Nov 132014
Iceman Finish Line

Posing after the pre-ride with Ben. I had no idea what it would take to reach that sign the next day.

When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome that “suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance character,” he didn’t have mountain bikers in mind, but the description is appropriate nonetheless. Over the past couple years, I’ve witnessed and been a part of some of the most miserable suffering you can voluntarily inflict on yourself on two wheels, and also have found myself among some of the greater characters (in all senses of the word) I’ve ever met. Riding in the endless slog of the Death March, the unceasing climbs of Big Frog, the merciless winds at Calvin’s Challenge and the mosquito-infested forests of Lumberjack has made misery a familiar acquaintance. So familiar, in fact, that I expect it without dread. I’ve been near enough to my personal breaking point enough times now that I have learned how to keep myself there and endure, and still succeed.

Perhaps naively, I didn’t expect The Iceman Cometh Challenge to elbow its way right to the top of that list. On paper, it lacked the components that have brought me to my knees before. Neither the distance, nor the elevation, nor the technical nature of the terrain were of significant concern to me. The only wildcard was the weather, and even then, I wasn’t overly concerned. Michigan trails are famous for their ability to handle precipitation, and I have a decent enough assortment of cold weather riding gear to negate potentially frigid conditions.

But in its 25th year, The Iceman had something special up his sleeve.

In a break with longstanding tradition, I arrived in Traverse City on time, with everything I needed, and well fed and rested, the day before the race. I met up with my (fire-breathing) brother-in-law Ben, an Iceman veteran and podium finisher, to pre-ride the last portion of the course before heading to the Expo. On our chilly pre-ride, I didn’t see anything surprising. The trails were sandy but firm, with good grip and easy lines. The climbs looked punchy but approachable, and the bike was working perfectly.

I again had the good fortune to race on the Airborne Bicycles Goblin Evo, the same machine I tested and raced earlier this year. The boys at Airborne and I agreed that it should be the perfect bike for this kind of race, but we didn’t know just how right we would end up being. The Evo isn’t billed as a race machine. The long-travel fork and 2.4 inch Maxxis Ardent tires place the bike closer to the Trail category, but my experience riding the thing has convinced me of its potential as a race rig. The most important thing a race bike must have is proper geometry, because almost everything else can be adjusted or changed. And the geometry on the Evo is spot on for an XC race bike: short chainstays for good climbing and lively handling, head angle relaxed enough to be stable on descents and through corners, and rock solid stiffness.

Goblin Evo at the hotel

What, you mean you don’t sleep with your bike next to you? You leave it on the car? But it’ll get lonely!

A more experienced rider may have taken the weather forecast as a warning, but I was nonplussed. I’ve been in crappy conditions before. I had the right bike and the right gear, and that’s all I could worry about. When big, heavy snowflakes appeared outside my hotel window as I got ready for bed on Friday night, I only grinned and thought yup, this is gonna suck. Then I shrugged and went to bed.

Race morning was far too busy with administrative details for me to contemplate what I was about to endure. It probably took me 20 minutes just to apply all the appropriate layers of clothing necessary to keep me warm(ish) and dry (yeah right) during the race. The Iceman Cometh Challenge is a point-to-point race from Kalkaska to Traverse City, which means leaving your car in one location, having a bag of clothes at the other, and arranging transportation (via the provided shuttle service) for you, the bike, and your bag. I parked in Kalkaska (which I won’t next year), threw some lube on the chain, and wandered over to the start line, to cheer on Ben as he stormed the course with the first wave.

My wave (18) didn’t start for another 50 minutes, so I had plenty of time to get back to my car, put on the last few bits of cold weather gear I would need, throw my bag on a Penske truck bound for Traverse City, and wander back to the start line. It had snowed and rained all night and all morning, and was still only 36°F and raining when I squeezed in under the staging tent, but my optimism and excitement for the event remained undamped.

I was so optimistic, in fact, that I slotted into the second row of my wave, the better to get a clear start. I had this vision in my head of hitting the dirt and picking off the riders ahead of me, then having clear trail to chase down the previous waves.


When the start was sounded for our wave, I took off with the lead group, spinning up to a respectable pace and staying with the leaders. But when they continued to accelerate through 18 mph, I let them go. Iceman is many things, but it’s not a sprint race, at least at my level. I backed off as my legs started to complain about the sudden punishment, and reasoned that I’d see many of them again after we left the pavement.

Only when we left the pavement, things got ugly, and fast. The first gravel road was completely saturated with water, and the spray and silt made it hard to see, let alone pass anybody. By the time we hit the opening section of two-track, my brakes were already grinding, which they would continue to do for most of the rest of the race. I started to pick riders off by ones and twos, but it was impossible to get into any kind of rhythm. So I settled in, reminded myself that there was a lot of race left, and took my passes where I could.

I was surprised that most of my passing opportunities were coming on the more difficult sections. Contrary to previous experience, I was passing people on the climbs, in technical sections, and when the sand and mud got rutted and deep. Some of that was down to my equipment; it was far easier for me to find traction off the racing line than for some of my competitors, shod as they were with small-tread racing tires. But the rest of it was down to my fitness and bike handling, and my exuberance at being part of the largest mountain bike race in the United States.

The drive to the race start. Not confidence inspiring.

I was still getting held up a lot, and the gaps I thought would develop never materialized. The tops and bottoms of every climb were soon marked by clumps of dismounted riders, hunched over their machines as they attempted to address some mechanical malfunction. I continued to pass where I could, but some stretches of singletrack allowed few opportunities. The tread in many areas had been pulverized into a tarry consistency that felt like riding through peanut butter.

Somewhere around mile 10, we hit the logging road that would become symbolic of the whole race. To call it a road is a generous overstatement. By the time I reached it, and 1700 or so other riders had squished, slogged and slid their way through it, the road had been reduced to a longish stretch of deep mud and standing water. I was determined to stay on my bike, even as others unclipped and dragged theirs into the woods to walk the whole section. I shifted to the easiest gear and ground along, yelling ahead of me for dismounted riders to get clear, so they wouldn’t break my momentum. I picked my lines as best I could, using the experience of Coombs Road at the Death March as a guide, and kept my legs moving. After a final splash through a 10-foot-long puddle, I was out of the mud and bearing right back onto a proper trail! I must’ve passed a hundred riders on that stretch alone.

But it wasn’t long after this that I started suffering the consequences of making so many of my passes in the most difficult sections. The course became punctuated by short, steep climbs, a few of which forced me off the bike as I asked my legs for power they didn’t have, and my rear tire slipped as I tried to stand for more torque. I had been so busy during the first hour or so that I was far behind schedule with my nutrition, and my energy was flagging.

This was when the suffering started, for me. I pulled the throttle back a little and tried to get some more consistent swigs from my bottle, even though the nozzle was filled with mud and debris. I was getting passed with depressing frequency now, and my rear derailleur had begun having trouble shifting down the cassette. I cursed myself for not finding more time to train in the previous month, for not getting out on more simulation rides, and for not losing those five pounds I’ve wanted to lose all year. For the first time in the race, my hands started to get cold, and I noticed just how wet and dirty I was.

Mentally, I was no longer in a race, but in a grinding trudge to the finish; the survival mode I’ve employed on so many other occasions. Ordinarily, for a first attempt at an event, this wouldn’t have been a big deal. But I had anticipated being able to legitimately race this one, given my season’s experience and fitness level. A combination of the atrocious conditions and a few strategic errors had put me firmly back in my place, and now all I could do was keep my legs moving, and hope they came back at some point.

36 and raining. Awesome.

One unique element of Iceman Cometh is the spectators. Atrocious conditions or no, they were out in force at all accessible points on the course, and some points that required quite a hike to reach. They were at every intersection, at the top of every hill, and along every road crossing, ringing cowbells and cheering their frozen faces off. The spectators alone are worth the price of admission to Iceman, even if that price includes, as it did for most riders this year, a slew of worn out or broken bike components.

It was after one particularly vociferous stretch of spectators, stationed at the midway point of Broomhead Road, that I decided it was time to try and get myself together. The gravel road past the spectators was flat, but despite their cheers, I couldn’t manage to pick up any speed. I looked down and saw that I was barely doing 10 mph, where I should have been doing 15. That just wouldn’t do. As the course returned to singletrack trail again, I pulled off to the side, to stretch my legs and take in more nutrition. I was surprised to find my first bottle still about half full, and I hadn’t even touched my second bottle yet. No wonder I was running out of gas! I forced myself to stand there and finish my first bottle, even as dozens of riders came past me. I’m sure that some of them were riders I had triumphantly passed just five miles ago, when my legs still felt good, and I was powering through the mud of the logging road. But no matter, this was what I had to do to recover.

It took another few miles, but I did recover a little. I didn’t get all of my power back, but I was at least able to accelerate again, and grind up some hills. I started passing people here and there, and that felt good enough to convince me I was back in the race, even if I was a half hour behind where I’d hoped to be. I was having fun again, if one can call being soaking wet in mid-30s temperatures, covered in mud and sand, and riding a bike that’s barely working, fun.

It didn’t like it, but it got me there. The Airborne Bicycles Goblin Evo held its own in the worst conditions Iceman has ever thrown at his riders.

I had started the race with a 2×10 drivetrain, but as the mud and sand packed its way into every nook and crevice of rider and machine alike, my selection of gears became somewhat fewer. By the midway point  it was reduced to a 2×7, although with my lack of pace, losing the top three gears wasn’t a huge penalty. Then I had only a 2×5, and then a 2×2-and-sometimes-five-if-I-hit-a-bump-just-right. Front derailleurs may not be in vogue in the mountain bike community, but having one saved my bacon in this race, as it doubled my swiftly dwindling list of options.

We were finally reaching parts of the course I recognized from my map study, including Anita’s hill, and 11% grade punch in the face around mile 25. I trudged up that hill on foot, pushing my bike with legs on the verge of spasm, while I cheered for the handful of spunky riders who managed to climb the whole thing in the saddle. There were spectators at the top of this hill too, perhaps warmed by a bottle or three, cheering wildly for those bold enough to climb. At the top, many riders paused to catch their breath, even if they walked it, but I threw a leg over and started down the descent, knowing I was close enough now to start taking chances against my fatigue.

At last we crossed a road I recognized from our pre-ride, and I called up whatever reserves I had left. I knew there were two little hills left, and that I could climb both of them. I started passing people again, trading places with a girl in a white and yellow jersey as we weaved and dodged around riders who were only a bit more spent than we were. The final 3 miles were a microcosm of the race in full, with rutted sand, deep mud, and slick, tight singletrack, interspersed with the occasional punchy climb. But now I knew where I was, and what to expect, and I put forth everything I had.

I’m honestly surprised anything on this bike worked at all, by the end.

