Thursday, July 23, 2009

Return of MudRutters: Ashland Bay Days MTB race

Try as I may, staying caught up on a blog ain’t easy. Wish I was better at it.

Nonetheless on what should seem like a low key mid July weekend, there was an abundance of MTB bike races… only too close together and on the same days! Ugh! Too bad as events this far north (in Ashland & Duluth) could likely have drawn bigger numbers if set on different days or weekends.

What’s been an almost uninterrupted event for the past 20 yrs, held the 3rd weekend of every July, is the annual Ashland Bay Days festival. With it’s Off Road Bike Race – this year being renamed Ashland MudRutters, brought for by the same folks that put on the Ashland BayCross cyclo-cross races in October.

It’s one of those nice community races – and for myself after logging miles around the Midwest tracking down MT Bike races month after month -- it’s always great to have one in your hometown. Folks of all calibers show up – it’s nice to see everyone in the community trying, as well as the competition that comes in from the surrounding areas.

Back in ’01 when I first got into any form of competitive riding it was one of my first races. I remember placing 18th and thinking how I wanted to do so much better. It wasn’t that I was some kind of slouch, but it’d been 5 or 6 yrs since I was a competitive track & cross country runner and having suffered a very stubborn stress fracture in my ankle that vaporized several years of my life endurance activities. From that point in ‘01 I started my climb & journey in cycling & mtb racing. A year later in ’02 I finished 6th place & cut 6 minutes off my time.

It’s always been a race that I looked forward to. In a flash forward, after several years of near misses & untimely racing mistakes, I finally pulled out a victory in ’06. In ’07, a ringer of sorts, Scott Chapin of Hayward, shows up (on time that year) and makes it a really hard fast race, pulling away in the early miles on some inclines & puts down a good race winning leaving me back some 50 seconds. ’08 looking for a rematch & assuming Scottie among others may show up – the event lost it’s main contributor/sponsor & was shelved. Fortunately, this year ‘09 that all turned around as Paul Belknap & Sara Hudson took over, did a ton of work, got a lot of people involved and put on a really great race. From the planning, to the volunteers, to the awards it was all very nicely done.

The race itself starts on the west end of Ashland in Prentice Park, wraps itself around the southern outskirts of town & squirms back into the heart of the city for the finish. Having won in the past, I was equally happy volunteering or participating. The biggest goal I wanted to see was to have a good event & help in any way possible. Paul said he had adequate volunteers & getting race participants was the objective… so gee, twist my arm, make me race . The great part about it comes back to what I said earlier; you get to see & race against very good riders from both inside & outside the area that don’t have the time or desire to race the more distant events. (And in Ashland, everything seems to be at a significant distance).

Having pre-road the course, some of which actually utilizes the trails here on our property at Farm Road, I chose the SuperFly over the Trek Full suspension 69er, not so much for any other purpose than I wanted to get used to some racing miles on that bike before the Ore to Shore.

All this jibber-jabber and no race details? Ok, ok – so the start line has probably 4 or 5 guys capable of putting down some fast times & will make up the main competitive group, my 24-9 teammates Matt Hudson & Kelly McKnight, along with the Cable/Seeley/Hayward Toms – Meyer & Gaier (cool, that rhymes). Anyways, I’m feeling good, but taking absolutely nothing for granted. Matt & Kelly have knocked out huge miles so far and really improved over the past couple years, Tom Meyer has taken victory in just about every “short” MTB event he’s taken on & the more open MudRutters course favors his strengths. Gaier, well, he’s no slouch either and a really smooth rider.

At the start I figured to be content to sit behind whoever took off initially, at the “Goooo!” it was Hudson, the brute that he is. Riding good at about half mile in I felt it was a good time to take over and see what would happen & who would stay with me. Kinda just test the waters. I told Matt to hang on and then I went to the front. Not trying any big surge I went forward going steady, not knowing if a gap would happen or not. It’s at that point the race enters a ¼+ mile rutted up four wheeler trail, “pit of despair” and ends with an incline. To me it’s always a hard section, doesn’t look like it should be but it always feels that way. My eyes & attention focused on making it through cleanly I didn’t bother to look back until I reached the old railroad grade/corridor section. When I do I see a 20yard gap. Two thoughts cross my mind… Oh good, guess I gotta hit it know,… followed by an Oh shit, they’re going to work together & hang me out to dry. Which left me with no other option than…. I’d better make this hurt for everybody. So I tuck down as far as I could & TimeTrialed the remainder of the corridor section as much as the body would allow. Upon turning off that section & up another incline I looked back to see the gap got larger and continued to push my limits the first couple miles of the race.

