A mountain bike race??!
Why on earth would I do that?
Other than just morbid curiosity, perhaps I felt compelled to kick off my 2016 season with the XTERRA Granite Bay Off Road Triathlon because I figured if my little brother can mountain bike, then probably I can too. Over the years, my younger siblings have displayed natural cycling and running athleticism and I’ve come to think of them basically as optimized versions of myself. My brother has won various mountain bike awards and based on his limited updates, I get the idea he and his bike pretty much spend all their time in Moab.
What’s so great about mountain biking? I had to know.
This isn’t my brother, but it’s someone he knows.
I started renting a demo bike from Trailhead Cyclery, attempting to teach myself how to bunny hop and shred. Next, I checked in with my resident MTB guru to find out his secrets. What skills defined an excellent mountain biker? Little brother cited his “total disregard for personal safety,” as one of his best assets.
Crap. That one is nowhere near the top of my list of personal traits. I don’t think it’s even on the list anymore. My youthful invincibility ended abruptly on the softball field one summer day ten years ago when an ill-conceived slide left me captive inside a plaster leg cast for 8 long weeks. NEVER AGAIN.
The popular refrain embedded in all mountain biking advice I received was, “When you go down – and you will go down…”
No way I could perhaps negotiate around that requirement?
I had very little familiarity with the course in Granite Bay. I read about “swoopy trails” and a variety of conditions including sand, dirt, rock, etc. It was two 8 mile loops for the bike, with less than 400′ of climbing on each, and that sounded pretty reasonable.
Honestly, I was most concerned about the swim. I had heard rumors that Folsom Lake was snow runoff, and therefore extremely cold this time of year. At just a half mile, the swim would be quick, but very unpleasant.
It turns out, I had nothing to worry about.
…At least as far as the swim was concerned.
The water temperature was just fine, almost comfortable, even. The short swim was complete in just over ten minutes, and transition was smooth, my new XTERRA wetsuit melted right off my legs like hot butter.
I headed for the BIKE START, feeling a little awkward pushing this unfamiliar thick-wheeled bike, and a volunteer hollered,
“YOU CAN RIDE IN TRANSITION!”
I hopped my front wheel up over the two curbs enclosing transition (glad I practiced that!) and set off trying to keep up with the guy just ahead of me. Odds were good that he knew what he was doing, so I planned to hang on to him as long as possible and see if I could learn a thing or two out there. That plan lasted about 45 seconds before he disappeared between the trees like a jack rabbit.
The winding trail was perilously narrow, and it wasn’t long before I could hear cyclists approaching from behind, with incredible speed. I couldn’t pull over just anywhere, but when I finally did get out of their way, they hurtled past in a blur of muscled, tattooed arms and mud-speckled jerseys.
This became a common theme as I nervously negotiated my way through increasingly difficult terrain. Every few minutes I could hear a new pack of them breathing down my neck, and I started to feel like an armadillo on the highway.
The trail led us ducking under low hanging branches, through fields punctuated with deep, muddy puddles, up rocky inclines, around squishy, sandy corners. To make matters worse, our race course coincided with an ultra-run event. As if there weren’t enough fixed obstacles in the natural environment, I had to dodge oncoming runners as well! But I felt bad for them too, nothing interrupts the peaceful rhythm of a nice 50 mile trail run like playing Chicken with several hundred panting, dirty mountain bikers.
Dirty bike. Dirty water bottle.
This is an image of the same race, 2012. Those puddles were still there in 2016! Photo from deltavelo.com
Then I had my first encounter with “Rock Gardens.” Well, the first of many. These piles of rock had no discernible pathway, and there seemed to be only two ways to successfully navigate them – either with slow, focused control and balance, or with gravity-defying speed and ferocity. Indeed, it appeared that a majority of the competitors on this course had a much different relationship with gravity than I did. There were short, steep climbs and sudden descents that at first struck me as impassable.
(This isn’t on the Granite Bay course. It’s out in Moab. Either way – No way I’m going up that on a bike!)
But this course richly rewarded those who plunged forward without doubt. It occurred to me that a background as an ATV enthusiast would have been more helpful than a background in road cycling, at least in terms of understanding the limitations (or lack thereof) in this environment.
However, there were a few sections that were so treacherous that I was not the only one who opted to travel a short distance on foot. And there was only one incident of involuntary dismount, which happened on a sloping sandy turn and provided me a nice pillowy landing. Does that count as my obligatory crash? If so, I’ll take it.
But I still had more than 11 miles left to go. After countless close calls, I felt my priorities shifting, and realized I didn’t really care how long this thing took me, I just wanted to get back in one piece.
After the first loop I no longer had top competitors bearing down on me, but the course didn’t seem to get any easier the second time around. I was making an awful lot of noise out there, and I was kept mildly entertained by my involuntary commentary and comic book sound effects, the only defense again imminent disaster. I think a few of the photographers caught me with a wide smile as if I was having fun, but I was mostly laughing at myself and sheepishly wondering if they’d heard me approaching with, “Oh, you’ve gotta be kidding me…OOOF!! AAACK! Well, OK that’s one way to get it done…”
There was indescribable relief as I reached T2, having successfully survived the 16 miles of biking. And at the cautious speed I had taken that course, I had left myself with A LOT of energy to spare. The trail run was only 4 miles and I hauled off like my feet were on fire. I averaged 9.5 mph biking those trails and then averaged 8.5 mph running the same terrain. Clearly, when off-roading, the ratio of risk incurred to speed produced dramatically favors transit on foot over two wheeled locomotion. At least for me.
My run moved me back up in the rankings about 10 slots for a 4th overall finish in the women’s field.
Not bad for my first time out.
The new question is now whether some decent mountain bike training might turn that terrifying course into a fun course, or whether it might just make the terrifying course last not as long… I’m going to let that question hang for awhile, because now I’m back on the road again. Next up: Morgan Hill Sprint in May!