Posts tagged ‘mtb’
Wow, this will definitely be a season to remember. I battled hard in two season-long race series’ (is that the plural of series???) and ended up in 2nd place in both of them. On the road, the inaugural SRS (Southeastern Racing Series) was a phenomal series of five races spread across five states – Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, and South Carolina. Fields were really large averaging maybe 75 riders or more in the Pro/1/2 fields.
On the mountain bike, I started off my season with a surprise win at the Southern Cross ultra cx kick-off event. I started to look a bit deeper into the series with the aim of seeing how well I could do in the whole series as I was planning out my season. The seven race series was scored based on your best four races with points assigned based on your placing (1 point for 1st, 2 points for 2nd, etc…) Lowest point total wins. Three out of the seven races conflicted with my road racing schedule — including two which fell on weekends of SRS races. I came very close to winning it but fell short in a somewhat spectacular fashion. Skipping straight to that moment in yesterday’s Gravel Grovel race in Indiana, I came into the final cyclocross barriers (shown in the pic below from my pre-ride on Wednesday) with a shot at winning the race and the series if I could only outsprint the rider with me. But the rider with me was a skilled cyclocross racer, Andrew Messer, who dismounted his cross bike, hopped both barriers, and was completely across the bridge by the time I was across the first barrier. With less than half a mile to race after the bridge, there was no way I could catch him.
Finishing the race anywhere in the top 3 was still good enough to give me the series win as long as there was at least one rider between me and the current series leader, Mike Simonson. But it wasn’t to be – Mike was riding so strong and a couple minutes later he emerged around a bend in the road, crossed the final creek, and crossed the finish line exactly one place behind me giving him the series title by a single point. Had he been one place farther down, we would have been tied on points with me winning the tie-breaker of the placing in the series finale.
The outcome of an entire season of racing came down to the final moments of the final race. Both moments – my getting dropped at the barriers and Mike’s successful creek crossing on a cross bike – capture an essential part of the essence and beauty of the ultra-cx race series. Ultra-cx races are gaining popularity so rapidly because they represent the perfect marriage of all the core disciplines of cycling (road, cross, and mountain biking). Plus, the courses picked are epic — stretching the road racer’s technical handling on gravel and trails, stretching the mountain biker’s time trial and solo mentality with the strategy of drafting and stretching the cross racer with the endurance of a four hour event instead of a 60 minute event. I’m hooked.
We spent the night in one of the cabins right there at the Midwest Trail Ride hosting the start of the race. This was super convenient and a bonding experience for our family of four taking up the two bunk beds in the cabin as the temp dropped down into the upper teens early in the night before starting to rise throughout the night to the middle 20s by morning. By the start of the race the temp was in the 30s and rapidly rising. I realized within five minutes of the start of the race that I was way overdressed.
We took off out of the horse camp and out the paved road heading towards the first climb of the day up to the hickory ridge fire tower. The pace was much faster than I was expecting, but I managed to work my way to the very front by the time we hit the gravel. The field of 205 quickly dwindled down to a group of maybe 25 riders still contesting the race by the time we reached the fire tower. By the time we made it to the Story Inn checkpoint 1/3rd of the way through the race, there was only about 10 of us left in the lead group. We pacelined on a very flat road at speeds approaching 25mph. After we made the turnaround, we could see the entire race behind us as they passed us heading out to the checkpoint. There were two fast groups behind us. It was hard to see the composition of the groups as I was trying to make sure no gap opened to the rider in front of me as I was spinning out my 38×11 on the flat road.
I had gotten stuck behind a couple of the cyclocross riders on the first short section of singletrack so I wanted to try to get the holeshot for the second singletrack after the Story turnaround. Mike Simonson and Tim Proctor and just about everyone else in our group had the same idea so there was a bit of jockeying for position through the short parking lot leading into the singletrack. I entered third and had no problem keeping up. Tim dropped his chain and I went around content to just follow Mike up the trail. Tomasz Golas, who like me was also riding a mtb, was having none of it though and wanted to get around me even though I was keeping up just fine with Mike and going as fast as I wanted to go. The singletrack was quite narrow with only one good line which I was not going to give up to let him get around me. About halfway up the climb, though, there was a widening of the trail where it flattened out a bit and I let Tomasz around me. I believe he also went around Mike. When the singletrack kicked up again I took a bad line and ended up in a deep rut I couldn’t ride out of. I had to unclip and the rest of our group passed me before I could get going again.
