If I had to summarize the lead up to this race in one word, that word would be fear. I don’t think I’ve kept it a secret that my bike handling skills are subpar, which is what is at the root of my fear. I even bought a book to help improve my skills. The problem is that the fear is in my head and I am well aware of it. It was first pointed out to me by Chris Bautista and Steve Herrera who watched me go down a loose and rocky descent only to ask, “What’s the problem? You did fine!” Then at Sycamore Canyon last year, Eric Hatfield was behind me on a descent and later told me that I did fine until it got sketchy, and he said that was when I slowed down too much.
Dave Williams reminded me that two years ago he, too, thought Vail Lake was sketchy and that last year we both thought the course was not as daunting. Geoff Albert suggested a planned dismount, if necessary, and that I clear my mind for the race. Both were very helpful and put me at ease.
Friday I decided I would “race in the present” and not worry about what was coming next. Dave and I went out and did a little bit of Turnbull Canyon, only to have our ride cut short by a leak in the stem of his tubeless tire. We tried it again on Saturday and chatted with Omar Almaguer of Team RedZone Racing while we were there, and I told him I’d be racing with him. He seemed pleased and we caught up a little before heading out for our ride. It was short and easy because it was the day before the race; I just wanted to get in some good technical practice so we rode the 7th Ave. Loop and Rattlesnake and headed home to prep the bikes and get some rest.
Miguel Sutter called me later to ask about carpooling to the race and we all met at Dave’s house at 7AM on Sunday. We loaded the bikes and ourselves and headed down to Temecula. It was a nice chat with Miguel, whom we hadn’t seen in about three months. We made plans to go to Bonelli during the drive and before we knew it we were at Vail Lake. The start was moved to a different area and I ran into the RedZone boys at registration and we chatted for a bit while Miguel finished his same-day registration. Sal told us he pre-rode the course on Friday and that after quite a bit of climbing there was a big drop.
A big drop?
It’s a huge – just DROP!
Just like that, that “ease” I felt earlier was no more. Confidence is a fragile thing . . . I went to Dave and told him I was going to pre-ride to check out that drop. Dave wasn’t sure that a full lap warm-up would be a good thing, fortunately Miguel wasn’t so confident about the technical parts either, it was his first time there, too, so he said any pre-ride would be helpful. So off we went to pre-ride with an hour before race time. Juniors and Enduros were on the course so we made sure to get out of the way when one of them came around.
We climbed at the start and then climbed some more. Then we hit the drop. Miguel went down first, then me, then Dave.
Piece of cake.
Some more climbing, then descending all the way through to the single track, then I realized there was nothing there that scared me anymore. We ran out of time before we could finish the lap so we headed back to the car for a drink and a final bathroom break before staging.
It had to be one of the largest groups I’ve ever seen racing at a US Cup race. It was a bit hectic at staging, but in the melee before the start I saw Wade Arnold of SC Velo, James Sabelis of PAA RE/MAX, Richard LaChina, and Omar all staged in my group: throw Miguel into that mix and that is a serious group of racers. Although I wasn’t sure how many of them were in my age group, I was sure that we were all starting together and just the guys I recognized were a fast bunch. When we got to the start they told us that the race would not be won in the first couple of turns and I wished Miguel and James good luck as I like to start a race with good karma, and off we went.
I was second or third row at the start and by the time we hit the second turn I was near the back. As we left the asphalt I went far to the right and used the berm and followed Omar down. There was a lot of dust and I kept creeping backwards as we made a left towards the first climb. Thankfully, I paid attention during the warm up when I was telling Miguel that I’ve gotten stuck in the back because the ruts and loose rocks made it hard to pass, so I hopped on the narrow path on the right side and spun all the way up, passing a large group of racers until I caught Miguel who was right on James’s wheel. We climbed together all the way up, and Miguel and I were even able to get around James. When we hit the top of the climb, James came around and passed us both. I followed Miguel down the first drop and it was without incident. After all that climbing and all the sharp undulations that followed I noticed my heart rate was consistently higher than what I’m used to, even for a race.
