Monday, December 11, 2017

The Gift of Forks

I used to set out on my various endeavors with so many expectations — and what was, essentially, an entitlement to have those expectations fulfilled. It’s such an embarrassingly egotistical thing to admit, to be honest. But it’s in the last few months that instead of saying “this is what’s going to happen (and there will be hell to pay if it doesn’t)”, I’ve begun thinking “whatever will be, will be”. I’ve just done more work and less demanding; while it doesn’t mean I expect less from myself or that I’ve lowered my standards, I do think that saying “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” has been far healthier for me. – Amanda Batty

Surprisingly enough, I don’t have any of Syd Shulz’ wisdom to pass onto you today. This post’s inspiration came from a much more unlikely source. Amongst Internet-famous female cycling personalities, Amanda Batty isn’t one with whom I’ve strongly identified in the past. Not long before stumbling upon the snippet above, I had been telling Frank how her excessively-long Instagram captions annoyed me. It’s a lot to take in when you’re just trying to scroll through pretty pictures of bikes and cats, and I had really only read her “real” writing when something sexist happened in the bike universe. Wait, when something *really* sexist happened in the bike universe, because otherwise that would mean every day. Maybe I just didn’t want my already-complicated feelings about the Liv cycling brand dictated to me, or to have my already-overblown tendency to rant about stuff exacerbated, so I never paid a lot of attention to what she said and wrote. However, I did happen to read at least halfway through one really long Instagram caption a couple of weeks ago and mined the gem above.


This happened around the time that I wrote about my theory of talent over forks and began asking myself questions about its implications. I thought this view on expectations and entitlement was a good explanation of what is sometimes going on when the forks get too high in athletic endeavors. Each fork you give is a small payment toward an expected result, which is unsurprising, considering that most American children are raised with the belief that such a deal can be easily struck.



Maybe I’m generalizing too much about most American children, but I know that for me, a big part of maturing as a human being has been coming to terms with the fact that life isn’t the clear “You do X, and you get Y” deal that I once believed it to be. I have come into jobs, relationships, and athletic endeavors with inaccurate ideas of what is valuable in that situation and was met with disappointment when offering up the things that I thought were valuable did not yield the expected results.

When it comes to my bike happiness formula, forks come in many forms: pulling yourself off the couch to ride when you’d really prefer to stick around for one more episode of Netflix, sitting through the pain of one more interval, passing up another beer, or buying new tires instead of a new dress (or whatever you’re into). In addition to the tangible sacrifices, the forks also add up in terms of emotional investment and the time you spend thinking and learning about your sport. I’m an analyst by nature, so I inherently absorb all of the available information relevant to my current pursuit and try to distill it into the best plan of action. If I’m honest, the nerding out and planning is the part that I love the most (hence this blog), but sometimes I probably place too much value on intellectual knowledge in a physical endeavor.

I think my problem is that in the past I’ve treated bike racing as a catalog from which various levels of success can be ordered for a price. You put in this many training hours, these workouts, pay for a coach etc., and you can expect certain results. The problem was that the prices were listed in a foreign currency for which I was always trying to decipher the exchange rate. I hired coaches, bought gadgets, and performed a lot self-experimentation trying to figure out the price of success and rarely got it right. At the same time, it seemed there was a secret email list coupon codes that I’d been left off of. Those coupons were what I used to call talent. 

What I’m learning is that, like the jobs and relationships I mentioned earlier, cycling isn’t a straightforward exchange. The best you can hope for is to offer up what you believe to be of value and hope that the receiver values it the same. It’s like buying a present for your partner or friend. You spend your money and/or time with the hope that it will be valuable to them, but you’re not likely to be mad at them if they don’t like what you give them as much as you’d hoped. 

Everyone who shows up to a race comes bearing gifts of strength or smarts or skills or power or stoke, and everyone has paid a different price for the gifts they offer. The race will chose which gift is its favorite, and it won’t care who paid the highest price. 

Rather than trying to figure out what you have to pay, I think it’s more important focus on what you’re willing to give as a gift. Beyond that, it helps to find a relationship where the gifts you are willing to give are most appreciated. For example, threshold intervals are “very expensive” to me, so I should probably never try to get into a serious relationship with time trialing. On the other hand, enduro seems to like things I give more willingly, like strength and skills. It also likes confidence and fearlessness, of which I have less to give, so my gifts won’t always be the favorite, and I have to learn to be okay with that. 

So this holiday season, think about the cycling disciplines on your gift list. What do they want, and what do you have to give? If you really love them, go ahead, shower them with gifts, but don’t get mad if next summer they like someone else’s gift better. Remember the reason for the (off) season, and perhaps you’ll receive some gifts of your own.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Talent: The Right Side of HSE

Any discussion about the skill-acquiring process must begin by addressing a curious phenomenon that I came to know as the Holy Shit Effect. This refers to the heady mix of disbelief, admiration, and envy (not necessarily in that order) we feel when talent suddenly appears out of nowhere. The HSE is not the feeling of hearing Pavarotti sing or watching Willie Mays swing – they’re one in a billion; we can easily accept the fact that they are different from us. The HSE is the feeling of seeing talent bloom in people who we thought were just like us. It’s the tingle of surprise you get when the goofy neighbor kind down the street is suddenly the lead guitarist for a successful rock band, or when your own child shows an inexplicable knack for differential calculus. It’s the feeling of, where did that come from? – Daniel Coyle, “The Talent Code”

In my last post, I discussed my long-held theory regarding talent and cycling-related happiness. However, as I wrote it, I started to question my definition of the “talent” in the context of that theory. Over Thanksgiving break, I decided get some additional perspective on the concept of talent, by re-reading “The Talent Code”. I had read the book before in 2010, and I was excited to find that it was actually among the relatively few books that weren’t culled prior to moving to Pennsylvania. This is even more impressive considering that at least half of my small remaining collection of physical books consists of the complete series of Sookie Stackhouse novels. What I found was that “The Talent Code” stood up to the test of time much better than the Sookie Stackhouse novels, and also that my 2010 self did not properly appreciate its wisdom the first time around.


