Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Steel City Enduro

She needed wide open spaces
Room to make her big mistakes
She needs new faces
She knows the high stakes



This weekend I ventured into strange, new territory as far as this season’s enduro racing goes: my home state. While the nation’s (okay, mostly the east coast’s) eyes turn to West Virginia mountain biking this week, it will be one of the few times this season that country roads, or eroded creek beds, won’t be taking me to the place I belong. While scanning the pre-reg list for the USA Cycling National Mountain Bike Championships, I noticed that Sue Haywood is the only West Virginia Enduro Series regular who is entered on the women’s side. I had considered racing the enduro at nationals earlier in the season, but wasn’t really up for using the four vacation days that the Wednesday AND Thursday enduro schedule would require. I guess I’ll just have to wait for the real West Virginia enduro championships at Snowshoe in September.

Since nationals left a pretty big gap in the WVES schedule, I decided to wander back into MASS territory for the Steel City Enduro in Bethlehem, PA. My teammates Michaela and Sam did it last year, and described it as the hardest race they’d ever done and said that I would have loved it because it was so rocky. It also had the biggest women’s attendance of any MASS enduro race last year, so I was glad that it didn’t have a WVES conflict. I knew that the sport class competition in the Lehigh Valley would likely be tougher than it was in West Virginia, and after writing my last post, I was as emotionally prepared as I was ever going to be for a well-timed ass-kicking.

Because enduro requires such a diverse skill set, this year I have been fully embracing the philosophy of “doing things I’m bad at” and trying to expose myself to as many challenging situations as my time, energy, and budget will allow. While there many famously challenging trails within a half-hour of my house, we’re still pretty short on drops, jumps, corners, and “up and over” features, so I’ve been seeking out opportunities to travel outside of Rothrock and practice these things as much as possible. I’ve also realized that as much as one can practice skills, the only way to truly prepare for racing is actually racing.

Steel City turned out to be a combination of many “doing things I’m bad at” in one event. The stages were very pedally with lots of really tight turns, a decent amount of uphill, and not that many rocks by my standards. As far as I was concerned, the most fun part of the race was actually the transition between stages 2 and 3, which was included in last year’s race but removed this year to allow that trail to be used as a two-way transition instead of a timed stage. The Hail was probably too much bike for this race, because there were very few places that were both technical and high-speed enough to warrant it, and it was very hard to accelerate out of the many tight corners.

I went into race working to mentally balance the desire to do my best, but also not be upset if I didn’t place well, as I knew that was a distinct possibility under the circumstances. Most of the competition were XC racers on shorter-travel bikes, and for this race, that was an advantage. All I could really do was focus on being as smooth as possible and be extra careful to avoid any unnecessary brake tapping when the trails did open up for maximum speed.

Did I succeed?  Not completely. I still made a few minor boo boos here and there, but overall I felt like I’d done the best that I could. That ended up getting third out of four finishers, as nationals seemed to have dampened attendance at this year's race. I wasn’t necessarily happy with that placing, but it was worth it for the learning experience. Racing in conditions that don’t favor my stengths will help me be a better racer in the future.

The next WVES race is not until August 13, so Frank and I are using the time off to take a two-week mountain bike hiatus to reboot our strength training and allow our bodies to recover from some of the chronic abuse that they’ve been sustaining since March. I haven’t had any major crashes in few weeks, but I’m still feeling a lot deep aches and pains throughout my body.

As much as I’m fundamentally opposed to racing enduro in November, this year’s Raven Enduro is scheduled for November 5, and I still feel the need to support my local race. Between this and the fact that Blue Mountain stays open through October, I’m becoming very tempted to just enduro straight through until winter and maybe skip ‘cross except for Sly Fox. I still have so much that I want to accomplish before the weather turns too bad for mountain biking, so I figured a little break now will be worth it to make sure my body holds out that long.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Seeking Unconventional Women: The Gorgeous Ladies of Enduro

“The best rivalries are not about the rival. They're about the insecurities that your rival brings out in you...” – Rogelio from “Jane the Virgin”

This is what I imagine a crown of mud and rocks would look like.

When I first read Gloria Liu’s Bicycle magazine article titled “That Time I Went Full Enduro” a few weeks ago, it was hard to get through it without my heart racing and my eyes welling up with tears. I had developed a bit of a girl crush on Gloria a year or so before, when I discovered the value of reading bike and gear reviews from a real person who I’d encountered in real life and whose riding style and terrain was close to my own. Gloria’s opinions held much more weight than any random woman in Colorado, California, or the UK talking about howwell (or not) bikes and gear performed. When she won both the enduro stage and overall enduro classification at the Tran-Sylvania Epic this year, I was stoked…and jealous, but knowing that it wasn’t my time yet, I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather see it go to.

I admittedly hadn’t paid that much attention to her results last season, as she was in the Pro/Cat 1 class for the MASS races, and I was struggling to not be last in the Cat 2/3, so I couldn’t be concerned with what was transpiring a whole category up. Reading the article was a visceral experience, as I was actually there for many of the events mentioned, but busy getting caught up in the climbs and descents of my own morale. Although it was heartbreaking to read along with her struggles during the 2016 season, it was also heartening to know that a much better rider was going through the same sense of despair on many of the same days that I was. I definitely remember the woman in spandex kicking everyone’s butt in the Pro/Cat 1 class, and I’m all too familiar with the sickening feeling that you were beaten by someone who wasn’t even trying very hard. The article ended on an upbeat note when she got her groove back at last year’s Raven Enduro, the same time that I lost all faith in myself for a while. Regardless of when we hit our respective highs and lows, I finished the article feeling comforted that we both got happier endings in 2017.

From my own experience and others that I’ve read about, it seems that women are more susceptible to getting sucked in to their own crushing expectations in the superficially chill world of enduro. Because the sport is difficult, dangerous, and still pretty obscure, the women that it draws are brave, highly motivated women who forge their own paths. They are women who, regardless of what they were doing before, were offered the opportunity of long, often muddy, days in the saddle, grinding uphill on heavy bikes just to careen down a rocky chute in a fraction of the time it took to get up, then do it all again. To that they’d say, “Heck yes! That sounds like the best idea ever! I’ll do that now!”

More often than not, these special individuals end up riding alone or with a male companions who egg them on in these pursuits. They inevitably become the “cool girl” who is rad just for showing up when most others wouldn’t, and deservedly so. The problem with being the one “cool girl” day-to-day is that, when pitted against a handful of other cool girls on race day, the pressure to reign supreme is incredibly high. I even see this in Liv’s to decision to sponsor exactly one female EWS rider to accompany the release of the Hail after a few years of an all-boy Giant Factory Team. When I see Instagram posts of Rae Morrison surrounded by her male teammates, I see a queen presiding over her realm, and I love it, but I also find it a weird message for a women’s brand to be sending. Perhaps I’m completely crazy in this perception, and I should just be happy that Liv is in some way admitting that their $8000 160mm travel bike is in fact for racing and not just for riding to the nail salon with your friends.

Perhaps I’m also completely off in my theory as to why women seem to exhibit more stress and self-pressure in enduro racing than men, but I see it play out in my own life, at least. For the first few years that I lived in State College, Strava was a great motivator for me and served as my “safe space” substitute for racing during the summer. Considering that most of our trails have been traversed by national-level pros, it was pretty easy to focus on improving my own times without much thought as to where I stood on the leaderboards. I would occasionally find satisfaction in besting a faster local woman’s time from a year or two before, but for the most part, I was the only woman setting any PRs outside of the Tran-Sylvania Epic, Trailmix, and Wilderness 101 race days. I would occasionally decide to race after too many weeks of improvement, when it seemed like a good idea to compare myself to other people in real time, only to be sadly disappointed in the results (see Guts, Gravel, Glory).

Things changed this year when I finally got my hands on a big bike and had some lightbulb moments in my technical skills. I was rapidly approaching the top 10’s of the TSE enduro stage holy trinity of Sand Spring, Wildcat, and Old Laurel, and beginning to cherry pick obscure locals-only downhill QOMs that had maybe been walked by a woman once three years ago. Staying on my bike until the bottom was all it took to get a QOM. Admittedly, it was fun, although I kept notes of the “actually fast” goal times that I wanted to achieve before the summer was over.