In fact, I was off the back a bit by the time I got back up to speed and just barely managed to chase back on by the end of the singletrack. The next section was a long road section that eventually turned into a gravel climb. We hit the bottom of this climb at exactly 30 miles into the race. Having pre-ridden the course on Wednesday, I discovered that the fast line up the climb was in the leaves off the side of the road. The gravel was so loose and bouncy, you were much better off riding over the leaves and sticks on the side. Surprisingly some people chose to ride right up the middle of the gravel road expending a lot more energy than I was over on the side. I took this as a confidence booster knowing that I was conserving energy while other people were wasting it.
At the top of the climb we made a turn and then headed straight back down a fast paved section. I had pre-ridden so I knew the turns and wanted to see if we could hit 50mph in the race … didn’t quite happen but we came close – 49.4 mph. Our group was down to just five riders by this point. We continued to rotate and work well together, although there were a few attacks here and there. Unlike a road race where that would just kill the cohesion of the group, we seemed to dive right back into rotating and working whenever one of these attacks failed. I led the way into that singletrack because it came at the top of a steep hill. I hit it as hard as I could not wanting the people behind to get antsy and want to come around and I ended up dropping everybody through the muddy descent back out onto the gravel road.
I certainly wasn’t trying to get away at this point knowing how strong everybody in the group was riding. So I took the moment to eat a powergel and wait for them to catch back up. Then there was an attack that saw Tim Proctor ride away from us. A panic set in and we all chased eventually catching him before the tiny two house community of Tennessee, Indiana. On the “Polk Patch” rolling descent, Andrew Messer drilled it hard and our entire group flew down the long, gradual, rolling descent. I was at the back and really suffering the entire descent in heartrate ZONE 5. At the bottom high speed point, I got a little off balance and was heading straight for a chair one of the volunteers helping to manage the intersection had setup. I managed to slow down and get back in control of the bike but in the process of doing so came off the back of the already extremely fast paceline.
Keep in mind that the entire descent was on large gravel rocks with very little firm ground. Across the flat road at the bottom of the descent, the gravel continued and I had to chase really hard to get in touch with the group. In fact, I was just barely onto the back of the group when we hit the next hill. It was super steep and surprisingly this was much easier for me. I really feel like my mountain bike disc brakes were rubbing hard whenver I was hitting bumps at speed on descents and even the flat roads. But on the climbs, the brakes weren’t rubbing so the climbs were so much easier for me than the fast, bumpy sections on the gravel where my rear wheel was just bouncing all over the place. Thankfully, there was one more large climb and even though I was already hurting pretty bad, I went to the front to try to set a fast pace that would discourage any attacks.
It almost worked. My pace up the final climb was fast enough to gap the other four riders in our group, but it wasn’t fast enough to discourage Tim Proctor from attacking. He came flying by me like a rocket. I thought “well, that’s the end of my race” because there was no way I was going to be able to catch onto the back of the group. After a second or two when no one else came by, I looked back and saw that I had a good 50 meter gap on the rest of the group. At this point I was confused because I was expecting to be dropped and instead had dropped everyone in the group except for Tim.
My legs were screaming bloody murder because the section where Tim came by was flat and I just felt like my bike wasn’t moving anywhere nearly as fast as the amount of effort I was putting into the pedals. Still, I hit it as hard as I could and looked back again to discover that only Andrew had bridged across to me leaving Mike and Tomasz chasing not far behind. I had renewed hope again that perhaps I could still win the series, but I had given up winning the race b/c Tim was clearly on another level. Little did I know that he was actually in the Male 40+ race so Andrew and I were still racing for first place in our race (Male Open).
