Last weekend, Durango. This weekend, Vail. As with the Ironhorse Classic, I have long heard rave reviews of the Teva Mountain Games, and I snapped up the chance to race in Vail this weekend when I realized my scheduled allowed for it.
People come out of the woodwork for the mountain bike race and uphill time trial because of the money on offer. There is a $10,000 prize purse – equal prize money for men and women – for each of the races. Unfortunately for me today, there was a lot of money on offer but none of it went into my pocket.
I lined up on the start line with a lot of really strong women today. Georgia Gould, Kelli Emmett, Heather Irmigir, Erin Huck, Teal Stetson-Lee, etc. It was a who’s who of women’s mountain biking in the US. As we waited to start, I was mentally reviewing who would be at Mountain Bike Nationals in Idaho next month. There aren’t many women who will race in Sun Valley who weren’t toeing the line in Vail, too. The super strong field is drawn in by the already mentioned gigantic prize purse and the atmosphere.
I pre-rode the course on Friday, and I knew it was going to be an undeniably difficult course for me. Each of the seven mile laps included a huge chunk of climbing – and when we weren’t going up, we were going down. I have to admit I was pretty nervous about all the descents. Although none of the downhill portions were that technical in a traditional sense, they would feel technical for me because they were so fast. I imagined I would struggle through those sections as I attempted to match pace with the more seasoned mountain bikers.
(Spoiler alert: I imagined correctly)
I was given the advice to race conservatively on the first lap because of the altitude (8,000+ feet), the characteristics of the course and the length of the race (I would end up spending more than two hours in the saddle). As I started to work out how the race would unfold, that’s what I had in my head. Play it safe on the first of three laps. Follow wheels. Ride within myself.
While this was sound advice, I also knew that the first section of single track was steep and included a couple of tight turns. It would be hard to follow wheels through this section, so I wanted to be towards the front here. As I waited for our start after the pro men took off, these two slightly conflicting thoughts were bouncing around in my head.
I ended up having one of my best starts – or maybe everyone else knew enough not to go out so hard. Either way, I ended up taking the hole shot, and I led the field through the first 300 meters of the race. Once I safely made my way through the steep, tight section that forced me to reconsider my conservative approach to the start, the course flattened out slightly. I sat up to allow other people to come around me, and I also gave myself a chance to recover a little bit.
As soon as I let up, Georgia put her stamp on the day. She took off with Kelli and Heather trailing close behind. That’s the last I saw of the three of them until after the race.
Another small group of four riders formed in front of me. I trailed right off the back of this group as we started what would amount to about 20 minutes of climbing. I had them in pretty close contact as we neared the top of the climb, but I told myself not to worry about the catch now. I reminded myself there was lots of racing to come, and that I didn’t need to burn all my matches right then in an attempt to gain contact. In hindsight, I wish I had made that effort, burnt a match, because once we hit the downhill, they went through that section so much faster than I did. I never saw them again.
People passed me on the descent, so not only did I not catch the four in front, I was getting caught. It was pretty frustrating, but given my skill set and experience, there really wasn’t much I could do about it other than remind myself to keep my chin up and ride my own race.
I came through the finish of the first lap and headed into the second. It was more of the same but this time I did some yo-yo’ing. I would pass people on the climb only to have them pass me on the descent. Make up time on them on the next climb. Have them pass me on the next descent.
(Does this sound familiar? If you read my Ironhorse report, you probably remember the exact same scenario playing out in the road race.)
Overall, I finished ninth. I guess considering the women I’m racing against and their various backgrounds, I should feel somewhat satisfied with the result – and in a way, I do. This is my third discipline. At this point in my career, cyclocross is my primary focus and my long-standing road career (14 years!) takes up spot two. I have to remember I’m mountain biking mostly for fun. Well, as a fun way to enhance my preparation for ‘cross. All things considered, ninth isn’t that bad.
But – and you had to know there would be a but – it’s hard not to feel frustrated when I lost most of my time descending. It’s just something I really want to be better at – and I want to be better at it right now. Yes, I know it takes time and practice to feel comfortable. No, knowing that doesn’t make it any easier watching a group only a few bike lengths ahead of me rider out of my reach when we head downhill.
This particular rustration aside, I had fun out there today. It’s such an encouraging group. There was constant positive chatter. If I was passing someone or being passed, I would get a “Great job!” or “You’ve got this!” or “Looking good!” thrown my way. The comments reminded me how friendly everyone sincerely is within the mountain biking community. Georgia tweeted me tonight “Welcome to the Dark Side.” I had to laugh. This is hardly the dark side. While mountain biking may be more rough and tumble than the road, this ‘dark side’ is much more low key, friendly and encouraging than most racing I’ve experienced.
Tomorrow, I time trial. A dark side of a different kind…..