However, I began to notice that the leaderboards weren’t staying stable. My random QOM that I’d taken from someone who set it five years ago would unexpectedly be blown away while I was away in West Virginia racing. After three years of singletrack Strava stagnation, up-and-comers suddenly appeared, all seemingly intent on the becoming the Undisputed Gnar Queen of Rothrock. It didn’t take long for me to start getting really stressed out about the situation, because who were these women, and why were they improving more quickly than me? I was so proud of the progress that I had made earlier in the spring, and suddenly I felt the crushing pressure to stay #1, instead of continuing to focus on clearing the features that were still tripping me up and easing off the brakes until I hit the “actually fast” goal times that I’d set for myself. What if one of those women hit the “actually fast” times before me? That would be further proof that I’m untalented and hopeless, right?

Ironically, racing has been my comfort instead of my disappointment this season. I gave the West Virginia Enduro Series a try because it seemed like the trails were closer to what I was used to than the MASS or ESC races, while still pushing me far enough from my comfort zone to learn to actually race instead of just time trialing via Strava. When we arrived at Valley Falls the weekend before last after a few weeks’ hiatus, my first thought as I got out of the car and surveyed the familiar faces around the parking lot was how much I loved it. At the WVES races, I’ve been able to get past my race nerves and just soak in how much I love putting on my silly costume and riding my silly bike over silly terrain with like-minded people. It reminds me of my early days of racing ‘cross, when there only a handful of women on the start line, and I was the only one in a skinsuit. I’ve always been a sucker for a silly costume.

Of course, my love has been bolstered by a couple of wins, and the fact that, even when I’ve been beaten, it was by someone who’s been racing enduro much longer than me. I actually feel like my results are in line with my trajectory of development, and it’s nice.

While I’d been mulling over a post about Gloria’s article since I read it, what really inspired me to move forward was Netflix’ recent release of GLOW, a fictional retelling of the “gorgeous ladies of wrestling” from the 80’s TV show. In addition to silly costumes, enduro is another world where “unconventional women” play characters and vie for a crown, albeit a metaphorical one. Instead of fake rivalries between the USA and USSR, our matches play out between hustlers vs. natural talents, young vs. old, equipment junkies vs. “run what you brung”, and sometimes even baggies vs. spandex.

However, instead of pleasing the audience, I think it’s most important that we remind ourselves that it’s all really just made-for-TV drama. The crown is just plastic and rhinestones (and metaphorical ones at that), and the writers of genetics, weather, and luck have likely already determined the winner. It’s up to us to make the silly costumes look good, put on the best show we can, and hopefully not get injured in the process.

I’ll admit that I struggle with actually living up to this ideal more than most, but I hope that by writing this I can have a reminder next time I start to feel stressed out and unworthy because of the competition. I’ll remind myself that the other gorgeous ladies of enduro are not actually my enemy, and perhaps ask them if they want to ride our 160mm bikes to the nail salon together.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Saddling Up at the Valley Falls Enduro

“Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” – John Wayne


Always give a good fake smile when you're nervous.

The weeks since the TSE have flown by. The first couple of weeks were filled with extreme fatigue where my limbs were like lead, and I felt short of breath even on easy rides, despite taking several days off immediately after the TSE concluded. I finally broke through on the second Saturday after the race when I started feeling like myself about halfway down Ruff Gap and set a blistering PR despite bumbling around on the top part. After that, the climb back up Rag Hollow only felt the normal amount of terrible, and it seemed like I was on my way back on track.

By the time I reached that point, it had been over four weeks since I’d had a solid enduro practice where I actually seemed to make progress. Frank was out of town most of the time between the Cooper’s Rock Enduro and the TSE, and I had a bad crash riding by myself while he was gone. Between recovering from that and recovering from the TSE, I started losing a lot the confidence and muscle memory that I’d built earlier in the spring when I was improving so rapidly and PRing everything that I touched. It’s been frustrating just trying to get back to where I was in early May, much less move forward. So when the weekend of the next West Virginia Enduro Series race arrived, part of me didn’t want to race knowing that I wasn’t likely to be at my best, but the other part didn’t want to regret not finding out.

***

I got some interesting insight into my latest crises of confidence last weekend while I was talking to my teammate Taylor at another teammate’s wedding in Chicago. Taylor seems to be magically good at anything she attempts on two wheels. In two years of racing, she is already a Cat 2 in cyclocross, a regular on regional elite XC podiums, has a couple of NUE series top 10’s to her name, finished fourth overall in the five-day TSE, and still finds time to win road races now and then. Honestly, the way she smashed some of the enduro segments at the TSE riding them for the first time on an XC bike better than I have after weeks of practice was definitely contributing to lackluster feelings about my own abilities lately.

Anyway, the conversation was about how she’d taken her boyfriend on a trail where he was in over his head, thinking he just needed to be pushed through his fear to find out what he was capable of (lol for swapped gender roles here), because that had worked for her in the past. This explained a lot about her ability to ride so well on some pretty difficult trails that she’d never seen before. I, on the other hand, had spent many weeks of practice earlier in the season working through things that scared me until they didn’t anymore. To have the ability to just rip off that Bandaid in one run without disastrous consequences would be terribly convenient for my burgeoning enduro career, but my experience has been that the threshold of fear that I can push through without it ending badly is pretty low. If I’ve learned anything this season, it’s that if something scares me, it’s because I’m doing it wrong, and if I fix the root technique issue, it’s no longer scary. Unfortunately, diagnosing and fixing deep-seated technique issues isn’t necessarily fast of a path to progression, but it seems to be the one that works for me.

The quote at the beginning might seem strange given the fact that I just admitted to my aversion to pushing through fear. If anything, I think it’s more appropriate because I don’t enjoy scaring myself. Having to slowly work through things that I’m afraid of means that I have to go back and revisit them more times and be scared more times. It might be easier to just give up when I’m too scared to do something the first time, but somehow I manage to keep coming back until the fear is conquered.

***

The Valley Falls Enduro was a pretty big test of my desire and ability to saddle up anyway. What I found on my pre-ride Saturday was a lot of greasy black dirt and more drops than I’d seen in my life, including a seven-footer on what was already a very slick fall-line trail. The B line was more technically difficult than the drop, but just with less air time. Neither seemed like an option that I felt confident in my ability to pull off. I watched one of the expert women slide and crash on the B line and made the decision that unless the trail dried out a lot more by the actual race, that I should just be smart and run that section. The same went for a steep, slippery fall line in the sixth stage that I watched Frank skate down and then barely make the turn at the bottom. If he couldn’t make it cleanly, I didn’t even want to try it while on the clock. By the time the pre-ride was over, I had a pretty solid list of things that I just would proactively get off and run unless they dried out a lot before the race.

My body is saying "Thumbs up!', but my head is saying "Nope!"

On the other hand, I wanted to at least leave the race having done one or two features that scared me a little. There were two log drops on Stage 5 and a rock roll on Stage 6 that I didn’t ride on Saturday, but that I thought I could pull on with more speed and knowing that they were coming. It was a little frustrating, because I think they were very well within the range of things that I rode at Big Bear back in April, but like I mentioned before, I’ve lost a lot of confidence in the last few weeks. I’d endo’d off of the smallest progressive drop at Blue Mountain a couple of weeks prior and had yet to regain my trust in myself to not look down and land safely.

The race was an interesting exercise in keeping myself together mentally. Despite being pretty well emotionally separated from the competing against other people element and simply wanting to get through the day as cleanly as possible, I still got pretty nervous by the start of the first stage. As the day progressed, it was interesting to observe how my mental state changed, and I realized how different it is from the 40 minutes of yelling “Go harder!” to yourself during a ‘cross race. Rather than always going harder, an enduro is several hours of repeatedly checking in on your own level of excitement, fatigue, fear, etc. and trying to dial into “appropriately aggressive” for that moment. Too aggressive can mean mistakes and crashes, and not aggressive enough means leaving seconds on the table that you might want back later.


