Monday, June 25, 2018

Cooper's Rock Benduro: Don't Confuse Drama With Happiness

“Live your life how you want, but don't confuse drama with happiness.” – Ron Swanson, Parks & Rec

Despite my best efforts to bring extreme meditation to my enduro competitions, halfway through Stage 2 of the Cooper’s Rock Benduro yesterday, the quote above popped into my head. Although I should have been fully focused on keeping up the pedal, pedal, pedal; pump, pump, pump pattern of the stage with maximum intensity, the lack of white knuckle descending allowed my mind to wander back to before the start of Stage 1.

I rolled up just in time to catch Frank about to boost the sketchy jump.

I had taken my sweet time getting to the first stage, knowing there would be a long wait, and I had paused to watch other riders enter the woods before riding on and joining the line at the start. Right before entering the singletrack on the first stage, there was a small ditch where a sketchy little clay lip had been built to allow racers to jump the ditch before entering the woods, or at least try to. A guy had crashed, prompting the entire back half of the line to come watch junior boys attempt to jump the ditch with varying levels of success. One of the women from my class, who was also the mom of one of the junior boys attempting to jump the ditch, walked up to me and said, “Are we jumping it?” I laughed and said, “I don’t think we (motioning between us) are jumping it. Or at least I’m not jumping it.” As I recalled the conversation during racing Stage 2, and I wished that I had come up with Ron Swanson’s quote as my witty reply.

Cooper’s Rock is the most low-drama stop in the West Virginia Enduro Series. The majority of its four stages is made up of straight shots through loose chunk, most of which is not very steep. It was my second race last season, and I remember saying, “There’s nothing scary in this race, except everything in it.” The sketchy ditch jump is the closest thing to a mandatory feature, and that was new this year. Otherwise, there are just many wet rocks and roots that can jump out and mess up your day, but no single thing to worry about.

What surprised me about returning to this race was that it was actually even more pedally than I remembered, but not in the painful, gasping for air way that the pedally parts of Valley Falls are pedally. Yes, there is one really, really painful uphill a couple of minutes into Stage 1 (you know, right after you’ve stood in line for an hour and your legs are dead?), but the rest is a weird sort of pedally that I don’t think I really understood last year. Basically, the course is not very fast or technical, so you have to be extra diligent about being super smooth and sneaking pedal strokes in where you can without banging your pedals on stuff. You have to fight for every bit of speed you get, and you have to fight to keep it. Every time you want to feather the brakes, you really have to consider if it’s worth it.

I guess what I mean is, despite my inability to stay focused for the length of Stage 2, I have a greater appreciation for this race than I did before. I’ve been making lot of improvement lately in the area where I was weakest last season, which is the speed at which I feel safe and confident and my ability to roll through more rough sections without braking, or at least braking less. In some ways I’ve been sacrificing fitness to achieve this, since almost all of my riding is climbing easy and going downhill fast, and both my threshold and anaerobic power are more or less in the toilet right now. I thought that a non-technical, pedally race such at Cooper’s Rock would not be in my favor right at this stage of my progression, but it worked out okay.

I rode pretty decently on all of the stages, and I think my newfound “stability at speed” still helped even though there weren't that many brake-burning sections. A couple of the faster series regulars weren’t there this weekend, and another woman got a double flat within the first minute of the first stage. She was unable to get everything fixed in time to finish the race, so I came out fourth, and got my first WV wide-angle podium/prize money. I was still 2.5 minutes behind third, but it was my best margin to do date.