There was still over 9 miles left in the race, and I tried to work with Andrew, but it wasn’t going well. I drafted him close on the downhills and flats but was still struggling on my mountain bike on the gravel. And then every time it kicked up I would come around him thinking I could pull and he would immediately go off the back of my wheel. Then later, he attacked me twice and I was able to catch back up thinking “ok, that’s it I’m done pulling”. But then I would remember that Mike was somewhere back there and I needed to make sure that we stayed away. When we made the final turn back out onto pavement heading for the bridge, Andrew put in one more attack and gapped me. It took about 30 seconds for me to close the gap back down, and then I put in a counter-attack. I didn’t fully commit to it, though, when I saw that he grabbed my wheel right away. So I sat up to strategize again but by this point we had made it to the bridge and I’ve already described how that went down. In retrospect, my last hope at winning the race would have been to fully commit to that final attack and reach the bridge first with just enough of a gap to get over at least the 1st barrier and then we would probably be coming neck and neck into the finish so who knows how that would have turned out. But I essentially lost the race at the moment I eased up after attacking. A moment’s indecisiveness really staining/ruining what otherwise was a great season.
Still, huge shout-out to Mike for racing consistently throughout the season and especially yesterday at the Gravel Grovel. If he had faltered at all, then I would have taken the series from him. And he traveled to six out of the seven races placing really well with podium finishes in all but one of the events, whereas I only made it to the bare minimum of four races. So even though it felt like a lot of work, travel, and expense for this Alabama native to travel up to Indiana, Pennsylvania, and deep into the mountains of North Carolina (that drive was just as long as the Indiana drive!) Mike has put a lot more work and time into this so he truly is a deserving champion.
Here’s my heartrate data and the podium pictures -
You know a race is going to be epic if the pre-ride of the course is six hours long through amazing scenery like that shown in the pics above. We drove up from Birmingham late Tuesday night, and after sleeping in I set out to ride the whole course estimating it would be five hours at most. After getting lost in the national forest a couple times and bushwhacking a bit through what I’m 75% sure is part of the course, my pre-ride ended up being nearly six hours long. I ran out of food and water with nearly two hours left – so completely ravenous and bonked for the last climb and descent. The description for the race course is perfect – mix of road, mtb, and cross specific sections. This really is the perfect finale for the ultracx series. I mainly wanted to write a blog b/c I couldn’t instagram any of my pictures during the ride … too cold! Speaking of cold, the average temp for the ride was 25 degF starting out in the teens. This was a shock to my Alabama system as we really haven’t had any cold weather yet. 20 minutes in and my nose was burning from the cold wind. 20 minutes later though and I was climbing up a 15+% hill and fine for the rest of the day – except my second water bottle was drunk as a slushy four hours into the ride. Here are the rest of the pics I got:
1993 – Before my first mountain bike race – the 1993 Cumberland Classic at Sewanee, TN. 6th in the juniors and 25th in the beginners (there were 100 people in the race!). The bike pictured is a rigid fork mongoose alta with reflectors still on the wheels.
Picture this – the year is 1993. Parked outside Berry High School in Hoover, Alabama is a 1984 red chrysler fifth avenue with a mountain bike crammed inside it. The 3:00 bell rings, and a crazy bike finatic teenager races out of school to be the first out of the parking lot before flying down I-65 to Oak Mountain state park to do a lap of the bump trail before it gets dark. That teenager was me 20 years ago, and back then the trail ended at the camp road at the end of seven bridges (although I never heard that name until this year … not sure if it had a name back then). That’s where I liked to park because I didn’t have to do the extra drive up to the picnic area all the way to the parking lot.
I’d have my bike out in just a few minutes and taking off backwards up the seven bridges singletrack, connecting on the road through the parking area to the start of the bump trail (Mr Toad’s and Foreplay – again I believe these were not named until more recently). I would fly through these sections and then up Johnson’s Mountain all the way to the park boundary before flying down through the pine forest through the steep drop-off back down to the road. After a short jaunt on peavine road, you hit the trail again and started up the quarry climb through blood rock eventually spilling out onto the fire road. You could take the fire road all the way across the top and then down out to the main park road where the north trailhead is now. I would ride the road back to the starting point, and that was the entire loop. The connecting trails wouldn’t be created until a year or two later.