Yo, girl, we need to talk about your wheel size, your hip hinge, and the fact that you're paying some dude $150 a month to make you faster while you're still holding on to a deep-seated sense of learned helplessness.

I will likely be referencing this book in the next few posts, so I won’t go into too much detail on the non-HSE parts for the time being, but it might be useful for me to preface the rest of this post with a brief summary. The book seeks to uncover the secrets of various “talent hotbeds", and it is divided into three sections: Deep Practice, which discusses the myelin that insulates neural pathways for the skills that a person practices most and best; Ignition, which discusses the subtle and not-so-subtle cues that people take from the world that motivate them into deep practice (and will make the R. Kelly song play in your head the for the entire middle third of the book); and Master Coaching, which talks about what the best teachers do to increase both ignition and deep practice in their students. A better summary can be found here, if you’re interested.

For today though, I’d like to focus on how the book made me realize that the thing that I’d been calling “talent” in my theory was actually HSE. For some reason, the concept of “HSE” reminds me of the saying, “History is written by the winners,” and then turns around in my mind to, “HSE is written by the losers.” I think that is because to the person displaying the “sudden” success, it might not seem like a surprise at all. Only an outside observer (who is often on the losing end of this situation) will perceive the success as natural ability that came out of nowhere. The whole point of the book is that the success has likely been longer in the making than one might think.

So I began to roll this narrative around in my mind. I once again thought of Syd Shulz’ post on challenging the stories that we tell ourselves and acknowledging our tailwinds along with the headwinds. As much I see myself as the scrappy underdog who has put up with a whole lot of defeat in service of a few minor victories sprinkled across a decade, I’ve come to realize that I am the only one who has been watching this clich├ęd sports movie in my head from the beginning. Was it possible that at some point I’d been the subject of someone else’s HSE?

While this recent string of posts sprung from my disappointment in the successes that I didn’t have this season, I can’t discount the successes that I did have. It’s dumb to imagine that the women of the West Virginia Enduro Series eventually Googled me and read all 300-and-something blog posts describing everything that happened in my cycling career prior to the moment that name appeared at the top of the Big Bear Women’s Sport results. To everyone else, I was just some woman who showed up and won the sport category at nearly every race this year, in some cases beating women with more enduro racing experience under their belts. While I was beating myself up because I was so far behind the expert women, other people, if they were paying attention at all, were probably thinking I must be very talented. LOL.

However, my greatest example of being on the winning side of HSE was my 2011 cyclocross season, when I surprised myself more than anyone. From a traditional sense of cycling training, that season should not have been a success. I didn’t even begin riding until March that year because I was recovering from surgery. I’m not sure that I did a ride over two hours long the whole year, and frankly I didn’t spend that many hours on the bike at all. At the time I couldn’t explain why I did well that season, which is why I sometimes joke that cyclocross is a combination of science and magic, just like Lil’ Bub.

After re-reading “The Talent Code”, I realize that what transpired that season wasn’t magic; it was just a different kind of science than what most cycling training is based on. I guess I was wasn’t ready to absorb science that didn’t talk about watts the first time I read the book.

While I wasn’t putting in tons of miles in 2011, what I did do was lift heavy weights often and with great consistency, and the time I spent of the bike was mostly short, intense efforts. When cyclocross season began, my threshold power was meh, even by my relatively low standards, but I could accelerate better than I ever had before or since. When I exploded off the line and lead for half a lap of the first race of the year before crashing into a hole and fighting my way back through the field to my first-ever podium, that was the ignition to my “sudden explosion of talent”. After that I raced nearly every weekend for three months, usually on both Saturday and Sunday.

The fact that I kept getting better through that season doesn’t make sense in terms of fitness, since I wasn’t really “training” between races, but when I think about it terms of firing neural circuits, making mistakes, and re-firing those circuits better and more efficiently, it totally does. There is really no substitute for the deep practice that I get from actually racing cyclocross, and part of my struggle to recreate that success since moving to State College has been the inconvenience of living 2-3 hours from real races with the starting line, course tape, and timing cues that I need to ignite me into that state. And there is a reason that "cyclocross practice" is among the top phrases that make me cringe, along with "lean protein" and "requirements gathering". Unless I have the cues present to get me into that deep practice state, it's just riding bikes on grass, and I hate riding bikes on grass.

What I have gained by reflecting on my own moments on the right side of HSE was that talent might not have been the right word to use in my cycling happiness equation. Maybe it’s more about pleasantly surprising yourself when you exceed the results that you believe you’ve earned. That’s actually kind of perfect, because even prior to this conclusion, I had planned for my next post to tackle the problem of entitlement when the forks get too high. What I’m learning in this is that the currency of competitive cycling is so much more vast and complicated than most of us understand, but hopefully some further examination of what’s usually written off as genetics, or even magic, will provide some guidance as to how to negotiate it.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Talent Over Forks

My last post was incredibly helpful in allowing me to bookend the last couple of months’ stress and anxiety, and transition into the official off-season feeling much more calm and motivated for next year. However, I worried that the post went a little too far down the crazy/anxious/dark end of the spectrum by admitting how much I let my insecurity bleed into pettiness and jealousy sometimes. And maybe it did, but it also prompted an interesting response from an enduro friend that I met over the summer.