The finish area at Iceman Cometh is something truly special. You can hear the music and the party from a long way off, and it has a way of motivating you to push harder than you thought you could. The course brings you just close enough to see the finish, to smell the food trucks and make out what the announcers are saying, before heading you off back into the woods for another half mile. For many of the riders around me, this was the last straw, and they were demoralized. But thanks to my pre-ride, I knew it was coming, and was able to keep the hammer down! I was passing people in clumps now, carving up the inside of them at every available opportunity. I passed six of them in one corner, as they all swung wide, searching for traction. I put every ounce of energy I had left into my screaming legs, fighting to keep the pedals turning and my momentum up, until at last I dove under the bridge, swerved  to the left, and crossed the finish line!

The area just past the finish line was awash in shattered riders, broken bikes, photographers, fans and family members. I pedaled on slowly until I was through the throng, finally unclipping gingerly and sitting on my top tube to let my legs come back from the brink of catastrophic spasm. After a few failed attempts to rally up with my brother in law (who was very happy to hear I was alive), I decided the best thing to do was get showered and changed, and warm up. The steam and hot water of the on-site shower trailers were a godsend, even if the wait to use one was a half hour long.

In the final tally, I finished 51st in my age group, and 2078th overall. I had a target of cracking the top 50 in my age group, so I’m relatively satisfied with that result. I learned a lot this year, and hopefully will have solutions to some of my mistakes for next year. In truth, I have to be satisfied with finishing at all. Of the over 5200 entrants, only 3500 or so managed to complete the race. Everyone I spoke to who had raced Iceman previously, even those with decades of experience, said these were the worst conditions they had ever seen. So despite not riding as strong as I had envisioned, I rode as well as I could have hoped. And I’ll be back.

Aug 202014

IMG_20140625_194802_901In my endurance racing this year, I’ve had plenty of time to contemplate the importance of having the right tool for the job. Most of those races have taken me over a wide variety of terrain, and often, my current bike isn’t well suited to the task at hand. Being an older, full-suspension, 26″ bike, it’s heavy and a little bouncy. (Not unlike us as we get older, eh?)

But there are places where that bike shines. Bombing downhills, for instance. When I hit a section like the descent from Hesitation Point at Brown County State Park, the bike seems to come alive, carving through the terrain with a surefooted ease that belies its difficulty in making it up the other side of the hill. For those few moments, when the bike is in its element, I experience that sense of chaotic bliss that every mountain biker seeks.

So when Airborne Bicycles asked me to take their new Goblin Evo out for a spin, I wondered what I might find as its natural element. Airborne bills their new hardtail 29er as a “trail” bike, rather than its Cross Country predecessor, the Goblin. I’ve ridden the old Goblin on a few occasions, and found it a competent bike, but the only thing that really knocked my socks off was the price point. And to be fair, the price point ($1199? Are you serious?!) is pretty amazing.

The boys at Airborne seemed all excited about this Goblin Evo, though. I wasn’t sure why. Visually, they’re not much different. The fork is raked out a little (69 degrees to the Goblin’s 71) and has more travel (120mm), the chain stays are a little shorter (by 15 mm), it’s fitted with chunkier, 2.4″ Maxxis Ardent tires, and it’s got a spiffy new paint job. How much better could it be, and what was getting Airborne’s crew all hot and bothered?

Goblin Evo, HobGoblin, and SUPER SECRET PROTOTYPE (Goblin)

Goblin Evo, HobGoblin, and SUPER SECRET PROTOTYPE (Goblin)

My first ride on the Evo seemed to confirm my initial skepticism. I raced it at our local IMBA chapter’s Wednesday night series, and by the end of my nine miles, felt like I had gotten the crap kicked out of me. I expected a transition in harshness from a full-squish to a hardtail, but I was getting bounced all over! After I got home from the race, I checked the pressure in the fork, and found out it was a little high. By like 40 pounds. Duh, that’ll do it! I dropped the tire pressures to 30 psi front and rear while I was at it, and tweaked the seat and lever positions to my liking. Things I should’ve done in the first place!

The next chance I had to ride the Goblin Evo, a few of us headed out to Versailles State Park in Indiana, to sample some of the best singletrack the Midwest has to offer. Immediately upon entering the woods and motoring up a winding, undulating climb, I started grinning. Hello, hardtail efficiency! Then the trail turned slightly downhill and I began to really get into a flow, learning how the bike likes to be handled and where I needed to change my style. My grin became a smile as I pushed deeper into corners, throwing the front end around with abandon, and rocketing out with the sort of acceleration that’s supposed to be impossible on an aluminum 29er. This thing likes to play!

Few things are sexier than a downtube spattered with mud.

Few things are sexier than a downtube spattered with mud.

Steering the Goblin Evo is a little different than on a thoroughbred XC machine, but that’s not to say it’s heavy. The slackened front geometry means that you throw the bike into the corners with your shoulders, using plenty of body english to get it to turn in. Then those Ardents dig in and you can rail as hard as you like. It’s not as quick or twitchy as a cross country bike, but the reward is supreme confidence mid-corner, whatever the conditions. Make no mistake: this bike is no slower than its XC brethren, “trail” designation notwithstanding.

It's an Airborne party!

It’s an Airborne party!

The shorter chainstays transform the bike into something truly playful. The front end lifts easily, making the bike seem to leap over rocks, logs and technical terrain.

Let me rephrase that: this bike wants to jump everything.

It’s a bike that begs to be raged on. It requires very little finesse, preferring instead to be manhandled, stomped on, and tossed around. The payback for all that abuse is that it takes everything you throw at it, and then begs you to do it faster. On descents and over technical terrain, the Goblin Evo earns the trail epithet handily, punching through creek crossings and over obstacles with enough ease to make you wonder why they put rear suspension on bikes in the first place.

Component performance was, for the most part, just as inspiring as the bike’s handling. The X7 shifters and X9 rear derailleur performed flawlessly, handling shifts under power with the notchy easy you’d expect from SRAM. I had a little trouble with the chain coming off the big ring up front, likely due to an out-of-adjustment front D, but frankly we were having too much fun to stop and do anything about it.

The Goblin Evo isn’t the lightest thing in the world, owing in no small part to the Sun Ringle Charger hoops fitted with harmongous tires. The wheels are like boat achors; heavy, but indestructable. I’d probably keep the big rubber, but go with lighter rims and a tubeless variety of the Ardent, if I got one to race.

A big surprise came from the Hayes Prime Comp brakes, which performed flawlessly all day. I found them to have more than adequate power and superb feel, performing at least as well as similar offerings from SRAM/Avid. And the RockShox Revelation fork lived up to its name (once set with the proper pressure), tracking smoothly over bumps and soaking up hits without getting out of shape in the least.

As I look toward next year’s races, I think most often of what bike might be the right tool for the widely-varying job of ultra endurance mountain bike racing. That answer will be a little different for everybody. I’m not 100% sure that I could give up the comfort and forgiving nature of a full-suspension bike for the distances I like to cover, but the Goblin Evo makes a strong argument. It does so many things so well, with so few weak points, that it might just be the answer. And at a mere $1599,  I could buy it and still have plenty left over to patch up those weak points, and register for races!

The Goblin Evo in its natural habitat.

The Goblin Evo in its natural habitat.

Jun 232014

“Go fast and take chances!” – Garry Blair

“Be swift, be safe.” – Tom Groszko

“Just remember, when you’re thinking you can’t go on, that’s it’s gorgeous and you’re one of not too many who get to be out there all day. SMILE, let that mud get in your teeth!” – Katie Oswald


I found this while I was getting ready to leave on Friday. Omen? Coincidence?

I found this while I was getting ready to leave on Friday. Omen? Coincidence?

These were the pieces of advice that I carried with me into the biggest race of my life so far, the Lumberjack 100. Lumberjack is a mountain bike century race, composed of three laps of a loop in the picturesque Manistee National Forest. It is the third of thirteen rounds of the National Ultra Endurance Series, which consists of 100-mile races from New Hampshire to Utah, on some of the country’s best trail systems.

For me, Lumberjack represents much more than just a race. It is the culmination of over four years of racing, training, scheming, testing and dreaming. It has been the distant prize that has pulled me forward and upward, through crashes and injuries, through suffering and pain. It has motivated me to lift heavier, train longer, eat better and work harder than I ever would have, otherwise.

I am a big proponent of setting goals. I’ve set, met and surpassed dozens of them in the last few years, but Lumberjack was THE GOAL. It’s been on my mind since Tom mentioned it to me years ago, when I was just rediscovering mountain biking as an adult. Indeed, it was Tom who got me working on long endurance in the first place, talking me into my first Death March, partnering with me and Jason for my first 6 hour race at John Bryan State Park, and even standing by the roadside, cheering like a madman, for my first half marathon.

Time to go do the thing!

Time to go do the thing!

Mountains always appear larger as you approach them, and so it seemed with this goal. Although I had been diligently preparing for Lumberjack in every way I knew how, the last several days before the event were tense. I was concerned about the trail conditions, about my bike being too heavy, about my new endurance setup which included two bottles and no pack. I worried that missing Barry Roubaix, and my rough day at Big Frog, which were intended to be ramp-up races for Lumberjack, had left me inadequately trained, physically and mentally.

But there was nothing for it but to do the thing, and so I fell into my pre-event routine. I studied the trail maps and elevation profiles. I made a checklist of everything I needed to take with me. I scoured the internet for race reports of previous Lumberjacks, trying to glean intelligence from them that might prove useful on race day, or at least prepare me for what I was about to face. I have found that thorough preparation has a calming effect on my pre-race jitters, but I still only had a one-word answer when the lady at registration on Friday afternoon asked how I was:


She laughed, and tried to reassure me. She pointed over my shoulder at a girl she said had finished every Lumberjack to date, and she’d tell me I was going to do fine. The girl she pointed at was Danielle Musto, who I’d soon find out was The Queen of Lumberjack, having not only raced every edition of the event, but won more than a few. Danielle did reassure me, at registration and at breakfast the next morning, patiently answering my questions and promising that, despite a solid week of rain, the trails would be in fine shape.

I had to take her word for it. It was still raining on and off when I picked up my packet, and racers coming back in from their pre-rides were looking soggy and caked with sand. My bike is not a big fan of getting wet, and I’m not a big fan of having to service the entire drivetrain and rear suspension the night before a race, so I opted to skip the pre-ride and just get to the hotel. And anyway, the mosquitoes (official state bird of Michigan) were attacking in formation!


The rain finally relented overnight, and we were greeted by a cool, humid morning, with a stubborn gray sky that hung just over the treetops. I set out my “pit” with Brad and Simona, friends of friends that I had met at Big Frog. My “pit” consisted of one cooler full of pre-mixed bottles of Infinit and one bag of miscellaneous tools and supplies. If all went well, I’d only need the bottles, and maybe some chain lube. If it didn’t, I’d be headed back to the car for my work stand, or worse, my first aid kit.