Fast forward 20 years, and now there is a 16+ mile mostly singletrack loop and nearly twice that much trail in spurs and connectors hosting two national/international level biking events (Bump ‘n Grind and Xterra), as well as running races and an amazing six hour race put on by Chainbusters. Add to that list an epic 100 miler – the brainchild of John Karrasch who set out to create a 100 mile race that would showcase as much of the singletrack as possible. The original idea was three 33 mile loops, but in the end some of the spurs were cut out, and a 25 mile loop was designed allowing for both a 50 mile and a 100 mile race.
Huge thanks to years and years of work by BUMP (Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedalers) http://bump.org/ and to John Karrasch for the initiative to put this race into action, and to Kenny Griffin and the entire Chain Buster crew for putting on an amazing race — hopefully the first of many, many more to come!
As soon as the race was announced, I knew I wanted to do it. My singletrack skills have deteriorated quite a bit from what I used to do on a 26″ mountain bike so I also knew that I would need to get out there and ride the trails more and try to get some of that skill back if I wanted to have any shot at all of doing well in the race. That was several months ago and fast forward through a busy life and busier than normal racing schedule (I haven’t written a blog in almost three months!) to this past Saturday where nearly 100 people lined up to race the Oak Ass 50 and Oak Ass 100.
I was running late but squeezed in on the front row next to Jacob Tubbs (Infinity Med-I-Spa). Kenny was driving the pick-up for the dash to the singletrack. We flew around the paved picnic area, and I tucked in close behind Jacob. We hit a hill and Jacob started to slow a bit given that he had been in the wind the whole time. I decided to hit it hard to get a few seconds advantage going into the single track. I looked back after a few seconds and both Jeff Clayton (Super Sport Athletic Wear) and Brian Roggeveen (Momentum Racing) had come with me. I swung out to the side right before the single track to let them around and then try to keep up with them through Seven Bridges. This worked GREAT as I followed Jeff and watched all his lines.
I had come off Jeff’s wheel and let another rider around towards the bottom of Seven Bridges but when we popped out on the Boy Scout road, I nailed it and was able to bridge back up to the small group. Entering the singletrack in fourth position behind Brian, Jeff, and one other rider I drilled it hard and was able to hold Jeff’s wheel through the rest of the single track. The rider I had let around crashed on one of the descents so that put me in third through the section of single track which climbs past the BMX track. I was nervous about the next section of singletrack after the climb, but I had Jeff’s line to follow and ended up holding his wheel all the way to the red trail.
Once we hit the red trail, I told Jeff I was going for the KOM and took off up the red trail. Brian was initially out of sight, but after a minute or so I could see him up ahead. The red trail is hard to go hard on not because it is steep but because there are medium sized unavoidable rocks diabollically placed at the exact spot where you have just gotten up to speed. These rocks bounce you up in the air and you lose all that momentum you worked so hard to create. I knew I was digging really deep and wasting lots of energy but I really wanted the KOM so I hit it hard finally catching Brian just before the steep section to the bridge. I didn’t want to take any chances with a dirt sprint so I hit it hard going past him and was hoping to get enough of a gap holding it to the top. I was pretty much blown with a quarter mile left to climb, but I had enough of a gap to hold on for the KOM.
I had originally told people after the race that Brian caught me across the top, but now that I think about it I also remember being the first into the bump connector with so many leaves covering all the rocks thinking that I was at a bit of a disadvantage not being able to see the trail clearly and wondering after 100 racers passed through if the lines would be easier to pick out. So I guess Brian caught me somewhere in Jekyll or right before the turn onto Jekyll. I don’t remember exactly where but I think it was early because Scott Staubach (Team Momentum) also caught me in Jekyll when I goofed up one of the large rocks before the rock shelf drop-off and that was after Brian had already passed me.
Scott was flying, though, because when I exited the technical section of Jekyll I could still see Brian but Scott had already passed Brian and was nowhere to be seen. I rode fast down the flowy part of Jekyll keeping Brian just barely ahead in my sights and thought I would catch him towards the bottom of the Peavine road. Brian was riding super well, though, and it wan’t until near the top of the second step that I finally caught him. I drilled it really hard again wanting to put as much distance between me and everybody else before the CCC singletrack and blood rock. I flew through CCC and was surpised to still have a lead heading into Blood Rock.
