I have raced national championship events in three disciplines in a single calendar year. This little gem of a fact was pointed out to me on the eve of the USA Cycling Cross Country National Championships, giving me little chance to dwell on its significance. I raced Cyclocross Nationals last January in Madison, WI. Two weeks ago, I was melting in Augusta, GA as I supported my Team TIBCO teammates to four podiums at Road Nationals – including Megan Guarnier’s national road title. This past weekend, I left the skinny tires behind as I headed to Mountain Bike Nationals in Sun Valley, ID.
After the cross country race on Saturday, I had completed a personal albeit unintentional trifecta of sort in competing in three national championship events in a single year. Taking it one step further, after the short track race on Sunday, I have also ridden myself onto the national championship podium in three different discipline over the course of my career. I have never been that great about tooting my own horn, but I have to admit that it was pretty cool to see people take notice of that accomplishment.
I have been asked why I chose to race nationals. Well, why not? I was in Sun Valley last year as a spectator. I stood on the sidelines and I tweeted about the race. I had people come up to me and tell me that I should have been racing. Not that I ever do things just because I’m told I should do them – but it definitely left an impression. It would have been hard to race here last year because Cascade started a few days after nationals ended. This year, the timing was different. Plus, I’ve had a ton of fun with the mountain bike races I’ve managed to fit into my schedule, and I knew this weekend would be no different.
Now, while I knew the weekend would be fun, I also knew the course would leave a lot to be desired (and that’s putting it mildly). The organizers were limited by UCI regulations and local permitting, and the end result was a course that rates (way) low on the list of courses I’ve raced. The entire pro field was with me on this one.
Basically, the course was a six kilometer loop and averaged around 22 minutes per lap. Each lap included a nine minute climb – which meant nearly half of the course was climbing. The climb this year was a bit longer than the climb included on the course last year. Because of the steepness of the climb (max gradient of 27.2%! – check out my strava file from the race), people ended up walking parts of the climb last year. To prevent that, organizers added four switchbacks. The switchbacks gave us a chance to catch our breath periodically and eliminated the need to walk, but they lengthened the climb and screwed with any semblance of rhythm we could establish. Still, I was happy they were there – especially on the last couple laps. The climb wasn’t awful during my recon, but on the first lap of the race, I was completely gassed and wondering how in the world I would manage to make it up four additional times.
A less than thrilling descent immediately followed the climb although it still required full concentration. There was barely a chance to regroup or catch our breath before we hit the tight sections of loose, rutted out single track. The descent left little room for mistakes because there was a drop off on one side. An error could mean being pitched over the ledge.
Most of the switchbacks require rear tire slide, but a few times it didn’t quite work out as intended and I actually had to stop myself from sliding right over the side. I never did go over the edge, but I was reminded often enough that my descending still could use some (or a lot) of work. It was tough. I was totally gassed going up the climb, and the descent kept me at the limit, too
As we came out of the wooded descent we approached the rock drop that I was too scared to ride last year. Instead, I rode the bail out loop. I knew I wouldn’t have that option this year, so I went out with my Cal Giant teammates, Tobin and Cody, and I followed their lines. I did it the first time I tried, and I felt okay about. I went back later to do it again on my own, and although I still had a death grip on my handlebars, I managed that, too.
I become more nervous the more I thought about it, though. It’s one thing to stand at the top, look at the rock drop, have a think about it and give it a go with a clear head. It’s something different altogether to be in the middle of the race and completely on the limit before giving it a go – well, it’s something completely different for me, anyway. I’m not sure that other people were that concerned about it. Watching the junior races the day before I raced made me realize that the rock drop was far scarier in my head than in reality, so come race day, I rode the rock drop one more time and told myself to quit thinking like a roadie – and I did.
After the rock drop, we turned onto a loop around the ski lodge. From the loop, we hit a man made rock garden and went over a fly over. Neither were super challenging. They were simply features added in an attempt to make the course more interesting. Off the flat ski lodge section, we headed right back up to the soul-sucking climb.
I went into the race expecting little but hoping for the best. I haven’t had enough experience racing mountain bikes this year to really have a good sense of how I stack up. I know what my strengths are, and I recognize my weaknesses, but I guess I don’t know where they rate compared to the strengths and weaknesses of others. In the back of my mind, I was hoping for a top ten – but it wasn’t anything I shared with anyone ahead of the race.
I was called up almost dead last. Only two people were called after me. I wasn’t expecting a better call up, but I wasn’t sure how much of a disadvantage my bad call up would be
The race started, and obviously I was at the way, way back. It’s difficult to pass going up the climb. The gravel was so loose, so there really was only one line to take. I could have chosen to jump out in the looser gravel, but that would have been a crap shoot. Even though I could have been going harder on my own, I decided slow and steady up the climb was better than loose gravel where I could have lost a wheel or had to risk putting a foot down.
Given my strategy, I remained towards the back of the field during the entire first lap. I reminded myself that it was a matter of biding my time up the climb and passing where I could. There wasn’t a lot of room to pass on the descent either, and it quickly became obvious that most of the passing would need to be done on the bottom flat section around the ski lodge.
With the course challenges, it became a race of attrition. Eventually, everyone sort of slotted into place, and as that happened, I was able to ride myself into the top ten. On the fourth of five laps, I was in eighth place. I was focusing on maintaining a steady pace up the climb for the last time, when Erin Huck blew past me. She had come out of nowhere. I didn’t see her gaining on me, so when she fly by, I was really taken aback. It was smart on her part to expend the extra energy where she did to open up the gap knowing I didn’t have enough to close it.
I still had a good gap on tenth, so I put my head down and chugged toward the finish. I kept a relatively safe pace and avoided mistakes on the way down to secure the ninth. I had done it – met my secret goal – and I was pretty thrilled. Thrilled and eager to see what I could do with short track the next day.