But I was in the mix! Cat 2 racing! I hung on Miguel’s wheel for most of the first lap. We climbed and descended together and never did I feel inferior to the course. I suppose I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t afraid, but there was nothing that made me hesitate enough to even feel like I was impeding the racers behind me. I was racing Cat 2 and felt like I belonged.
Miguel gapped me at the fire road, which was where we stopped our pre-ride, and that messed with my head a little, because I kept expecting the finish to come soon and it didn’t. The course seemed to go on forever before the end of the first lap. I finished the first lap and having lost everyone’s wheel I tried to settle down and get my heart rate back down to a more sustainable rate before I started the first climb again.
When I got to the next climb I saw a group of guys about half way up and I decided to spin up quickly, using a high cadence. I caught someone’s wheel and passed a couple and before I knew it I was back at the single track climb again. I could see Miguel was already approaching the top when I started to climb.
I decided to catch him knowing full well that even in the obvious futility, the effort would at least put me in a good place in the race. I started to chase and in one off-camber right turn climb I suddenly felt like I was shot in the back of my left leg with a 12-gauge shotgun at close range. I let out a big bellow and tried to pull off to the right to avoid obstructing the racers behind me. I saw Omar was the next guy and I apologized and explained myself.
I got a cramp!
I struggled to throw my leg back over my bike and move completely off the road and at least a half dozen people passed while I hunched over trying to massage the baseball-sized knot out of the back of my leg. When I could stand again I started to walk up the single track and eventually jumped on the bike. I grannied it all the way to the top and gave a good push to climb out of that single track, fearing that I would cramp again, but I felt great instead. I switched to middle ring and made the decision to try to catch Omar.
I can’t let Dave catch me!
Dave told me before the start that he hoped I wouldn’t wait for him this time, and I promised I wouldn’t. Now in my chase, I was also being chased. I went confidently through the next section including a couple of descents marked with “Caution” signs and continued to feel great. As I went through the single track I kept telling myself to rail it! I remembered Brian Lopes saying I spent too much time on my saddle so I kept reminding myself to get off and rail it. That helped, I think I went through that section much faster and smoother than ever. That took me back to the fire road where I drank a little and spun, passing a couple of people. When I hit the single track I tried to catch the group in front of me when all of a sudden I cramped again! I nearly fell off my bike trying to unclip and again struggled to throw my leg over my bike.
As I hunched over I heard someone ask if I was ok. I looked up and saw Dave: he’d caught me! I told him I had a cramp and as he rode by he said he’d cramped earlier, as well. This cramp seemed to take much longer to clear up and after walking it off one more time, I jumped on my bike as a single speeder passed me and I followed him through the next section, remembering what Brian Lopes said: to get off my saddle and rail it.
Ok, just to clarify, former World Champ Brian Lopes wasn’t actually telling me these things in person, but I am reading his book.
I had fun all the way back to the finish, thinking of what might have been. . . I asked the girls keeping score if I had won, and they were nice and said I did. Dave and Miguel were already there and then I heard the announcer call me at 20th place.
Three times have I raced at Vail and three times have I cramped! Fortunately, 20th was not the dreaded DFL, and I was pleased that all that apprehension I carried from the weeks leading up to the race all the way into that warm up lap is now gone. I’ve had a couple of good crashes on mountain bike rides in the last few months and maybe that has helped . . . I don’t know, I’m just happy I’m not so afraid anymore. Next up is Bonelli, which is a little more accessible to me to pre-ride. I know I need to train a little harder for that and go out and have some more fun.
I thought I’d end with an inspirational quote from Nelson Mandela about fear and his message that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. Albeit inspirational and possibly related to what I’ve been through, mine is just too trivial to compare to his. Instead, here’s a good one from Dune (with my own small edit, see if you can find it):