There were several people there so I tried to ride the whole thing not wanting to be a wuss and walk it. I made it past the blood rock and the tree, but decided to unclip and go down with one foot off for stability and then endoed when I hit the mud at the bottom. Super slow motion wreck, but my left knee got wedged between some part of the frame and the ground. And my right brake shift lever had rotated around the handlebars so that it was up on top of the bar. Whatever caused that also hurt my wrist because it was hurting then and still sore today (Monday – more than 48 hours after the race has been over).
Brian came flying past me while I was on the ground and I had a good vantage point to see how it was supposed to be done. I was laughing a bit and frustrated b/c if you look at it and see someone else ride it, you realize that the whole thing should be incredibly easy to ride but when you are there in the moment looking at the rocks, the trees, the water, it doesn’t seem easy at all. I was able to twist the brake levers back around the bars and take off again – but Brian was long gone putting a lot of time into me on the quarry descent. I’m sure I made up some time on Johnson’s Mountain but I never saw him again until over halfway through the next lap.
Before that happened, I was surprised not to get caught by anybody on the rest of that lap or even through seven bridges and the next section of trail before the BMX track. But then when I got to the BMX track, I looked back and saw that Jacob Tubbs was catching up to me. I figured he would catch me on the singletrack after the BMX climb – but as it turns out he ended up crashing. I didn’t know he had crashed so I was getting a lot of confidence from not getting caught on one of the singletrack sections that had worried me the most before the race.
I popped out on the fire road again still in third place behind Scott who would be over 5 minutes ahead of me by Jekyll according to John Karrasch who was stationed there all day at a spot where the course intersected itself briefly. Brian on the other hand was much closer ahead. In fact, I had caught Brian just before the top of the fire road but decided not to pass him since I knew he would be faster through the next sections.
I stayed about 50 meters behind him and ate and drank across the top of the climb. During the fast descent on the fire road, I noticed that my Garmin mount had come loose and was dangling on the underside of the bars. Fortunately, my Garmin was still connected to the mount so I pushed the whole thing back on top of the bars and then tried to slide it up closer to the stem where the bars are thicker … tapered bars drive me crazy! But the mount straps naturally wanted to pull back down the “bar slope” and loosen again. I was fiddling with this trying to make a last minute adjustment right before the entrance to the bump connector when I hit some loose rocks and went down hard unexpectedly.
I was not even halfway through my second lap and already crashed hard twice. This crash was high enough speed that I slid on the ground a bit. Nothing hurt bad but I was too afraid to look at my arm b/c it felt like skin was hanging off of it. I rode the bump connector refusing to look at my arm just in case there was actually skin hanging off. Turns out it was a bunch of leaves that were mixed with blood and sticking to my skin. They eventually fell off – but I was pretty disheartened wondering how I was going to survive without breaking any bones.
The thing that kept me going, though, was knowing that I was in the lead. Both Scott and Brian were doing the 50 mile race. This kept me motivated not to give up. I think if Jeff had been in front of me at this point, I would have just given up, gotten more cautious, and not even bothered to try and chase him down. But with a shot at still winning the race I kept pushing on hard. I thought my confidence would be wrecked for Jekyll but I ended up clearing the entire top half of Jekyll and only dabbing once on the bottom half. This was a big confidence booster for me so I nailed it hard again and was still able to see Brian at a few points on the flowy part of Jekyll.
Climbing up the Peavine road, I looked back to see Randy Kerr (Team Momentum) catching me. Brian was just ahead and here I was in the middle. I was closing on Brian, and Randy was closing on me. My memory is a fading a bit now, and I can’t remember exactly where Randy caught me but I ended up catching Randy again with less than two miles to race. He was having some sort of mechanical but hopped back on the bike when I passed. I let him pass me again shortly before the family trail and tried to keep up with him but he dropped me like a bad habbit.
