This was the second year that the Grafton Ponds MTB race was run in Grafton, VT. The race is part of the Root66 series and has quickly identified itself as what I would consider the best course of the season. Real mountain bike trail designed by mountain bikers for mountain bikers. New school if you will rather than the old school, hiking, Jeep or ATV trails designed by and for non mountain bike specific use. Don't get me wrong, any trail is good trail and back in the day, we didn't know any better and were happy to have any trail at all, but some, these included, are markedly better than others. More about the course can be found here in an interview with ThomP of dirtwire.tv.
Anyhow, we convinced a few of our teammates to come out for this race by touting the virtues of the course. This meant that joining Cathy and I would be Teri, PJ and first time ever MTB racer Kyle, who was actually new to MTB all together just a short year ago. PJ would be doing his first Cat1 race in the same field as I was while Teri and Kyle would race the Cat2 race.
The weather leading up to the event had seen some rain, a lot of rain in fact, so we were a bit anxious. Additionally, we had entered our first real bout of heat for the year and nobody was quite sure how we would all deal. Luckily when we arrived on site it was hot and the conditions were very good. Not all out dry but not muddy by any stretch. We got the registration tasks taken care of and then Cathy, Kyle and I suited up for a pre ride of the course.
There were only minor changes to the course from the previous year and everything was in pretty good shape. Cathy peeled off before the full lap was done to save some gas for the race while myself and Kyle, who was a bit nervous completed the full lap.The course was still extra fun stuff, which would undoubtedly make for a hard race. You see, when its fun you want to go fast, faster than normal maybe even, which means that although you are having copious amounts of fun, you are suffering like crazy at your own hand. Couple the heat and course with the fact that we had a full field of the normal seasoned racers, including Matt who had soundly beaten me the past couple of races and it was going to be tough.
The race starts with a flat section of field that goes into a 90 degree turn and then starts climbing up a couple of risers. From there it winds around the edge of the field into another field that then starts a steep little climb into the single-track. I knew that just as last year, it would be crucial to get to the woods first. That meant the initial straight and first shallow hill were not that important to lead on and in fact, the hole-shot into the first corner was detrimental as the actual hole that you are shooting for, the single-track, was a solid 1/4 mile up the trail. My plan was to be moving up on the lead-in to the climb before the upper field and then hammering the last climb to drop into the woods in the lead. That was exactly what I did last year and it worked out well.
That was exactly how the start played this year as well. On the approach to the climb leading to the single-track I went to the front and hammered. I believe that Matt hesitated and entered the woods a couple spots behind me. With the room to move I ripped the downs hard, carrying momentum into the ups and flowing well through the fairly technical, especially at that speed, rolling single-track. At the first check I could see that I had a little room, though Matt had made his way up and was chasing hard. I stayed on the gas and very soon began catching racers from the younger fields that had started before us. I continued moving well by riding at my max. With the heat and exertion my HR was pegged.
By the second lap I was starting to see the signs of fatigue from the heat and stress and the dull headache was starting. Stay hydrated I told myself and drank madly from my Camelback. Yes, that's right, I race with a Camelback even though it isn't cool or trendy. How trendy is dehydration and how practical is drinking from a bottle covered in mud or dust? I've been there and done that and went back to the Camelback years ago. I use a minimalist 70oz that has enough storage for extra CO2 cartridges and a multi-tool. The rest goes into the jersey pocket.
Enough about that though, I managed to keep moving hard through the lap while still steadily picking off racers from other fields and most importantly staying ahead of Matt and the other chasers. Soon I could tell that I was starting to near the end of the Cat1 field as I was getting to the fastest of the young guys, Brendan. I caught Brendan, whose dad Frankie was still up the trail in the Elite race and told him to jump on and we would go try and get his father. He replied in the negative but shortly there after, as I was sitting behind another racer waiting to pass, he caught back on. We both got by the racer, along with ThomP from the Elite race and had a great run through some of the more technical, tight single-track that made its way to the bridge at the river.
That marked the far end of the course and began the technical and highly taxing cross slope single-track climb to the field from hell. This was a fairly shallow climb along the edge of the field which kicked up at the top before dumping you onto an access road descent. The climb was in the open though and on the last two laps, entirely in the blazing sun. The trail was tacky making it seem even harder and it came just after the difficult cross slope climb. From there we made a hairpin corner in another field and then traveled a flat access road to the final woods section that dropped down and over a bridge dumping you out at the bottom and into the finish chute.
On the start of the third lap I took a bottle from Kyle, just in case, and continued to move. A bit into the lap I could start to see Frankie just up ahead who was moving along quite well. Soon I caught Eric who marked the end of the Cat1 field and for the first time that I can recall, opened into some consistent clear trail. Most of the rest of the lap I had nobody coming back in front of me save one or two Elite racers or women. I also didn't catch Frankie until the start of the final lap, despite not really letting off the gas at all. That meant he was indeed picking up later in the race. I could tell that I had a respectable gap on the field but kept plugging away. The final lap saw the catch of many of the women so I was again working in some traffic. My headache was still there but had gotten no worse. I suspect that drinking most of a full bottle on top of probably 60 of the 70oz in the Camelback helped curtail it.
All through though the legs felt pretty darn good and responded well. Hot and tired I finished up the race managing to pry out the desired result I'd been reflecting on for the past few weeks. In the end the gap was comfortable but not huge. A testament to the fact that the Cat1 40-49 group has a whole lot of depth.
Cathy finished up strong in the hot weather, beating her time from last year by a large margin. She impressed me as always with her tenacity and fortitude. PJ did great in his first Cat1 race as well, confirming the fact that he is now racing in the right place. More race for the money I say.
Kyle had the unfortunate luck to be racing in a huge field of testosterone driven middle-aged men whose skill and common sense don't quite match their understanding of basic physics. Off the start Kyle settled into the narrow dirt path in the field. Approaching the first corner, a someone decided they wanted to be in the narrow dirt strip as well, regardless of the fact that the space was already occupied. They hooked bars with Kyle and took him and another racer down. Luckily Kyle was relatively OK but unfortunately for the others, they were not. Shrieks of pain were heard as one racer writhed in agony from an injury. Kyle and another racer caught in the melee reflected on protocol but determined that not being medical staff, pressed on with their race now nearly a half minute behind the field. Regardless, he finished strong and will I hope, be back for more in the future.
Many thanks to the folks at Grafton Ponds, to the West Hill shop guys and to Chris and Jill at Root66 for yet another stellar event. This coming weekend is the Stonewall Farm race I believe. Another super event on some fine MTB trails.