I've been so busy lately that I've fallen way behind on the updates. I wanted to take a minute though, to talk about a new MTB race on the Root66 Race Series Calendar that took place a short while back. This was the Grafton Ponds race in Grafton, VT. It was in part promoted by the folks at the West Hill Shop in Putney in conjunction with the Grafton Ponds Outdoor Center.
Though I grew up in the Northeast corner of the state of Vermont I'd never been to Grafton before. Really, I'd never spent much time at all in the lower (south of St. Johnsbury) part of the state until I got into bicycle racing much later in life. We were initially on the fence as to the race, partially because there was a good road race on the same day in Lincoln, NH. This race was also a complete unknown for us, and everyone else for that matter given that it was the initial running of the race on a brand new course consisting of a bunch of pretty fresh trails. All of the hype in the media (Thom's video on Cyclingdirt) was saying very, very good things about the race though so in typical fashion we registered at the very last minute, stealth like.
As we were packing the gear and getting directions together the evening before the race we noted that Google Maps was saying it was a three hour drive to the venue. Three hours, really? I was starting to regret the choice as the Lincoln race was an EZ two hours straight up I93. A little digging and mapping and we were convinced that the mapping algorithm was totally wrong and we should be less that two and half hours away, more reasonable though still further than my old and crotchety self likes to drive these days.
The drive up in the morning was uneventful and actually took us about an hour and twenty minutes going the way that the GPS suggested, which meant through the traffic light nightmare that is downtown Brattleboro, VT. This route took us past the Grafton cheese factory and on some nice country roads. We arrived at the venue to ample parking in a wide open field. We registered under a big top tent they had set up from a wedding reception the day before. It turns out that Grafton Ponds is a wintertime nordic ski and snowshoe center and that they actually make snow. Good to know. The word on the street was that the course consisted of lots of fresh and flowy singletrack.
We changed up and got out for a preride lap and were quickly greeted by some very fresh and flowy singletrack. Think Kingdom Trails without thousands of rider visits a month. The trails were well laid out, undulating and made use of lots of rock features and rock armoring. They were also skillfully crafted on sideslopes to climb gradually upslope without really making you think that you were climbing. The trails rolled up and down but you were frequently gaining slightly more than you were losing. It was really good stuff and the type of trail that is custom tailored to my riding style and strengths. That said, this is the type of course that is really painful because it is so much fun, you want to ride it fast, which over a couple of hours with no breaks, doesn't tend to scale that well.
The Men's Cat1 40-49 field is also one of the strongest out there and continually has some of the greatest depth. Nothing is ever a given in that race and on any given day a half dozen different guys could all take the win. I knew it was going to be a tough race for sure. Rob, Craig and Scotty were all there and had each been coming on really strong in the races I'd done with them so far this season. It's amazing at the improvement I've noticed in the field. Obviously these guys are taking it serious and training hard. The results show it for sure. As we awaited our start I recognized that it was going to be important to hit the first woods section in the lead. That section was after a long serpentine access road climb up through an open field. What this meant was that it was going to be a lot of work getting that hole shot.
At the whistle it was an immediate sprint and I settled back a bit after some trouble getting going. As the climb started I passed ahead and got to the front and went as hard as I could for the narrow opening into the woods which seemed an unreachable distance away. Fortunately I managed to get into the trail first though narrowly with no room to spare. We had a steady stream of racers right on my wheel waiting for the chance to pass. Darn, I though I was going really hard there and yet there are still half a dozen guys right on me. Maybe I've lost it? This kept up through the first couple of singltrack sections with no respite. I was going as hard as I could and riding as smoothly as possible yet I was making little to no headway. It was at that point that I realized it might just be over for me and started to consider alternatives to my normal MTB race plan of get to the front and ride away.
To break up the singletrack there were a few sections of access road/doubletrack gentle climbs. These are the power sections where I can really ratchet it up and lay down five or six hundred watts for three quarters of a minute. That is where the gaps open up. You can only go so fast on flowy, technical singletrack and when you have a group of people with roughly the same handling skills, it's no wonder that things remain close. I finally saw a little daylight and went with it, keeping the pace high and steady as usual. Despite that we came around the first of four lap with about a three second gap between myself and Rob. He was really riding strong and I knew he was going to be tough to shake. I also knew that I was going to need to settle in on the pace so as not to explode in the later laps.
Once again I got back into the woods first and just rode steady, eventually gaining more ground. At this point I was well into the Cat1 fields that had started ahead of us so was continually passing folks. I like to be a gracious and calm passer, treating the passee with the respect that they deserve and giving them the good line while I pass in the rough or lesser line. It's my responsibility to get by them not theirs to let me by. Bottom line is that they are racing too. Only a couple of times was I slowed and in the grand scheme it doesn't really matter. That said there is another component that can grip you when catching a rider. When you catch a rider that was only going modestly slower than you, you can get complacent and sit on thinking hey, he's moving pretty good and this is less work than trying to get by and this feels pretty comfortable so maybe I'll just sit here. The hard fact is that you are then going slower than you were before. I had that lapse happen to me on the second lap when I caught a junior rider from the Bliss team who was moving pretty darn well and so I sat behind him for a little too long. On a switchback I caught a glimpse of Rob who was still right there behind me. With that I recognized that it was time to go and made the pass and continued the forward progress.
The laps ticked off and I maintained my steady pace eventually making my way through all of the Cat1 fields that started ahead of me and into the back of the Pro/Open field, which was signed up for five laps on the course vs. our four laps. I was glad to only have four laps to do for certain. I caught Cathy coming around to start my final lap as she was finishing her second. It would be a long day on the trail for her. I cheered and kept moving. The rest of the race was a blur of fun trails and trying to maintain composure and not blow the lead. It worked and I managed to finish up strong and in good position. Rob finished not far behind me, a great race and result for him for sure. The writing is on the wall and my days are numbered.
Cathy suffered through to finish here race strong as well. I'm always impressed at her ability to suffer. As badly as I think I am suffering I know that it is at least as hard for here and that she is also out there significantly longer than I am, meaning she still wins the prize every time. I wish that I had her capacity to endure.
This race was possibly one of my favorite courses ever. I am hard pressed to imagine a better design and layout. Conditions were nearly perfect as well. I'm hopeful that this race becomes a staple on the calendar and we can look forward to visiting the venue year after year. I told Chris from Root66 that this race set a new standard and I meant it. This is what we will use to rank other courses. This was a real MTB race on real MTB trails.
An instant classic.