I was starting to feel tired on my third lap and had run out of food towards the end of my second lap. I decided to slow down a bit and focus on my lines more and try to eat and rest up some on this lap. I still ended up setting three PRs on that lap (garrett’s gulch, quarry mtn descent, and johnson’s mountain) which just goes to show you the importance of technique over raw power in mtb-ing. I managed to clear both the top and bottom of Jekyll with no dabs but still a few seconds short of my PR from the 9 hour race last fall (I really feel like the top part of Jekyll has gotten harder to ride over the past year). The bottom is the about the same possibly slightly easier, but the top seems like it is definitely trickier to get your lines right without having to dab once or twice.
Even having tried to take the third lap easy, I was starting to deteriorate by the end of the lap having run out of food again. I don’t know why I hadn’t grabbed more when I stopped at the end of the second lap! I got a psychological boost, though, because when I came out of the family trail onto the road – there was my son Josiah on his mountain bike ready to ride with me past the water fountain to the start/finish. Kristine helped me get organized with food/gatorade/lights for the final lap. Then Josiah took off beside me and made it all the way through the parking lot before I headed out on the main road back down to start my final lap.
I had drank a coke and gulped down two powerbar gels while stopped so I took off like a rocket along the road down to seven bridges. I also tried to hit seven bridges, garrett’s gulch, and the bmx single track as hard as possible thinking that whoever was behind me would be putting time into me on the last lap. I had taken three or four more powerbar gels with me for that final lap. So I had lots of sugar to propel me through the first half of the lap, but I had gone through all my nutrition by the top of the fire trail with all of Jekyll left, the peavine road climb, blood rock, and Johnson’s Mountain still to go. I started to fade pretty bad towards the end, desparately looking for the mile number plates, and also thinking about the stew that would be waiting at the end. I was pretty sure of winning by this point, and I was having a ton of fun on the singletrack feeling much more confident so that helped me get through quite the sugar crash with 10 miles to go.
Josiah was waiting for me when I popped out of the family trail onto the road, and he road that last bit into the finish with me crashing as he turned around to join me. He hopped right back up, though, and we made it to the finish together where Kristine was waiting. Pete Foret grabbed my bike as I was pretty exhausted and I started to recap how everything went down at the inaugural oak ass 100 mile mtb race!
Jason Childre and Jeff Clayton would battle it out for 2nd and 3rd behind me never separated by more than a couple minutes. Kudos to everyone for lining up to tackle such an epic course – what an epic day!
Here’s my annotated heartrate data … there are so many speed spikes I decided to take them out of the graph so you can see the elevation data a bit better. You can see how hard I was pushing it for the KOM on that first lap.
The inaugural oak ass 100 mile mtb race podium. Left to right – Jason Childre (Yeti/Childre Nissan), Brian Toone (FGS Cycling), Jeff Clayton (Super Sport Athletic Wear), and Van Mixon (Super Sport Athletic Wear).
I was freezing cold and under-dressed – hence the hoodie. Here’s one without the hoodie while holding the giant trophy – triceps hurt so bad couldn’t even lift the thing all the way up in the air.
Oak Ass 100 mile mtb race – 1st place – with Kenny Griffin on the bullhorn
Once again, huge thanks and shout-out to BUMP for their amazing work creating world class singletrack right here in Birmingham. Also to John for not just dreaming up this race, but also hanging out for more than 9 hours in cold conditions at the Jekyll/Blood Rock split cheering everybody on, guiding people which way to go, AND giving time splits. Huge thanks to Lee Neal, too, who volunteered all day at the hot wheels smash spot where the course intersected itself. Plenty of visiblity though so no danger at all, but I’ve always wanted to race on a course that intersected itself at a 90 degree angle. I believe this is a first for me in 20 years of racing. And finally, thanks again Kenny for putting on another amazing race. Looking forward to the next one!
Epic. This year’s race was highlighted by the most epic course of the season and an epic battle for the win between me and Kyle Taylor. I ended up on the losing end of that battle, but I’m still really happy with the race. I gave it everything I had attacking Kyle eight times on the forest road and double-track knowing that he was going to ride the singletrack much faster than me. You can see the entire race (including the epic climbing) in the annotated heartrate plot below.
