Monday, April 30, 2012

the Battle

Many if not most of my best racing experiences have been on the mountain bike. I think that it is fair to say that my best racing performances have also been on the mountain bike. There have been many epic, for lack of a better term, battles both lost and won in mountain bike races. Some of these have been personal battles with fatigue or motivation. Others have been battles with weather or adverse conditions or mechanical difficulties. I say with certainty though that the best battles are those fought against a well matched opponent. The battle that comes down to the wire, the one where even the most confident and secure competitor has that bit of self doubt throughout the battle.

 Each has merit and each battle teaches us lessons about tactics and strategy and about oneself. They are an honest test of ones limits and you emerge at the end wiser and stronger in either victory or defeat. The unique thing about the mountain bike battles though is that the races tend to be fairly long. Because mountain bike racing usually breaks up quickly in to small groups, you often find yourself racing against the same one or two persons for the entire race, typically a couple of hours. A road race tends to stay together or if you are in a breakaway it is often shorter lived and is a larger group. There are exceptions of course. I was in a successful two man break in a road race last summer with Patrick R. for most of the race. I've also had numerous races within the race in cyclocross races over the years as well, but those tend to be much shorter given that the races are much shorter.

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to find myself in one of these battles at the Lung Buster MTB race at Massasoit State Park in Taunton, MA. Last year we did the race in a 40 degree driving rain. It was miserable. This year was warm, sunny, dry and dusty. The course is a mix of sandy access roads and tight, twisty singletrack sections. All of the climbs are short power climbs save the one nearly impossible rooted steep climb/run-up. Speaking of roots, there are lots of them. When dry they are an inconvenience but when wet, ugh, deadly.

The field in my category, the Cat1 40-49 was stacked with guys I've raced against in all disciplines over the years. Tough guys, all of who readily beat me in one event or another. Mountain bike racing is my strongest suit though so I knew where the strongest competition would likely lie. Unfortunately for me that competition would be from Alec P., a man I've race numerous times before and have had one of the toughest battles ever with for the state title. JB, another Corner Cycles racer, is the other person that I feel has brought out some of the best MTB racing ever in me but he was racing the Pro/Open race. Also unfortunate though, was the fact that Alec did have three other strong Corner Cycles teammates, Bill, Sam and Gray, in the field with him and I was alone, as always, but as you probably realize, that's how I like it. The other unknown was Paul R. from CCB, who is a very strong and smart racer and came on strong in cyclocross last year. Add to that a field of guys with tons of cred like Alby, Brian or Matt or who have been training really hard, like Robert or Scott, and have made huge improvements this year and the Cat1 40-49 field is the place to be in terms of depth and breadth.

The start of this race is crazy, a 100 yard slight uphill road sprint into a 90 degree left turn off on the grass and quickly into a 90 degree right into singletrack. The holeshot was going to be crucial and I knew that if Alec got ahead of me with teammates in between, he would be gone and I'd never catch him. The only option was to take chances and sprint like it was the finish and not the start, get to the front and then pin it.

At the whistle I bobbled the clip in. This always happens when it "can't happen". Fortunately I went left and came up the inside, making a dicey pass on the inside in the left hander and then another aggressive pass (sorry, I'm usually not that big a douche) and landed in second spot in the singletrack right behind Billy. This was good and I can't believe it worked out.

The singletrack was twisty and within a couple turns it opened to where I could cut by. I floored it and let the the world drift away in a blur of adrenaline and single minded focus. I hit the two initial bridge sections so fast that I literally flew over parts of them. This was the flight part of the race, the part you can pretty much count on me trying at the start. I'm not sure what it is about me that makes me do it, possibly testing the limits of myself and the field, possibly fear or maybe just stupidity, but I always seem to do it. This time it netted me a quick gap which looked promising at first but quickly started to diminish. As I saw progress from a chase group of what looked like three, I decided to back off so as not to get caught unprepared in a counter attack after the catch or worse, have them ride right through me.

The group of three, Alec, Paul and Scott, caught and sat for a while, letting me plug away on the front. Eventually I conceded the lead and let Alec come through. I settled in at second wheel, behind the his steady and smooth pace. He knows a thing or two about steady having raced RAAM before and planning it again for this year, as well as the Absa Cape Epic and numerous other mountain bike stage races. We took turns at the helm and kept the pace high but had trouble shaking the others, until that is, we hit the ride/run-up section near the end of the lap. On the first time through Scott detached and so coming through for one of three 7.6 mile laps, it was the three of us together.

On the second lap reality started to sink in and we decided that three was too many. We'd both raced with Paul enough to know that his strength is getting to and then dominating the finish. The only option was to make sure that he wasn't there for the finish. With that Alec and I started attacking. Nothing was working but on the first tricky rooted climb Paul bobbled where Alec and I cleaned it. There was a gap and Alec worked it hard. The gap grew and all looked well but then Paul somehow chased back on, an incredible feat given that Alec was drilling it in twisty singletrack. I knew then that the battle was over. I went to the front to provide some relief and set my normal scramble up the run-up pace, which I've come to learn is usually slightly faster than most. I heard Alec yell the words "gap, we've got a gap" and with that, lap two ended in a bleary eyed grimace coming through the road section at 24.5mph trying to open it up further and escape for good. I was dying but didn't dare stop so kept the pace as high as I could for the next couple of miles.

Alec came through and took over after I screwed a loose corner up that lead into a sandy climb for the third time in as many laps. He set an even tempo and was reluctant to let me do some work on the front. Compatriots now became competitors and seeing this, I made a number of faux attacks from behind to try and unravel him a bit. Three quarters through the lap and just before the steep rooties we came upon Dave D., another Corner Cycles racer from the 30-39 group that started ahead of us. I knew that these guys wouldn't do anything questionable but I also know that a pick setup was highly likely given that we were in and out of tight stuff that afforded no pass options. My only option was to counter early in the open to take Dave out of the picture. This worked and I ended up getting to the front in the perfect spot, just before the steep downhill chute before the run-up. I went as hard as possible, which was pretty feeble, but heard a spectator yell that I had a gap, so clenched and floundered forward as hard as I could. It worked and the gap held despite those anxious moments leading to the finish line.

That is the type of day that makes racing worthwhile.

Cathy had an awesome race. We never caught her which means she was moving really well. She also finished up on the podium. A very good day.

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