Sunday, August 9, 2009

From depths to heights...and back again

This weekend was the annual Howell Mountain Challenge. It's a race run over many of the same trails as the Napa Valley Dirt Classic, but run as a lap race, rather than one big loop. My race last year was, well, sucky. I've been riding really well these last couple weeks, though, and this is pretty much the last mountain bike race before cross season starts, so I thought I'd give it a bash. Plus, hey, Sport Singlespeed class!

In my time-honored tradition of carefully preparing for mountain bike races, I spent the day before doing trail work in San Francisco's McLaren Park. They crew I worked with created a brand new section of trail basically from virgin woodland. It was tremendously satisfying, and I can't wait to ride that piece of trail. However, digging dirt and carrying rocks around all day is not the best prep for a mountain bike race.

I woke up with a sore knee and pretty dead legs, and cast about desperately for an excuse to skip the race. None being readily at hand, I picked up my teammate Angel and headed up to Napa for the race. Angel'd never ridden the race, and I filled her in on some of the salient features of the course.

We got there in plenty good time, and spent some nervous energy spinning around the track to warm up. Morgan Fletcher and Mike Hartlaub were there to round out the Sheila Moon crew, along with plenty of our friends from Roaring Mouse and Team Wrong Way.

As usual, they started us in waves, and at the whistle my group (the Sport men categories, basically) hammered up the paved road to the singletrack bottleneck. I saw one singlespeeder get ahead, and then for the next few miles, I held my own. The first part of the lap is pretty twisty, and all the time I've been spending on the Pine Mountain paid off, as I was able to wrestle the big beast almost flawlessly through even the tightest of corners, holding my place in the conga line (and occasionally passing), even as I struggled to turn the pedals slowly enough to not whack into the guys spinning away in their grannies.

A couple miles in to the first lap the guy in front of me bobbled as someone was trying to pass, and a half dozen guys came by, including at least two single speeders, one of whom was my friend and former team mate John Blackwell. I stuck on Johns wheel for the next few miles, and eventually passed both him and the other guy who'd gotten past me.

With the exception of the one very steep section that almost everybody hiked, I was able to ride most of the rest of the lap, managing somehow to keep enough traction despite the loose conditions on a few of the climbs. I felt pretty good, considering the state of my legs, and although I'd lost track of how many folks in my class were ahead of me, I knew there were at least a half-dozen or so behind, so I was doing OK. I knew there were a couple ahead of me, though, because I could see them as we slogged up a climb that I only could think of as the Single Speed Trail of Tears: a long climb that was just gradual enough to make it hard to stand up and really stomp up the hill, but steep enough that sitting through it hurt a lot. I was at the end of a line of five or so singlespeeders (male and female), and nobody was making much headway over anyone else.

The most memorable feature of the course is the Whoops, three closely-spaced rocky gullies near the end of each lap. They are all ridable, but require a certain amount of fearlessness in the approach to maintain enough speed to get up the other side (Murphy shot a few clips of the gullies last year). As I hit these on the first lap, I realized I had not warned Angel about them, proving I'm not the best course scout around.

At the beginning of my second lap, I had my only mishap of the day. The course turned into the woods on a very loose downhill. The ground was so torn up that the riders ahead were raising huge amounts of dust. I made the mistake of trying to peer through the clouds to steer down the hill, and managed to wash out. Fortunately, I was able to unclip on the down side, and kept the bike between me and the ground.

The rest of the second lap was pretty uneventful. Again I was able to ride almost every climb, and passed a couple single speeders on the steeper ones. As I hit the Trail of Tears, I saw one of my rivals dangling twenty or thirty seconds ahead. Unfortunately, I couldn't coax any additional effort out of my legs to close the gap. As I hit the last quarter mile till the end, I could see someone closing fast behind me. I didn't know whether he was riding geared or singlespeed, but I hoped the former, since he was closing pretty damn fast on the flats.

The race ends with 3/4 of a lap of an asphalt running track, and once I rounded the first turn there, I looked back to see if I could see whether I had to worry about the guy behind me. As I looked over my right shoulder for him, he wailed past me on the left. I was relieved to see he was running gears, and was in fact Peter who I know from SF Urban Riders.

As I waited for Angel to finish the organizers posted preliminary results. I was shocked to discover that I'd not only knocked off 19 minutes from the previous year's time, but had come in third in my category!

I've never had the opportunity to stand on a podium before, so I was a little unprepared when my time came, as you can see:

My high came pretty quickly to an end, however, when my car broke down on the Bay Bridge on the way home.


Dirty Mike said...

good work sasha

Slonie said...

Congrats, Sasha! Great writeup, and way to hold it down!

Murph's videos of the Whoomps don't communicate nearly how big they really are... Wheee!