He mentioned that I’d implied that guys seem to care less about results than women, which is definitely not something that I ever thought or meant to imply. Without doing any scientific research on the matter, I would guess that the level of caring about results is probably pretty evenly distributed between the genders, but how it is expressed and experienced is just different. I think competition among women can feel more personal, because there are fewer of us, and we feel less embarrassed to admit it when it gets us down. At the same time, I can imagine that there are plenty guys who get frustrated when they don’t progress at the rate that they feel that they should or feel a twinge of jealousy when that progression comes seemingly easily to someone else. Of course, most of what I observe in my day-to-day life is a neurotic woman (me) and a pretty chill man (Frank), so maybe it does skew my view of society as a whole.

The conversation reminded of me of a theory that I developed a couple of years ago, but I guess I never got around to posting about it. It must hold water, though, because Frank still regularly references it when explaining his relationship to competitive cycling, which is:  “My talent exceeds my [forks] given, so I’m pretty happy.”

I submit for your approval: Talent/Forks Given = Bike-Related Happiness

(I will be using the word “forks” from here on out, just in case my mom reads this, and because I’ve been watching too much of the “The Good Place”.)


I first started developing this theory around the time that I joined Team Laser Cats, when I found myself surrounded by blissfully unaware baby racers who didn’t really seem to know what they were doing when it came to racing, but somehow they were already better at it than me. All my years, miles, and knowledge of racing and training couldn’t stand up to their natural-born engines and their uninhibited stoke, but they were such a great group of women that I was okay with it.

The idea also came from watching Frank, who has always been proportionally faster than me, despite training less. It’s not like he was ever missing his calling as Pro Tour rider simply due to his lack of saddle time, but the fact that he could occasionally get on the PACX singlespeed podium with Cat 1&2 dudes just by tagging along with whatever training I was doing (unless it involved the trainer or rollers, coz eww) indicates a certain amount of talent. If he got a coach and invested a couple of years of dedicated training that didn’t involve my slow ass, I’m sure he could become a podium-worthy regional elite masters ‘cross competitor. I’m also sure he would be considerably less happy if he were to do that.

Most of the time he manages to ride a beautiful line where he gets just enough success without trying super hard in the day-to-day. The other interesting thing is that, in the heat of competition, I think he tends to focus harder and suffer longer than I do, because he hasn’t wasted as much mental energy obsessing beforehand.

The theory of talent over forks given reaches the entire breadth of the cycling spectrum, from that annoying person who wins the first bike race they ever enter, to a very sad Sanne Cant in second place on the World Championship podium a couple of years ago. While both of these examples exceed me in the talent portion, I can actually much better identify with the latter. Sanne Cant has an incredible amount of talent, but she had stacked up a pile of forks so high for so long that nothing short of World Championship would allow her to break even. I remember reading once that she made her parents take her to the Netherlands (I think) to race when she was a kid, because she was too young to compete in Belgium. At least her 15ish years of forks finally paid off last winter.

When I look back at my life on the things I was naturally good at and the things I really cared about, those were never the same thing. I joked with Frank the other day that my academic career was like his cyclocross career, where I was very satisfied to complete a bachelor’s degree in marketing from state school with a 3.85 GPA with an incredibly low amount of effort. In retrospect, I sometimes wish that I’d set my sights higher or challenged myself more, but at the time, simply graduating college was a pretty big accomplishment where I was from. At the same time, I was given the rare opportunity to become a Division I athlete by joining my college cross country team, despite not having shown much real athletic promise or interest until that point in my life. So that was where I became ingrained with the mentality that being smart was easy and sports were hard, and the fact that they were hard made them so much more satisfying. Bikes were just the next step for me after my collegiate running career ended, because cycling offers a greater variety of legitimate competitive opportunities than running at the non-elite level. If master’s track meets were more prevalent, it might have been a different story.

When I decide that something will be my new thing, I go all-in, learn all about it, and invest as much time and money as I can. For me, the forks were always high, even before I made it to the starting line of my first mountain bike race. I put a lot of effort into knowing what to expect and looking like I knew what I was doing. (Old pictures will reveal that questionability of that statement, as I still looked pretty forking dorky, even for the Midwest in 2006.) However, you only learn so much from reading and imagining, and it turned out that mountain bike racing was scary and hard, and that often times, my competition took to it a lot more naturally than me, even if they were wearing yoga pants and running shoes. The thing was, that because mountain biking was scary and hard at first, I was only more determined to make it less so.

So how does one recover when their forks given greatly exceed their talent? Sometimes the answer really is as simple as needing to give fewer forks. However, as I planned to write this post I started asking questions about my theory. At its heart, it is still very true, but I think there is more nuance to be explored. What is talent, really? And what does the “happiness” in my equation really mean? Sure, the person who wins their first race ever is going to have a much more positive outlook on the sport for a while, but how happy are they really, compared to someone who took years to get that same win? I figure I have about five months before I’ll have another race report to write, so instead of boring you this winter discussing whether I made it onto the trainer the planned number of times each week, maybe I’ll start digging into these additional questions. Stay tuned…

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Home Isn't Where The Heart Is

I don't want to talk
About the things we've gone through
Though it's hurting me
Now it's history
I've played all my cards
And that's what you've done too
Nothing more to say
No more ace to play…

The winner takes it all
The loser standing small
Beside the victory
That's her destiny



Sometimes you need to play the whole song and not just a snippet of the lyrics. In this case, it all too perfectly fits my experience at two consecutive Raven Enduro races, despite very different approaches leading into them. Last year I spent a lot of time preparing, thinking that I could use my home course advantage and practice all of the stages until I was good enough to actually win. The result of that tactic was a punch in the face that left me reeling and crying in front of strangers, but ultimately set me up for greater success this season. Simply doing a run a bunch of times won’t do a lot of good unless you are finding and addressing fundamental weaknesses while you do it. My personal experience and observations of others from the past year is that I’m not sure that a home course advantage is really as much of a thing in enduro as one might initially think. While you want to generally know the tone and any major features of a segment, I think that too much practice on a single section may eventually backfire mentally.

