For the first time in my racing career (which admittedly isn’t very long) the weekend of Nationals did not include packing a bike, hitchhiking with strangers, or sleeping on the floor. Also missing: copious rain, wet roots, and the usual full-body suit of mud that accompanies any east coast finish. I didn’t see how Nationals could be Nationals without mud- yet somehow the tent city appeared; right on time in Grand County, my back yard.
After all the euro shenanigans, I’d headed for the hills to get used to altitude and ride the course for a few days before the race. It’s amazing what you choose to do when you have an entire house to yourself for a week- especially when you’re trying to fend off the nerves before a big race, and especially when you’re not allowed to ride all that much. I ended up cleaning all the bikes in the garage, doing a lot of crazed journal writing, and reading more Harry Potter than a ten-year-old muggle. I loved spending my mornings on the porch with my oatmeal and watching the sun rise over the continental divide- the problem was that oatmeal time was just about the only time I wasn’t all up in my own head, and it got a bit weird for a while there. There might have been singing.
It was a relief when people started showing up. First came TJ and Erica, friends of Chloe’s, then Ann, my parents, brothers, and cousin, and finally my teammates Erin and Kay. Over the course of two days I went from lonely, singing hermit to host of what felt like the entire mountain bike population.
Starting off the weekend right, our downhill pal Zach White paid us a visit Thursday evening with a beat up shoulder and a good crash story. Despite our efforts to force cookies and alcohol into him, I think he had a rough night, and was still pretty out of it in the morning- Sol Vista’s first casualty. Hopefully he heals up quick and can get back to firefighting and shredding bike gnar soon!
Other than seeing Zach’s scary injury, my last preride went well, with my legs feeling predictably crappy after a week’s hard tapering. As usual, not riding was waaay harder than riding. On the way home I stopped for a little dip in the river and saw two gigantic pelicans. That seemed like a good sign, and even though my feet were numb from the frigid, algae-infested water, I got this amazing sense of rightness. It’s funny how everything before a big race feels like an omen… Though this was the first year I didn’t also feel nauseatingly nervous. I went to bed Thursday night feeling (pelican portents aside) happy, strong, and ready to ride my brains out.
I carried that momentum to the race on Friday, waking up with a big grin on my face and faasst legs. I rocked out through my whole warm up and lined up with Chloe and Kay, totally ready to go. The start was fast- on a merciless a little climb I like to call “Don’t sleep at sea level”. Because our field was so embarassingly small, things got very strung out right away, with Chloe and Amy duking it out in front, me chasing about thirty seconds behind, and the rest of the group battling for fourth. The first lap went by in a blur of anaerobic frenzy and gulps of accelerade, but I rode it clean, and Chloe and Amy were still in my sights for round two; “really… don’t ever sleep at sea level.” I was starting to hit my first wall on the long climb through the woods, but poo really hit the fan on the descent with flat numero uno. It happened on the only really technical section of the course- an off-camber, loamy descent riddled with threatening, bar grabbing trees. The Texans were so scared of it that they created an alternate route- which luckily had been taped off for the race- but I hadn’t had an issue with it yet (it’s more intimidating than actually dangerous) so I was surprised to find myself putting a foot down, then crashing out altogether at the bottom. I yelled a choice profanity and jumped back on my bike, only to discover a flat front tire. I was able to get it to seat again with my CO2 cartridge and was back on my bike quicker than I could have hoped, though at this point Chloe and Amy were well out of my sight. I tore through the rest of the descent, angry about losing my grip on the leaders and cursing my choice to ride on old tires.
I got a whole lot angrier when, after hopping a log, I heard that horrible clunk and telltale hisss of flat numero dos. I rode as long as I could while my rear wheel hemmoraged, but when the tire rolled off completely on a switchback, I was forced to dismount and start running. There are few things more frustrating than running a bike race. For one, it’s a bike race. Typically, one expects to ride their bike at a bike race. For another, carbon shoes are horribly uncomfortable- they’re meant for riding or the occasional portage, and after about a hundred meters your shins and toes make sure you know it. Then there’s the obvious problem of getting passed by the fourth and fifth place riders as you jog like a doofus down the trail. That’s probably the worst part of running a bike race; watching months of training just slip away. After all, it’s riding I work on, not running.
I came grimly through the start/finish and heard the announcer say something about how I wouldn’t get the win I’d been looking for (thanks, guy) but TJ and Ann got my wheel swapped out incredibly fast, and soon I was off on lap three; “maybe you should just go back to sea level”. Erika was riding in fourth place at this point, and I could just see her at the top of the hill- I quickly revised my goal for the day and the rest of my ride became all about catching her maroon jersey, rather than getting my own red white and blue one.
After burying myself for the climb I passed Erika towards the top, but she stayed right on my wheel until the descent, and even then didn’t give me much room to breathe or relax. The whole time I was torn between letting off my brakes and risking another flat, or riding more conservatively and getting passed back. I think I must have let off the brakes, because I ended up coming through the finish alone. I was still not a happy camper. The day had turned out far differently than I’d hoped.
It was Amy who ended up taking the win, passing Chloe on the fireroad leading into the final switchbacks. Amy’s a very strong road rider who’s alway’s been super ballsey- Chloe’s the defending champion, but she’s more about finesse. That final turn would have required a certain brand of crazy to pull off a pass- I was disappointed about my result, but I know I wasn’t the only one.
I spent Saturday moping and trying not to be such a horrible sport- after all it was Kay, my teammate and friend who took third. I went to the gas station at 8am to get my new tires set up- never again will I race on old rubber. While it’s true that new tires might not have prevented the flats I got, I wish I’d been able to control that factor of my race. As it is though, my wheels didn’t work out that week, and mountain biking is an unpredictable sport. We watched Heather and Jeremy pull off another fairy-tale marital win, but Tod had a horrible mechanical that slid him off the podium from a solid second place, Sammy J had a mishap, Jay Henry ran across the finish line with a dangling chain, and Katie and Georgia each had bad luck was well. In the younger ranks- Brae puked, Jill flatted, and Matt never felt good- though my race still stung, it was nice to see that I was at least in good company.
I signed up for short track with the intention of punishing myself as much as possible and venting a little of my frustration. It hurt, a lot, which was good. I’ve never done a pro short track, and went into it expecting a crazy pace; I found that the pace was doable, it was just sustaining it that proved to be a challenge. After a few laps they started pulling people and an interesting dilemma presented itself; Give in to riding comfortably and you get to quit, put your legs up, and eat a sandwich. Push a little harder to finish the lap fast enough and your reward is another, even more painful lap. It’s like some sort of demented torture- but I loved it. Erin and I had a spectacular double-pass around Mama Sue, but the effort burned every match I had left and rendered me a quivering mass of noodles for the rest of the race. I only made it one more lap after that and finished 17th, with my eyes full of dust and my throat tasting like blood. Awesome!
Overall I wrapped up the weekend with pretty positive vibes. It was fun to have a big race at home, fun that my parents, cousin, and brothers were able to come see it, and excellent to have teammates to go see Harry Potter with! I also enjoyed seeing all my bike pals in one place- usually we’re scattered across the country, but for one weekend I got to catch up with a lot of people I don’t see enough of. Results and mishaps aside, I was reminded once again why I love this sport so much- it brings together some of the coolest people you’ll ever meet, and whether we crash, break our bikes, or pull off magical wins- we’re all out there loving what we do.