Thursday, September 12, 2013

Another Great Season

I can't believe that it's over already. I recognize that I say that every year, but this year it seems particularly accurate. I'm referring to the MTB race season and the fact that this past weekend was the season finale for the Root 66 Race Series, the Landmine Classic in Wompatuck, MA. In recent years we have skipped this race, or rather, avoided may be the more opportune statement. Though we used to frequent the part in years past, we've not been there aside from a few times racing there in probably a decade. The park has lots of trail and varied terrain but frankly, it isn't one of my favorite locations. Add to this the fact that the past, and only, two times we have races there the course has been a swamp and there you have it, a recipe for three  seasons of pure avoidance.

This year, however, Cathy and I had been doing the bulk of the Root 66 Series events. The folks associated with the series and the other racers have become our friends and in a way, an extended summer-time family. We were there for the first race this season and except for a few missed weekends, have been there for the good and the bad. Luckily this year, the good far outweighed the bad.

In fact, I can only site one race that was sheer misery, that being the Coyote Hill race on Memorial Day weekend. This year we had some crazy weather that weekend. Though usually the gateway weekend to the summer season, this year winter decided that it wasn't through and made a cameo appearance, dumping snow on parts of northern New England and dropping temperatures into the thirties. At race time it was cold and though the snow was melted, wet. When I say wet, I mean really wet, as in a mud bog. Conditions were horrendous. Cathy wisely decided to take a pass on the race but I went out and got crushed for the second MTB race in a row. This was officially the low point in the season.

Other than that race though, we had near perfect conditions for nearly all of the other races that we did, even the season opener at Hop Brook Dam way back in early April. We hadn't been down for that race in a few seasons, partly due to the drive but also because the only other time we raced there it was 40 degrees and pouring rain. Funny how we get these impressions of things and they tend to last at length, influencing future decisions. This year though, we lucked out for the most part. Those races that were questionable, we simply avoided and the staples like Winding Trails and Hodges Dam, events that can be a crap shoot but that we always do regardless, were both stellar this year.

We also took the opportunity, given our new tie to Vermont we took the opportunity to compete in the Millstone Grind race in Barre, VT, an event that has been part of the series for some time but which we have never ventured to int he past. This turned out to be another excellent adventure and both Cathy and had found it a handful, but scenic and enjoyable. Good stuff and yet another cornerstone event in the series. The other event we gave a go this year, having never done it in the decades it has been run, is the Wrath of the Boneyard in Meriden, CT. A great way to celebrate Cathy's birthday and my 500th consecutive day on the bike. This is an old school torture-fest, rock laden hell of slow going technical goodness. Add to that a light mist and you have a real challenge. As such, I decided that both of these races would be excellent opportunities for the single-speed. Some times I'm not so wise.

The past couple of years has also seen great improvements and additions to the series venues. Last year we got both a new race, the Grafton Ponds race in VT which replaced the nondescript and somewhat outdated Putney race, and was an absolute crown jewel. Stellar location and incredibly fun course. This literally became an instant favorite for most all who raced there. We also saw a massive revamp of the Stonewall Farm course which in the past, was a venue of dread. The changes were so dramatic and thorough that the course is now on the short list of favorites with it's serpentine use of the area's side-hills.

In addition to these races last year, this season we saw another brand new race, the Barn Burner in Walpole, MA just a short drive from us and from the metro area in general. The race's mix of fast, flowy, tight trails with some short sections of wide open access road and field made for a race that required you to be full on the gas the whole time resulting in what was probably the most aerobically challenging race of the season. It was down-right brutally hard and given the huge fields and stacked competition we all had, this was my biggest challenge and success of the season carrying the wasted form I took to the National Championships.

Speaking of Nationals, I'd have to say that was the lowest point of the season and probably of the year. However, sometime sh!t just happens, even when you are doing everything supposedly right. The training and fitness were all spot on though. I made some poor setup choices but the kicker was pure, simple dumb luck in the form of a mechanical incident. That said, I take responsibility for the fix taking 4x longer than it should have which cost me a couple of spots and for feeling sorry for myself for way too long after I got moving again. HtFU!

So anyhow, as I started to say before getting a bit sidetracked, last weekend was the final event in the series. We felt compelled to attend despite the fact the true season opener cyclocross race was taking place just a few miles from home on the same day. As I said though, we wanted to see our MTB friends one last time and we wanted the chance to finish out what was a wonderful season, one that we were sad to see end. Cathy raced her normal category on her Scalpel, a wise choice, while I decided to race the single-speed open event, on my hardtail single-speed, a less wise choice.

Let me re-phrase, my SS bike is a really nice rig and works great. As mentioned before, I've actually raced the SS two other times this year, both in my normal category. Both races were really hard, and very challenging, but rewarding. I figured it would be fun to race against some folks that I don't always race against, though truth told, most of the guys in the SS field also overlap with the 40-49 field so I do get to race with them on occasion. Pre-registration for the race saw most of the normal cast of Cat/Open SS characters with Charlie, Royce and Dave. A couple were missing but we gained ThomP as a day of. That changed things a bit. I knew that Charlie was going well and was much better at playing single-speed than I but ThomP was a bit of a single-speed prophet. Fortunately, making millions in his highly lucrative career as a broadcast tycoon has left him with less training time than in years past but still, I knew that we would be in for a race.