Learning that lesson lead to quite a few sport class victories on trails than I’d never ridden until the day before the race, and a realization that there was no special advantage to be gained by making a bunch of trips out to SMCC to practice for the Raven. Also, I just didn’t want to do that. I had raced all that I wanted to race this year, but I felt some sort of guilt that I was still supposed to race my “home” race. Home is relative when it’s 20 minutes away, but not trails that you ever ride other than to practice for a specific race. What I really wanted was to just go through the motions at this year’s Raven, and not care too much.

That sounds easy enough, but as the weeks ticked off leading up to the race, my anxiety still grew. I mentioned in my post on the Gorgeous Ladies of Enduro that it was actually more stressful for me to ride my home trails than it was to race because of the spontaneous Strava competition that erupted around the time I started resurrecting old downhill segments that no women had ridden in years. What started as a fun way to motivate myself to try and get faster quickly turned into a demotivator with names I’d never heard of popped up on the leaderboards to challenge me, and were often times successful. Per the theme of the GLOE post, I felt a certain internal pressure to be the queen of my little piece of enduro territory, and I was upset to see that slipping away. Worse, the imaginary Strava competition that I had entered pronounced all of my insecurities about being an untalented rider in way actual racing never did, because I had to face it every single ride instead of just the occasional weekend.

Man I promise, I'm so self-conscious
That's why you always see me underneath some goggles
Rockshox and S Works done drove me crazy
I can't set my own rebound, but check my new full-facey!
Then I spent 400 bucks on this
Just to be like girl, you ain't up on this!
And I can't even go on a weeknight ride
Without my matchy matchy gloves and a shirt that’s bright
It seems we living that neon dream
But the people highest-vis got the lowest self esteem

Sorry, I just had to diverge into some bonus lyrics there…
The technicolor inspiration for the bonus lyrics above. Some guy said, "I like how your S Works matches your jersey, and I thought, "Yeah, too bad I can't live up to this bike's expectations."
Anyway, things didn’t really get any better for my Rothrock riding after I published my GLOE post and took a mid-season break. Although one of my Strava gnar-meses gained a whole lot of credibility when she raced the CLIF Enduro East in Killington, which looked absolutely awful from the pictures and videos that I’d seen. Basically, the quickest way to gain my respect is to jump into something way over your head and get your ass kicked really hard. However, as I tried to come back later in the summer and continue to improve on segments where I’d made huge leaps in the spring, I found myself unable to improve while another girl had seemingly swept up every downhill QOM in Rothrock, including Wildcat.

This was a huge bummer for me for all of the reasons mentioned above. Despite exceeding the non-existent expectations that I’d had for myself at the beginning of the year about my race season, I felt like every ride at home was just a reminder that I actually sucked. I was trying really hard to get faster, and it just wasn’t working while every ride I saw proof of how easy it was for someone else. I was winning races in West Virginia, but at that point, it just felt like that was just luck. All it would take would be another semi-talented new girl showing up in there to take it all away from me.

So as the Raven approached, I became more and more worried that I would have to face the human symbol of all my self-loathing in real life, and that would just be too much. Due to my late-season stagnation, I felt helpless to actually do anything that would make me race better, and I mostly just plotted ways to soften the blow. Maybe I would enter the Pro/Cat 1 class so that I’d have excuse to lose? I waited until the last hour of pre-registration to make my decision, and at that time I was the soul entrant in that category. Would I actually get my wish of just showing up and going through the motions and not have to feel bad about my results?

The answer was of course not. Sunday’s race brought three other entries into the Women’s Pro/Cat 1 category, including the one that I was most afraid of. And she talked me. And she was nice. And on Stage 4 she moved from a few people in front of me, to a few people back, and to starting right behind me. And almost making up a minute on me during that single stage. In the end, she placed second between two of the fastest women in the state, and I was DFL…by a lot. And that was the point at which I just had to hang my head and admit that she is way faster than me and that it sucked. At least there is a certain level of relief that comes when something plays out just as badly as you were afraid it might and then it’s over.

I know that I’ve referenced Syd Schulz almost of my posts the past few months, but the woman is smart. As I scrolled through my phone waiting for the results, I saw the words “It doesn't matter what other people COULD achieve, it matters what you DO achieve”. While that snippet wasn’t entirely relevant due to the fact that I was dealing with a whole lot of theory that DID just become reality in real time, it was very timely that she had just published a post on the stories we tell ourselves about our own lack of talent. The point of the post was that even when we try to spin it in a positive manner like, “I can outwork more talented people”, that it’s still coming from a sense of internal inferiority that can quickly turn to “I suck, and I’ll always suck” after a bad day.

Unlike Syd, I actually stopped believing that I could outwork talent a long time ago, because of the limits on the body and the time constraint of a grown-up with a job prevents me from doing much more work than I do. That means that on the worst days I straight up fear and resent talented people, because all they have to do decide they want to beat me, and that’s pretty much that. On a good day I least acknowledge my historical ability outsmart and outlast talent. I’ve got eleven years of competitive cycling behind me where I failed, kept going, and figured out way to get better. Where are those girls who beat me in beginner XC races in 2006 now?

