My first race of 2008, and Geoff Drake's first mountain-bike race in 10 years! Yes, both of us entered this fun cross-country race held on the dirt trails of the former army base just north of Monterey. Later we learned that Tim Sawyer was now racing Expert too, after winning the overall series in Sport last year (Jose Hernandez raced too, but in Sport 35-44). So we had three men from Team Bicycle Trip entered in the Expert 45-54 race!
The Beginner and Sport races were all in the morning, but the Expert and Pro races started at 1:00 p.m. which meant that Margaret and I had time to have breakfast out at the Capitola Wharf House (I had their "Tugboat" which is pancakes with eggs and bacon; yummy!). Geoff was even kind enough to pick me up at my house so we could carpool down the coast, which was great because I got a chance to describe the course to him. I was convinced he'd be a favorite to win, based on how strong he climbs during our training rides. But he was worried about his back giving out which is a major concern on these long and bumpy trails. Even I get a sore back there!
The weather was absolutely perfect for racing. Geoff and I registered, got suited up in our brand-new Bicycle Trip kits and warmed up a little with Tim. I made sure both of my large water bottles had energy drink in them... two hours of hard racing demands that we refuel, and the bumpy course makes it difficult to try to eat anything solid.
As always, the start was on a short section of paved road that then led us onto the dirt trails for a total of five full laps. At the start line we scoped out our competition. I felt sure the three racers from VOS, including Billy Hall who beat me last year, were the ones to watch out for. There were about 12 racers in our group, and we joked around while nervously awaiting our delayed start.
As we started, some of the VOS guys pulled up front, with Geoff following and Brad Williamson (Family Cycling Center) on his wheel, literally; Brad ended up scrubbing Geoff's rear tire, though without crashing! Tim quickly shot ahead and took the lead onto the start of the dirt trail, and I was sixth or so, right behind Geoff and Brad. The sandy soil was dry, but the previous rains gave us great traction. I thought the pace really picked up here, but Geoff felt it didn't turn nasty until later.
We hit the first "big" climb (relatively; none are that big) without much change in our positions, and I tried to draft as there was a headwind too. We then rode along the ridge to the east edge of the reserve, where they are building a new development, and found that the trail they added there last year now has cool banked turns! We passed the finish line with 5 to go, dropped down the other side of the ridge and hit the rutted climb back toward the top of the ridge. Suddenly Brad lost his chain just as the climb started... I went around him and tried to stay behind Geoff. This climb is tough, and a bit windy, and the VOS racers passed Tim, followed by Geoff.
Soon Geoff and the VOS guys opened up a gap to Tim and I, but Tim pulled me along for the rest of the first full lap. When we got to the big climb before the start for the second time I passed him and said I was ready to take a pull into the headwind, but when I looked back he had fallen well behind. I thought he might have blown up from pulling after the start, and I was constantly on the edge too, wheezing at times, but I found out later Tim was having chain problems... more of that later!
I soon dropped down to the finish line and started my second full lap. At this point in the race we have typically split up into groups or individuals of similar ability, and I was alone most of the time. On the long descent returning us back adjacent to the paved road I passed Erik Thunstrom who had crashed hard. I found out later he had been drafting somebody closely, and didn't see a rut that flipped him off the trail and head-over-heels into the bushes, and poison oak no doubt! Those are the twin dangers out there: Drafting other riders in the wind helps a lot, but hides obstacles. And there is poison oak everywhere you look. I used Ivy Block to prevent any itchy rash, and I highly recommend it.
I passed Geoff who called out to me that his chain was sticking whenever he used the middle chainring. That "sucks." He also told me he was convinced we could catch Billy because he was tiring visibly on the steeper climbs. That motivated me, and I pushed myself hard along the ridge, back up the rutted climb and I caught Billy on the ridge heading to the west. I was stoked! So stoked that I didn't pay attention to my gear choices and crossed up my shortened chain so badly that I had to stop to fix it! Argh! That cost me almost a precious minute! We all need to fix our chains! Fortunately Geoff was able to keep the chase up, and it was great knowing that he could contest at the end in spite of his own chain problems.
I then mostly just tried to recover from the harder climbs, while pushing as hard as I could to stay close to Geoff and Billy, but they were out of sight on the twisty, overgrown trails. I passed a few racers from the younger groups, but was mostly alone with my thoughts, humming a Phil Collins song to myself ("Billy, Billy don't you lose that number, 'cause you're not anywhere that I can't find you").
I didn't know what was going on up ahead, due to the limited line-of-sight, but on the fourth lap Geoff attacked Billy all-out and opened up a gap on him. I drafted a few guys from other groups; some seemed to have totally bonked. I tried to save a little energy for the finish, and kept an eye to my rear just in case. On the fifth lap Scott Calley of VOS came in sight, but I carefully applied just enough pressure to keep him at a comfortable distance without blowing myself up. I was sore and totally drained as I cruised across the finish line. Whew, was I happy to finish, and to discover that Geoff had taken 1st while I got a 3rd place medal; my first ever as an Expert! But I was still bummed about my chain jamming, especially when I saw that Billy beat me by only 26 seconds; less than the time I lost fixing it. But Geoff probably lost more time than that with his chain, and still won... he's clearly "the man!"
You can see the official results here, and photos here and here. VOS is strong, but not invincible, and we will be seeing a lot more of them in the future, both on- and off-road. In fact, next weekend Team Bicycle Trip will be battling them at both the Cantua Creek and Pine Flat Road Races!
While we waited for the podium girls to arrive (they never did), we drank water, shared war stories and collected our medals. Geoff got cleaned up a bit after we warned him of the poison oak, and we drove homeward, proud of our Expert 1st and 3rd medals. We both checked in with our spouses, and it turned out my good friends Chuck and Stephanie were going to drop by so now I had a nice dinner out to look forward to. It may even have included a celebratory Mai-Tai!