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.