For the past few years, each big disappointment has prompted me to ask myself why I keep trying with bikes. Even though I like to wallow in the “Everything is going to be harder for you than it is for other people” narrative after a loss, I realize that I have the ability to keep improving and I’ve done so many times. The reason that I don’t quit is that deep-down the voices that tell me that I’m inherently at a disadvantage and always will be are countered by a curiosity of how the story will end if those voices are wrong. So I keep going, and I find out what’s next, and somehow that has lasted eleven years with no end in sight.

And that’s where I sit now. It’s never easy to break old habits, but I need to continue to hammer away at my pattern of trying to use self-loathing to motivate me to be better. I’ve improved more in the past year of riding than I did in the whole ten years before that, so I know there’s hope for this old dog yet. I’ve also learned a lot about learning this year, too, so I’ve got plans to set myself up for even greater success next year.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Fall Got Weird

With an eight-week break between my last regular-season enduro race and the late-fall source of ambivalence that is the Raven Enduro, I decided that I would use the lack of races and subsequent race reports to take a blogging break. I knew I was very tired mentally physically going into the Bear Creek race, but what transpired over the next few weeks was an even bigger break that I was expecting. During this time, I got dangerously close to making “I Only Ride Park” a true statement in both the literal and ironic senses, as my riding consisted almost souly of trips to Blue Mountain and Mountain Creek on the weekends and about a bajillion laps around the basketball court at Tussey View Park as I attempted to learn to manual. (No, I haven’t yet succeeded. No, I don’t want advice. I’ve learned my lesson about posting skills work on Instagram before it’s effing flawless.)

I also added cross-training to my regimen.

This fall has definitely been a weird one. I knew quite a while before my late-summer enduro races wrapped up that this would be the first fall since 2005 that where I wouldn’t even pretend to have a cyclocross season. The last fall that I didn’t pretend to have a cyclocross season was the fall when I pretended like I was going to do an Ironman. I never quite made it to the start line, and I got my first mountain bike a few weeks, so that was the end of that.

Although I still planned on racing the Raven Enduro and Sly Fox Cross in November, hitting mid-September with the knowledge that I would not have a race where I actually cared about the results for many, many months was a strange and welcome sensation. I deeply identified with Syd Schulz’ post “I Haven’t Ridden My Bike in a Month” that came out around this period, even though still technically putting my butt on a bike seat on a semi-regular basis. On one hand, I really wanted to use the time between September and November to get a head start on my skills for next season, but at the same time I was enjoying the lack of urgency. Like Syd, my desire to ride was solidly rooted in FOMO.

September and October also turned out to be two of the most incredibly stressful work months that I’ve had since moving to State College. This also contributed to my long break from “being a good athlete” as Frank and I jokingly called it. When one area of your life is being extra stressful and sucky, it is nice to at least be able to toss out any expectations in other parts of your life without feeling bad about it. Yeah, I might have made a bit more skills progress this fall without all of the stress, but #winteriscoming and I would have been rusty in the spring, anyway. Now everything’s starting to return to normalcy, so I’m just focusing on getting my body and mind ready to come out swinging after the spring thaw and try and make some gains then.



To further add to the weirdness, Frank and I went casually browsing houses on Zillow to actually putting in an offer on one within a week’s time. He became a full-time lecturer (with a recent title change to “Assistant Teaching Professor”) this semester, so we had come to the conclusion that we would be staying in State College indefinitely and that we should probably buy a house before our lease ended in August. We were planning on waiting until closer to August, but a nice place within our price range came up not too far from where we currently live so we jumped on it. So for all of the extra weirdness that added, it will be nice go into winter training in a permanent residence with a finished basement where we do trainer intervals and RipRow.

Our 2018 enduro season is so bright, we're going to have to put tinted lenses in our goggles.

Finally, with the knowledge that we’ll soon have to start adulting harder than we have been in our relatively cheap apartment the last few years, Frank and I both went ahead and got new enduro bikes after the season ended. He got a Cannondale Jekyll, and I built up a “bastard Stumpy” that I have named Jon Flow (haha, get it?). I’d been lusting after the teal, pink, and neon yellow S Works frame since it came out last winter. However, being S Works, it was too expensive even at dealer cost when it was first released and there were only a couple available in each size.

At the same time, I ended up riding my Liv Hail way more this year than I ever expected to when I bought it on the premise of big bike curiosity in February. It turns out that I like big bike and I cannot lie, but I was wishing for something that pedaled better than my Hail, which is super burly and had no sort of lock-out or pedal setting on the rear shock. It was fully squish all of the time. At different times I considered replacing it with a Roubion or a nicer Hail, but then the S Works Stumpjumper frame went on closeout. It wasn’t quite designed to a full enduro bike, but that’s where the “bastard” part came in. Mine is a size medium frame to be longer, a 160mm fork to slack it out and add extra travel in the front, and we’ll be adding an offset bushing soon to take to 66-degree head angle instead of the original 67. The result is a bike that handles a lot like my Hail, but is significantly lighter and pedals much more efficiently. Oh, and it’s super-duper, amazingly pretty.