Off the line I went hard and slipped into the lead but was quickly and enthusiastically overtaken by Charlie. I sat on his wheel through the first field section then chopped him like a fiend turning into the woods and started to lay down the power. Before the race Charlie had been taunting me with his B-17 Flying Fortress of doom, aka his blue bike with a 17 tooth rear cog with a 34 tooth up front. I'd shown up to race with a 19 tooth rear cog mated to my 34 tooth ring, which would result in me being really spinny by comparison on the fast sections. I've done the SS thing long enough to know that being really spinny in a SS race takes lots and lots of cardio, which for me results in being really, really maxed out all day. I swapped out to an 18 tooth cog before the race, not sure how it would work out having never pushed that big a gear before on the SS MTB.

I managed to stay ahead through the first woods section but to my dismay I gained zero ground on the chasers, now Charlie and ThomP. This was unfortunate as I was throwing my best stuff at it. Turns out my best stuff on a hardtail single-speed in bumpy terrain is like trying to throw a curve with a limp-wrist; something gets lost in the translation. Truth is, the single-speed is excellent at mitigating most of my strengths. I'm good at laying down a steady barrage of mildly excruciating watts on the fast stuff, and on the hills, and even through the bumpy technical stuff thanks in most part to full-suspension and gears. Take those away and I'm just another old guy in spandex. With this, when we dropped back out to a short stretch of pavement the Flying Fortress rumbled gingerly by me. I fell into rank, following and trying to regroup.

Charlie ripped the next section aptly, with aplomb while I and then ThomP followed his lead. I tried getting in his head a bit by talking, and whooping it up, attempting to make him think that I was just riding along and having fun while in reality I was working hard to try and hang. At some point we broke out to a slightly faster section and I went to the front again, hoping to push the pace a bit and gain a gap. Again though, slightly out-geared left me unable to open much at all. Charlie was a pit-bull, clamped on and reluctant to let go. We did however manage to dislodge ThomP slightly and gained a bit on him. From there Charlie and I took turns leading and kicking each other. I resorted to tactics like sprinting to open a gap when I had an advantage leading and then resting and hitting again as soon as I was about to be caught. I also tried to go hard on all of the hills, one of the places where I had a bit of an advantage.

Eventually we dipped back into some technical stuff with Charlie back at the helm. We passed into a section with a long ramp that culminated in a 5' drop, which we road past on the right. The course marking pointed left so we took a hard left into a bermed bank which simply brought us back in a small circle. "Where does the course go?" Charlie asked. I noticed that the arrows actually meant for you to turn left after the berm not onto it, so I sprinted off that way. ThomP caught us at that point and filed in behind me, with Charlie behind him. Noting the confusion I took advantage and went hard to open a gap, which worked and I managed to get away clean. From there it was a matter of keeping steady and hard and getting to the finish first. You know, the easy part.

Unfortunately there were a multitude of slow speed rock gardens left to navigate. In reality they seemed endless. I could see that I was still making good progress, though I did get caught by the 50-59 leader and his shadow. This concerned me. I was still picking guys off in other fields though so I was hopeful. My bike was starting to moan a bit from the tortured beating it was taking both from the terrain and from the pilot. It developed a loud creak which I hoped was only cosmetic.

After what seemed an eternity I made it to the last feed station which I new was only a few miles from the finish. I also knew that those were some of the most technically brutal and relentless miles of the course. I resigned myself to riding as clean as smooth as possible, trying not to lose ground. This section seemed longer than I remembered but finally I came upon what I assumed to be the last bridge section, one which in past wet races proved to be difficult to stay upright on for many. I made it across without issue and broke into the main field, around the berm and under the banner. A very narrow twenty seconds later ThomP crossed under the banner and then only 40 seconds after him, Charlie sprinted in. Now that was a close battle for the podium and some excellent competition. A great way to finish the season indeed.

Cathy finished her race super strong and had a great race, winning her age group and getting second overall in the women's Open/Cat1 field. Additionally, we both managed to secure the overall series win for our normal race categories. This was something that I had never done in the past. Many years ago, 2008 in fact which was the year that we got back into MTB racing, I tried but came up short at that very race getting first stomped by Brian Rutter and then eventually double flatting and riding the rim in on my single-speed.

This has been an incredible season for me. After last year's disappointing mechanical issues in two races resulting in dreaded DNF's, I managed to finish each of the lucky thirteen MTB races that I entered this year. There were a couple of hiccups (and one big belch) but otherwise, it all worked out the best possible way it could have. Getting older doesn't have to mean getting slower I guess, a lesson I learned well from many of the all around master's racers I respect and admire like JB, Kevin, Sammy, MarkyG and so many others.

Many thanks to Jill and Chris for making the Root 66 series what it is. Yes, thank you. And to all of the good folks and great competition in the 40-49 field and beyond. The friendship and camaraderie is amazing. No egos or attitudes, just having fun playing bikes. Most of all, thanks to my wife Cathy who supports me at everything I do, who is my motivation, my best friend and my hero.

Have a great winter, see many of you in the upcoming cyclocross season and if not then we will see you next season.

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