The first two stages were pretty XC-oriented and went well enough. The third stage was the one with the gnarly drop and the just-as-gnarly B-line. I overheard a girl from my category who was a stage ahead of me telling her friend that she had started sliding and bailed. Based on that, I deducted that it was no dryer than the day before, and that I should proactively run the section to prevent more lost time from a crash or even just an awkward bailout. My only regret was that I didn’t just keep running through the rocky sections after that, because there was still a lot of slick mud and rocks that just weren’t going to happen once my momentum had been lost from the dismount. I did okay through the slick turns of Stage 4, and found myself two stages away from being done.

Those remaining stages contained the features that I’d been negotiating in my head all day. Despite my resolution to “do something that scared me” before the day was over, I still ended up running the drops on Stage 5. I was very tired at that point, and I just did not feel good about that stage in general. I took the “better safe than sorry” approach to get myself to Stage 6 where I ran the things that I’d predetermined to run the day before, but successfully negotiated the rock roll and most of the slow chunky stuff in the last half of the stage. It wasn’t perfect, but I felt that I did pretty well under the circumstances.

It was a day when I was just glad to be done. I knew going in that it would be a tough race, but I kept myself together and did the best I could on that particular day. When I looked at the results, I was both surprised and unsurprised to see that I had won. I knew that I hadn’t ridden especially well, but I also knew that as hard at the trails were, it was unlikely that the other women in my category had ridden significantly better. I was basically lucky to have bumbled my way through the day faster than the others, but I would take it. The most exciting part was getting to hold the giant novelty check on the podium, because I’ve never done that before. Holding the check was actually even more exciting than the real $100 that I won, which is a huge prize for the women’s sport class.


The next WV Enduro Series race is not until August 13, but I will be doing a MASS series race in Bethlehem, PA on July 16. I have a feeling that the competition will be a lot tougher at that one, based on the huge squad of Cutters bike shop people at Blue Mountain a couple of weeks ago, including 6-10 women. Otherwise, I’m looking forward to some race-free weekends where we can hopefully spend some days at bike parks and other locations outside of Rothrock that will allow me to practice drops and jumps on a smaller, safer, and untimed scale.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

TSE 2017: Destiny is All

I was born into mountain biking in Indiana, and I spent eight years trying to be good at pedaling. I was 33 years old when I moved to Pensylvania, and learned what mountain biking really meant and what this “enduro” thing was all about. Fate had brought me to Rothrock, with Tormund my brother; and Brienne, my lover. And then, fate brought betrayal.

I am Lindsay, QOM of Bald Knob Death Drop, and destiny is all.

During the week and a half leading up to the Transylvania Epic, Frank had been out of a town for a conference/visit to Midwestern friends. I had a lot of free time on my hands, especially since I was saving all of the TV shows that we watch together for when he got back.

So I dove into “The Last Kingdom” on Netflix. Being a fan of the show “Vikings”, I figured it would be interesting to see what happened to little Alfred when he grew up. It turns out that I misread the description, and Alfred the Great isn’t so much the main character of the series, but frenemy/sometime ally of the main character. The protagonist is actually Uhtred, a Saxon raised by Vikings maybe 20-30 years after the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok went ham on the British Isles (where the plot of “Vikings” recently dropped off). Each episode of The Last Kingdom opens with Uhtred’s voiceover on his recent progress on his path towards getting revenge on the dudes who killed his Viking family (check), and taking back his Northumbrian title from his evil uncle, all while inadvertently contributing to Alfred’s dream of a unified England. Each opening voiceover ends with the phrase “destiny is all”.


I’m explaining this because Uhtred’s word ran through my head many times during three days of riding the Transylvania Epic over the weekend. I had heard of the Transylvania Epic prior to moving to State College in 2014, but after my sad, sad attempt at the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage race in 2009, I didn’t really think I’d ever have the confidence to try a stage race again. Suddenly, one of the country’s premiere mountain bike stage races was close enough that I could sleep in my own bed between stages, and that made me think that maybe, just maybe I’d be able to complete the TSE at some point.

However, starting to mountain bike in State College three years ago almost seemed like beginning riding from scratch. It was soon clear that despite my eight years of “mountain biking” prior to moving didn’t count for much. Rothrock peeled away any illusion I had that I was a decent mountain biker, and I soon found that I actually kind of sucked. Although this was disappointing, the challenge that lay before me was more motivating than ever. I sucked, but I had miles of gnarly, old school forest and a variety of famously tough events nearby to make me better. Surely, practice would make perfect, so I began kindling the dream that I might someday conquer these trails well enough to win the TSE enduro classification, and most my bike actions for the last three years have been taken with the intent of carving the path closer and closer to that reality.

After I finished the Wilderness 101 last summer, it seemed like I was actually getting close to being able to complete the TSE from a fitness standpoint. At that point, I actually started testing myself on the enduro segments and found that I had less natural proficiency than I had hoped. Familiarity with trails helps, but fast girls are gonna be fast, so I realized that I needed to step up my skill game instead of just sessioning segments a lot, and that has been my focus the last few months.

Despite not being ready to be competitive this year, I felt like it was time for me to at least do the TSE for experience, rather than just imagining what it would be like. Unfortunately, this is where fate brought betrayal, as my plan for a first TSE began to unravel bit by bit from the time registration opened in January. First they changed the schedule such that doing the five-day was going to be more stressful last year’s Monday-Friday format, and Frank wouldn’t be able to be there for the first day of the five-day at all. Then he and I couldn’t find enough people/compatriots to field a five-day team, which would cost nearly as much as a solo entry, and my confidence that I would be ready started wane. I decided to do the three-day to take some of the pressure off, but then they changed the stages so that we would not get do the enduro day, they removed Lonberger and added the crappy Long Mountain section from the stages, and just generally made the format pretty dumpster compared to the 2016 edition. At that point, I determined it better to run off to do some West Virginia enduro races than staying home and practicing pedaling for 4-5 hours at a time.

Then it was actually time to do the race, for better or worse. Despite having pretty much the opposite of the meticulous preparation that I’d had for the Wilderness 101, I saw a spark of hope a few days before the race. Having had a nasty crash a few days prior that screwed up both my Hail and my hip, I decided to play it safe by going on a little XC Loop jaunt on my Camber just to have pedaled a bike once in the week leading up to the race. I surprised myself by PRing the Greenshoot climb and having pretty fast times on the whole loop, despite my pretty moderate effort and barely having ridden the XC Loop this year. I guess riding a 30-pound floppy bike slowly up a climb on a weekly basis will make you inadvertently ride it way faster when you’re suddenly on a 25-pound responsive trail bike. Regardless, it was a nice reminder that even though it sometimes doesn’t seem like it, I have been continuously getting better at bikes since moving to State College. I’m not really sure what I was doing for the eight years before that.

Anyway, Day 1 of the three-day eventually came and brought a bit more disappointment with it. Shortly before starting we learned that John Wert had been removed from the day’s stage due to rain, presumably from the day before or early morning, as it wasn’t raining during the stage. This was supposedly at the behest of the DCNR, and it was especially confusing as John Wert is 85% rocks and not exactly a popular destination trail in great need of protection. It does, however, tend to pool up water in certain places, so I’m not sure if that was the issue. It just felt like a special level of insult to injury after everything else leading up to the race, since as far as I know there is not precedent for removing trails from stages despite at least a couple of days of hard rain during each TSE the last few years. This revelation, along with the DCNR’s recent war on fall line trails, was very distressing, as it feels like they could just rip the rug out from under everything that I’ve been working toward the last few years, just as I get close.

Admittedly, this race report is going to be way more context than content, but in this case, everything that lead up to the race mattered more in its outcome than the race in itself. The first day I struggled with the overall distance and long, draggy climbs. I ended up missing the time cutoff to the last checkpoint by an entire hour, but no one actually stopped me from proceeding. This turned out to be more awkward, as I was fully prepared to stop riding my bike at the last checkpoint, and it turned out that no one was going to make me stop. I called Frank and asked him to meet me out on the course, but by the time I got there I was feeling okay physically and mentally, and I was close enough to the end to just finish. I still took the ride since he was there, and vowed to use my saved energy to tough it out through the final two days.

And that’s what I did. Days 2 and 3 were tough and slow, but I got through them. I stopped letting the supposed time cutoffs into my head, since I doubted they would enforce them on the following days either, and I ended up making them both days. The Cooper’s Gap stage had Dutch Alvin, Lingle Valley, and Chicken Peter all cut out because of rain, which at that point, I was kind of okay with since it made less distance for me to cover. I’m still upset about the future implications of this precedent, but I guess I’ll deal with those as they come.