I tend to stay pretty relaxed before the start of a race, joking with the other athletes and staying loose. But this time my smiles were a little forced, my laughs cut a little short. I finished my final checks on the bike, setting tire pressures, fixing an already-ripped eyelet on my race number and applying another liberal coat of bug spray, while the race director made a few announcements through the megaphone that I couldn’t hear. I didn’t bother with an extensive warm-up routine, figuring the opening two miles of road leading into the singletrack would suffice.

Soon the mob of riders was streaming out toward the start line, and I found my way out with them, settling into a place in the back third of the gaggle waiting at the line, in the gap that appeared between those who obviously wanted to go hard, and those who merely wanted to survive. My own ambitions fell squarely between those two, and so the gap was convenient. There were more instructions, inaudible through the pack of riders and the thick humidity, and then a siren sounded, and we were off! Hundreds of cleats clicked into pedals, and knobby tires hummed against pavement as we spun easily toward the trailhead.



The swift flow of riders down the road became a logjam as we entered the singletrack, but there was little complaining. Everyone knew it was going to be a long day, and so we just got to the business of pedaling, flowing through the trail in single file. Danielle’s assurances about the trail conditions were correct, and I smiled as I found the sandy soil as grippy as the trails were rhythmic. Soon we encountered a couple gentle climbs, and the pack began to spread out. I made a few passes where I could, in an effort to maintain a level of exertion that both preserved my momentum and would be sustainable throughout the day.

One of the concerns I had going into the race was my hydration and nutrition setup. I had decided to give Infinit, a custom-blended, all-inclusive drink mix, a try. The recommended consumption rate is 1 bottle per hour, which necessitated that I run with two bottles. But the frame and suspension design of my bike means that one bottle is slung under the down tube, rather than vertically on the seat tube, which is less than desirable due to the risk of the bottom bottle being shaken loose. I tested the new setup on two short rides the week prior, and had no problems with my Lezyne cages holding full bottles securely.

Those bottles were my lifeline. They contained all of the hydration and nutrition I was going to need to make it through the day. The plan was to start each lap with 2 bottles, refill both of them at the aid station at mile 17, and then swap them for the premixed bottles from my cooler at the end of each lap.  I’ve struggled with dehydration and inadequate nutrition in the past, leading to muscle spasms and cramps that can make for a very miserable day.

So imagine my horror when, looking down after a series of roller-coaster hills only eight miles into the race, I looked down and saw nothing in my bottom cage! I cursed and pulled off the trail, next to a guy who was fiddling with a broken derailleur hanger. I reasoned that I couldn’t have dropped it too far back, as I had been checking on it with regularity. And I needed that bottle, and the nutrition it contained! In a panic, I made a rookie mistake, a crucial error that I’d regret for the next several hours.

I wheeled around, and headed back up the trail, looking for my lost bottle.

It was a stupid thing to do; a fool’s errand. Part of me knew that even as I was doing it. I was in a hilly portion of the course, and backtracking meant I’d have to climb those hills over again. I couldn’t even ride back, since the hundred or so riders behind me were still coming on, meaning I had to haltingly hike beside the trail, stopping to let groups of riders past. I was sure I could locate my bottle, since it was white and red against the brown and green forest floor, but as I pressed on over yet another hill, it was nowhere to be found. I walked a half mile in the wrong direction, getting passed by just about everybody, before giving up hope (or coming to my senses, more likely) and turning to rejoin the race.

Now I had compounded my problems. I had used up extra time and energy looking for a bottle I couldn’t find. I had lost touch with a pack of riders who were maintaining a pace I felt I could hold, which can be crucial to get through a race of this duration. I would have to complete my opening lap on half of the water and food I had planned, and now, I thought, I needed to go harder still to catch back up to where I should be in the race.

The errors were piling on. Having relegated myself to the back of the field with my poor decision making, I found myself in a prime position to make things worse: I was angry, I was on my bike, I had open trail ahead of me, and riders I knew I could catch and pass. The red mist descended. I dropped the hammer.

The next fifteen miles contained some of the best riding I’ve ever done. I was going fast and taking chances! Back through the roller coasters I sailed, bombing the descents and standing in the pedals to carry my momentum to the top of each rise. I caught and passed riders quickly, some of them surprised to see the rider they had only just passed going the other way. They had probably written me off as a mechanical DNF, only to have me calling “on your left!” as I slipped past them again. I looked for riders from the pack I had previously been in, naively thinking I could catch back on, and then relax a little.

It wasn’t to be. I had wasted probably twenty minutes looking for that stupid bottle, and twenty minutes is not a gap you make up in a mountain bike race. This reality was beginning to dawn on me as I reached the mid-lap aid station, where volunteers refilled my remaining bottle and sent me on my way. Still, I didn’t quite give up hope, as I was catching and passing riders with some regularity.

There is a metaphor in cycling regarding a matchbook. You start a race with a certain number of matches, and when they’re gone, you’re done. The idea is that you only burn matches when you have to, getting up a hill or sprinting to stay on a peloton, so that you have enough left to finish the race. With less than one lap complete, I was burning a whole lot of matches, and I was starting to feel it.

I caught a small cluster of riders on a twisty, flat section of trail, and grew frustrated that they were holding me up, but the trail was narrow and there was no opportunity for a safe pass. Finally the course emptied out onto a fire road, and I motored by them, pulling a guy on a hardtail 29er with me. The two of us traded pulls for the next few miles of trail and fire road before entering the final section of singletrack. My legs were burning, telling me in unmistakable language that they could not maintain the level of effort required to stay with the guy on the 29er. I had to back off.

My decision to ease up on the throttle was closely followed by the most challenging section of climbing on the course. Although the vertical ascent only totaled some three hundred feet, the segment was punctuated by a half dozen exhilarating descents, so that you ended up climbing several times that number. To be sure, I’ve seen harder climbs, particularly in West Virginia and Tennessee. The slopes weren’t impossibly steep, and they were mostly smooth trail. But I was feeling the consequences of my earlier poor decisions. Too much effort was mixing with too little nutrition to rob me of needed power.

At last I crested the final climb of the lap, and zipped down the descent to the start/finish area. I was relieved that I had survived my first lap on half of my planned intake, but still frustrated that I was far behind where I should be, and grimly determined to press on at whatever pace I could manage. I spent only a minute or so in the pit, stashing my second bottle from the cooler in my jersey pocket instead of the offending lower cage, before setting off again. I hoped that, with clear trail ahead of me and no reason to stop and turn around, I could clear this lap faster than my first, which had taken three and a half hours to complete.

That thought soon perished, as I spun up the first couple climbs. My legs were burning hard now, not recovering as they should between efforts. My knees were starting to hurt, my back was knotting up, and even my hips were starting to complain. Things were grinding to a halt quickly, and I was going deep into the pain cave. I glanced at my computer and saw that I was only 40 miles in. 40 miles! How in the world was I going to drag myself through another 60?!

My mood turned dark. I was contemplating failure in very real terms, convincing myself that there was no way I could finish the race, as things were going. My pace slowed further. I castigated myself for turning back for that damn bottle, for letting my frustration at not finding it get the best of me, and for trying to chase my way back through the field. This wasn’t supposed to be a race for me this year! I was only supposed to come out and try to finish! What was I thinking, hammering the way I did? And now look at me. Not even half way through, and burned up. I felt like I was out of matches. I started composing my apologies in my head. My explanation to my wife. My blog post on the race. All the harsh realities of my first ever DNF. By mile 48, I was done. Checked out, mentally.

I finally rolled into the aid station, convinced that I could muddle through the remainder of the lap, and then it’d be over, for me. As I arrived, the race leaders came in behind me, skidding to a stop while we mortals stood, mouths agape. Like an enclave of angels, the volunteers at the aid station all offered their help to each rider, leader or otherwise. Seeing on my face that I was having a pretty rough time of it, one volunteer refilled my bottles, while another one tried in vain to convince me to eat. He held out a plate filled with fig newtons and PB&Js like a maitre d’, but I declined. What I needed was to stop hurting. I asked if anybody had any aspirin. Another volunteer, who I’d later find out was the wife of the race organizer, came up with a bottle of ibuprofen, and, appraising my condition, shook four of them into my hand. I thanked her and the rest of the aid station angels and clipped back in, rolling down the trail for what I figured was the last time.


“Are you gonna do another lap?”

I had been caught by another rider, and together we were slogging along, our misery loving each other’s company.

“I don’t know,” I replied “I’m trying not to think that far ahead.”

“Me neither, but…” His voice trailed off. We pedaled on in silence for awhile, occasionally pulling over to let the leaders — who were already on their final lap — pass us uninhibited.

I had offered to let him past but he declined, saying he was only trying to make the cutoff, and I was pacing him well. He looked about as happy as I felt, but it was nice to not be alone. The stretch of trail after the aid station was flat and beautiful, through pine groves thick with the fresh aroma of logs recently cut by the Forest Service. I thought about my friend Katie’s words, and reminded myself to relax. I was lucky, after all, to be out here. Pedaling my bicycle through the beauty of the woods, rolling on soft turf and watching the sunlight filter through the trees. It was gorgeous, and it was time for me to smile, and let the mud get in my teeth.

The smell of the woods in summer is some of nature’s finest perfume, and coupled with the gentle terrain, it transformed me. I was catching up on my nutrition, and the ibuprofen was doing its job, taking the edge off my aching muscles and joints. The rider who had caught me and I rolled on, covering another couple miles of singletrack before hitting a section of fire road. He said he was going to stop and stretch, and I was alone again, but in a much better place, mentally. I was calmed, at peace with where I was in the race, and content to just keep going, and see what might lay ahead.


The climbs in the closing five miles of my second lap were still tough, but nowhere near as miserable as they had been the lap before. Content to take what my legs were willing to give me, I unclipped and walked when I had to, which was only a couple times. I focused on the descents, where the long travel of my bike’s suspension really shines, and bombed down them with enthusiasm. I tried to remember the sections, so that I’d know what to expect on the next lap…

Next lap? Wow, when did I start contemplating that reality?

I rolled back through the start/finish and to my pit for the last time, automatically going through the motions of restocking my jersey pockets and oiling my chain. I had known coming into this race that starting the final lap would be the hardest part. To date, the furthest I’d ever gone on my mountain bike was 65 miles. To do all that, and then set out for another lap of 33, would take all the mental fortitude I could muster. Yet somehow, when it came time to make the actual decision, it was as if it had already been made. I applied a fresh coat of bug spray, fired off a quick update to my wife, and rolled out, to the applause and cowbell-ringing of the small gathering of spectators and crew members.

A picture I wasn't sure I'd ever have taken.

A picture I wasn’t sure would ever happen.