So despite the undramatic race course this weekend, I’m still pretty happy with how it turned out. If you’re wondering, I pumped through the ditch and went along my merry, uncool way. With my next race being nationals at Snowshoe, I’m sure I’ll have all the drama that I can handle next time around.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Rothrock TrailMix


I’ll admit that I started writing my race report for the Rothrock TrailMix in my head several days ago. It was what I hoped to be a loving tribute to the trails that made me the #femdurobro that I am today with the knowledge that this race very well could be my first and last opportunity to compete on them. The problem with knowing trails so well is that I know exactly how fast I am on them in the best of conditions, and Strava and old race results make it very clear that that is not fast enough to keep up with the women that would likely be competing. So all I really hoped for was to ride the best I could on these trails that are so close to my heart, and maybe get a slightly entertaining post out of it by returning to my roots with parodied Taylor Swift lyrics for each stage. Because these trails are like my boyfriends that keep getting stolen…

'Cause here we are again, when I loved you so
Back before I lost the first downhill QOM I ever owned
It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well

The problem with writing blog posts about future events is that my ability to predict the future isn’t actually that great. I never imagined that this morning would begin with Gloria rolling up to me in the pouring rain, riding her XC bike and saying, “Well, I guess it’s just the two of us.” At that point I realized that anything could happen.

For all of my mud-racing experience in West Virginia, the thought of rain on race day really scared me. Because trying to ride fast after it has rained in Rothrock is the worst. Except that “the worst” is when an unfortunately common surprise storm rolls in at 5:15 and lays a nice slick film on the normally grippy rocks. That’s when we usually slow roll it, because nobody’s setting any PRs in those conditions and it’s not worth getting hurt over.

However, today’s rain was not that rain. Today’s rain was hard and steady from during the night through most of the race. I normally don’t even think of Rothrock as having enough dirt to make mud, but with this much rain and about 100 more riders on the trail that normal, things went full West Virginia fast. And full West Virginia I can handle. Full West Virginia is what I know.

I preceded through Stage 1 and 2 pretty well for the conditions. I made a couple of mistakes on Stage 1, which was Bald Knob Death Drop, but nothing too horrible. When I popped out on the road after Stage 2, someone told me that Gloria wanted me to know that she’d dropped out and to ride safe. “Does that mean I win?!!” I blurted out. Then I felt like a jerk, but I figured if something very bad had happened to her, they would have lead with that. I confirmed with her after that she’d had a scary, but not that serious crash in Stage 1 and just didn’t want to push her luck after that. Her message was intended to let me know not to push mine too much either when all I had to do at that point was finish.

So I rode out the rest of the race with the intention of trying hard, but not hurting myself. I think I did alright at it. My times were really slow, but that’s not surprising in those conditions. I still felt like I was riding pretty well most of the time.

In the end, I got the thing that I wanted so badly but never expected I would get: to actually win a race on my home trails. Of course, I still hope that the DNCR changes their mind about not allowing Wildcat and New Laurel in races in the future, and that next year I can come back and compete in better conditions and on a more level playing field. I’ll hold off on writing that blog post for now, though, and concentrate what’s next, the WVES at Cooper’s Rock in a couple of weeks. I’ll let you know how that turns out after it happens.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

My Skills Aren't Instagram-Able

My teammate Sam has been breaking the Internet (okay, maybe just our team Instagram and Slack channel) the past few months with a steady stream of increasingly impressive footage of her mountain bike feats. She’s always been better at jumps and drops than me, and while she was derailed for most of last summer with a dislocated thumb, she’s back with a new downhill bike and better than ever.

I think that everyone is experiencing some HSE right now, and where each of us fall on the spectrum of “the heady mix of disbelief, admiration, and envy” depends on how close we are to being able to replicate her achievements. When I imagine myself watching her in my XC days, I would fallen into the disbelief category, thinking, “Okay, apparently that’s a thing people do when they have downhill bikes and body armor?” While last week when she hit the “Patio Drop” at Mountain Creek, which is something that’s roughly on my two-year plan, it was more 40/60 envy and admiration. While she definitely has a high ratio of talent over forks given, as evidenced by her landing the largest progressive drop at Blue Mountain on a rented downhill bike her first time there, she’s continued to give a steady stream of the right kind of forks over the last couple of years to be good at what she does. And what she does looks good on camera.