So that’s what I’ve been doing the last few weeks. I guess I’ll have “race reports” the next couple of weeks with the Raven and Sly Fox, so maybe it’s time to start trying to be a good blogger again along with trying to be a “good athlete”.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Bad Bear Enduro: One More for the Road



The Bad Bear Enduro at Bear Creek (bear with me here, there are a lot of “bears” in East Coast Enduro racing) was my second enduro way back in June 2016. Since I had so little frame of reference at the time, I liked it well enough. The first two stages were just a lot of monster trucking over rocks, which was at least something that I was comfortable with, as opposed to the steep pitches and tight corners of my first race at Glenn Park. The third and fourth stages at Bear Creek terrified me, with a series of rock ledges in Stage 3 and a few super-steep, loose patches in Stage 4. It was, however, the only enduro race in which I didn’t get last place in 2016, so that was something.

This year my skills, luck, and taste in race courses changed dramatically. I followed my backcountry-loving instincts into West Virginia and was pretty successful there, so my interest in MASS series races waned dramatically. When the WV series was over, I still felt the pull to go back and see Bear Creek with a more experienced perspective, despite the fact that I was feeling pretty tired and enduro’d out. What would those “scary” features look like to me this year?

Going into the weekend felt a lot like the stretch of December ICX races that took place between my 2011 OVCX series championship and the first January CX nationals. I had put a lot of effort into winning the OVCX series and didn’t have a shot at the ICX because it was mixed 3/4, instead of Cat 4 only, but I still felt the need to finish it out. Racing in the greater Lehigh Valley area feels a lot like racing mixed 3/4 races did back then, or at least I expect it to. I know that there are tons more women who surpass me in both pedaling and skills in that area, and it’s really just a question of how many of them show up to race and what category they enter. Thus I felt a weird combination of both relief and disappointment when only one other woman signed up for my category after much better numbers the year before.

What I found during my first experience with racing a course a second time was how much my taste and perspective had changed. The familiar monster-trucky stages that I’d liked the year before were much too slow and pedally for my taste this year. I’m pretty sure that Stage 1 actually had more uphill than down, but I didn’t remember it that way at all. The rocky section in Stage 3 was no longer scary, but it was still very technical and complicated. I successfully rode it after a few attempts in practice, but I failed to properly thread the needle during my race run. That resulted in a disappointing, but luckily not painful, baby crash that cost me some time. The steep bits on Stage 4 no longer scared me, and I think it was actually my favorite stage this time. Stage 5 was basically how I remembered it: nominally downhill, but more suited for XC than enduro.

I got a little worried in my early stages because I was having so much trouble clocking out with the manual wrist chip, which I hadn’t used all year. I lost at least 30 seconds per stage doing it wrong before I finally figured out that I had to shove the chip against the circle really hard instead of waving it like a bar code. I was starting to make peace with the fact that I’d probably lost the race because of my timing chip, not my riding, when I caught and passed the other woman from my category on Stage 5. That was a good sign, and before I had even finished changing clothes, Frank came and told me that I’d won.


I was still hugely behind the women in the Pro/Cat 1 class, but it was still nice to stand on the podium one last time for the year. I’m not sure what class I’ll enter for the Raven, as it should be a small field, and I’m not concerned about MASS points. I’m actually trying not to care about that race too much, as I want to spend the remaining time before winter working on general skills for next year instead of practicing for a specific race.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Snowshoe Enduro: East Coast, Beast Coast



Last weekend I wrapped up my first season the West Virginia Enduro Series with the series finale in Snowshoe. Despite being the site of this year’s mountain bike national championships and what seems to be the motherland for gravity-oriented riders in the mid-Appalachian region, I had never been there. (Yes, I made mid-Appalachian, but it is culturally distinct from the mid-Atlantic.) Given the context of my first trip to Snowshoe, I can’t decide if I missed out on the real Snowshoe experience or absolutely experienced it in its most concentrated form.

We once again woke up at 5:00 on Saturday morning with the hope of getting there and beginning our pre-ride around noon. Unfortunately, Snowshoe had already had heavy rain on Friday, which continued through the day on Saturday. We arrived to temperatures hovering around 50 degrees and a weird fog/rain combination that limited visibility past a couple hundred feet. We eventually figured out where and how to get registered, and then put on all of our clothes for a cold and sloppy pre-ride.

We did Stage 1, which took an approximately five-mile fire road ride to reach, and three directly lift-serviced stages of 2, 3, & 5, becoming more soaked and hypothermic with each trip up the lift. Stage 4 was supposed to have a pedal transfer, but we’d hear that there was a shorter way to get there from the lift. However, we couldn’t figure it out since it wasn’t on the map, and our fingers were too numb for us to care. “How much different or more difficult can it be?” we thought.

On Sunday morning we awoke to weather even worse that when we went to bed. Although it wasn’t raining, the fog was even denser than the day before and some 20 mph wind had been added to the mix. At least the starting line was right outside the building where we staying, so we got our chips as early as possible and then went back inside until the last possible minute. I ended up staying inside 10-15 minutes past the “start” time and then started a slow pedal to the first stage. I still arrived to a very long line and ended up not actually beginning my run until two hours after the posted race start time. At least by the time that happened it was mostly sunny, although my numb hands and feet from the long wait were not very helpful as I began the first stage.

Stage 1 was a back country trail and began with a roll through the kind of verdant green, but still dark and wet, magical mossy forest that might come to mind when imagining West Virginia mountain biking at its very best. The wet roots soon became bigger and more frequent and I hit the first major rock garden, which was covered in thick, slick mud. I got off and ran it, and then did my best to ride as much of the rest of the stage as I could. That mostly just meant a lot of outrigging to try and stay upright through the sloppy rut/root combination that made up the rest of the trail. I probably wasted more time than necessary trying to clip in when I did hit a smooth-ish stretch, because my foot would inevitably be out again during the next technical section. I think Stage 1 might be the perfect embodiment of the term “East Coast, Beast Coast”, being so beautiful and brutal at once.

