It's a damned good thing too... we needed to be on the road at 6. BP showed up in our driveway at quarter till.

The drive took us through scenic Bucks County and into the rolling hills of North Jersey. As we approached the venue, I marveled at the menacingly large hills and plentiful rocks. The terrain wasn't nearly what I was expecting, but I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting... Regardless, the landscape had my mind racing and my nerves churning. We arrived a full two hours early for Kim's race at 10:30. I knew she was a bundle of nerves being her first H2H race in years. Fortunately for her, relief was coming soon, whereas I needed to wrestle with mine for almost five hours before toeing the line. Some light hearted joking about Ron's amusing USAC license predicament helped pass the time. I also snuck away to catch Kim on her laps to give her a lil love.

(Kimmy racing up the double track)

Time for the Gun Fight.

Ron and I lined up on the front line wielding our knives - our rigid steel singlespeeds. Ron was the only familiar face in the crowd. I love that. I love to think that the other guys are grumbling about "the tools with rigid singles on the front line... they don't belong up there... they'll be out the back door... etc, etc." In reality, they probably couldn't care less, but it fuels my fire - so in my head - they're saying it.

I got a good jump on the start and was second wheel at the top of the first hill. Unfortunately, I spun out the 32x18 pretty directly thereafter on the doubletrack descent into the woods. Ron was better geared than me - more on this later - and he was one of the first to blow by. A few more guys made a last ditch effort to get ahead of me into the woods. They succeeded and I was relegated to 7th or 8th into the singletrack - not really where I wanted to be on a technical course. Meh.

For the first couple miles I was getting jammed up by the traffic. It was frustrating for sure, because I could see Ron slipping away and I knew there was at least one guy away from him. One by one, the guys ahead of me were making mistakes that I could capitalize on. Finally I managed to break free and bridge up to Ron.

(There's Ron checking his gap to the next guy - me)

Unfortunately, that was short lived because the last third of the lap is mostly doubletrack. I waved by-bye to Ron as he just walked away, pushing the right gear.

Early on the second lap, I traded spots with Brian Lariviere and another guy for a mile or two. On one of the pretty techy sections, Brian took a nice digger in front of me... I went left and made it through unscathed while the other guy got jammed. After that, I managed to almost bridge back up to Ron again. I got to within 10 seconds, but just couldn't close it. The double track struck again and that was the last I'd see of any of my competition. It made for some interesting head games on that lonely third lap. I'd push hard, then follow it up with complacency. I'd get scared, look around and push again. For a while, I was fueled by the prospect of reeling in Ron, but it just never came to fruition. Not wanting to get caught with my pants down, I pushed as hard as I could on the double track. I knew if I was going to loose 3rd, it'd be here. In the end, I found out that Ron was only ~20 seconds up. Damnit... just out of sight.

At the end of the day, TBR brought four racers to Wawayanda and we earned four podium spots. Not a bad showing, not bad at all. We were all pretty destroyed after our efforts on a truly abusive - but super fun - course. This was more technical than any course in the MASS, I think. This place is ROCKY. This place is AWESOME. This place will make French Creek seem kinda tame. See you out there...