My biggest worry when I registered for this race was making the cutoff. The rules were that, if you didn’t start your last lap by 3:30 pm, you were done. Somehow, despite all my problems on my first two laps, I had done that. By an hour. I was still doing well! Privately, I had told myself that I would be happy with any finish, happier still with a finish under twelve hours. Now, if I could maintain the average I had set, I might even finish under eleven!

My last lap was strangely serene. In most of my endurance racing experience, the end of the race is where you end up having to dig deep, where you hit your lowest lows, and where the struggle is most bitter. I usually reach a point where I’m not having fun any more, and I just want it to be over. But this was different. I had already fought through my lowest point, and the rebound of my mood allowed me to relax. Gone was the fear of the unknown; I had seen the course twice, and knew that while it was bookended with challenging climbs, the middle portion was relatively easy. My legs, though not fully recovered from my earlier abuse, were at least working again, and the pain in my back was manageable. I was even smiling now and again, enjoying the beautiful flow of Lumberjack’s trails.

To stay focused, I buried myself in the details of what I had left to do. How many miles to the aid station? When should I plan to change bottles? How long should I go before I stop to stretch? I set mile markers in my head for each of these things, using them to break the remaining distance into digestible pieces. Then I tried not to look at my computer every thirty seconds.

I stayed in the saddle and spun up the first two climbs, content with forward progress and unworried about my pace. I had abandoned use of the big ring some time ago, and found that I didn’t miss it. In fact, it seemed more efficient, since I didn’t have to wait for my clunky front derailleur to complete the shift as I started a climb. One last time through the roller coasters, and I chuckled at the mounting collection of bottles at the bottoms of the descents. Mine was around there somewhere, but I never did see it. The climbs became less frequent and severe, and soon I was at the aid station. Refueled for the final time, I thanked them all again and set off down the trail for the final leg of my first Lumberjack!

I was starting to feel confident now, but I was mindful of my late race mistakes at Big Frog, which had left me with full-body muscle cramps and a brutal crash only few miles from the end. It was time to be swift and be safe, ride smart, and keep looking after my intake all the way to the end. I planned my last bottle change, and thought of where I’d stop for a stretch before the last hilly section. And then it started, the final undulating ascent through the Udell Hills, on the other side of which was the finish! I pedaled as many of the hills as I could, stopping just twice to push the bike over the top before careening down the slopes. I made sure to keep my aggression in check on those downhills, as insurance against a tragic, late-race crash.

97, 98 miles in, and I was still having fun. I was riding loose, letting the bike do the work, hopping off roots and jumping the small rises. The last hill gave way to the last descent, and I shifted onto the big ring for the last time and crushed the pedals! I was sailing through the woods, euphoric. I streaked through the pit area, now half deserted, and across the finish line to the cheers, laughter and applause of the volunteers and racers already enjoying their celebratory pints.

Surreal. It's still sinking in that I did this.

Surreal. It’s still sinking in that I did this.

I finished! I made it! In my first attempt, and despite even my own expectations, I had completed a hundred-mile mountain bike race! I had survived Lumberjack, and got the finishers’ patch to prove it!

Officially, I crossed the line in 11:12:56, good enough for 169th place of 178 finishers in the Men’s Open category, and 257th of 273 overall. But given that the race sold out at 425 entrants, I’m pleased with that result, however humble! There were over 70 riders who completed one or two laps and couldn’t, or didn’t continue. I learned so much from this race, about strategy, about endurance, and about myself, that I know I can do better in the future.

And I do plan to be back! This race was so well run from end to end, the volunteers so friendly and helpful, and the course so fun, that I can’t imagine not giving it another try next year. If you’re thinking of trying out the Ultra Endurance MTB scene, Lumberjack is the place to start!

May 052014

One secret you learn whilst climbing the umpteenth endless hill of the day is that you have ample time to look down and watch your belly jiggle. And, while watching, you will be equal parts amused, horrified and angry at its presence.

Time for contemplation, about my belly fat and other mysteries, was in abundant supply on a sunny Saturday in April, at the Big Frog 65. A mountain bike epic that runs tangent to (though not quite with) the National Ultra Endurance (NUE) series’ Cohutta 100, Big Frog could be seen, by the outside observer, as a nice intermediate step between your friendly local mountain bike races, and the 100 mile grinders of the NUE. I say could be, because anything with 10,000 feet of climbing and dozens of bone-jarring descents shouldn’t be seen as “nice” or “intermediate” in any sense of the words.

A Baptism by Elevation

I arrived at the Ocoee Whitewater Center on Friday afternoon, too late to make the massage appointment my wife had made for me in the next town up the road, but early enough to set up my campsite, pre-ride part of the course, and make a few tweaks to the bike before the sun went down. The trails I explored as the sun went low in the trees included one winding climb up Bear Paw and one raucous, rock-strewn, rooty, grin-inducing descent on Thunder Rock Express (which may be the coolest trail name in the history of trail names). I judged the trails to be enough of a challenge to be good fun without being totally over my head, and rolled back into camp feeling confident that I would survive whatever the full course would throw at me.

Home for the weekend

Home for the weekend

The morning dawned misty and cold. I arrived at the race start early for once, already dressed, fed, chamois-creamed and ready to go, only to realize that the Big Frog started a half hour after Cohutta. So I got back in the car and stayed warm, and watched dozens of riders zoom back and forth behind me, warming up. What sort of rider, I wondered, needs to warm up before an 8 hour mountain bike race? (The kind who gets it done in 4 hours, for starters, as I’d later find out.) Surely the opening 3 mile road climb would be plenty of warming up for me, so I stayed in the car until the last possible moment.

The race began with a prayer spoken with all the solemnity one can muster through a megaphone, which asked for the necessary aid and protection of the Almighty for all the racers, and which was punctuated by the starter’s gun. At that, some 200 riders giddily clipped in and charged off, bunny-hopping the speed bumps on the way out of the parking lot with the exuberance of confident gladiators.

We streamed up the road in a gaggle, the leaders charging on ahead, while we mortals sat and spun our cranks in a comfortable gear, mindful of the long day that lay ahead of us. The climb was long enough that small conversations were had between riders passing one another, and I wondered how many of them I might see later in the day. Finally, we crested the first hill and bombed down toward the trailhead that marked the opening dirt section, and all pleasantries were abandoned in favor of the task at hand. The next six miles of the Brush Creek trail were sublime singletrack, carved into the hillsides overlooking the river and adjacent man-made lakes. I’m sure the views were spectacular, as the morning mist burned off the water and the sunlight streamed through foliage still sparse from the late spring. But I was too busy to notice.

I was riding well, if conservatively, in order to hold a level of exertion that I could maintain all day. I accordioned with a small group of riders, each of our strengths and weaknesses being brought to light by the variety of the trail. In particular, I began going back and forth with a rider named Vonda. My bravery on the descents matched her ability on the climbs, so that whenever the trail turned down, I’d pass her, and when it went up again, she’d come back past me, bouncing lightly over the roots and rocks, her cranks never stopping. Brush Creek ended with a 300 foot climb that spread us out, separating those with true climbing legs from, well, riders like me.

All watermarked images, ©2014, Melvis Photography

All watermarked images, ©2014, Melvis Photography

The trail emptied out onto a curvy gravel road, which descended sharply for a short distance before routing us back onto a trail, this time the wide pedestrian track of the Old Copper Road. Its breadth and gentle downslope allowed the small pack of racers I was in to pick up speed, and we hummed along briskly, splashing through the mud and pedaling only when we felt like it. But the pedestrian nature of the trail should not be interpreted as without challenge. Just as we started to find ourselves at ease, a half mile section of rocks and roots abruptly presented itself, compelling those with shorter suspension travel (or none at all) to slow down and pick their way through. My bike having more “trail” than “race” leanings, and thus with ample cushion to absorb the blows, I simply stood on the pedals and banged my way through, passing a half dozen riders in the process.

I was in love with my trusty Fuel all over again. Although an antique by the standard of most of the field, heavy as a boat anchor, and with a wheel size widely considered obsolete, the roots and rocks were where she came into her own. I was grinning confidently as the section came to a close, and approached the rock-armored crossing of Laurel Creek with easy speed and a small gap on the riders behind. Eyeing the large, flat stones in the creekbed, I picked a line near the middle and plunged into the water to the delight of the nearby spectators, who were delighted still more by what followed. I had not investigated this crossing the day before, so I had no way of knowing that the rocks armoring the crossing were as slick as they were smooth, a fact that the reconnaissance of my front tire was about to reveal. It slid to the right, found a large crack between two rocks and lost traction entirely, causing the bike to begin a slow-motion, wobbly folding maneuver, that left it lying on the rocks and me standing in water up to my ankles. I received applause and style points for my dismount from the onlookers, who had chosen a particularly entertaining spot to enjoy the race.

It would be a fair characterization to say that the bike had crashed while I had not, but regardless, now my feet were soaked, my brake lever was bent, and the half-dozen racers I had passed only a few hundred yards back all came past me again. I banged the lever back into its original position crossed the bridge over the Ocoee, and started after them up Bear Paw. But the next 8 miles of singletrack wouldn’t afford me the opportunity to reel them back in, as the trail climbed some 700 feet and put me solidly in my place as a resident of the flat Midwest.


It was on this stretch that the ride became serious business. Until now, I had been able to spin my way up the climbs, pausing only to let faster riders pass or to let my heart rate calm down a little. But as the trail reached a marked Y, course workers directed us to turn right, and I encountered the first climb that forced me off the bike. It was something that I expected would happen, but at only 20 miles in, it was worrisome.

Gravel Grinding

Soon I was at the first aid station, and I was happy for the break. My legs felt okay, and I took my time refilling my bottle with electrolytes and munching on a rice cake. The other riders at the aid station seemed to have much more of a sense of urgency about them, which bothered me a little, but as my only goal for the day was to finish, I saw no need to rush. What did finally urge me on was the swarm of little flying bugs that congregated around my head whenever I’d stand still for more than a few seconds.

As I strapped my helmet back on, I reasoned that since I had climbed such a way to get to the aid station, a nice, gentle downhill was probably in order. And anyway I was on a gravel road now, so the next section should be easier. WRONG. Terribly wrong. Columbus-discovered-America wrong. Instead, I was treated to a mile-long, 7 percent uphill grade that caused me to stop several times, looking up at the gravel rising ahead of me and gasping “what… the… hell…” as I waited for my heart rate to settle down. Whatever illusions I had that the ten miles between aid stations 1 and 2 would be quick or easy evaporated on that climb. It took me almost ninety minutes to cover that meager distance, as the gravel wound its way along Chestnut Ridge. That first climb was the hardest of this leg, but it took enough out of me that the subsequent half dozen smaller climbs started to beat me down, mentally.

Sooooo glad I got to turn right here.

Sooooo glad I got to turn right here.

