Last weekend was the annual Hodges Village Dam Root66 USA Cycling MTB race out in lovely Oxford, MA. Oxford is sort of in the middle of nowhere yet just a stones throw from Worcester. It is a gentle 45 minute drive for us, either via the Mass Pike or RT495/290. The venue is literally at a dam and the terrain is around a pond that also serves as a flood control area. The terrain is rolling and is based primarily on bombed out old moto trails and access roads. Not a terrible picturesque area but the type of place where a hoard of mountain bikes racing in foul conditions really doesn't have a whole lot of impact. This is one of the few properties where motorized recreational access is still allowed in the start, or at least it used to be, very recently.
This is the 4th year in a row that I've participated in this race and, knock on wood, I've always had pretty good success there. Part of the attraction is the proximity and convenience, part is that this is the MA state championships and part is that the course actually suits me fairly well with lots of fast power sections and rocky, rooted, bumpy junk that has full suspension written all over it. I've had some epic battles as well, possibly two of the best ever, like last year against Alec Petro and the year before against JB. I've also raced in some of the most epic conditions ever at this event, such as two years ago when full sections of the course were literally under 3' of water. This year turned out to be surprisingly even more epic than that year. Hard torrential rains the night before followed by a steady driving rain the AM of the race led to standing pools (not puddles) of water as well as streaming torrents of runoff in multiple sections. In at least two places there were deep moto created whoops that were totally submerged under 16" of water, but each also had one extra deep whoop where you sunk literally to your ass. The force was enough to almost stop you and launch you over the bars. There was even one access road that was completely flooded and had so much water flow that you were literally riding upstream against a current. The real kick in the middle was that the under surface was sandy, making it double extra miserable.
I sat on the line in the driving 68 degree rain, shivering uncontrollably, waiting for the start. Off the line the pace was hard with Steve Witkus from the Bikeman team, whom I raced against earlier this season at Winding Trails and narrowly managed to stay ahead of, laying down a monstrous pace. I followed and tucked in behind him, waiting to see how well he made out once we hit the first rocky section, as he was on a fully rigid bike that he had only put gears on for the this race. The sprint out of the gate seemed to have take a toll and when we hit the rocky stuff about a half mile in, I passed and drilled it. Into the first muddy turn the lack of traction afforded by my Specialized Renegade minimal tread tires became abundantly evident. A two wheel power slide and foot dab let me know that I was going to need to ride this like a slippery cross race, run straight into the corners, aiming for the berm on the edge and use that for the turning. That seemed to work just fine and the tires were fine otherwise.
The pace remained high the entire first lap and I made it around in just under 30 minutes for my best lap of the day. Lap two I settled in and tried to maintain a comfortably sustainable pace. This ended up being a little too comfortable I think as it was just over 31 minutes. Unsure of how much time I had on the competition I tried to pick in a little in order to be more consistent. At this point in the game I was in a steady stream of passing racers from other fields. Shortly into the lap on the flat access road of the first section I swung right through a deep puddle to make a pass. After completing it I notice the rear tire had flatted, almost instantly. I was sure that I hadn't hit anything so have no idea what caused it. All that I knew was that I had to get it fixed. Ugh! Pull to the side of the trail, remain calm, there goes the guy I just passed, shift up in the rear, unbolt the wheel, more people I recently passed, pull the Camelbak and gloves off, grab the inflation device and tube, pre-inflate the tube manually, pull the old tube out, check for thorns, replace tube, oh crap, there goes Steve, seat the bead, hope the CO2 works, yes, it worked, add a second CO2 cartridge to get higher pressure, fumble getting the wheel back on, fumble getting the 12mm through-axle in, shift back down, pack it all pack up, wet gloves back onto muddy hands, we're off. Not a record by any stretch but not too bad. I'm guessing it was about 2.5 to 3 minutes total downtime.
Now the fun begins. Chasing like a maniac to try and get the minute and half or so back on a guy who is now drilling it with the surge of adrenaline and optimism gained by having seen the nearest competition essentially dead on the side of the trail and now they themselves being at the head of the race. I hate this game, that being the frantic, racing for your very life type of riding. You tend to make mistakes, you tend to ride poorly, you tend to go too hard and you tend to blow up as a result. Ha, I was right and did all of those. The other pain is that you get to be an annoyance to the same people twice as you pass them again. Of course, now we are in the narrower and more technical section of trail where passing is more difficult, and so it was. To cut to the chase, I fumbled through the third lap, finally regaining some composure on the final lap. The rain had stopped and the standing water was subsiding, leaving sticky mud in its wake. The humidity was also starting to rise as was the temperature. Time to get this thing over with.
At that point I'd pretty much resigned myself to the fact that Steve had punched out and I was never going to see him again. I was bringing in a steady stream of racers from other fields but could tell it wasn't going to be enough when on the long straight after the start I couldn't see, or at least make out, Steve up ahead. The reality is that gaps are deceiving. On the road, a couple bike lengths is often not close-able. Offroad, 20 or 30 seconds can be made up pretty quickly. That straight section probably afforded a 20 second vista into the future. Just before the narrow bridge crossing I caught Cathy. She was moving very, very well and having a great ride, About a mile after that, it was was great relief and some disbelief that I caught a glimpse of what appeared to be Steve ahead. Calmly, I closed to within 20 yards and sat, recovering a little bit, squished down a Powergel, drank and waited. In the final rooted and rocky stuff before breaking out of the woods and onto the sandy access road, I closed the gap tight. On the road I waited a bit to see how Steve looked physically then attacked as hard as I could. No response was given so I kept charging as much as I could. Running scared I kept the pace steadily high while trying to ride safe and smart. In the end it worked and I managed to cross the finish line ahead. Other than the flat, a good solid race.
As an aside, this was an excellent course for my new this season Specialized Epic Expert carbon 29er. Though the 29er format can be a challenge at courses with a lot of climbing due to the extra rotating mass or in a ton of tight twisty technical stuff where a 26er just handles more crisply, it is absolutely incredible how much smoother it is through the bumps and rough stuff. It also rolls really, really well on the flats. I noticed this in a big way on a long solo MTB ride this past Friday where I was able to carry lots of speed with less perceived effort than expected. Despite a few initial issues the bike really seems to be dialed in now and I am really happy with it. The suspension is working great, a vast improvement over the older Epic design which I had previously. I did manage to chew through another complete set of rear disc brake pads this race. Despite that fact and also having a prong of the pad spring catch the rotor and bend itself into a pretzel, the wheel spun freely with little drag. This is more than I can say about Cathy's bike. She suffered horribly on the last lap but finished strong. While cleaning the bikes I noticed that he rear brake was dragging really bad. To the point where there was no free rotation at all. Examination revealed that the pads were worn out and on one side, the rotor had worn nearly half way through the steel backer plate. The spring that keeps the pads separated and away from the rotor, had been worn in half and two of the 4 prongs were gone, completely, rendering it useless. I'm guessing that meant an extra 25 watts of constant power required just to turn the wheel. No wonder she was spent. Most people would have given up but not her. Hardcore.