I, on the other hand, discussed in detail my fear of drops just a couple of weeks ago, and this spring was the first time I actually tried to jump instead of just rolling all the tabletops. In the fall I was doing a lot skills drills in the local park and posting videos to try and show my progression, but I quit after that invited more man-(and woman)splaining than I wanted to deal with. Despite all that, I am lot faster this season on a wide variety of trails. While some people love the “flying” feeling of jumps and drops, I’m just not there yet. My buzz comes from whizzing down trails like Old Laurel, where I used to get hung up carefully choosing my lines, and now, at least on a good day, I’m starting see many moves into the future, pushing over large rocks at speed when I would have braked to avoid them before, and working the contours of the trail to gain my momentum back when I do have to brake. I’ve still got a long minute and 35 seconds to shave off if I want to break Meg Bichard’s 3:06 QOM on Old Laurel, but her time doesn’t seem as insane as it used to. I now know that there’s path to get there besides to let the brakes go and pray. Each Wednesday night, the circuits get burned in a little better and fire a little faster, but sadly this doesn’t show up on video. My skills aren’t Instagram-able, and most days I’m okay with that.

I had a good day at Blue Mountain this weekend where I got to improve my skills of both the photogenic and non-photogenic kind. Gloria and a bunch of Emmaus-area people were down in Rothrock Saturday to pre-ride the TrailMix course, so I mentioned we would be going to Blue the next day. We ended up with a six-person enduro crew at the park, and then we picked up another guy who’d never been there before and thought we looked like his sort of folk. Sam and Michaela were there with their downhill bikes, as well as Sam’s husband Kyle and their friend Carl. So we had a lot of people to ride with, which was super fun.

I’d gone to Blue with the objective doing some remedial drop practice since I regressed so much in the off-season. Despite not being that fun or exciting by many standards, the Happy Yummy Fun trail is the best trail out of any park that we’ve visited so far if you want to gain confidence at doing drops. The middle one is the perfect little baby booter, which is only about a foot from lip to base, has a nice straight run in and out, and the ground slopes away just enough that you can get air with a little bit of speed, but a last-minute brake check won’t send you over the bars.  I probably could have spent my first hour there sessioning that trail, but I didn’t want bore everyone else with a million Happy Yummy laps.

I managed to sneak in a couple of passes on Happy Yummy Fun as we worked our way through most of the trails of the park. I was pretty happy to have ridden Night Train, the hella chunky enduro-specific trail at the outer edge of the park, cleanly for the first time. I also joined Sam and Michaela for a couple of laps of the downhill race course, which they will be competing on in a couple of weeks. I rode this run cleanly without stopping on the closing day of last year, but my hands were basically useless claws afterwards. This year we rode a slow, scouting run and then a full-ish speed run back-to-back. I wasn’t as fast as the rest of the group on my enduro bike, but I still felt very smooth and went a minute and a half faster than last year. However, the best part was at the end when they were all complaining about their legs cramping while my legs and back felt fine. I guess the combination practice and good form are starting to pay off, and it’s definitely easier to go faster when I’m not thinking about my burning quads.

People started leaving throughout the day, and we got separated from the rest of the Laser Cats, so the end of the day boiled down to a fun run with just me, Frank, Gloria, and Damien. It turned into the Happy Yummy Fun session that I’d been wanting, where Damien and I rode the easy middle drop a bunch, Frank and Gloria took a bunch of pictures, and we eventually got confident enough to link the second and third drops together. The one downside of the trail is that the biggest drop is at the beginning and it’s a lot harder to push back up to and start over, so we didn’t get that one. The third one was still a pretty good step for me, and some clever photography made it look cooler than it was. Or maybe it made the picture match the size of the personal accomplishment?

Admittedly, pictures are one of the more fun and easy-to-share ways to mark your improvement as a mountain biker, but there’s so much to it that a camera can’t capture. Sometimes it is something that even a GPS or race results can’t capture, like legs that don’t hurt after a downhill run, and those should be celebrated, too.