It seemed to me at one point they re-grouped & were going to have a successful chase, but somehow the gap stayed the same or slower got larger. I kept wanting to get to the forested off road sections & to get out of sight (& hopefully out of mind). I couldn’t tell if it was Tom Meyer or Kelly McKnight that was leading their charge. Approximately half way through, the fear of getting caught began to fade & confidence that without mistake or mechanical this race could go pretty well. By the time we went around the back half of the course & past the water tower the lead was going past 40 seconds. I thought to myself -- do I enjoy the rest of the race or kept pushing it. Well, I went for the desired positive training effect and kept pushing it for the most part.

At about 3 miles to go I reached the corner of our property & trails. At that point Kate, Marshall, Hope & Grace were perched out in & around the 15 foot tree stand taking some video, yelling & cheering. It was pretty neat. Marshall asking “Daddy, why are you in first?” as I sped by. What I’ve come to find out is 4 years olds do not run out of questions at anytime or anyplace.

It was even more fun speeding through our single track then normal especially when doing it under race conditions. When I popped out back on Farm Rd, I knew if I could hold it together things would be fine, but I was tensed up & surprised for a moment to see one of the guys still within sight before reaching the Elementary school. I thought “Gesh, how did that happen?” but in actuality it was still pretty much the same time/distance as it had been for awhile – open section can sometimes create a good old optical illusion.

Racing down the closed off streets & through RailYard park let me cruise into the finish. Interestingly enough it was Kelly McKnight that next came through just over a minute back followed pretty closely by Tom Meyer. I had thought it was the other way around. Matt Hudson apparently hadn’t been feeling well and faded earlier in the race finishing 5th, but Tom Gaier put in a good effort on the day finishing 4th (even if he did take abit of shortcut ). Good job of racing by everyone.

Interestingly enough, I couldn’t help but check back against the ’07 finish & finishing times because of the course similarities. One of the few course you can do a reasonable comparison. The ’09 course was arguably longer, if not it certainly had a replacement section of a couple hundred yards that were more challenging. Yet, despite all that the four top finishers in ’09 had faster times than my second place finish in ’07. Kelly was within 11 seconds of Scottie “superman” Chapin winning time in ’07 and I best Scottie’s time by over a minute. So I think everyone can feel pretty dang good about how the increased caliber of racing around here is coming along.

That all said, the gathering afterwards was a great time, very nice plaque awards for 1st thru 3rd place overall, as well as age group awards. In the years to come according to Paul they’re looking to add a second longer race and make things even bigger & better. It’s a good time and if you missed it before consider putting it on your calendar in the future.

Up next, “What have a I lost my mind?” 24 hour racing at 9 Mile forest in Wausau Sat/Sun 24th-25th….. oh boy, that’s going be interesting!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Like a Timex....the Chippewa Valley Nutcracker...uh, I mean Firecracker

What's that saying about a Timex watch.. takes a lickin' but keeps on tickin'? Holy crap, that's about all I need to say about this past Sunday's Chippewa Valley Firecracker MTB race. Race #5 in the WORS series. Sunny skies, hot one in the 80's with four 7 1/2 mile laps to knock out.
In the Timex commercial if I recall correctly, they repeated show this watch getting beat up. If I only had pictures, I could illustrate a similar pattern of my experience in the bike race. (I'll try to include some of the bike later.)
--6 crashes, I don't know what kind of drugs I was on or something but how in the world do you crash 6 times in a race? Twice into the same flippin' tree on consecutive laps
--Rotated rear shifter/brakes 90 degrees down (2nd Lap)
--Bent front rotor (2nd Lap) to ensure sufficient friction with brakes pads -- making sure undo force was necessary to continue bike's forward momentum at all times.

Helmets are a great thing however, it's never ceases to amaze me the magnitude to which you can slam into something with your head and walk away from it. I took a full on hit to the left side of the head into a 6" tree when my handlebars caught it. First thought, wow, I'm not unconscious,that's cool.

If the crashes weren't enough, try one legged pedaling a good share of the final lap. Towards end of lap three I crashed & landed on downside of a benchcut trail. I was stuck however because my hamstrings cramped & locked up -- I couldn't standup to get back on the bike because each time I bent my knee my hammy locked like a vise. Eventually after a minute (& another 6 racers went by) I was able to right my bike & get back riding, however the right hamstring would periodically cramp forcing me to pedal with just one leg.

That all said, I can't say it wasn't a race without a few good moment & some fun riding. It was the normal hard start you get in this Eau Claire race -- everybody hammers that first mile or two to get in a good position on the single track. I got to the startline late so it was very last back row position. I don't get bothered by it too much as generally I feel comfortable accelerating out of the field to get into a spot I'd like. It works adequate in most races, but this one not exactly the case, as I've learned the past 2 yrs. I could only get up as far as the high twenties (from starting point of mid 60's). The two mile lead out has a dirt road section that in dry conditions like Sunday creates a smog-like condition that even Los Angeles can't hold a candle too. Have you ever biked in fog where you couldn't see any further than 3 bike lengths ahead of you? I couldn't imagine how bad it was for guys even further back. The dust was horrible for a 1/4 mile.

Lap one is somewhat of a blur. I do remember Adam Swank coming up along side me & we road together for awhile. He got a bad back row start as well & was trying to climb back in his normal top 10-15 spot, he ended with 28th on the day. Looking at the results afterwards it's pretty clear without being at the front to begin with a person had little chance to improve all race long. Todd McFadden may be the exception, as on the dust bowl rollout we were in the high 20's) & he might have made the best jump ended up 18th on the day.

Lap two though the start of my undoing was fun in that I road a good share of it with MN fast guy Paul Hansen. Maybe one of the few guys having a worst day than I. I chided him into hanging on & working together. Had a great conversation -- he's working himself back from an injured rotator cuff and the inconsistency of training brings it's share of good race days & bad race days.

Lap three the bent rotor is already making me labor way more than I should. Paul after gapping me on a crash, I passed him again with Jan Rybar & someone else. Jan is like 48 years old and the man can hammer in the open sections. Generally, that's my strength as well so it impresses me anytime someone that far into a race can keep pouring it on and make me hurt. Jan shortcoming if you can fault him would appear is single track. For as hard as he went in the open sections, I could repeatedly close down any gap in the s-track... that is of course until I crashed... again... and again.

The race had some interesting course additions this year -- a monster rock garden, which when recreationally riding if it's someone's cup of tea to risk tire pinch flat or puncture to ride over some stupid rocks great. To have a 100 foot section in a race... I got say ...dumb! I done what I think is a good share of racing, seen alot of courses but never have I seen anything as extensive as what they had. I don't know if flats or punctures happened or how many people wiped out (Kate witnessed a couple at least) -- but there are alot of other ways to make challenges in a race without risking undo harm to bike & rider.

Maybe from the multitude of crashes or hit to the head I lost track of laps & wanted to quit after 3, but a 4th was in store. Perhaps it was the crazy angle I needed to do my rear shifting & braking with. Fortunately I didn't truly bonk like at some previous races this year, but it still made for a long day in the saddle especially at the tail end of 3 weeks of hard training. Delighted to see Kate & the kids, who did some great handoffs (perhaps TJ Woodruff's bro could take a lesson... probably see TJ's blog on that one). The end of the race didn't come soon enough -- given what happened shocked to have even finished 51st out of 70+ in the Elite race.

Coming up probably a couple weeks of no to low key racing mainly just one final block of training before hitting a heavy Aug & Sept race schedule. Red Wing next weekend is a maybe just because we'll be visiting family in Twin Cities. The Seeley/Spooner Riverbrook TT's are a possibilities. And lastly ended up with month on a crazy whim of what they call 24 hour racing -- the 24 hours of 9 mile race held in Wausau.