In an effort to improve my mountain bike leg for XTERRA and commune with Mid-Atlantic MTB racers, I started competing in USA Cycling cross country races this season. After winning my first race as a Cat 2 rider, I requested an early license upgrade so that I could have the chance to qualify for Cat 1 nationals at the MASS Iron Hill Challenge. USA Cycling officials graciously granted my request, and we headed to Delaware for my first Cat 1 race.
We drove up on Saturday so that I could pre-ride the course. It is one of the tightest and most twisting I have ever encountered, making it very difficult to maintain speed. When you aren’t winding your bike through turn after turn, there are also plenty of rocky sections and log rolls to keep it interesting. There are also a couple of fun and fast downhills to keep the adrenaline going.
During three pre-ride laps on Saturday I worked on finding lines for the turns and improving my “in slow, out fast” cornering. Unfortunately I was feeling fatigued from the past two weeks of racing and stress at work, and was not able to fully enjoy the challenging singletrack.
On Saturday evening, we checked out the college area of Newark, which is a gem of a town. I was surprised to see that most of the streets downtown have bike lanes, and the University of Delaware campus is covered in bike racks. After a quick dinner, we headed back to the hotel for a long 11-hour sleep.
We arrived at Iron Hill Park around noon on Sunday, and checked in for the 1:30pm Cat 1 race. I soaked in the pleasant spring air and sunshine on a warmup ride from the safety of a 10-foot wide shoulder on the road in front of the park. Unfortunately I still wasn’t feeling race-ready, but hoped to come around after getting out on the course.
At 1:15, riders began to congregate near the start. Another local DC racer who I met at Greenbrier two weeks ago, Matt Merkel, and I were both racing for the first time in Cat 1. He’s been in the MTB racing scene a little longer, and introduced me to some of the competition at the start line. The Pro men, Pro women, and Cat 1 U25 racers started in waves ahead of us, then the Cat 1 M25-29 riders were up.
My biggest weakness so far in cross county MTB racing is the mass start. I’m not much of a sprinter, and haven’t been exposed to mass starts coming from XTERRA. I learned a little something from the last race, and I had a great position at the center of the front line. However, I allowed myself to get cut off just after the start, and hit the single track near the back of the pack, again. To make matters worse, I felt my bag of tools and tube that I had strapped to my seat post fall off just after the start.
I was stuck behind some of the slower riders, and started making passes when the terrain opened up in the first half of the lap or so. I slipped on a crowded creek crossing and lost several places as I had to run my bike to find a good place to remount. Fortunately, I regained all of those places on the subsequent uphill, and tried to get into a good rhythm. Unfortunately soon thereafter, I shifted under load and dropped my chain. The chain was jammed in pretty tight, and took about 30 seconds to get back on. By this time, some of the Cat 1 M30-34 leaders that started a minute behind me were almost catching up.
I kept powering forward hoping I had worn out the bad luck. I had not. On a log jump shortly after, two riders came up behind me without calling out any warning and ran their bikes into me as I was jumping over the log. They fell on top of me, bikes included, crushing my back. I berated them for not calling out (or following any semblance of trail etiquette), but they were too busy swearing at each other to notice. I’ve never experienced anything like this, and hope that I don’t cross paths with these two again.
I stretched my back out, regained my composure, and decided to push on. At this point, I was in a good deal of pain and I could feel that my rear wheel had been knocked badly out of true in the crash causing a fair amount of brake rub. I was not confident riding forward with my now-rickety bike and no tools.
Fortunately, the rest was uneventful. I rode mostly alone for the remainder of the race, tried to block out the pain, and ride as smoothly as possible. I couldn’t put the hammer down, but I was happy that my back and bike were cooperating enough to continue racing. I even had a few spectators cheer me on, “Go Orange!”
I passed a few riders on the rest of the laps, and ended up finishing second in the Cat 1 M25-29 race to Matt Merkel. We pushed each other very hard two weeks ago at Greenbrier, where he unfortunately had mechanical problem near the end of the race that caused him to drop to fifth place instead of battling with me for the win. I was happy that two DC-area Cat 1 rookies took the top two spots on the podium this time.
I was pleased that I was able to have a smooth ride and stay composed despite the crash, but the circumstances cast a shadow on the weekend overall. I qualified for the Cat 1 M25-29 national championships in PA in July, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to fit in the trip due to a full schedule of XTERRA racing this summer. I’m looking forward to some R&R this week, and heavy use of my Trigger Point foam roller on my back. My next race will be XTERRA King of the Hill in New Jersey in two weeks, and I hope to be fully healed for a rematch with the east coast heavy hitters.