Although I’ve raced almost a dozen off-road triathlons, Greenbrier was my first pure mountain bike race. Mountain biking is currently my weakest leg in XTERRA, and I have been wanting to try mountain bike racing to push myself to the next level.
After a ride at Fountainhead Regional Park two weeks ago, I spoke with a biker who turned out to be the race director of the Greenbrier Challenge, a Mid-Atlantic Super Series (MASS) event in its 10th year. His pitch sounded good, so last weekend I went up to Greenbrier State Park to check out the course; for riders familiar with other Maryland trails, the course can best be described as “Gambrill Lite” – very rocky with moderately long, challenging climbs and fast descents. The race course was very clearly marked, a full week in advance of the race. There is also an excellent online “pre-ride” video by bulldogmountainbikers.com (posted below), which gave me a good idea of what I would be getting into.
I have never had a USA Cycling license before, so I read up on their rules about rider classification. First-time amateur riders are limited to Category 2 (intermediate) or Category 3 (beginner) regardless of ability or experience racing in other disciplines. On the morning of the race, I purchased a Cat 2 license online, prior to heading out.
I arrived at Greenbrier State Park about an hour before the Cat 2 race start. Race-day registration was simple and quick. I assembled my bike and rode out to warm up on the campground roads inside the park. It was quite cold that morning, and it took longer than I anticipated to get warmed up. By the time I arrived at the starting line bike corral, about 10 minutes before start time, practically the whole field was lined up. This put me in an unfortunate starting position on the outer edge of the M19-29 cattle pen.
After a few minutes of chatting with the other riders, including one on an Open Cycle O-1.0 (the first one I’ve seen on a trail other than my own), we were off. I got pinned on the outside of the group, and hit the uphill double track near the back of the pack.
On the first uphill, I was able to move up to the middle of the pack, but was surprised by the frenetic pace of the competitors at the front. The first descent was unnerving with so many riders in close proximity, many of whom I would have liked to pass. I got held up again when a rider crashed in front of me on a sharp left turn, and a third time in the first rock garden when several competitors ahead of me slowed down. Once we hit some open double track, I found clear space and got into a good rhythm.
On the first long uphill, I encountered several riders in the concurrent marathon race. I reached a logjam of riders at one of the steepest points on the climb, and ended up falling over backwards. After hiking up the remaining steep pitch and remounting, I had lost sight of the front my race. I re-caught and successfully passed the rest of the marathon group on the remaining portion of the climb and pushed forward.
I enjoyed the next fast and twisting downhill, and skidded and splashed over a creek crossing and particularly muddy section on the flats. By the second major climb, I regained sight of the front of my race. By the time we came back around to the starting corral, I had nearly caught up with them.
On the second lap, I yo-yoed back and forth with the rest of the Cat 2 leaders; I charged on the uphills and stayed cautious on the descents.
By the third lap, I settled into my pace, and moved into the lead (although I wasn’t 100% sure of that at the time as I had lost track of how many riders had been ahead of me). The third lap was especially difficult to keep my speed up, as I encountered several lapped Cat 2 riders in addition to the marathon riders. That didn’t slow me down too much though, and at the end of the third lap I crossed the finish line happy with my first foray into mountain bike racing.
After I pre-rode the course the previous week, I had wiped some dust off the bike and it was ready to put in the car. Two days prior to the race, however, the entire area had heavy rainfall. Several sections of the course were still covered in water and mud. Thus, every bike and every rider in the race were also covered in mud. To all of our benefit, the Wicked Wash crew was on hand providing complimentary bike washes.
I rode my shiny clean bike over to the campground showers and washed the mud off myself, changing into clean clothes before heading back to the finish line. I enjoyed the scenery, nice spring weather, and camaraderie with other riders watching the rest of the Cat 2 race and start of the Cat 1 and Pro races while waiting for the podium presentation.
Podium finishers received a Bontrager tire, a Park Tools multitool, and a water bottle in addition to a really sweet medal made out bike chain links.
I came in first place in the M19-29 Cat 2 race with a total time of 1:20:20, nearly two minutes ahead of the second place rider. I was very happy with my pacing; I averaged 26:46 per lap, within all laps within 13 seconds of each other.
Overall, I had a great time at my first MTB race, and I was very impressed by the professional management of the race day’s activities. I look forward to participating in more regional mountain biking events, and returning to the 11th annual Greenbrier Challenge next year.