Every cyclist at some point falls victim to the Scylla and Charybdis of bike racing: bonking and cramping. I was no different and soon became wise to dipped Mojo bars, shot blox, endurolytes, electrolyte powder and other examples of better living through chemistry.* But as in the ancient myths, sailors would steer clear of one danger only to face another and so to it was with me at Downieville.
I did not bonk but I cramped like… well… like a very bad word. How about mother fucker?
Early in the morning Derrick drove me, Matt, Caitlin, Chris and Wheeler into town so we could pick up our race packs and numbers. To pass the time Matt asked who had ridden Downieville before - turns out that Caitlin, Dustin and I were the only ones going in blind. When Chris hears this, he gets all concerned, Matt on the other hand is jealous that we are about to pop our Downieville cherries. As you can imagine, I found these diametrically opposed viewpoints both terrifying and exciting.
After collecting our packets we stood around a course map while Chris, Matt and Wheeler pointed out various parts of the course. Names were tossed out and favorite portions of the course were mentioned but it was a little like when friends start yakking on and on about people you’ve never met - none of it stuck. And little black lines on an 8.5x11 sheet of paper, no matter how graphically described, fail to do justice to the wonders and horrors that awaited. Sometimes you need to see it for yourself and as we headed back to the car, Matt pointed out the start line and then to the top of the mountain “the climb ends up there”. Yikes!
Back at camp and resplendant in my team jersey and new pink lightning socks (color matched to the team kit and my bike!) I made last minute adjustments to my beloved Specialized hardtail 29’er (admittedly not the right weapon for the job). Since I had finally broken down and bought a camelbak I decided to save some weight by removing my bottle cages (I probably would have saved more weight by burping or farting - I'll admit, this was crazy behavior). Chris saw me engaged in this insanity and cautioned me to keep at least one since running out of water would be pretty easy. I was at first dubious thinking that my 2L Camelbak would save my bacon but in the end caution won out and I put one back on.
At the Skyline race (link) I had hit upon a new strategy for consuming electrolyte pills - I would pre-open my shot blox packages and smoosh a capsule into the first piece. That way, as I ate up the blox I could also get dosed at the same time. As an added bonus, you don't have to struggle to open the packages and you are less likely to litter the results on the course, an act of such lazy carelessness that it never ceases to vex me. Some poor schmuck has to pick all that crap up kids.
After a quick nosh I downed 3 bottles of water and rode over to the start with Derek. Since I was early I took the opportunity to warm up on the highway. I can not stress how much better I feel when I get the chance to do this before a race - highly recommended.
Time was running out so I headed back over to the start and started pushing my way through the beginners and inject myself into the tail of the sport mob. Our start is at 9:35 but it is already at least 85 degrees and it is forecast to go over 90 - uh oh. And then without much fanfare - we’re off! What followed was just reams of the most embarassing form of half pedalled half walked bicycle locomotion as the pack struggles to get moving. May Woo is next to me at the start and I try hard not to smash into her as people stop and start with reckless abandon.
But finally pedals turn, gears mesh and the epic slog begins. For the longest time I’m feeling pretty great. In some bizarre inversion of starting order it seems that all the slowest people were in front and all the fastest people were behind me because I am passed by metric assloads of people all while passing imperial assloads of my own. Weird.
And we climb, and climb, and climb and climb and then climb some more. After that - we keep going up. This proceeds for a very long time. All the while I’m still feeling strong despite the blazing heat and I am relieved at how easy the camelbak makes it to stay hydrated.
Did I mention that after all this we are maybe only half way up? You can guess what follows: more climbing. At some point Chris K catches me and I just can’t stay with him although I gamely try. It’s soon after that we hit the first hike-a-bike as the gravel loosens up a bit and people start getting off their bikes en masse. I struggle to ride through it but like the others I too succumb and start walking.
This is when the trouble starts. One of my hamstrings starts to lock up - not badly, but it’s very disquieting this early in the race. I hydrate up, eat some food and start riding again. Hi Sasha - bye Sasha!
Up ahead I can hear some music and I think “surely this must be near the top, maybe it’s even Murphy’s aid station!”. Alas no - just a couple of red necks swillin’ budweisers and playing tunes out of their truck. I think surprisingly uncharitable thoughts and ride on.
RIght about now Matt catches up and I break down and ask him how much further - he says something like another 3 miles and I get a little disheartened. At least we are finally getting some tree coverage. Up ahead the trail steepens and I try to ride over a root I shouldn't have. I’m forced off the bike and pow - now my calves are locking up. I walk out the cramps and when the pain subsides enough I jump back on and continue the upward grind.
But mercifully the trail starts to flatten out and even dip down a bit. Yeehaw! Somehow this re-energizes me and I’m inspired to slip into the big ring and reclaim some of the positions I dropped. Oddly, most people seem to be taking it real easy here - what gives?
Up ahead I can hear cheering and hey what’s that glittery sign? Oh yeah! Murphy’s Aid station! Just seeing the sign makes me feel five pounds lighter and five years younger. I’m out of the saddle and powering up to the top. I roar by the station and grab a margarita although I sagely only drink a couple mouthfuls before I toss it aside.
Alright! Time to hit the downhill! Uh… no. There is still the final indignity of one more stretch of climbing and the years and weight pile back on. Ok - up we go. Damn it.
But finally at long last I can see the single track. It’s all rolling and smooth and it is pointed mostly down. I hit it and start working the big 29er down the awesome swoopy-licious-ness. Out of my way suckers - it’s passing time. I can’t believe I’m catching people on full suspension bikes but there’s no stopping me now.
We emerge at the bottom and hit another fire road section. More big ring, more passing - hot damn! The fire road flattens out and even starts climbing a little and this is when Wheeler catches up to me. The cramps are still with me but they’re pretty mild and I find that with judicious pedaling and trading off of leg effort I can manage them. We ride together for awhile until I ask him how far away the next downhill is. It’s just over the next rise and that’s all the motivation I need. I’m back out of the saddle over the hump and it’s back to more sweet, sweet down grade.
This part of the course, the fire road that is just sick with giant baby heads has a name, but I’m just going to call it the orphanage. It’s fast and gets increasingly steeper and I’m having an awesome time. Yet again I am passing people although now I am also getting passed by just ridiculously fast descenders. You kids is crazy!
We enter a section of steps (this is a fireroad? for what - hummers?) and two guys alongside the course yell out encouragement “totally rideable”. True enough and I emerge unscathed although at least one of the people I just passed eats it.
But the good times won’t last - on a particularly bumpy section I take a bad line and start edging towards the upper edge of the trail. My front wheel catches and I have that sick realization that in a few short seconds I’m going over the bars. 3-2-1 lift-off! But perhaps because I’m prepared I can tell it’s not going to be so bad. I’m clawing at the scraggly trees alongside the trail to break my fall and avoiding getting caught up in the bike which clatters away from me down the trail. I hit the ground and know that I haven't hit too hard - it’s just cuts, no real bruises or contusions. I made it! I stand up and start to move out of the trail to let other riders get by.
It’s at this moment that my left leg goes into full rebellion and my quad locks up so hard that my leg involuntarily straightens and I fall over. I’m so stunned that I momentarily wonder if I have actually broken my leg. But no - it’s just a cramp, an awful, awful, super painful cramp. I can see the section near my knee twitching.
Riders are flying by me asking if I’m alright and all I can do is grit my teeth and say “it’s just cramps - I’m fine”. I lay on the ground and make suffering noises not unlike the classic Family Guy bit:
Eventually I am able to at least hobble over to my bike and get it out of the trail. Mercifully there’s no damage. I grit my teeth struggle back onto the bike and solider on. Hey there’s Sasha fixing what I believe was the first of the three flats he would suffer that day. Aw geez.
Up ahead the road ends and we enter what I will dub the Submarine Forest because of all of its tricky roots and slippery rocks hidden under shallow pools of water. The cramps in my legs have merely subsided so I tread really carefully through here. I make a small mistake and pow my calves cramp up so bad I have to stop again. It’s right about now that I realize that my camelbak is pretty much dead - uh oh. Good thing Chris talked me into keeping that bottle - I hope it’s enough.
Behind me I hear a voice calling my name, hey it’s Ted! We press on through the forest and I see a couple guys directing us to take the right line. Screw it - I chicken out and start running. Remember kids - running down shit is always faster than crashing down it even if it is slower than actually riding it.
We continue on through the forest through shit that is rapidly getting more and more technical. I can feel Ted breathing down my neck so when the next gnarly section pops up I eat my inner chicken and try to ride it. Below I can see some other sucker on the ground who had just crashed so I try to steer around him. My bravado is short lived - I stick the front wheel and launch over the handlebars and directly on top of him. The hilarious part is that he apologizes to ME for crashing before me. “Uh no dude, I’m apologizing to you for landing on top of you”.
He picks me and my bike up like rag dolls and we’re off again. Oh man do I hurt, but the terror and sheer determination not to go down again just barely manages to keep the pain at bay. And down and down we go. Ted sees his opportunity and scoots by - bye Ted!
Typically I find that when I am racing hard two voice compete in my head for attention. The whiney, pleady one is typically first to emerge and usually says shit like “woah, take it easy hero, it’s not like you’re going to win this” or later it might say “is this fun? this isn’t fun - why are we doing this again?” and so forth. When I am able to find moments to recover the other voice, all shrill and screechy starts up. “Why the hell did you just let that guy get by?” or echoing Murphy “for the love of god get off the brakes” and the like.
Today, it seems that the rigors of the course had beaten the second voice senseless, leaving only the first to pick apart my will to continue. We hit a smooth section of fire road and I catch back up to Ted and try to keep the whining out of my question “how much further is it Ted?”
I was hoping for a nice small number but Ted replies “6 or 7 miles - first some smooth fast stuff then some nasty pointy shit.” I immediately conjured up an image of riding singletrack from one end of San Francisco to the other. Totally doable and under normal circumstances it would have even been highly enjoyable but today this was terrible news. But the finish lies on ahead so once again it’s time to get out of the saddle and work towards the next transition. And on we go.
We enter the fast swoopy section through the forest and I can tell that I’m really starting to lose it because people are passing me like crazy. Mentally I am trying to calculate how far we’ve gone and my brain is throwing up all kinds of wild overestimations. There is still a ways to go.
Finally we reach the river and I reason that we’ve got to be getting close since Downieville is right on the water. Here the course gets real narrow and rocky and with a highly unforgiving dropoff. Realizing the peril of small mistakes being magnified into very large ones this is where I stop racing and focus on surviving. I don’t even try to ride up a big rock formation and say goodbye to Ted for the last time. Bye Ted.
Up ahead, a fire road. Ah thank the maker - surely this is the end. Nope - we scream down a hill and hit more single track. It seems like this day will never end not unlike this blog post.
But at long last I pass a couple of spectators wearing flip flops and my brain seizes on the notion that they must have hiked up from town and it can’t be far now. And at long last it’s true. I fly down the last section of fire road and before me stretches a vision of peace and serenity that is so beautiful it almost makes me cry.
Pavement. Smooth, smooth pavement.
I pull up next to a guy and ask him how much further - he guesses it’s about a mile. It’s like he flipped a switch - all of a sudden racing mode is reengaged and I drop him and his buddies without even trying. One of them gamely gets out of the saddle and tries to catch up, but I’m in the big ring and charging up the final hill like it’s not even there.
I can’t see anyone up ahead but I pull the final stretch as hard as I can - I am done letting places go. I roar into the finish lane and slalom through the hay bales as one of the organizers screams at me to slow the fuck down.
At the end is a man and next to him are huge boxes of water. He hands me one and I kill it. It tastes awesome. I crawl off my bike and ask him for another and he obliges. This one tastes even better.
I made it - I am done. OMG I have never been so happy to be done. My bib is good for a free beer. There is an open fire hose at the fire station. I kill my beer and I want another one. I go over to the grocery store and order a jalapeño burger with bacon and get a six pack of beer. I take my newly acquired treasures and join the rest of the moonies who are camped out across the street like a bunch of lycra-clad homeless people.
This indeed a very strange and almost ironic way to have a good time.