Stages 2 and 3 were bike park trails, but the outrig/run/try not to die experience was similar. Although there were moments where I was able to appreciate how much better and braver a rider than I was a year ago, I was still off my bike a lot due to the combination of trail difficulty and mud. While each of the WV Enduro races has been hard in its own way, it’s hard to express how much more difficult this one was. Although I can’t really say it was “fun”, I didn’t let the difficulty level upset me. I just got through my day the best that I could, although I definitely felt like I’d earned a “Snowshoe Kicked My Ass” souvenir t-shirt the end. I guess I should have checked the gift shop to see if those actually existed.

I ended up starting Stage 4 behind my biggest competitor in my class. I went into the series finale with a one-point lead, but the way the scoring works, if she had gotten first and me second, she would have still won the series. She’d actually only beaten me once at Cooper’s Rock, which was the least technical race of the series. It seemed that I had the advantage in the more difficult races, which Snowshoe was definitely delivery, but nothing is ever guaranteed. I think this is why I wasn’t too worried about trying to ride perfectly, as I was just focused on moving forward as quickly as possible during the timed segments, no matter how ugly it was.

Stage 4 turned out to be the muddiest, ruttiest, mostly-impassable-ist stage of the race. Like, I have a hard time imagining it as an actual trail, so much as a rooty mud pit where the slope starts getting really steep on one end. About halfway through the stage, I caught the other girl which meant that I had already gained 60-90 seconds, which was heartening. It seemed that my strategy was working. Although I was hyperventilating and sliding all the place and fallen and slid down the hill on my butt as I was about to catch her, I was still moving faster and staying on my bike a little more. It was ugly, but it was working. The last part of the stage was too steep and slick for me to even attempt to ride, and eventually I couldn’t even push. My rear tire became so packed with mud that it wouldn’t roll, so I was just dragging/carrying what had to be a 50 pound bike by that point down a hill where I could barely keep my footing. I still managed to make it out with a significant lead on the other girl.

It turned out that I dropped my chain in addition to the unrolling wheel, so I had to stop and clean my bike and get the chain yanked into place before I could begin the final stage. I got my bike functioning again and headed out. Stage 5 was a fast and jumpy park trail, which is definitely not my strong suit, but I knew I just had to do my best and hold me and my bike together by the end. I did it, and as the lift starting moving up the hill to take me to the finish, I saw the other girl come out of the woods. I was pretty sure I’d sealed my victory, but only the timing chips would tell.

It turns out that I had won the sport class by 12 minutes. I’d even gone faster than one of the women from the expert class, although she was not someone who’d been at any of the other previous races. I was 12 minutes behind the next series regular in the expert class, so I still have a lot of work to do before next season. I’m still pretty proud of how I did this season, and I was very happy to take home the sport women’s series title.



Now my enduro season is almost done. Despite not having done many MASS races this year, I wanted to go back to the Bear Creek Enduro. This will be my first time racing on a course that I’ve done before, and last year I couldn’t ride most of Stage 3 & 4. I mostly want to go back this year to see how much I’ve improved. I’m kind of considering that the end of the season, although we will likely do the Raven Enduro again in November. For the next couple of months, though, I looking forward to lot more Saturday nights in my own bed.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

A New View of Pisgah

The main reason that it took me a week and a half to finish my race report from Slaty Fork is that rather than returning home after the race, the next day we continued south to North Carolina for a week in Pisgah. My only previous experience in Pisgah was in 2009, and it wasn't great. Apparently, at the time I claimed it would be my last death march. Silly 2009 me, Death March wasn't even invented yet, and it was ironically, the thing that renewed my interested in endurance events after I walked away from them for a couple of years. Since I moved to my own set of mountains 3.5 years ago and now have a partner who's willing to join me on mountain bike adventures, I'd been wanting to go back to Pisgah and see it with fresher, more gnar-friendly eyes.

We finally decided to sneak in a trip between Frank's summer and fall class sessions, which is the main reason we combined Slaty Fork and Pisgah into one trip. Ideally we wouldn't have done a pretty long enduro race leading up to the trip, but we also didn't want to miss the race and managed to make both work.


Monday was our travel/rest day, so we first hit the trails on Tuesday. We hit up the DuPont State Forest trails for our first ride, thinking they might be a kinder transition that full Pisgah gnar on the first ride. I think that was a good choice. I'd always been fascinated by people's pictures from riding the slick rock there, and it lived up to my expectations. We also did some flowy machine cut jawns, because those can fun too sometimes.

Here I am as one of Brevard's famous white squirrels.

Obligatory #scenicvistaselfie
Wednesday we did middle and lower Black Mountain as well as Bennett Gap. This was the day that I really started to understand why people love Pisgah so much. Black Mountain was amazing, because it managed to be really damn gnarly and technical, but also somehow flowy at the same time. It was also really satisfying to take stock of how many sections I was able to ride that I probably couldn't have a year ago, and 2009 me probably couldn't have even conceived. Of course, it was warmer and dryer than the last time I was there. 

Perhaps it was a little too warm, as we decided to never again travel south in August by the time the trip was over. We had a good time, but just getting through the 10-15 miles a day that we were riding was a struggle. We mostly kept it in the fun zone while planning our routes and didn't even attempt anything akin to the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage race. I'm smarter now and understand Pisgah miles, which are even longer than Rothrock miles, I think. I do occasionally have thoughts of giving the stage race another shot again someday, but for this trip, we just wanted to check out some new terrain without killing ourselves.