How awesome is the course? Let’s start with the starting area — a giant boat launch area with room for maybe 25 or more riders on the front row! After a short mad dash up the hill, you enter the sylaward trail system which is very fast singletrack with hardly any roots (woo-hoo!) I entered the singletrack fifth. Kyle got the hole shot and was gone. Behind him two other riders quickly separated themselves from the next group — which consisted of Jayfer Bezier, me, Jamie, and Will Fyfe in that order. Jayfer was riding the singletrack at just the right speed – so I was content to follow him … until Mike Lackey tacked onto our group. I knew he was fast in the single track, so I was nervous that people were going to start trying to pass so at the next opportunity I went ahead and passed Jayfer so I could attack the uphills faster even if I wasn’t taking the corners or downhills quite as fast as him.
I led through the singletrack for the next few miles and we eventually caught one of the riders who had been ahead. When we finally made it through all the singletrack, we started to paceline it and got distracted missing the turn onto the new double-track that Brent had cut this week. Kyle had also missed the turn. We had ridden the singletrack much faster than expected so we made it to the tricky turn before the volunteers.
This cost Kyle more than the rest of us because the lead he had built in the singletrack was gone. Brent got us straightened out though and our group of about eight riders entered the double-track together with me in second position behind Jamie. I was nervous about the new doubletrack, but in the end was able to ride everything including the epic eight foot high entrance ramp which descended down into a huge mud puddle (hidden from view on the other side). In fact this double track was one of my favorite parts of the course because it was completely rideable and yet super challenging with some muddy steep gradients.
After crossing the creek, we climbed a steep hill and this is where Jamie, Kyle, and I separated ourselves from the rest of the group. The top of this hill dumped us out onto the forest road where the three of us pace-lined it and were gone. I was a bit uncertain at this point about strategy because I had been planning for a long chase thinking that at least one or two people would have a huge lead coming out of the singletrack and doubletrack. Jamie came off our group towards the bottom of the Cat 2 climb up to the Skyway. Kyle and I settled into a hard steady tempo, and I debated about attacking once or twice but I remembered how absolutely spent I was last year after attacking at the bottom of the climb to get the KOM. Kyle, too, was wanting to pace for the long race so we decided to split the KOM money but sprint for it anyway — the best of both worlds, neither of us has to blow up going for the KOM from the bottom of the climb — and yet we still had the competitive aspect of sprinting for it to see who could be the KOM. It was really foggy by this point as we had basically climbed from the valley right up into the cloud layer. It turns out that we started sprinting at about 500 meters (1/2 K) from the line which is a long way on a rocky climb, and then we both thought when the 200 meter marker appeared out of the mist that we were at the finish. Quickly realizing our mistake, Kyle attacked again and I couldn’t quite catch him before he reached Anna with the $100 bill at the top.
Making it to the top of the Cat 2 climb, you might think the next part would be easy – but I’d say the most epic part of the course is the skyway itself … epic ruts, epic puddles, and epic views (not today, though) with epic rollers some of which make it all the way into the Cat 4 climb category on Strava. Bike racing is such an interesting combination of camraderie, strategy, passion, endurance, skill, and strength – and that really played out in this race. Kyle and I worked together throughout the skyway with Kyle pushing the pace on the descents (faster than I would normally take them) and me pushing the pace on the rollers.
Both of us wanted to win the race, though, so Kyle tried to dislodge me on the long descent, and then I ended up attacking him eight times on the forest service road and double-track – but I couldn’t shake him. He probably would have distanced himself from me earlier in the double-track except for an epic crash. He had pulled ahead of me and was heading fast down the double track when he came to one of the large puddles — catching his wheel on a rut he wiped out landing in the puddle sending water/mud high into the air. I had a front row seat to watch it – epic. I made it through the puddle opting to ride through on the left since he had wiped out in the middle.
Across the first dam, I attacked again and tried to shake him on the next steep hill, but it just wasn’t happening. I let him by right at the entrance to the singletrack knowing that the game was over, and all I could do was ride fast hoping to hold on for second. I’m glad I did because Jamie was approaching fast and ended up finishing less than a minute after me.
Heartrate zone summary.