The finish line of the last day finally came.

With this year’s TSE under my belt, my focus continues to be on the future. Now that I know what it feels like to put in long, hard days back-to-back, I’ll be spending the next year figuring out how to do that better. My biggest lesson learned is that to be successful in the future, I’ll need to cultivate what I’ve been calling a much higher “tolerance for bullshit”. I’ll eliminate some of the what-ifs from this year by just saving up my money being ready to sign up for the five-day solo category when it opens in January, so that I won’t have to depend on other people to be on a team or be blindsided by the cost. Beyond that, I can wish on every star in the sky and clock at 11:11 that they return to the 2016 race format, but I also realize that no one actually gives a crap about my opinion, and 2018 could bring as many or more pain-in-the-butt changes. Unless they do something ridiculous like eliminate the enduro classification altogether (a case that I hope Bike Reg registration protection covers), I need to be better prepared to accept the disappointment and move on.

I also still need a lot more work on both my skills and endurance in the next year, but it seems like the latter may actually be the thing that makes it or break for me. It was definitely what broke it for me this year. In real life, just like in silly, melodramatic semi-historical TV shows, sometimes the path toward your intended goal gets hijacked, sometimes by literal course changes, sometimes because Alfred tricks you into marrying a hot new wife that secretly comes with the obligation of additional years of service in his army. Despite the title you are trying to achieve, TSE Enduro Champion or Ealdorman of Bebbanburg, it is important to accept the issues that arise and return to your intended path the best way you can.

For the rest of the summer, my path will lead me back to West Virginia several more times as I attempt to broaden the range of trails that I can successfully shred.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Cooper's Rock Enduro

Her eyes are cold and restless
Her wounds have almost healed
And that Camber in the corner
Can’t change the way she feels
He knows her love's in West Virginia
And he knows she's gonna go
Well it ain't no ultra or CX race
It's that damned old enduro

Well it's sweat and blood
It's mud and more mud
It's the roar of a Sunday crowd
It's the white in her knuckles
Through the rhodie tunnel
She'll shred the next go 'round
It's goggles and pads
It's trucker caps
It's brake then let it go
It's the Hails and the Reigns
And the joy and the pain
And they call the thing enduro

Although it would have been convenient to go into the second verse of “All I Do Is Win” with my favorite “represent that mud life” line, sadly my undefeated streak of 2017 has already come to end. I feel like this lyrical selection fits for my feelings going into the weekend of the Cooper’s Rock Enduro, anyway. It took me a full week to physically recover from two long, hard days in the heat at Big Bear, which dumped me into a cortisol-fueled scramble to finish up a project at work last week. When we tried to go out for our “Wednesday EWS” ride last week, I really struggled to bring myself up to adrenaline spiking super focus level during the downhill segments, because I’d already been operating in that mode all day and basically had nothing left. When I finally wrapped up all of my “to do’s” on Friday, I really kind of doubted my capacity to go away for a whole weekend and race. However, I realized that if I skipped the race that I would regret it, and a potentially crappy race was better than wondering what would have happened if I’d tried.

Once the racing was done, we had to ford a river and hike-a-bike out of a rocky lakeshore to catch our ride back.

The course was super ridicu-muddy pretty much the whole way, but otherwise it wasn’t very steep, or technical except for a series of slick root and rock drops at the very end of the last stage. Those were mostly just scary because they were so slick. After the pre-ride on Saturday, my assessment was that the race would be a contest of who was best at plowing through muddy chunder with the least amount of braking. Plowing through muddy chunder isn’t something that I have a lot of experience with, but I have been testing my Hail’s ability to “surf” loose, dry stuff and patches of smaller, tightly bunched rocks where there isn’t an obvious good line. I figured the surfing skills would come in handy, although the mud would make applying them much trickier.

The upside was that it presented an opportunity to wash some of the mud off our bikes.

The race day began with the chunder surfiest of the stages, and shortly after making the turn from the grassy start into the actual trail I slipped on a miscellaneous something-or-other and went down. Luckily, it was neither a hard nor painful crash, but it was enough to cause me to lose time on a relatively short stage and to stick my hand in a puddle, making for an extra wet and gritty glove for the rest of the day. The stage also contained a short but brutal uphill in the middle where I got really gassed and had to dismount after swerving into some bushes from exhaustion. So yeah, Stage 1 wasn’t great for me.

Stage 2 boasted a whopping -6% average grade, so it was an XC-style pedal fest with my seat up, only occasionally standing up a bit to absorb a root or rock. This lasted so long that I had mostly forgotten about the last 30 or so feet of trail dumping into a steep, rocky chute until it was immediately in front of me. I slammed on my brakes and desperately grabbed for my dropper lever, but I was already headed for a terrible line that I couldn’t correct without doing a dumb, slow foot out move on the way down. It probably only cost me a couple of seconds, but it happened in sight a large percentage of racers standing around snacking where both Stages 2 and 3 ended, so it cost me more pride than anything. One of the expert women tried to make me feel better by saying that she forgot the last steep bit was there, as well.

The thing was, even after riding pretty crappily on the first two stages, I wasn’t that upset or worried. Since it was pretty much the same the same group of women as Big Bear, I now knew who was in what class, or so I thought. I figured that I had still won the sport class after making even worse mistakes there, so if I rode Stage 3 and 4 clean, I would be fine. I proceeded with a clean but safe Stage 3, and spent a lot of the final transition thinking about whether I liked this attitude in myself or not.

It was admittedly nice being the least nervous before or during an enduro race that I’ve ever been, and it was also nice not feeling the need to beat myself up too badly for the mistakes that I made during Stages 1 and 2, but I also sort of missed the pressure of competition. My real goal had much more to do with closing the gap up to the bottom 2-3 expert riders than my placing in the sport category, so I felt like I might be letting myself off the hook too easily by trying to calculate how safely I could ride Stage 4 and still probably win my category. At the same time, I really just wanted to make it to the bottom of Stage 4 rubber side down, so I tabled the internal debate proceeded with a somewhat conservative final run.

It turns out that my internal debate was based on alternative facts, anyway. I made to the bottom of Stage 4 safely and cleanly (well riding-wise, my clothes and bike, not so much). When I got back and checked the results, I saw that a woman who had raced the expert class most of last season at the top of the sport class results and me in second place. I was definitely disappointed because I had no idea she was signed up for sport, since there is no pre-reg and everyone’s plates look the same. I assumed that because raced expert last year that would still be the case. She had beaten me by 29 seconds, and 26 of those were from Stage 4 when I was playing it safe. Even with all of my Stage 1 silliness, I had almost closed the gap on Stages 2 & 3.


Ultimately, I was disappointed in not getting another sport class win, because it is fun to get my picture taken on the top step of the podium.  However, the “sport” designation is so arbitrary, that I’m anxious to move up to expert and stop feeling like my results require an asterisk. After Big Bear, I was like, “Well, I ‘won’ but, you know, I didn’t really win-win because it was just the sport category.” I never really felt that way in ‘cross or any other head-to-head type racing when the race is clearly playing out in real time. For enduro, though, we’re all just meandering out there on the course doing our thing at the same time, maybe seeing each other through the day and maybe not, and we don’t really know what’s going on until it’s over. The post-mortem slicing and dicing of the results just makes that weirder. Luckily, there was a much smaller expert-to-sport gap at Cooper’s Rock that Big Bear, so hopefully I can cross that divide soon.