Worse still for my mood was when the race leaders started coming at me, going the other way on the out-and-back route. At first I couldn’t believe it, and so began The Five Stages of Endurance Racing Grief:

  1. Denial – As the first guy came past me, I thought maybe he’d had a mechanical and was bailing out.
  2. Anger – But more were behind him, and they came screaming past, carving down the hills at an impossible speed as I chugged up, breathing smoke from their nostrils and leaving a trail of scorched rocks in their wake. Did these guys have robotic legs? Jet packs hidden in their jersey pockets? WHY ARE THEY SO FAST?!
  3. Bargaining – Maybe if I could just carry more speed on the downhills, I wouldn’t have to climb so hard. Wait, nope, I’m in my granny gear again.
  4. Depression – For them to be that far ahead of me, they’d have to be averaging… The math was too depressing to contemplate, and anyway I was busy trying not to die of exertion on the climbs, and fright on the descents.
  5. Acceptance – Some were kind enough to offer encouragement as we passed, calling out “good job!” and “keep going!” as I looked up at them, slack-jawed. I concluded from this that I must’ve looked completely awful.

When I at last rolled into aid station #2, it was choked with riders heading the other way, they already finished with the 13 mile “lollipop” section that I had yet to begin. My pity party was now in full swing, complete with John Legend soundtrack. I was not yet half way through the race, and the leaders were charging for the finish. And what was I doing out here, anyway? I clearly wasn’t ready for this race, wasn’t ready to hang with the big boys. All my work through the offseason hadn’t been enough, and I was just kidding myself if I thought I belonged here. Those last ten miles had been the worst ten miles of my life, and the fact that I had to do them all over again to get home was more than I could comprehend.

But while my head was swimming with thoughts of quitting, and failure, and storm clouds and sad puppies, my body went through the automatic motions of a rest stop. I drank my electrolytes, refilled my bottle, and munched on a rice cake. Soon I found myself back at my bike, buckling my helmet and clipping back into my pack for reasons I still can’t fully explain. Maybe it was the sight of a few other stragglers coming into the aid station, confirming that I wasn’t in last place after all. Maybe it was the memory of my teammate at the Death March earlier this year, slogging through 30 miles and dozens of hills as he was coming down with a nasty case of the flu, but never giving up. Whatever the reason, I was off, spinning my cranks again, up another nameless climb on another gravel road, keeping on for the sake of keeping on.


The lollipop section contained the biggest climb of the day, some 800 feet in 3 miles. It was on this climb that I began to watch my belly jiggle, and that I began swearing at things. I swore at my belly, for being so heavy for me to lug up and over every climb. I swore at the mountains, for being so absurdly high. I swore at the road for being bumpy, and at the men who built it for deciding it had to go all the way to the top. “Seriously,” I grumbled aloud, as I pushed my rig for what felt like the hundredth time, “what idiot decided this road needed to go all they way up here? THERE’S NOTHING HERE!”

A Bear Cub, and The Way Back Home

At last the hill crested, near a turnout where a man was saddling a horse. He glanced at me with what I imagine was pity, and I threw a leg over my own aluminum-and-rubber steed, and started down the biggest descent of the day. The road plunged so precipitously down that my ears were popping, and I was soon thankful for the fresh set of brake pads I had put on before the race. Normally, I enjoy bombing down hills as much as the next guy, but as my altitude decreased, my dread of the climb that must follow increased. In the bizarre world of Big Frog, what goes down must come up, a fact with which I was becoming all too familiar.

The road wound upward again, and I clicked down the gears until the shift lever went slack, then waited for my legs to tell me they’d had enough. When they reached that familiar crescendo of burn, I unclipped reflexively, paused for a second to get a few breaths, and then started the uphill trudge. I told my legs that they’d better consider this as relief from the punishment they’d otherwise have to endure. A few hundred yards ahead, an older gentleman in blue jeans and a trucker hat bearing the name of some local business that likely hasn’t existed for 25 years, puttered around his old pickup truck on the side of the road. He kept looking at me, and then up the road around the bend where he was parked, and then it seemed he would shake his head and walk around his truck some more.

The locals, I thought, must all consider us complete idiots. And they’d be right.

I have never been so happy to cross a finish line.

I have never been so happy to cross a finish line.

As I reached the gentleman, he politely informed me that there was a small bear cub at the next bend, which I could just make out through the brush where he pointed. Then, with as mundane a tone as if he were relaying the details of the dishes present at his church’s last potluck supper, he mentioned that Momma Bear had huffed at him when he approached the cub awhile ago.

I stopped.

“Oh, you should be alright,” he reassured me. “You’ve got a bicycle.”

That I was pushing said bicycle up the hill, and that the hill showed no signs of stopping for some miles yet, and that this was hardly the first hill I had had to walk up, must have escaped him. I was scarcely in any condition to hop aboard and make a speedy getaway, should Momma present herself with unpleasant intentions. I thanked the gentleman for his advice, and resumed my trudge. I had no means to defend against an angry bear, no energy to extricate myself from the situation with any haste, and no alternate route home in this godforsaken wilderness. I decided, as I approached the bear cub, who sat happily munching on leaves just off the side of the road, that if its mother decided to take offense at my presence, I would have no option but to offer my sincerest apology for the infraction, and then be eaten.

As it was, I walked past the bear cub, who eyed me with something like boredom. I summoned my brightest “hey, little fella!” for the cub, so that if its mother was in earshot, at least she’d have no doubt of my friendliness. Which, in hindsight, was a little bit like bringing cupcakes with smiley faces on them to a negotiation with a hung-over Vladimir Putin. But Momma never presented herself, and I did not stop to take a picture, lest I tempt her to do so.

The hill finally eased up enough for me to get back on and pedal, and a mile later I was back at the aid station. I hadn’t seen another rider since the beginning of the lollipop, and so was again convinced that I was in last place. But as I slipped out of my pack at the aid station, handing my bike to the volunteers who kindly lubed my chain and retrieved my drop bag, up the hill came another rider! It was a girl, and she looked every bit as shell-shocked as I felt, but she also had the air of determination about her. At that moment, if she’d said she was going to quit, I’d have joined her. But as it was, she started going through the motions of her own pit stop, and so I did the same. I retrieved a Red Bull from my pack, and swigged from it while downing an energy bar.

With my fellow victims riders after the finish.

With my fellow victims riders after the finish. I’m still trying to figure out what just happened to me. The girl seated to the right of me is the one from the rest stop!

I retrieved a wash cloth from my drop bag, plunged it into the cooler full of icy water in front of us, and wiped the grime from my face and neck. It was ecstasy, and between the cold rag and the Red Bull, I was starting to feel human again. “This might seem weird,” I said to the girl rider, “but you want some of this?” She gratefully took the cloth from me and followed suit, looking much refreshed afterward. Then, with a shared glance that seemed to say lets just get this over with, we geared back up and started off, she a minute or so ahead of me.

The next mile or so contained a couple little climbs, and I soon caught and passed the girl from the aid station, surprised at how much better I felt after after our little break. Maybe, I thought as I glanced over my shoulder and saw no sign of her, I wouldn’t finish last after all! The thought restored my mood ever so slightly as I began a series of descents, the same ones the race leaders had been careening down when they passed me earlier in the day. I began to think that at least I could finish this race, and live to tell the tale. I started riding better, taking big, sweeping lines around the corners in the gravel, allowing myself to carry more speed down the mountain. I knew that there was one more big climb left, but it was at least on ground that I had already covered, so I knew what to expect.

I had been beaten, or almost beaten, by so many hills by this point that the rhythm of pedal-stop-walk-recover-pedal was automatic. I started breaking down the distance to the next aid station into manageable pieces, forcing myself to look away from my bike computer for as long as I could take it. Five miles, halfway there… Four more miles… Two and a half… Another mile to the aid station, and then you’re home free. The hill crested at last, and I was back in the saddle, coasting down as quickly as I dared. The aid station appeared abruptly as I rounded a bend, and I rolled to a stop by the volunteers. One refilled my bottle with electrolytes, while the other exhorted me to keep going. The finish was “only” seven miles away, and “mostly” downhill.

Down to the Finish

I wish the guy had actually used air quotes when he told me this, because maybe then I would’ve done the smart thing and eaten some food. Instead, I thanked him for refilling my bottle and bounced on ahead, back onto singletrack for the closing leg of the ride. A short distance later, my legs began to object in the strongest possible terms to the sudden increase in abuse. Of all the problems I had been dealing with all day, I had mostly avoided cramping, but now it began with a vengeance. Every punchy little climb had me off the bike and pushing again, because I simply couldn’t make the power to pedal up them without sending my legs into spasms. The downhill section that came next was almost worse. I barely had the strength left to stand out of the saddle, and while the trail plunged some 300 feet in a mile, I rode the brakes and held on for dear life, unable to get into any kind of flow. I was getting passed by fast guys again, this time from the 100 mile race, as our return legs rejoined. I did what I could to get out of their way, but doing so added to my stress and robbed me of whatever momentum I had built.

My new favorite coffee mug!

My new favorite coffee mug!

I turned left at a marked junction, and was finally back on the portion of the trails I had ridden the day before. Only, at my much-reduced pace, it looked entirely foreign. I bumped and sputtered along, surrendering to even the mildest climbs and getting passed every few minutes by riders from the Cohutta. In a clearing that required me to ride up a rocky wash, I grumbled expletives as I heard a rider approaching behind me, and got off to the side to let them pass. It was the girl from the aid station, and while she assured me that I’d pass her back on the upcoming downhill section, I knew better.

I chased her into the start of Thunder Rock Express, and tried hard to be excited about it. But what had been a joyful blast down the mountainside with the fresh legs of my pre-ride, had now become an excruciating test of my character. I stood in the pedals and tried to lean back, keeping the front wheel as light as I could manage to track over the terrain. As tired as I was, I began to feel like a mountain biker again, and found just a little bit of flow to properly address the trail. Then, at a rocky, right-hand switchback, it all fell to pieces. I misjudged my approach speed, coming in too fast, too shallow and on the brakes. Physics being the unforgiving bastard that it is, my front tire jolted to a stop against a rock, and I kept going, over the bars and down on my left shoulder, coming to rest in a tangled heap with my bike. My left foot was still clipped in, and my calf started to seize until I could twist it free.

This was the darkest part of the race for me, and only a scant few miles from the finish. I was dejected. I felt out of place, in over my head, and defeated. I was reduced to the disposition a despondent toddler at the grocery store who had missed his morning nap, and was now preoccupied with screaming incessantly and tossing boxes of mac-and-cheese out of the cart. My legs, already tortured from the day’s exertion, were now bruised from my crash and throbbing. Above all, I needed this to be over, a thought I began to express aloud to the rocks and tree roots that seemed to block my path every few feet.

