The sun was beating down. The kind of sun that you long for all winter but find almost unbearable once you begin to sweat hard underneath it. My heart rate was somewhere around 190 and that was thirty seconds ago. If I had to guess now it was probably pushing 195 and showing no signs of leveling out, just like the climb in front of me. I was but four minutes into my first mountain bike race in anger in the better part of a decade.
I had already slipped off the back of the main field but made no attempt to try and go with them. I knew the distance of the race in front of me and the goal here was seeing the finish line, not the man in front. My carefully constructed plan that I had put together on the ninety minute drive home from the course following open practice the day before had been to pace myself to the conservative degree. To find myself riding at about 80 percent, and then ease off just a little. At least until the final lap.
But the reality was hitting home hard. It didn’t matter that I’d been riding 20-30 miles (and sometimes nearer 50) home from work most days, when it gets down to the nitty gritty of a race, you can never replicate it. I was trying to follow my big plan, but as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry. I had seen the big climb the day before during practice, I had warmed up pretty well, but as I rolled over the top of the first climb of my first race back on my brand spanking new mountain bike I looked behind me to see where about on the climb I had coughed up my right lung.
“What in the hell is going on here?” I asked myself, before telling myself that “you’re a dammed moron for buying that bloody bike and thinking this was ever a good idea.”
I also took a moment to curse the man who decided it was a good idea to stick the climb right at the start of the race. Of course I knew why they put the climb there — and if truth be told, for the well conditioned rider, the climb was far from savage — but suffering clouds rational judgement.
“Two more runs up that, not to mention the tough challenge that the rest of the course brings,” I told myself as I gulped at my water bottle and tried to compose myself for the single track section ahead. Like only ever seems to be the case when you’re on a bike by yourself — in particular on a single track trail in the middle of the woods — with an elevated heart rate, I could hear the thump thump thump of my heart inside my head. I knew I hadn’t gone all out, if I had I might have been lying somewhere about fifty yards short of the top of the hill, but I knew I had pushed a little harder than I knew I needed to, so I backed off a little more and decided that the man ahead would have to be beaten another day and got ready for the wave of riders from the next category that started one minute behind to sweep up on me and start looking to get past.
The thing about mountain biking that is different than racing on the road, is that there is rarely ever a point to properly recover. On the road you can file in behind a group, shelter from the wind over a long flat section, or indeed enjoy a long descent after a tough climb. On the mountain bike the flat sections are normally in the woods and so you are navigating loose rocks, slippery roots, off camber corners, drop-offs, or indeed short sharp little climbs or jumps that force you out of your saddle and to call on your upper body strength to heave the bike up and over. And if truth be told, there is no such thing as a flat section on a bike. The downhill sections are never smoothly paved . . . they’re either single tracks with more loose rocks, slippery roots and off camber corners, or it’s on a gravel path in which a crash can be spectacular if only for those watching it. If the climbs require the heart, lungs and leg muscles, then the descents and rolling single track requires the brain, upper body muscles and a different kind of heart. I’ve raced both road and mountain bikes over the years and while both are challenging and, in a perverse kind of way, fun in their own right, the mountain bike is infinitely harder. You only have to look at the cross over ability in the sport and how many more mountain bikers make a success on the road scene than the other way around. Some of that is down to the fame and riches that come with the road scene — because road races are easier to track with cameras — but many pure roadies you just know would be out of sorts in a mountain bike race.
It was after the first single track section, which involved nothing but lifting the front wheel up and over obstacles or avoiding a fall that my thighs began to really burn and I knew something wasn’t right. They weren’t hurting as they should and I was slowing drastically. The next fire road climb confirmed that something was wrong when suddenly I realised it. My saddle had worked itself loose and had drooped several inches in height and I was putting nowhere near the kind of power through the pedals as I should have.
How long had this been going on? Had that first climb, that seen everyone else ride off on me, made me suffer as much as I did because of the dam saddle problem? How on earth had I not noticed already? On any given casual ride you would notice almost immediately, but with the heart pumping, the lungs stretching and the mind working on keeping me upright, I clearly didn’t notice. I stopped, fixed it, got back on and immediately felt better. Certainly not enough that I would claim this cost me the win, heck not even enough to claim I would have been on the back wheel of the man in front, but I felt stronger.
Until I hit the opening climb again at the end of the start of the second lap.
In the end my pre-race plan came good to a degree. I suffered hard at times in the second lap, stopping for about two minutes at one point to get myself together, and it took that to remind me that I still had to pace myself and that since fixing the saddle I had probably gone on a little too hard in that first lap. By the third lap I was starting to ride into the race and — perhaps with the knowledge that the serious climbing was over — I began to ride stronger. I caught and passed a handful of people that belonged to starting categories from behind me that had caught and passed me earlier in the race and finished if not feeling I could hammer in another couple of faster laps, then that I had listened to my own advice and left enough in the tank to ride the third lap better than the second.
In the end I finished the three laps in 1 hour, 45 minutes and 52 seconds. I navigated the first lap in 32:33, the second a lot slower in 37:05 as fatigue began to set in, but proving I left enough in the tank I completed the final lap in 36:12. Had I thrown all caution to the wind the last part of that second lap, I dread to think the time I’d have put up on the third circuit. I placed 12th of 12 in my race, but as I knew all along, I was out to finish the race and enjoy the fact I was riding in a race again.
The word enjoy only came into it once I was back at my car, had washed the bike, got changed and got my heart rate back to normal. It’s incredible the bodies ability to forget self inflicted pain. If it couldn’t nobody would give birth twice and certainly nobody would ride the Tour de France a second time. Likewise, I was congratulating myself for buying this bike and looking to sign up for the next available event.
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That next event came just a few weeks later in a new event called ‘The Tour de King’ in a region just north of Toronto. It was a point to point race over 50 km with about 50 percent on single track and the other 50 on fire roads and paved roads. The race was split into two waves, the first wave was for those out to put in a serious time, the second wave was for those like me looking to race it, but enjoy it as well. In those few weeks since that first race I had spent some time riding the trails near my home and getting used to the mountain bike as opposed to the road bike once again. As a result I felt infinitely stronger than in the Championships race.
I entered myself into the unique ‘Clydesdale 200lbs Plus’ category and finished 8th of 22 in severely contrasting conditions to the first race. The temperature was about 4 degrees Celsius and halfway through the skies opened and it began to pour down. The single track was slippery and challenging in parts, but fast and smooth in others. Those who entered the event on a cross bike however struggled badly.
The event organizers had put on a wonderful barbecue at the finish line with a live band and cold beer, though the weather meant that most of us whose cars were parked back at the start, sat shivering and freezing while munching through the grub. It didn’t stop me, among many, from drinking that cold beer though. Eventually school buses shuttled everyone back to the start to get cars and return to the finish to wash down the bike and head home again.
Still it was a fantastic event, the first point-to-point race I had done and one I’ll enter again next year, though I hope that that the temperatures are more favourable.
* * * * *
The funny thing is, this winter in southern Ontario has been one of the mildest in recent memory. There has been some days in the high negative temperatures, but for the most part the snow has stayed away and a number of days have seen positive temperatures with just yesterday topping out at 12 degrees C at 9.30 p.m. The Tour de King in early October took part in one of the more miserable days of the fall/winter, which in this part of the world given the typical December/January temperatures, is just bizarre.
As a result I was able to get out on the trails a long way into the winter and enjoy that new bike. The Tour de King, however, marked the end of the competitive events until next April, but now that I’ve got the racing bug again, despite what my body might tell me halfway up a tough climb, I cannot wait to race again in 2012.