Okay, maybe we tried to kill ourselves a little. After watching the "Trail Boss" episode of Farlow Gap, we just *had* to see it for ourselves. We weren't silly enough to think we could all or even most of it, but we did make a sort of silly decision that I should rent the small Bronson CC in front of The Hub to satisfy some of my Roubion curiosity. My Hail is great for going really fast downhill, but it it tends to suck at getting to the the start of downhills by means other than gentle gravel roads or chair lifts, so I've been searching for something with big bike capabilities that pedals a bit better.

It's actually not the best idea to ride the hardest trail that you've ever been on using a bike that you've never ridden and that is only semi set up for you, so I can't say that my trip through Farlow Gap was super fun. We were also a bit stressed about getting the bike back before the shop closed, which didn't help. The good news is that our curiosity has been satisfied, and I think we're okay with not attempting Farlow Gap again for a long time.

Overall, this trip to Pisgah was a lot more fun than the last. Good company, good skills, and lack of snow are all highly recommended. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Slaty Fork Enduro: Chaos is a Rock Garden

Don’t fight in the North or the South. Fight every battle everywhere, always in your mind. Everyone is your enemy, everyone is your friend. Every possible series of events is happening all at once. Live that way and nothing will surprise you. Everything that happens will be something that you’ve seen before. – Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, Game of Thrones

***

While reflecting on what I wanted to say about the Slaty Fork Enduro a week later after I’d finally returned to a reliable Internet connection, I was a bit uninspired at first. Was it even worth going back and writing a report for a race that I had “won” unopposed? What I had I really learned or achieved other than getting one step closer to securing the Sport women’s series title for the West Virginia Enduro Series? Aside from the ever-present mud, the Slaty Fork Enduro was very different from the previous WVES race at Valley Falls. Unlike the drop-filled Valley Falls course, there was nothing that I “couldn’t” ride at Slaty Fork, but that still didn’t translate into a flawless race by any means. In that realization I began to contemplate the fluid definition of “can ride” and “can’t ride” when it comes to enduro.

Frank and I got up at 5:00 last Saturday morning to make sure that we were ready to ensure that we were fed, dressed, and ready to board the single noon shuttle for pre-riding in Slaty Fork, which was five hours away. Once we were on the trails and I realized how long and brutal the transitions after Stages 1 and 2 were, I started to wonder if the pre-ride was doing me more harm than good. It took me three hours to get to the end of Stage 3 and it was around 4:00 p.m. at that point. I’d seen video of most of Stages 4 & 5, and I was pretty sure a shower, food, and a good night’s sleep would probably do me more good than two more hours of bumbling through the woods trying to scout lines. I don’t regret my decision to get a ride back and get cleaned up and fed early in favor of pre-riding the last two stages.

TFW the first professional race photo of you all season is on a transition

On race day, the first three stages were mostly just fast and slick with no especially prominent features. I was pretty happy with my Stage 2, which didn’t necessarily suit me with its multiple transitions between pedally sections and fast, loose no-brakes stuff, but I stayed focused and did well within my current capabilities. The last few weeks I’ve been coming to the realization that as much work as I’ve been putting into increasing the bandwidth of features that I “can ride”, what’s really standing between me and the next level is weaning myself off my brakes when it’s fast and loose. So I spent a lot of Stage 2 trying to be hyper-aware of my urge to brake and trying ease my discomfort through attention to balance and body position rather than slowing down.

Luckily a couple more surfaced later.

After a slick and sloppy Stage 3 and shuttle to Stage 4, it was time to enter unchartered territory. Having not pre-ridden the last two stages, all I’d heard about was the “mile-long rock garden” at the beginning of Stage 4. It was actually funny listening to people in line complaining about it, while I was mostly looking forward to it, rocks kind of being my thing and all. At the same time, I didn’t really go in with expectations that I would clear the whole thing riding blind. Spoilers, I didn’t. I actually probably made as many mistakes as the self-professed rock haters did.

For all of its lack in features that I “couldn’t” ride, Slaty Fork still presented a vast array of challenges. Just because I have the capability to ride something cleanly still doesn’t always mean that I always will. It’s just that the consequences of failing to clean a rock garden are a lot less than failing to correctly land a drop.

I knew going into the day that I was the only Sport woman entered, so in some ways I didn't feel much competitive pressure. However, I was still disappointed to see that I had finished six minutes behind the last-place Expert woman when it was all over. To be fair, the same woman beat me by eight minutes at Big Bear and by four at Cooper’s Rock, so the margin has been pretty stable relative to the overall finish times all season. I just wish it was shrinking a bit more quickly. I have one more race left in West Virginia before I feel morally obligated to move up to expert, but a long way to go ability-wise if I don’t want to get utterly destroyed when I do.


In the time since the race I’ve reflected a lot about all of the areas in which I need to improve before next season. I thought about how, up until this point, I’ve focused so much on riding things that I previous couldn’t, which is of course cool and useful. However, with the exception of rare courses like Valley Falls, riding bigger and harder things won’t close that much of the gap between myself and the Expert women. My real gains will come from learning to do what I already know how to, but better and more consistently. Like the “mile-long rock garden”, it’s not enough to be theoretically comfortable with something under the best circumstances; I need to be ready to see multiple lines and executed any of them…and do it fast.

This is why I thought of quote at the beginning. Enduro is an amazing combination that requires a rider to be good at everything. As I finish up this season and prepare for the next, I’m challenging myself to let go of ideas about my strengths and weaknesses as a rider. Every trail is my enemy; every trail is my friend.

***

"Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is." - Also Littlefinger

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.