Then I saw it: course tape. What had to be the last piece of it, directing me off the singletrack and onto a gravel road, for the final time. It was a white and red plastic ribbon of deliverance, and the relief was overwhelming. Rounding the corner I spotted the last course marshal, who motioned me to turn right, and gave me instructions to the finish as I passed, in a voice so comforting and kind that it made me want to cry. As my tires bumped onto the pavement of the bridge over the Ocoee River Number Three Dam, I did cry. I sobbed in relief, even as I pedaled, but I was too exhausted even to keep up that extra effort. And so went the last mile, every pedal stroke threatening to send my legs into spasm, and the needle of my emotional meter bouncing wildly between elation and total breakdown.

The last few hundred yards to the finish were lined with riders and their families, all cheering and clapping and ringing cowbells. For me, the last-but-five finisher of the Big Frog 65. I wasn’t exhausted. Exhausted had happened a dozen miles ago. What I was, as I came across the finish line nine hours and six minutes after I had started, was something for which they haven’t yet made a word. But I was a finisher, and on that day, it was the only title that mattered.

Mar 242014
The trip to Elkinsville, any way you slice it, is one tough mother.

The trip to Elkinsville, any way you slice it, is one tough mother.

(Read Part 1 here)

The wisdom of our end-around route to avoid Combs Creek Road was soon called into question by a surprising amount of elevation change, and what seemed like an endless number of miles. In fact, our grand plan had added some 12 miles to our total, and they weren’t anywhere near as easy or swift to traverse as we had hoped. By the time we had climbed the mile-long, rutted doubletrack to the cemetery at Elkinsville, we were all ready to give our initial plan a harder look.

Endless, winding gravel. Fun if you're feeling well. Hell if you're not.

Endless, winding gravel. Fun if you’re feeling well. Hell if you’re not.

Even after the length of our excursion was clear, I was hesitant to deviate from it. The only other way South, where the remainder of our checkpoints lay, was on the dreaded Road-That-Sometimes-Isn’t. Jason’s condition had continued to degrade, and he was unable to make more than about 12 miles an hour, even on the flats. We had a choice to make, and neither option was good. Either we headed back the way we came, around half the county to avoid the mud, and risk grinding Jason’s legs to a dead stop, or we took on Combs Creek, and hoped that the hike wouldn’t blow them out entirely. Oh, and that my cyclocross bike would be up to the task of singletrack through a swamp.

In the end, we decided that miles were more daunting than the mud. We would take Combs Creek Road. That crusher of spirits, that destroyer of dreams, that haunt of the souls of men; that was the road we chose.

I didn’t have a great feeling about it.

As it turned out, it wasn’t so bad as the nightmares of last season’s event had persuaded us it would be. The colder temperatures of this winter had left a portion of the water still frozen under the mud, so it wasn’t as deep, and the standing water wasn’t as high. Even the sections that were impassable by bike were welcome in that they provided a change of pace. Being off the bike for a bit and walking, even if it was trudging through the mud, allowed our legs to relax a bit.

We spent the next two miles riding when we could, walking when we couldn’t, and setting our jaws, as men do against difficult tasks. The members of the fairer sex we encountered on Combs were handling the challenge with characteristic grace, smiling and encouraging each other with compliments and jokes. We grunted and panted up the hills, trying to smile at their greetings, but mostly wondering how they could be so damn cheerful in a time and place such as this.

While taking this picture, Jason was contemplating a permanent residence here.

While taking this picture, Jason was contemplating a permanent residence here.

What did put a smile on my face was the performance of my humble little ‘cross bike. Despite being placed in conditions never imagined by its designers, it did everything I asked of it, and then some. For one stretch, behind a couple fat bikes whose 4-inch tires were tailor-made for the conditions, I actually found myself gaining on them!

Slowly, the mud bog gave way to creek crossings, then jeep tracks, and finally the gate that closes the route to vehicular traffic came into view. We had made it! We conquered Combs Creek Road! Or at least I thought we did, because when I turned around, I couldn’t seem to find Jason. A few minutes later he emerged, looking very haggard indeed, but with the relief of knowing that what we expected to be the worst was over.

Although we had cut significant mileage from our overall route by taking Combs, there was still quite a way to go to reach our final two mandatory checkpoints. It would be another eight miles to reach Hanner, with a brief stop along the way at Cornett for a time bonus that didn’t seem to matter any more.

Jason was suffering, there was no other word for it. I knew by this point that it wasn’t a matter of his conditioning, but that something else had gone terribly wrong, but he was determined to continue on, and so that’s what we did. Adding to the misery of his still-building fever was the fact that he was starting to have serious leg cramps, and had run out of water. I gave him one of my bottles of electrolytes, and he cashed it immediately. We hadn’t seen a SAG wagon for hours, and if we didn’t see one soon, I’d have to give him my hydration pack as well.

Four mandatory checkpoints down, one to go...

Jason’s smile is only because he finally got some more water. Four mandatory checkpoints down, one to go…

It took us every bit of an hour to get to Hanner Cemetery, where we finally ran into the SAG wagon. I refilled my bottles, and Jason replenished his CamelBak, and took in a little food. I felt terrible for him, but there was nothing I could do. I thought of swapping bikes, but figured that my bike’s more aggressive gearing would negate the weight advantage, especially as we were again into hilly territory. The cheery afternoon light had given way to a gloomy early evening, and I began to feel as if, for Jason and I alike, this just needed to be over. We had been out for a long, long time, and I couldn’t yet say how long we had to go. I did know that we’d stopped having fun some miles ago.

We turned right onto State Route 58, and I hoped that, it being a main road, the terrain would remain relatively flat. We turned into a slight wind, so I got in front, set my speed at a pace I thought Jason could maintain, and tried to give him a tow. A hundred yards later, I glanced over my shoulder, and he had dropped off already. I circled back and tried again, sitting tall in the saddle to block as much wind as I could, and setting a speed a couple clicks slower. Same result.

There was no pulling him. He was so overcome with sickness at this point that he bordered on delirium. I filed in behind him and offered what encouragement I could, counting down the miles to our next turn and reminiscing aloud about the events of last year. Anything to take his mind off his present misery.

Then the road did something cruel. What had been a false flat became steeper, until it was a legitimate climb. It rose nearly 300 feet by the time we turned, and most of that in the last half mile. My gearing wouldn’t allow me to stay with Jason without bogging, so I pulled ahead, opting instead to stop periodically and wait for him.

That face about says it all.

That face about says it all.

For me, this became the enduring image of the race. Despite how he was feeling, despite the miles and the mud and his cramping legs, Jason never quit. He clicked down to his granny gear and churned away at the pedals, dieseling up the hill with all the grim determination of a prize fighter in the tenth round. As much as I pitied his condition, I admired his resolve to finish even more, given his obvious and legitimate reasons to call it a day.

Our final checkpoint was Hickory Grove Church, situated at the top of an eponymous, winding ridge line. The road that took us there stayed at the top of that ridge, which meant that we had already accomplished the final big climb of the day. But there were plenty of little rollers along the ridge road, and each one became a mountain to my ailing teammate. We both began to wonder if we’d make it to the finish before the 6 pm time cutoff.

The twisting nature of the gravel road to the church deprived us of the obvious landmarks and lines of sight which make judging progress easy. I tried to break the remaining distance to the church into manageable segments for Jason, fearing all the while that my “just around one more curve” promises would become demoralizing if I was wrong. At last, the church came into view, and I feigned exuberance and sped ahead, hoping he would catch some of it and be able to forget his agony for a few moments.

It didn’t work. He rolled to a stop by the sign, and I could tell from his face that it was all he could do to get off the bike. We’d been out for so long that my phone battery was nearly dead, but I managed to snap our last two required photos before it did.

I love this bike. I think I'm going to name it Hoot.

I love this bike. I think I’m going to name it Hoot.

The good news was that this was our last checkpoint. The better news was that it would be nearly all downhill from there to the finish, and that meant we might just make it in time. We’d only have about 6 more miles to cover, and then it would all be over, and it would be time for beer, a hot shower, and food, and a warm bed!

At least, it would’ve been only six miles, if I hadn’t chosen that very moment to make my only navigational error of the day, and miss the turn onto McPike Branch Road. My miscue sent us zinging down the ridge on the South side instead of the West, adding two miles to our total when we could least afford it. As we neared the bottom, I began to suspect my error, but the lack of road signs and a dead phone battery meant I couldn’t quite be sure. We turned right when the road ended, and I glumly hoped that my gut feeling was wrong, and that we had taken the correct road. We hadn’t.

Jason was crestfallen, and I felt like I had let the air out of his tires, stolen his candy bar and kicked his puppy all at the same time. There was nothing to do for it now, only to pedal out the remaining four and a half miles to the finish. It took us half an hour. The county road dumped us out onto State Route 446 again. A slight rise was ahead, not more than 50 feet of elevation before our final turn, but it might as well have been Alpe d’Huez for Jason. He was so exhausted he couldn’t even look up, and so he just kept turning the cranks, watching his front tire eat up pavement, until he caught up to me at the top.

From there, it really was all down hill, and we coasted across the bridge to the finish, me standing on the pedals to charge the final few yards, and Jason nearly collapsing beneath the pats on the back from our waiting teammates. To the casual onlooker, it may have appeared an anticlimactic finish for a race. But those who have survived the Death March, and anyone who saw Jason’s condition knows that there should have been a brass band for him at the line. He was a soldier that day, and he earned his beer, even if he was in no condition to drink it afterward.

Finishing the Death March last year taught me about how far my body could be pushed. It taught me how to overcome physical pain with sheer determination. This year, it taught me that trying to avoid challenges sometimes results in bigger challenges. It taught me that “the right tool for the job” is sometimes overrated. And it taught me that holding back to help a friend make it home is just as rewarding as pounding through on your own. Jason’s endurance through suffering to get to the finish, both for his own conquest and to help me get the result I missed last year, will not soon be forgotten.

What trials, tricks and turmoil will the Death March bring us next year? I’m already making plans to find out.

Mar 242014
My wonderful, versatile 'cross bike!

Number plate affixed, ready to rock and roll!

That my last attempt at the Sub 9 Death March nearly killed me should have served as some deterrent. That this winter has been particularly severe and persistent should have discouraged me. Last year’s teammates opting out of this year’s event for those reasons and others should have been reason for me to follow suit.

But I didn’t. After training hard all through the winter, I wanted to have another go at the race that took me to the edge and showed me how to live there. I wanted to beat it, to show the hills how much stronger I’ve become, the mud how much better I can ride. I wanted to bring my teammate to the finish with me, thus earning the result I missed last year, since the rules require that you finish with your teammate.

So it was that I found myself on a brisk Saturday morning, bouncing my truck and trailer along the muddy fire roads in rural Brown County, Indiana. The Death March, as you loyal readers will recall, is an on/off road checkpoint race, which uses a selection of 17 old cemeteries as the checkpoints. There are five mandatory checkpoints in all, three of which are preselected, and two chosen out of a hat just before the start of the race. All additional checkpoints may be reached for various time bonuses, which will be subtracted from your overall time at the finish.

