A couple years ago I came up with what I thought was going to be the master training plan for the Joe Martin Stage Race Cat III domination. A week before the race I blew open a sprint at the Cougar Crit (not a normal occurrence) and was feeling pretty confident with the victory. I was so over trained I was only good for one decent finish at Joe Martin before I fell apart. Two weeks ago I won my first race of the season, a week before my first priority race of the year. Here's the story.
Back in February I was confident in my preparation for my first priority race of the season, an AMBC race at the legendary Tsali Trails in North Carolina, but the competitive side of me was really struggling with remaining focused after getting waxed at the first two Missouri NORBA series races. I showed up to the Rim Wrecker feeling fresh and rode away from a strong field of Missouri NORBA series top ten finishers. Unfortunately, both Wes and Chris had decided to show up on SS's, or what they referred to as the "equalizers," and after a season of racing CX my ability to floss in mud was a real advantage for me... I questioned how fast I would have been that day had the course been dry???
I chose the SERC AMBC race at Tsali because I knew it would be about as competitive as I could find. The SERC series is one of the bigger ones in the US, on par with the WORS series in Wisconsin and the DINO Series in Indiana. Since this was one of the first big races of the season I knew that other racers, like myself, would travel a little bit further than normal to get their seasons started. This race was also a qualifier for Nationals in July, my first of three chances, and I was eager to get that out of the way. Above all, the Tsali Trail system is one of the most awesome, epic, best flowing, destination mountain bike trails in the United States! The forecast for the week before the race was for rain. I have to admit that I was a little bit excited by this and knew that if the conditions were really muddy it would be favorable for me. There was only one thing left to do...
MJ, The Itch, Drew Black and myself showed up at Freeman's Cabins, about 2 miles from Tsali on Saturday afternoon and kitted up for a pre ride just as the skies opened up. It was relatively warm and we needed to stretch our legs and get my pre race tune up in so we rode up the hill for two miles and then down hill into Tsali to check out the scene. We didn't want to completely ruin our bikes before the race so we opted to just ride the first gravel road climb up until you drop into the single track. On the way back out, up the hill, I did a couple sprints to open the legs up and was feeling good. I didn't think to much about ending my tune up by coasting down hill in cold rain for two miles, but in retrospect I think that and the travel was a bad combo for the legs. I really should have spun for a while instead of loading the legs up and then letting them get cold so fast.
Back at the cabin we had a great pre race meal and the new Ben & Jerrys singnature Pot Head Willie flavor, "Peach Cobbler," which was quite tasty. I opted for the PRO move and got to bed early while the rest of the crew embarked on an epic viewing journey of classic sagas... They started with all the Star Wars, in order, then all the Rockys and I could have sworn I heard the beginning of Ken Burns 27 part Civil War Masterpiece, one of my favorites, as I faded off to sleep. I have no idea how they did it, but they managed to watch about 30 hours of TV in 12 hours... Or at least that's how it felt to me.
I woke up to cannons at Gettysburg and sunshine. Race day was pretty much business as usual for me, aside from making a last minute decision to put my Maxxis Crossmarks back on instead of my Medusas, after MJ and I walked a bit of the course and were amazed at how dry it was. After some stretching, anxiety management, and little meditating to some Jerry, MJ and I headed down to the race for some warm up. Like yesterday, the warm up was really hard since you were either going up or down. Once again I had an inadequate warm up, loaded the legs up with some sprints and then let them sit without spinning them out enough. Usually this doesn't bother me too much but I think the travel added to my issues.
We lined up a half an hour beforehand to get a spot on the front line(the 30-34 and 35-39 classes were racing together and there were about 40 of us), crossed the chain up in the BIG RING, ate some espresso love, locked out my fork and checked my look in the mirror. Looking around I noticed that most of these guys were much more tan than I was, never a good sign to be at an early race with tan guys. I was pale but ready and this was it.
I was the first off the line and held the front until someone came around me just before the single track which was fine by me, he was going good and we opened up a little gap. After a nice descent and a little bottoms riding we started the first of the two (not that I knew at the time) major climbs. That's when things started to go wrong. My legs just locked up. I can't really explain it as it's never happened. It wasn't cramping, it was just a really heavy, stale feeling. I couldn't turn them over. I managed to suffer up the first climb until a steep technical section at the top before I started giving up places... not good. I counted 15 riders. I started to think bad thoughts.
After a gnarly, rutted descent I had two more riders coming up behind me when we hit the muddy bottom section before the next huge climb. They dropped me as soon as we hit the climb but I was surprised when I didn't see anyone else too close. I started to remind myself that it was a long race (34 miles), there were still quite a few riders behind me, and I was going to stick with it to the finish. That lasted until I had to get off and walk up the technical section at the top of the next climb, my legs were still locked up.
I knew that letting a group of riders get away like that meant that I wasn't going to win, and that bummed me out. If I don't think I can win after flatting, crashing or cramping it's easy for me to give up. But slowly about half way through the first lap the legs started to come around and I really started flying. I caught and dropped a handful of riders right after one of the big backside descents and then a couple more on the next climb. I realized that I had moved up into the top 5 or so within a couple minutes and couldn't believe it when I came up on 2 19-29 riders and another rider who I had marked in the front group... I got past them and the other Sobe/Cannondale 30+ guy started to chase... I had opened up a decent gap by the time I came through the feed zone after lap one and saw a Trek Factory Rider (Colin Izzard) up the road a bit...
Lap two was some real racing. The Trek rider was keeping a steady gap on me, and seemed to be yo-yoing me a bit. The Sobe/Cannondale guy behind me wasn't able to hang with me on the descents and I seemed to be opening up more of a gap on him on the climbs so I wasn't too worried. I knew that I could close the gap on the Trek rider, but didn't want to go too deep, so I opted to gradually pull him in. I caught up to him through the muddy bottoms before the base of the second big climb. As we started to climb we picked off a couple more 19-29 riders which was just more assurance that we were still going fast... he made a mistake on one of the short technical sections and I went around him and opened up a gap, but still wasn't going deep. Once we hit the top I pushed it into the big ring and went to work on him.
After a series of short climbs with long descents I had opened a gap on him and was really riding well and really optimistic when I came up on 3 more riders, two 19-29's and one 35+, all of whom I dropped pretty quick. People were suffering and my legs were still had some snap left int them. As I came through the feed zone before the last 5 mile section that led to the finish the Trek rider was out of sight. I grabbed a water and sucked down a Enervit Cheer Pack (liquid sugar crack fix) and was told that I wasn't far behind the leaders.
I came up on a rider and asked him if he was an expert, he condescendingly told me he was a PRO... Ohhh ok buddy, well now let me show you who knows PRO... I know it's not so PRO to get your ass dropped by an expert... and with a flap of my mullet in the breeze, I dropped him. Another climb, another couple 19-29 riders... and then another and some more. At this point I started to see a couple people walking the course and cheering so I knew I was close to the finish and started to really feel good. Coming from behind a huge field to podium in a big race isn't the way I want to do it in the future, but it still felt really good!
I came across the line about 3 minutes behind the winner, Marshall Hance from Asheville, and had put 2 minutes onto the Trek rider. A second place finish at a big race, this early in the season, is extremely satisfying to me and gives me great confidence that I am on the right track!
The icing on the cake for me was when Colin (the Trek rider with the T.O.C-esque handlebar mustache) turned to me on the podium and said " Dude, that's a really sweet Euro Mullet!!!"