It will be a few weeks before my next West Virginia enduro, because the next one is the same weekend as the TSE. I will probably race at least one more race in sport and see how I do then. I’m learning a lot this season about how to actually race enduro, which is more complicated that just being good at riding really fast on downhill segments in Rothrock that I know really well. Figuring out how to do your best when you’re tired and in unfamiliar territory that doesn’t necessary match your strengths is a whole other beast, but I think I’m starting to do okay at it.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Doing Things I'm Bad At: Winning the Big Bear Enduro

L-Stec goin' in on the verse
Cause I never been defeated [in 2017] and I won't stop now
Keep your hands up, get 'em in the sky for the homies
That didn't make it and the folks knocked out
I never went no where
But they saying Lindsay's back
Blame it on that hip hinge
And some trips down Wildcat
And I'm on this foolish track, so I spit my foolish flow
My seat go up and down like a good femdurobro
My Hail still be servin’, we’re droppin’, then we’re surgin’
Always said I like a good mud race, now I'm trying out the big bike version
Can't never count me out
Y'all better count me in
Rock my googles and a half-shell, hey Strava count me in
No enduro in the TS three day?  Take some random QOMs
Cause all I do, all I, all I, all I
All I do is win

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m not actually feeling that cocky, but having just stood on the actual top step of a podium for the first time since 2011, you’ll have to indulge me for a minute. Plus, I just love a good parody-writing challenge.

I think juxtaposition of the post title is a more accurate description of how I really feel. When I did my first enduro race almost a year ago, I prefaced my post title with “Doing Things I’m Bad At”, which is a short hand term that I’ve adopted for getting out of my comfort zone. In that first race I got last place by a lot, so it was a little more obvious that I was doing something that I was bad at. Yesterday I found out that I can do things that I’m bad at, but still do them better than everyone else who doesn’t self-designate as an “expert”. And while I’m starting to be a lot better at things I used to be bad at, yesterday proved that I’m still a long way from becoming a self-designated expert.

I decided to try out the "googles and a half shell" look earlier in the
week. I PR'd all the things that night, which lead me to the conclusion
that goggles make you fast. More on that later.

We headed down to Big Bear Lake in West Virginia on Saturday to pre-ride the first WV Enduro Series race of the year. The trails were a muddy mess thanks to some intense storms that had fallen during the night. This was especially bad on the first stage that we pre-rode, which was a lot more rolling than actual downhill, with lots of large, wet, mud-covered rocks. We eventually discovered that there really wasn’t a ton of elevation loss in any of the stages, and the ability to roll up and over large, slimy rocks, as well as dropping into and peddling out of muddy creek beds, would be the key skills called upon during the race. With the exception of my weekly dip into Laurel Run at the bottom of Sand Spring, I can’t say that I’ve been doing much of either of those things lately, and fall lines full of dry, loose chunder would be hard to find in Sunday’s race. Remember when I was bad at fall lines full of dry, loose chunder?

I went into Sunday knowing that the course would not suit my strengths and continued repeating my words from last week to “not take it too personally if I don’t do well” as a mantra. If want to become an actual enduro racer and not just hide in Rothrock inflating my Strava PR’s forever, this would be part of it. Much like when I was competing for the OVCX series title in 2011, I wasn’t exactly stoked on the “roadie” courses, but I could still manage to hold on to 5-7th place and get the points that I needed while giving my best efforts on the more muddy and technical courses. How exactly is it that muddy corners are something I wish for on a ‘cross bike and fear on a mountain bike?

The race began with a short singletrack roll-out followed by what was close to an hour wait to begin the first stage for those of us as the back of the pack. I ended up in line right next to three other women, which made me a bit more nervous for the first stage. Not being very confident about the trails, I didn’t want to hold them up, but I also didn’t want to get stuck behind someone having a harder time than me. Stereotypes are not very helpful, and it’s actually pretty hard to assess someone’s skill level based on looks. I tried to test the waters a bit by throwing out the “So how are you guys feeling about this?” question as we approached the start. Two of the women forged on ahead of me, and the other said something like, “You have goggles, so you must be a faster rider.”

Well, crap. Now I was the one who had to perform to a stereotype. I laughed and said, “The goggles just mean that I’m pretending to be a faster rider,” but I still moved up in line. I gave the other two women extra time before I started, but I still ended up catching them both before the end of my run. The other women did finish much further behind me than she would have started, so I guess she made a correct judgement regarding the goggles. I had been the fastest out of that little group, but there were several women further up in line and I wasn’t sure who was in what class.

The group dispersed during the brutal transition from Stage 1 to Stage 2, and I found myself trudging alone through the remainder of what would be a five and a half hour journey. I rode pretty well on Stage 2, which began smooth and pedally and turned into a steeper and looser Sand Spring like finish, but the muddy rolly rocks on Stage 3 & 4 did not treat me as well. I also had a bunch fast guys who had taken really long breaks at the pavilion before Stage 3 circle back behind me, so I got caught and passed a bunch on Stages 3 & 4, which was also annoying.

Stage 5 should have been pretty uneventful, and at that point I just wanted to ride hard to the finish and be done. However there was a small wooden bridge near the end, and my front wheel slipped off. It was low enough that I should have just been able to put my foot down, pull my wheel back on track, and keep going, but my foot went between two slats of the bridge and I fell back with my bike on top of me wedging my ankle in with a hard slam. It took me minute to get untangled as I was overwhelmed by the terrifying realization that I had just almost broken my ankle. Thankfully it was just bruised, and I rode out rest of the stage as fast I could before collapsing for a mini-cry at the end.

When I finally managed to get on a shuttle and return to the start, Frank turned in my timing chip while I got cleaned up. Then we had a mini anniversary celebration with the year-old top layer of our wedding cake, which had been riding around in a cooler with us all weekend. Even though it didn’t look as pretty as it had a year ago, it actually still tasted just as good. I had my cake and a glass of the Stone “Enjoy After 4/20/17” that someone had brought to our wedding, while I resisted the urge to look at the results for as long as I could.



When I finally peeked to find my name at the top of the list, I knew that there might still be some women out on course, so I didn’t get too excited. I breathed a sigh of relief and went to put on my podium jersey when the last shuttle came in and my name was still on top. It turns out that the girl on the last shuttle that I was most worried about was in the self-designated expert class, so I had won my category!



All in all, I think weekend was a good step for me. It wasn’t a great course for me and I didn’t ride as well as I wanted to, but a win is a win, so it still felt like my work is starting to pay off. I also have to remember that, even though I didn’t ride as big of drops as I wanted to, I still rode some stuff that I would have been afraid of just a couple of months ago, so that was cool. I just need to keep at it with the Wednesday practices, but also start challenging myself by riding outside of Rothrock more often on weekends. The next WV Enduro race is in two weeks, so I’m looking forward to finding out what kinds of things I can be bad there, or maybe even not-so-bad at.

This rock roll doesn't look like much, but it's actually so steep that you can't see the
bottom from the top. Past me would definitely not have ridden this.

Monday, April 24, 2017

It's Going Down

Put my butt over my back tire
As long as they don't touch
Laser focused, bleary eyed
Till the gravity's too much
And I'll do anything you say
Through the cramping of my hands
And I'd be smart to walk away,
But you're quicksand

This slope is treacherous
This path is reckless
This slope is treacherous
And I, I, I like it

The past couple of weeks have been so full of new and interesting gravity-fueled experiences that it has almost negated my disappointment in the TSE 3-day stages. Since my last post, I have experienced my first trip to a bike park, had a private lesson, and made some huge jumps in my downhilling ability on my home turf.

Of course, just this morning I still found myself trying to come up with a scheme to get a timing chip for the TSE enduro stage, because for all of the practicing that I’ve been doing, I really want to see how I stand up against real, live people in the same conditions on the same day, instead of comparing myself to somewhat inaccurate Strava data. At the same time, imagining myself dropping into the bottom part of Wildcat to crowd of people heckling and taking pictures still kind of freaks me out, so maybe it’s just as well.

Even if I don’t make this year’s TSE enduro day, I still have a lot going on lately in gravity world. Frank and I celebrated Easter Sunday by joining enduro-cats Michaela and Sam, as well as their assorted dude friends, for the opening weekend of Mountain Creek Resort in New Jersey. We were quite lucky to have gone on Sunday, as we heard that there were hour-long lines for the lift on the actual opening day of Saturday. When we arrived on Sunday, there were maybe five minute lines, and by the afternoon, you could just walk right onto the lift.



My first downhill park experience was different than I imagined, and it was a good learning experience. The “easy” trails were actually kind of harder for me than the black diamond rocky trails that we went on. We didn’t even see most of the really hard stuff, but the rocky trails that we did attempt were actually at a good level for testing my limits. They weren’t as steep or screaming fast as some of the State College fall-line trails, but they required more complicated line choices and had bigger low-speed drops. I was actually pretty happy with some of the moves that I pulled off on those trails, but I found myself kind of frustrated on the green and blue trails where I struggled on all of the little jumps and berms in the loose, dry dirt. Those trails were very easy ride, but very hard to ride fast, at least for me. I’m looking forward to checking out Blue Mountain after it opens and seeing how it compares.

Last week Harlan Price of Take Aim Cycling was in State College, so Frank and I got to take a half-day private lesson with him on Thursday. I’d hoped to meet up with him down in Harrisonburg earlier in the winter, but that didn’t work out. There are both advantages and disadvantages to taking lessons on your home trails. While it’s a good opportunity to improve at what you ride most often, it’s hard to get better at the things you’re bad at because you never do them. In our case, that means flowy, turny, bermy stuff. It would be nice to learn to flow futuristic some of the more “fun” descents down in Harrisonburg, but I guess we’d still have trouble putting it into practice when we got home. Harlan did his best to give us practice strategies for improving our cornering in the conditions available and for practicing on our “park days”, so hopefully when we race outside of State College we’ll know how handle it. It also seems that I’ve found such a good, stable descending position now that I never want to leave it, so my next step is to start moving around on the bike more.



Whatever I’ve been doing lately, it is working so far. I’ve managed some huge descending PRs and even a few non-descending ones in the last couple of weeks. The two that I’m most exciting about are Wildcat and Ruff Gap. In the last couple of weeks I’ve finally made it the point of descending Wildcat without getting scared and getting off my bike, and suddenly I’m almost fast at it. I also did Ruff Gap for the first time this year and the third time ever on Saturday, and I PR’d it by nearly 2.5 minutes, finishing a frustratingly-close one second behind the QOM. I think that’s really amazing because a) I mostly walked it for the first time 13 months ago b) I haven’t had a bunch of chances to memorize the trail like I have with many of the others. I was going that fast on only very vague memories that weren’t even that accurate. The trail was much longer and more technical that I remember, and not as steep. I definitely want to ride it more, as it’s actually more of a challenge to do well than a lot of our normal Wednesday EWS trails. I also need to do Ross more, as I couldn’t quite get past the slidey leaves/steep drop combo on Saturday without getting freaked out. I guess I'm still not superwoman...yet.

This weekend we will see how my much improved skills in Rothrock translate to trails I’ve never seen before, as Frank and I will be celebrating our first year as husband and wife in the traditional manner of racing enduro followed by eating year-old mountain bike themed cake. We’re heading to Big Bear Lake in West Virginia for the first race of the WV Enduro Series. I’m hoping that a low-key race on similar-but-different trails to what I’m used to might help relieve me of my enduro curse. When I’m riding so well at home I’m often torn between the desire to find out if it translates to less familiar trails and the fear that it won’t and that I will suck when taken out of my comfort zone. I’m doing my best to think of it as a check-up for my progress and not take it too personally if I don’t do well.

Overall, things have been going pretty well for my riding lately, even if this spring has turned out nothing like I planned. The TSE is still going to be a huge sufferfest, but I’m excited about what other possibilities the year might have it store. I’m crossing my fingers that it will all be downhill from here.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Crappy Doubletrack to Nowhere

Here I am posting for a second time this week after a two-three week absence. Events have transpired since I posted on Monday, and I figure it’s easier to just download and move on.

I mentioned in Monday’s post that there was conflicting information about whether the enduro day would be included in the three-day version of this year’s Tran-Sylvania Epic or not. I actually got my answer on Tuesday night after returning from a very fun and successful QOM hunt for cool enduro segments that aren’t on the TSE docket. I might be the first women to have not walked down the “Bald Knob Death Drop”, which might be my new favorite trail. There’s also a whole top half of Sand Spring that isn’t included in the TSE and a baby version of Wildcat that will hopefully improve my confidence for the big one.

Anyway, the news that came after the ride was significantly less good than the ride itself. The enduro had, in fact, been taken out of the three-day, but the replacement was not R.B. Winter. In fact, there was no R.B. Winter at all. Instead, the old Coburn and Bald Eagle stages that were combined into one less-roady stage last year were split back out, and Bald Eagle would be serving as Day 2 of 3. Bald Eagle is just sort of meh, but at least the total riding distance doesn’t appear to be more than the enduro would have been, so hopefully it will not be a super horribly long day in the saddle. In addition to the loss of the enduro, the other big kicker was that a section with which I was previously unfamiliar had been added to the Tussey stage. I just so happened to have already to taken the day off work on Wednesday to make up the long ride that I’d missed by being maybe sorta kinda sick and stuck at home on the couch Sunday, so I set out yesterday to find out what the new section was all about.

It was bad. So bad. Halfway through climbing Thickhead, I veered off onto the Long Mountain Trail which began with what was for me a 20-minute hike-a-bike. I guess it’s probably rideable by much stronger women than me, but still has to be pretty miserable if it is. I’m not against a hike-a-bike for a worthy descent. I mean you gotta climb the “Bald Knob Ball Buster” to get to the “Bald Knob Death Drop” (silly Strava names). Sadly, what lay on the other side of mountain that I eventually crested was only moderately downhill overgrown doubletrack with about a billion downed trees. When I finally arrived at the bottom on Stone Creek Rd., I was supposed to climb halfway up the back of Bear Meadows to Deitweiler, ride UP Deitweiler, and over the tippy top of Thickhead before proceeding with John Wert. What I actually did was get angry and ride back to the car.

An extra thirteen miles of hike-a-bike, crappy doubletrack, and climbing to nowhere were not what I needed in my life right now. Sure, I focused my entire season around what we’ll call 85 out of 100 miles of hike-a-bike, crappy doubletrack, and climbing to nowhere, but it was a fully informed choice that I made from the beginning of the endeavor. It was not the result of a bait and switch a few weeks before the race, when my motivation and confidence were already waning.

What I have inferred based on “[enduro] didn't work out over the weekend” and “there is the reality of what we are allowed to use” is that because when the race dates were changed to allow for an all-weekend three-day, the weekend schedule also came with trail constraints in comparison to last year’s Monday-Friday schedule. Seeing that the change in dates was the first blow to motivation regarding this race, and part of the reason I switched to the three-day in the first place, it’s really salt in the wound that it’s also severely impacting the quality of those three days.

So that’s that. All I can really do is just show up and attempt to make my legs pedal through whatever they put in front of me to pedal. Between now and then, I’ll do my best to get back into shape, because I need to get back into shape, but I’m not going to let preparing for the race rule my life. I’ve been worried about taking time away from Rothrock to do other races or to go ride at downhill parks before the TSE, but from now on, I’m just going to do what I want to do and not worry about it.

I was basically going to do that this weekend, anyway, as I’m going to Philly for a social event that my teammate Sophia is hosting. I hoping to get to ride there on Saturday afternoon, but I’m not sure if I will or not. Then we’re going to the opening weekend of the Mountain Creek downhill park, so my Hail will finally get the chance to really show her stuff. Now that I’ve unloaded the bummer news, hopefully I can come back next week with a clean slate and lot of fun photos of my bike park debut.

Monday, April 10, 2017

It Works If You Work It

I like engaged butts, and I cannot lie
Even XC racers can’t deny
When a girl descends hinged at the waist
With a round thing in your face
She goes fast…

I’ve been a little lax in posting since we emerged from the snowy Lousy Smarch that was getting me down. Admittedly, I’ve been struggling to get back up, even after the snow has melted and warm sunny days have returned.

The TSE is now less than seven weeks away, and I don’t feel even remotely on track preparation-wise. For various reasons, I haven’t gotten in the kind of long rides on the Tussey and Cooper’s Gap stages that I would like, and I’m noticeably slower on my benchmark XC segments than I was this time last year. Admittedly, in past years I would be alternating between focusing on these segments for my Wednesday night rides therefore improving on them at a more rapid pace. I mentally referred this a couple of days ago as “Strava-ing myself into shape”, since I don’t actually do much actual XC racing.

However, since I graduated from XC bikes at the end of last summer, and especially since I’ve been focusing on improving my skills more than my fitness, Wednesday night has become enduro night at the expense of XC riding. Luckily, I am seeing some breakthroughs in that area. I’ve mostly been focusing on perfecting my new and improved descending position on the Sand Spring trail, which is one of the easier stages of the TSE enduro day. It’s steep and loose, but not hair-raising. Since I started improving my balance and position based on the teachings of Lee Likes Bikes, I’ve dropped my PR from 1:45 to 1:26. The QOM is 1:03, set by Andrea Wilson on an XC bike with presumably way less practice than I've had, so I’ve still got my work cut out for me.

I haven’t quite worked my way up to my last summer’s PRs on scarier descents like Wildcat, Old Laurel, and No Name, but I think I’ll get there soon. Those PRs represent the limit of my ability to push through fear and burning quads, but since I’ve learned that neither of those things are actually something you should push through on a descent, I’ve slowed down while I tweak my technique such that they are eliminated rather than pushed through. It definitely seems more within the realm of possibility than it did a couple of months ago, but I’m just not quite there yet.

Sadly, depending on whether you believe the TSE’s Bikereg page or their website, I might not even get to race the enduro stage as part of the three-day. Their website currently has the enduro listed on day two of the five-day, swapping it with the R.B. Winter stage from what was originally advertised. I don’t think I’ll have my enduro game perfected in time for this year’s race, but I’ll still be disappointed if I don’t get the chance to try. The R.B Winter stage is fun and all, but I don’t know that I can handle three long, hard XC stages in a row in my current condition.

Not that the removal of the enduro stage from the three-day will quell our newly-christened Wednesday EWS tradition (we don’t bow down to the UCI of amateur weeknight training rides) in favor of XC rides. I’m trying to adopt the attitude of “ride what you can in the time you have left, and hope for the best”. I put on some spectacular displays of gutting things out last year, and hopefully I can keep it up at the TSE, if necessary.

One of the reasons that I haven’t done as well on long rides as I’d hoped is that I spent this past weekend in a sore-throat, feeling generally crappy state of uncertainty about whether it’s allergies or the beginning of a two-week hell cold. That meant that we did what should have been a 1.5 hour ride at 2.5 hour pace on Saturday, and I stayed in altogether Sunday. I’m feeling about the same, and I still can’t tell which way this thing is going to go. The one bright spot of the weekend was during our slow ride, we stopped to session things that we normally just blow past.

A post shared by Laser Cats Feline All Stars (@teamlasercats) on
I wanted practice riding drops correctly since next weekend we’ll be joining my downhill-oriented teammates at Mountain Creek in New Jersey. For all of Rothrock’s technical features, high-speed drops of any significant size are pretty rare. This one still isn’t that big, but it looks bigger riding it than it does in the video. I’m pretty proud of this, because I’ve been afraid to ride it at full speed before. This time, it felt like nothing at slow speed, so I had to go faster and catch air just to get in the push/pull motion that I was trying to practice. The result is a pretty darn good-looking jump just from a combo of speed, a little unweighting on the lip, and then a good push/pull landing. This practice stuff is actually working.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Lousy Smarch Part 2: Lessons Learned

In my first post on how I’m dealing with this “Lousy Smarch” after the false spring of February, I discussed my commitment relearning my fundamental mountain bike skills correctly. While I get my shred house in order, I might be a little less focused on training from a fitness perspective. However, I still have a three-day stage race to complete at the end of May, so it’s not like I can let myself get out of shape.

Sadly, it seems like that’s exactly what I’ve been doing lately. In January, I had fully accepted winter and was laying a great foundation for spring, CBAPs and C-words be damned. In January, it’s easy to get into “this is my life now” mode in regard to wintery weather. Then February came and started letting in the “I deserve a break” thoughts, which quickly bled into “Winter is almost over, so I’ll just start mountain biking soon” thoughts. I guess I got in few sets of trainer intervals in February, but looking back on the month, it sort of feels like I was either doing 3+ hour mountain bike rides or “resting”. Then Lousy Smarch hit with its preclusion of further mountain biking, and I just kept “resting”.

Lately I have been struggling to get back on the right track sooner rather than later and resist the (very strong) urge to just sit in front of the TV until mountain-bike-able conditions come back. As I’m approaching the end of my third winter in State College, I’ve begun to look back and think about what I could have and should have done differently.

My first winter in State College was brutal, with extreme cold and snow pretty much the whole time and the trails not clearing until April. I also tried to doing all my training on the road, which was extra cold, because the gravel roads were too icy to traverse on a ‘cross bike. The next year I tried to mitigate this by purchasing a fat bike, and ironically, that winter turned out to be very mild. The new bike purchase also made me very keen to try fat bike racing, and while doing long, hard races in January and February kept me very motivated through the winter, I felt like it wasn’t the best for me in some ways. Because I was trying really hard at really hard races so early in the year with no base, I wasn’t able to do much except race and rest, plus traveling to New Jersey so often wasn’t that great. I thought that I would be better off staying home this winter and getting quality weight training and intervals in during the week while maintaining my endurance with easier long rides closer to home.

And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t those meddling kids…



Okay, okay, it was mostly my meddling brain telling me that whatever I had planned was too much and that I wouldn’t be able to handle it.

I will begin by saying that there is no way to make winter training completely not suck. You can definitely employ strategies to mitigate the suck (warm gloves, warm shoes, fat bikes, etc.), but you cannot eliminate it completely. I think that everyone has to find their own comfort zone between strategies to mitigate the suck and strategies to embrace it. Some people develop high tolerances for indoor riding, while others will ride outside no matter how bad the weather is. I, for one, absolutely hate riding in the dark, so since moving to Pennsylvania, I’ve accepted that any weeknight ride will be indoors.

Of course, I also try to skew my training plans to minimize weeknight riding by spending most weeknights in the weight room and only doing a couple of quick, “get in, get out, get it done” interval sessions per week. I do my best to follow a polarized training philosophy with short intensity during the week and making up my volume on the weekends. It’s a great idea in theory, but where I failed was trying to go too intense on weekdays and not being motivated enough for long, boring, cold outdoor rides on weekends with no immediate races to keep me focused.

I think I found the answer to my indoor training problem, but it just came a little too late for this winter. Along with all of the skills tips available on the Lee Likes Bikes Online MTB School, there is also a very reasonable 12-week “Pump Up the Base” training plan which features two manageable-length, manageable-intensity indoor workouts a week. It seems to fit my mental and physical capacity for indoor training, and fits my own philosophy of leaving plenty of time for strength training and skills instead of just grinding the trainer all winter. I went ahead and started the program a couple of weeks ago, and I figure I’ll keep it up until the weather is actually pleasant for outdoor post-work intervals. Obviously, I won’t finish the whole 12-week program, but I figure I’ll pump up my base as much as I can in the remaining time before I switch to full-time outdoor training.

The other half of my polarized training fail from this winter goes back to finding the balance between mitigating and embracing the suck. For me, riding longer than an hour and a half is just not fun unless it’s above 50 degrees and there is a significant amount of singletrack involved. Unfortunately, to be successful at long rides with singletrack in the spring, one must accept long rides without singletrack in the winter. I didn’t do very well at that this year, as I was always bargaining my way out of the long boring rides that I was dreading by driving Raystown (except that I only have a 2.5 hour tolerance of Raystown) or attempting to do six laps of Accuweather. The fact of the matter is that I should have stopped trying to mitigate the suck and just lowered the barrier to entry by getting on my fat bike, riding up the mountain to Keppler road, riding out for a couple of hours, and riding home. For future winters, I guess I just need to embrace the motto of “get out the door, get in the hours”.

Finally, I will end with the one happy lesson that I learned this winter:  Harrisonburg, VA is only four hours away and is mountain-bike-able pretty much the whole winter. Not that weekly trips down there would wear on my any less hard than trips to New Jersey, but I’m glad to know that there’s a place to run when winter (or Lousy Smarch) gets to be absolutely too much. I definitely plan to return there in the future, although maybe with my Camber instead of my Hail.

Luckily, it appears that there is a light at the end of the weather forecast tunnel, and I might even be able to get out on the ridge tomorrow after work. I’m having some regrets about not being in as good of shape as I could have been going into this mountain bike season, but I’ve officially done all that I can about those by leaving this note to my next-winter self. Now I must embrace the gnar to come instead of dwelling on the past.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Lousy Smarch Part 1: #skillseveryday

When I wrote about the year of the false spring a couple of weeks ago, I knew that March would likely be disappointing following multiple short-sleeve mountain bike rides in February. However, this March has brought the crappy weather much worse than I expected, and my feeling can basically be summed up by this picture that friend recently shared on Facebook.


Despite mostly triumphing in the face of adversity in January, I apparently lost my resolve during February when it started to look like the rest of the winter might go easy on me. Lazy and depressed is the best descriptor of my disposition since that last lovely 70 degree ride a few weeks ago. It’s not the sad kind of depressed, as it can’t really be considered sad when winter is just being winter, but it’s more of an uninspired, “if I can’t mountain bike, I’d rather not move at all” kind of thing. Fat biking does not count as mountain biking, BTW.

Since I haven’t posted in a couple of weeks, I spent a lot of Sunday’s half-hearted trudge around Accuweather writing blog posts in my head. The two positive-ish themes that emerged were recently embarked-upon #skillseveryday project, and the lessons that I’ve learned from my third winter in State College which will hopefully lead to a less-lousy Smarch next year. I think I will break this into a two-parter, one for each of those topics.

One thing for which I have been motivated lately is skills work, and luckily I can work on that without clear singletrack or multiple hours of daylight. It would sure help if the grass in the park near my house wasn’t covered in a foot of snow, though.

After my disappointing enduro racing debut last year, I made relearning to ride bikes the right way my #1 priority for this year. I had just been waiting on enough daylight to allow for daily outdoor practices. My original plan was to try and get in a short private lesson with Harlan Price every 4-6 weeks throughout the season to help my progression, but it turned out that he would be away from Harrisonburg for most of February and March. He’ll be coming to State College in late April, so Frank and I have a half-day session scheduled with him then, but I needed to get to work sooner than that.

I had a discount code for 30% off a month membership for The Lee Likes Bikes Online MTB School, so I decided to give it a shot. I mean, my ability to pay my bills and purchase N+1 bikes depends on belief in the efficacy of online education, and it was obviously a lot less expensive than a bunch of private lessons. It probably didn’t hurt that it came with the endorsement of the queen of commitment-to-the-journey, and my favorite bike philosopher, Syd Schulz. Sure, she does also make pilgrimages to Boulder for private lessons with Lee, as well, but I figured it was worth a shot to see how much I could improve using park drills and strangers’ criticisms of my poorly-lit iPhone videos. I really only got into this last week, so it’s hard to judge my progress yet. I’ve mostly just collected a lot of video of my hip hinge movement both off and on the bike in the hope that I’ll relearn better body position and balance by the time the weather does let allow for singletrack riding again.


Additionally, the 20-something degree temperatures over the weekend combined with the need for creative thinking when it came to skills practice, Frank and I headed to The Wheel Mill in Pittsburgh for the first time in two years. The lesson that we learned last time, was that full-suspension XC bikes with clipless pedals are the not the best rigs for riding there. Since they only charge $15 to rent a dirt jump bike, we opted to do that the second time around. The more-appropriate bike, along with more appropriate expectations, made for a more enjoyable experience this time. There was still a lot of stuff that I didn’t feel comfortable riding on a strange bike that for some reason I had a hard time lifting the front wheel on, but it was fun to play with all of the body position stuff that I’d been practicing on the pump track. My pumping action definitely needs a lot of work, but I admittedly haven’t made it that far into the Lee Likes Bikes site yet.

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Since we just had a foot of snow yesterday, outdoor bike practice is going to be a bit difficult for a while, singletrack or not. I’m going to keep practicing my hip hinges and try to think of creative ways to work on my skills indoors. In the next part of my Lousy Smarch series, I’ll cover what I’ve learned from my third winter of living in State College and what I hope to do differently in the future.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Weeks #7&8: The Year of the False Spring

The tourney at Harrenhal, also known as Lord Whent's great tournament, was held in 281 AC, the year of the false spring, at Harrenhal in the riverlands. It was hosted by Lord Walter Whent to celebrate the name day of his maiden daughter. Spread over ten days, it was the greatest tourney of its time. - A Wiki of Ice and Fire

With the weather regularly vacillating between 30 and 70 degrees this month, the phrase “the year of the false spring” keeps popping into my mind. Game of Thrones fans will know this as the year that there was the great tourney at Harrenhal, where a bunch of stuff went down, leading to the conception of many of the series’ main characters and all of the old grudges that are still simmering when Ned Stark leaves for King’s Landing in the first book/episode. As I prepare for the great tourney at Seven Mountains Boy Scout Camp (the TSE), I’m finding that this year of the false spring is presenting very little of the winter monotony that I was expecting to blog through in January.

Helping a new teammate practice her descending position

After migrating south to clear trails in Harrisonburg a couple of weeks ago, the local weather was kind enough to allow us to mountain bike right here at home a couple of times since then. The weekend after we went to Harrisonburg offered two days of sunny 60ish degree weather. Saturday of that weekend was spent in Philly helping out with a Team Laser Cats beginner women’s MTB ride, but on Sunday I got the opportunity to really put Brienne (my new Liv Hail, named for a character who had an entirely different fight at Harrenhal) through her paces on the TSE enduro course.

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We hit all of the stages except for Greenshoot, which I’ve ridden up many times, but have only gone down a couple. There’s nothing particularly difficult about it, although it will require some improvement in my cornering ability to truly go fast, but going fast on Greenshoot won’t matter until I’m much faster on the more technically difficult stages. Furthermore, after riding Croyle for the first time since it was redone in the fall, I’m also feeling like the resulting 30-40 minute climb back up Gettis isn’t really worth my time until I get a lot better on Sand Spring, Wildcat, and Old Laurel. The beauty of those trails is that once DST starts, I can get all of them into a single weeknight ride and concentrate on the longer TSE stages on the weekends. After several months away from these trails, new bike magic couldn’t counteract my rustiness or the thick layer of leaves that have fallen since the last time I was out there, so I’m looking forward to getting back to weekly practice and start progressing again.

Last week offered 60+ degree days on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, but with the sun still setting at 6:00, that wasn’t super helpful for Wednesday and Thursday. Friday was the warmest day at 70 degrees, and I had no important meetings that day, so I took a vacation day and rode most of the Tussey stage of the TSE. It was a little crazy riding 4.5 hours of actual mountain biking in shorts and short sleeves in February, and it was kind of nice getting the harsh reminder of how hard it is early in the year rather than later. I was a lot slower than I was expecting, and quite the tired puppy by the time I was done, but I’m still far ahead of where I was in March last year. I can’t even compare it to any previous February, because before this month, I’ve only ever mountain biked in February once in my entire career. This year it has been five times already!

Given my objective to make big improvements this year in the skills realm, I was glad to finally get to do the things I’ve been imagining myself doing for months. Of course, things don’t necessarily play out in real life the way they have in your head all winter, and I was far from the smooth operator I’d been imagining once my wheel hit actual trail. At least now I have a couple of things that I know that I was doing wrong in the past that I can start attempting to do correctly now that I’m getting in trail time again. The first is that my “attack” position is more squatty than it should be and my butt is not actually as far back as I imagine it is. So now when I’m descending, I’m concentrating on hinging at the hips to get lower and further back, rather than bending my knees. I haven’t quite gotten comfortable with this yet, but I’m working on it. On Friday I noticed myself mentally saying, “booty like whoa” whenever I started to get into descending position. It was really silly, but served as a good reminder.

I’m also working on looking further down the trail and planning multiple moves ahead instead of just staring at what’s directly in front of my wheel. This seemed to help on John Wert until my brain got tired around the time I hit the really big rock gardens. I still have a lot of work to do there, but admittedly, I only rode that trail twice in all of 2016. I plan to spend a lot more time there this year, and in addition to speedier, cleaner descents, I also want to finally clean John Wert and Tussey Ridge both before the summer is over.

I know that the problem with false springs is that there are still several weeks left when it could still be cold and I really won’t really have any room to complain about March being March. We could even perceivably have more bad snow before spring has sprung for real, but I sure hope not. No more days on the trails aren’t guaranteed for quite some time, but the bug has bitten me, and I’m definitely hoping for more rides soon.