The original plan had been to scout part of the race route the day before, but that plan collapsed under the weight of a full day of packing and loading for a week-long adventure. I brought three bikes with me; the mountain bike I used last year, my cyclocross racer, and my motorcycle, which of course wouldn’t see the outside of the trailer until I arrived in Florida on Sunday evening.

Two wild and crazy guys!

Two wild and crazy guys!

Which knobby-tired bike to use would depend on what I found on the gravel roads that made up the majority of the route. If they were in suitable condition, I would take the ‘cross bike. If they were not, or if a checkpoint was selected that would require extensive use of singetrack trail (read: Callahan), I would take the mountain bike.

Our scouting excursion on the way to the staging area proved as encouraging as it was useful . The roads were mostly clear of snow, and the muddy spots seemed either navigable or entirely avoidable. The three pre-selected checkpoints (Hillenberg-Stephenson, Elkinsville and Hanner) would ensure that we covered respectable mileage, but on my ‘cross bike this was no issue. Then we were granted a favor when the final two checkpoints (Hickory Grove and Mitchell) were drawn. Neither added substantial mileage to the route, and more crucially, neither required the navigation of muddy, serpentine trails to reach.

Two checkpoints down already? This is easy!

Two checkpoints down already? This is easy!

There was only one limiting factor in our plan: how to get to Elkinsville. The direct route takes you up Combs Creek Road, a route that, for some stretches, loses the “road” part of its appellation entirely. Last year, it was the graveyard of many racers’ dreams of a finish, including those of my teammate. The power required to slog through the muddy mess that the road became sent his legs into cramps and spasms from which he never recovered, and he was forced to retire.

Having been warned off by previous experience, this year’s team agreed to take the long way around, avoiding the muddy nightmares of Combs Creek “Road” and picking up the bonus checkpoints at Houston and Lutes, instead. We reasoned that what it added in length, it would make up in speed. When we came to the bridge at Maumee, we would turn right where other teams went left, and time would tell if our gamble would pay out.

After the final two checkpoints were announced, our foursome, which consisted of Mike and Kelly on one team, and Jason and me on the other, huddled over our maps briefly, and then set off across the bridge at an easy pace. Mitchell Cemetery was only a mile from the start, so we took the low hanging fruit early. The couple of rolling hills on the way there gave us a chance to warm up our legs, and I was happy to feel the wind on my face again, after a winter spent with too many hours inside, slaving on the trainer and at the gym.

Word to your mother.

Word to your mother.

We rolled out of Mitchell and turned right, up the gentle hill on State Route 446 toward Hillenburg. This was the route that the majority of teams took at the start, so despite our delayed departure, there was a logjam of bikes and riders by the sign, waiting for their turn for the requisite picture. Completing two of the five mandatory checkpoints so quickly created a deceiving sense of progress, even though we had ridden a scant five miles, and most of that on pavement.

The race began in earnest when we turned off of State Route 446, onto Tower Ridge Road. The road gave us enough mud, gravel and rolling hills to keep our attention and challenge our legs a little. I made sure to keep my aggression on the climbs in check, knowing that the grueling parts of the race were a long way ahead of us. Still, the miles were coming easy, our crew was in good spirits, and my bike was working flawlessly. There were some patches of slushy ice along this stretch that kept me on my toes. The mountain bikes would blow past me on the descents, confident in the traction of their fatter tires. But I would surge past them again when the grade turned upward, standing on the pedals just to stretch my legs.

Top of the tower.

Top of the tower.

We paused at Todd Cemetery for an easy bonus, then pressed on to the lookout tower itself. Climbing the 133 steps to the top was worth a 35 minute time bonus, if you were so inclined. Some of our crew were not, but my teammate and I climbed all the way to the cab, and snapped our pictures. We took our first break when we came back down, munching on some food and getting some electrolytes. As we rolled out onto the gravel road again, Jason mentioned that he was feeling a little queasy. We both shrugged it off–it was probably nothing, right?–and pressed on.

A series of swift downhills brought us to Robertson Cemetery for another time bonus, and then we slogged along some soft gravel and mud to the bridge at Maumee. Sticking to the plan, we turned right as the rest of the crowd headed left, and thought ourselves clever as we sped down the pavement.

Some weirdo behind us was still having fun at this stage.

Some weirdo behind us was still having fun at this stage.

It was on the three mile stretch to Houston that I began to notice Jason lagging behind, especially on the occasional hill. I held back the pace to stay with him, figuring that the additional weight and less advantageous gearing of his mountain bike made speed on the road less easy than my  comparatively sleek, light, and road-geared ‘crosser. In fact, and unbeknownst to all of us, his lack of power was due to an unfortunately-timed case of the flu, the effects of which would become increasingly debilitating as the race wore on. Even when the four of us were set upon by a few farm dogs (whose gravest threat beyond their barking was that one of them ran in front of Mike’s wheel and was nearly run over), he didn’t seem able to accelerate much.

I'm laughing at my poor decision to cut across the cornfield. Jason is finding no humor in any of this.

I’m laughing at my poor decision to cut across the cornfield. Jason is finding no humor in any of this.

I, on the other hand, was feeling no such illness, and so jumped at the chance to cut across the edge of a cornfield, in order to take a more direct route to the cemetery in Houston. That shortcut proved a completely terrible idea. The ground was softer than it appeared, and so we all ended up in our granny gears, churning through it and laughing through gritted teeth. I suspect the others were laughing to keep themselves from cussing me out. It was like riding through peanut butter. The grassy yard between the cornfield and the cemetery was in no better condition, and I nearly fell over when my tires sank inches deep into the turf-camouflaged mud. If my teammates had chosen at that moment to make me carry their packs for the rest of the race, I would hardly have blamed them!

We departed Houston and made the long, gradual climb to Lutes. My teammate’s condition was declining with every mile, and he found his legs unwilling to respond to his calls for more power. We rallied up at Lutes and I made sure we each took in some food. A few hills later, the unspoken decision was made to separate our teams, allowing the stronger pair to go ahead, while I stayed back with Jason. We would rally again at Elkinsville.

To be continued…

It's starting to become a long day, and we're not yet half way through...

It’s starting to become a long day, and we’re not yet half way through…


Dec 152013

349If you’re looking at the trail in front of your tire, it will only slow you down. All the rocks and roots and hazards will overwhelm your vision and exaggerate your sense of speed. Keep your eyes up, and feel your lines and flow get smoother, and your speed and confidence rise.

If you’re looking at the ground in the weight room, your shoulders will follow and your form will collapse. You’ll be working just to stay upright and balanced, and the weight will seem impossibly heavy. Keep your eyes up, and the weight will stay centered, allowing you to use all of your strength for power.

If you’re climbing a hill, looking at the ground only makes your misery seem indefinite. You end up inside your head, inside the pain, enduring instead of attacking. Keep your eyes up, and pull the summit back to you with your mind, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you get there.

When life gets difficult; when you’re struggling, distracted and stressed by the problems lying all around you, it’s hard not to get discouraged and look down, defeated. The details and petty periphery of day to day life can infiltrate and demoralize even the most motivated people. But keep your eyes up. Focus on your goals and your progress, and keep working, keep grinding, keep fighting. The only way to fail is to look down, get discouraged and quit. You’re better than that.

Eyes up, and go get what’s yours.

Dec 012013
All of these bikes are better than their riders.

All of these bikes are better than their riders.

A few weeks ago, I read an article on MTBR wherein the author opined that people are buying “too much bike” for themselves. And it’s exactly the sort of judgmental, elitist, old-school-is-the-only-way nonsense that keeps people out of our sport.

The column is chock full of contradictory logic. The author claims that the skills he learned on a rigid bike, namely how to pick clean, safe lines, are indispensable. He then admits that those lines changed as soon as he was on a suspension bike. Further, he discloses that he rides a rigid now, but it’s a 29er with fat, tubeless tires, and that it’s a far more accommodating ride than the 24″ or 26″ rigids he grew up riding. Well which is it? Make the ride harsh so you have to learn, or embrace just enough technology (carbon fiber handlebars, really bro?) to preserve your sense of manliness? On a second read, it becomes clear that the author’s perspective is rooted more in his sense of nostalgia and machismo, than good sense in general.

Even his value proposition is poorly illustrated, as the model he’s chosen to use as an example, a hand-made boutique bike called a Vassago VerHauen, comes at a price just for the frame that most beginners don’t want to spend on a whole bike.

He goes on to talk about how riding a rigid will make you more proficient and safer, while simultaneously acknowledging that making a mistake on a rigid will likely send you over the bars. Talk about barriers to entry! Maybe, if your target is rider safety, it’s better for newbies to start out on a bike more forgiving to boneheaded line choices. How much fun are they going to have when they’re constantly getting beat up by the trail, worn out because they have to stay out of the saddle, and teetering on the edge of disaster at every turn? And if they aren’t having fun, how long do we expect them to keep coming back?

Another neglected detail in his post is how the march of technology has changed trailbuilding. A lot of the trail built over the last 15 or so years has been built with modern, suspended bikes in mind. For all but the most proficient riders, a lot of those trails would be unassailable on a rigid bike. Is less trail use what we’re going for? It’s not about line choice when it comes to some drops and obstacles, it’s about the bike’s ability to absorb a hit.

How “good” a bike is depends largely on who’s riding it. I know that my Fuel is capable of more than I do with it, but I can also do things on my Fuel that  I never could have done on my old 4300. I sold the latter, an entry-level hardtail, because I wasn’t enjoying it on the kind of trails I was riding. It wasn’t about line choice, it was about the best tool for the job, and having fun. There’s not a bike out there that some other rider couldn’t ride better, and that applies all the way up to the World Championship level.

Certainly, there are skills and techniques that you will learn on a rigid that you won’t learn on a hardtail, and on a hardtail that you won’t learn on a fully. The skills emphasized on one bike will transfer to other bikes, at least small ways. But it begs the question: if your intent is to ride a fully all the time, why do you need those skills in the first place? If a rider is perfectly happy banging along his local trails on his 150mm travel rig, letting the suspension do the work for him, why shouldn’t he? It is vain to think that every rider on the trail wants the same thing out of a ride.

We can’t forget that bikes are art, to lovers of bikes. We all pore through the magazines and websites every year, ogling the new models and new technology that manufacturers and custom builders have come up with. If a guy wants to drop 6 grand on a carbon full suspension rig to commute down the bike path because he thinks it looks cool, who is he hurting? Let’s face it, if the only people who  bought high-end, full suspension bikes were those capable of riding them to their potential, nobody would be making those bikes for any of us to buy.

The truth is that every style of bike has something to teach you, as does every trail. Every rider will benefit his or her own development by riding on a variety of equipment, on a variety of terrain. But to say “thou shalt learn on a rigid” is unfair to many riders who simply won’t enjoy getting beat up riding their local trails without suspension, and will abandon the sport altogether after a few weeks. Maybe we, as a community, should spend a lot less time thinking about what other people are riding, and more time helping them ride. Jacking up the barriers to entry in a sport that already struggles for attention and legitimacy won’t help any of us, in the long run.

Nov 262013

Our new (to us) BMW may be my dream car, and it may also be the nicest vehicle I’ll ever own, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have to earn its keep. All of our vehicles end up on transport duty for rides and races at some point. Thanks to folding rear seats, I can fit a bike in the back with the wheels off, but that gets old quick, and isn’t really an option with a muddy mountain bike. It’s time to add some utility to our growly German sedan!

By virtue of it being a diesel, there is only one company in the country making hitch kits for our car. There is a urea tank for the diesel exhaust emissions system that sits behind the rear bumper cover, which results in a slight modification to the available mounting points. That one company is UHaul, about which I was not thrilled. I ordered the hitch in what I thought was plenty of time, but it took SIX FREAKING WEEKS to get here, meaning that I had to install it the day before needing to use it on a trip! I wasn’t pleased.

Thankfully, the design and manufacture of the hitch kit was better than their shipping department, and it went together tightly and smoothly. Then end product is more than acceptable, and most importantly, allows me to use a hitch-mount bike rack, instead of a roof rack. Roof racks look cool, but I’ve found them to be fuel efficiency killers, and less than practical for people of less than average height to use.

The hitch rack I chose, the Yakima Holdup 2, is a brilliant little piece of engineering. It’s easy to install, easy to load bikes on, has integrated locks, and folds up like a pretzel when not in use. Best of all, it holds road bikes and mountain bikes with equal ease, despite large differences in tire width, wheelbase or weight. I also bought an adapter to install on the truck, so that I could easily ferry 6 bikes, should the need ever arise!

What this picture did not capture was how hard the cross bar assembly was to wrestle into place. Equal parts finesse and brawn.

What this picture did not capture was how hard the cross bar assembly was to wrestle into place. Equal parts finesse and brawn.

Impressive that this is all that shows below the bumper!

Impressive that this is all that shows below the bumper!

And I did all that, to do this! TA DAAAA!

And I did all that, to do this! TA DAAAA!

I think every car looks better with a couple bikes hanging off the back.

I think every car looks better with a couple bikes hanging off the back.

Folds up nice and tight, but far enough out that you can still open the trunk.

Folds up nice and tight, but far enough out that you can still open the trunk.

Possibly my favorite feature. It's the little things!

Possibly my favorite feature. It’s the little things!

Nov 172013
Long bridges still make me pucker.

Long bridges still make me pucker.

Since I’d driven all the way to Columbus for the Beach Party, I figured I might as well make a day of it. After lunching on some delicious chili, a jalapeno cheese brat and a donut, courtesy of C.O.M.B.O., I changed out my bibs and race jersey for baggies and a MTB jersey, and headed over to Phase 1, one of 3 mountain bike trails built into Alum Creek State Park.

First, a confession: when it comes to mountain biking, I’m something of a homebody. I’m fortunate to live just a mile and a half from the trailhead at MoMBA, and my work is near John Bryan, so I ride those two trail systems almost exclusively. Sure, I’ve had the chance to sample singletrack in seven different states while traveling, but even while on the road, I tend to find one set of trails near where I’m staying, and then ride the daylights out of them. It’s not that I don’t like to explore, it’s just that I’m not all that good at it. It takes me awhile to learn a new trail well enough to go out and hammer it, so once I have, I tend to stay put.

If you are at all familiar with the ethos of mountain biking, you’ll know that this borders on a cardinal sin. Mountain bikers are supposed to be beard-clad, devil-may-care adventurers, exploring every trail they can turn a wheel on and deftly negotiating obstacles that make mere mortals (and roadies) quake in their Nike’s.

By that standard, I’m just not a very good mountain biker. I tend to approach things cautiously and methodically, which means it may take several laps for me to get in a groove on a new trail. I don’t crash much, but that’s more because I spend a lot of time trying not to crash than because of some innate skill on my part. I’m okay with it; I’m still having fun, it just means I have a longer learning curve. In most two-wheeled activities, it takes me longer to go fast than everybody else, but I do get up to speed eventually.

As usual, a picture can't capture the true nature of this uphill, blind-crest feature.

As usual, a picture can’t capture the true nature of this uphill, blind-crest feature.

Anyway, all this year, my mountain bike buddies have been bugging me to get out of town. I did get to ride some in Brown County during the Death March, and in Nashville on our anniversary trip (thanks, honey!), but there are a half-dozen trails in the local area that I’ve never sampled, simply because I haven’t loaded up and gone there.

Well, now I had the chance to rectify that, and tick at least one other Ohio trail off the list! And what a trail it was. P1, as it’s known, is a 6-mile loop in the woods on the east side of the reservoir, and features lots of punchy little climbs, rock sections, gobs of roots, and more than a few bridges. It’s a bumpy, technical course that rewards good suspension, low tire pressures and smart line choices.

I had planned to hit P1 and the more advanced P2 while I was at Alum Creek. As I bounced and jostled my way along my first lap of P1, I thought maybe I’d do two laps there, then check out P2 for a lap, before returning to P1 to finish out the day. Then I looked down and saw that I had only gone two miles! The density of features and challenges at P1 is such a sharp contrast to the fast, flowy and mostly buff trails at MoMBA and John Bryan that it created the illusion of having covered much more distance than I actually had. While 6 miles isn’t a very long way for me, by the time I had finished my first lap, I felt like I had gone much, much further. I quickly revised my plan for the day to include just two laps at P1, and then a nice warm bowl of soup on the way home! P2 will have to wait for another day.

I took two surprises away from my first lap. First, this place was far more technical than what I’m used to riding. I could really improve my bike handling skills riding here more frequently. Second, I couldn’t believe how well I did! I finished my first lap without stopping, and only balking at one feature, a steep run-up that I just didn’t look far enough ahead to see. Most days, I come away from a ride feeling that maybe I’m not as good of a rider as I think I am. After riding P1, I felt like maybe I’m a better rider than I give myself credit for! Yes, I’m still cautious, I spend entirely too much time on the brakes, and there were a lot of guys railing around on hardtails when I was wishing for even more suspension travel, but I did do it, and I did a lot of things right. My line choices were solid, my shifting and braking skills are much better than I remember them being even last season, and I didn’t fall off. Heck, I barely put a foot down and only unclipped a handful of times, something that would have been incomprehensible 18 months ago on a trail of this level.

I’m probably always going to be a cautious rider. I’ll probably always learn slowly, and take longer than others to get up to speed. But the only solution to that is more seat time, and to get out and explore more trails like P1. Hopefully, they all go about as well, and I’ll just keep becoming a better mountain biker, one pedal stroke at a time.

That's my baby.

That’s my baby.

Nov 092013
I don't know if I've ever seen this bike so clean!

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this bike so clean!

If you recall what my bike looked like after the rain-soaked MoMBA XC Classic, you know that this is something of a miracle. I hosed it down to get most of the mud off, but everything on the bike was still crunchy. I turned it in to my friend and mechanic Chris Worrell, formerly of Village Cyclery, for a much-needed overhaul.

Aaron and I between trails.

Aaron and I between trails.

The brakes were shot front and rear, the drivetrain was packed full of grit, the rear suspension linkage was sloppy, and the bike was just tired, in general. Over a couple weeks, Chris brought it back from the dead, and delivered it back to me at the MVMBA Chili Ride and annual awards day, running like the day it was new. He replaced the brake pads, flushed the fluid, rebuilt the entire rear suspension linkage, cleaned and tuned the drivetrain, and basically gave it a thorough once-over, all for a fee so low I wouldn’t feel right disclosing it.

I had the chance to try it out immediately, heading out for a lap at John Bryan with my friends Erik, Katie (not mine) and Aaron. The trails were covered nearly end to end with leaves, so pushing it up wasn’t an option, but I did get a feel for my rejuvenated bike. And it felt good. It runs smooth and quiet over the bumps, the brakes have a far more progressive feel to them, and the shifting is absolutely flawless. After spending a few weeks riding nothing but my rigid-frame bikes, it was nice to be back on full-squish, and nice to be able to ride around on dirt with some confidence, something I haven’t yet gained on my ‘cross bike.

Maybe next year...

Maybe next year…

After our leisurely lap, we headed back to the lodge for several bowls of chili and the annual awards presentation. This year has been a particularly good one for the club, with a whole lot of new members, and well-attended races that were, all but one, graced with great weather.

I missed out on a medal this year by one position, finishing fourth among the riders in the Sport class who ran enough races (4) to qualify for the championship. I’ll be giving the Sport class another go next season, while some riders will move up and out, and others will move up to Sport from Beginner. I hope, as I continue to build my fitness and skills, that next season will see me stepping on the podium with more regularity, and maybe I can even contend for the championship. Modest dreams, perhaps, but dreams nonetheless.

Nov 032013

Yesterday provided another opportunity for me to give back, this time in the form of a trail work day at John Bryan State Park. It was a well-timed trail day too, since a recent wind storm had brought down a lot of old growth. A half dozen of us showed up on this chilly morning to make a slow circuit of the trail system, and clear out any problems we found.

Most of the damage was in the form of small branches strewn here and there across the singletrack, but there were a handful of full grown trees down, as well. One of them, as pictured below, was of the right kind of wood and fell in just the right place to turn it into a little obstacle. After building (and testing) the little jump, the four of us (Tom, Kent, Mark and I) continued our lap, clearing debris as we went and generally just having a good time on our bicycles. When we were done, Kent went out for another, faster lap, while I got in some ‘cross practice. More on that later.

An old, dead tree had fallen across the trail during a recent windstorm. Just so happened, it was in a good place to add it as a feature! Mark makes the initial cuts to bring the trunk down.

An old, dead tree had fallen across the trail during a recent windstorm. Just so happened, it was in a good place to add it as a feature! Mark makes the initial cuts to bring the trunk down.

After much chainsawing, stacking, stomping, and restacking, we have ourselves a new little obstacle! Tom comes in to try it out.

After much chainsawing, stacking, stomping, and restacking, we have ourselves a new little obstacle! Tom comes in to try it out.

Up and over!

Up and over!

The reality check. If Mark can make it over without incident, towing a trailer with a chainsaw on it, then it's right for this trail.

The reality check. If Mark can make it over without incident, towing a trailer with a chainsaw on it, then it’s right for this trail.

Full suspension 29er and 'cross bike, enjoying the same singletrack trail love.

Full suspension 29er and ‘cross bike, enjoying the same singletrack trail love.