Epic race. Epic course
The photo below is taken from just south of Birmingham on one of my training rides last Sunday. Click to enlarge – you can see the annotated ridges with Skyway rising high above the surrounding valley. There is over 6000 feet of climbing in the race with over 1200 of that coming on the main climb from the valley to the top of the Skyway – one of about a dozen Cat 2 climbs in the entire state of Alabama. The Skyway ridge line is a single ridge line rising high and then dropping down into valleys on either side of it. And it is very long – snaking its way from just southeast of Sylacauga all the way up to Mt Cheaha – the highest point in Alabama. You can see how prominence of the ridge line in both the photo and the topocreator map below it.
The course traverses about 12.5 miles (25 miles roundtrip) of this long ridge line. The jeep road is rocky and rutted in spots (particuarly the descents and climbs) so you have to pick your line carefully – even at high speeds on the descent. It was great following Kyle on the descents because I could follow his line and watch how he handled tricky sections. Even with the rocks and the ruts, the skyway is fast and relentless – constantly rolling so that it is hard to settle into a good rhythm. At the bottom of each roller is a large mud puddle (width of the road) so that you have to snake around on the outside. There is just enough room to make it around if you brush into the bushes right next to the puddle … unless you end up trying to go on the wrong side. On one of the puddles on the way back, it looked like the line was on the left so I headed left and then realized that the puddle extended all the way out to the edge of the road so I had to ride through it — and it was DEEP! I had enough momentum to clear it, though, and catch back up to Kyle who had seen my mistake and taken the correct side.
With good tires and good brakes you can hit nearly 40 mph on the long descent back down from the skyway. The rollers across the valley are also steep so you can pick up some good speed to carry you into the next hill as long as you pick the right line heading around the corners. We only had one oncoming car the entire race and it was easily passed.
Finally, there is the Sylaward singletrack itself. I think Brent has described it as some of the most “grin-inducing” singletrack in the south … and even as someone who is not a big fan of singletrack, I would totally agree. I could go much faster on the singletrack then I normally would risk because the turns are banked and the penalty for failure is not severe (i.e., no huge drop-offs along the side). Part of the reason is that there is a good bit of climbing on the singletrack … there is some contour following (which usually means there is a drop-off to your left or right depending on the direction of the trail), but a contour bend around a ridge is usually followed by a drop-off from the ridge or climb back up the other side of the ridge – meaning that there is a place for me to make up time that I lose when delicately handling the bend around the ridge.
Really finally, the topography of the area is epic. I already described it, but here is some maps I made including a zoomed in view of the singletrack and doubletrack, a map of the entire course, and a zoomed out map showing the course and the ridge line extending all the way up to Cheaha. There is lots of good potential to make this a 100 mile race over to Adam’s Gap and back. I’m planning on doing a 120+ mile ride of an out/back to cheaha some time later in the summer. Will report on some course options then! Already looking forward to next year!!!
Yesterday was our last day at the cabin, so Kristine, Papa Dale, and the kids went for one last ski/skate on the lake. They were following a huge eagle around the lake, and I got pictures of his footprints later when I went out to check out the ice fishing with Kristine. I was planning on a good ride back home to Shell Lake, but first I wanted to do some more snow bike sled racing with the kids, and I also wanted to ride on the lake. Here’s a short bikecam video of me biking up the sled hill:
I’ve got another bikecam video riding across the frozen lake and then snow bike sled racing with the kids. It’s taking forever to upload so I will link to it here later.
After the kids were ready to go, I headed out the back way out of the resort area and ended up on Co Rd F. Good hills on the way out to F and then on F itself. I took F to Co Rd K, which also had some good long hills. Down at Co Rd A, I turned right to climb up and over the Spooner High School hill. On my way back over the hill, I saw a huge eagle glide across the road up in the distance. Later in the ride, I saw two more eagles and wild turkeys.
I ended the ride reversing a route I took back in 2005 when I got lost in the fog on the lake. That was quite an adventure, although even on a perfectly clear cold day with foot thick ice and pick-up trucks driving out onto the ice, it is still disconcerting to ride across sections of bare ice looking into deep dark frozen water so far from the shore. Check out the map zoomed in of my route up at the cabin and then also across Shell Lake.
Here’s a short iphone video from the middle of the lake: