Playing in the Mud: A Road Cyclist's First MTB Race
By: Rafa Luvecee
I hear my alarm go off and quickly reached out to silence my buzzing, screeching phone. The clock reads 5am. I head outside and the sun still hasn't risen yet and it's cold, very cold. It's early April and morning air is still a frosty thirty degrees in the valley. I'm cold, tired, and hungry, but feel a growing rush of adrenaline which can mean only one thing; it's race day. We pull up the car and check our weapons of choice; three mountain bikes. One of the two wheeled monsters is a Kona Honzo setup as a single-speed, a Trek X-Caliber, and the third a Trek Mamba all prepped and ready for a day of shredding. After we wolf down some hot breakfast, Patrick, Jonathan and I head out on the warpath to Middlebury Connecticut for the Hop Brook Mountain Bike race.
As we make our way into CT, the sun is rising at our backs and illuminating the shifting bikes in the trunk. I hadn't planned to race that day. Heck. I hadn't planned to even ride mountain bikes, but Jonathan had convinced me otherwise. Only a few days earlier were we mashing around the Batchelor Street trail system in Amherst Massachusetts. I hadn't ridden a mountain bike for a number of year after my poor trek 4500 was stolen in NYC, but there I was trying to keep up with Jonathan on the trails while at the same time attempting to stay on the bike free from falls, slip, and huge rocks in my path. Coming from road and track, mountain biking was a completely different experience. After a bit of time on the trails I started to remember how fun it was to ride on bike with a squishy fork, and grippy tires. Not the mention, the kona was a solid beast of a bike. All I had to do was point the bike in the direction I wanted to go and it handled with exceptional stability. The tubeless setup Jon had on the bike was also great and made gnarly terrain a breeze to ride over at higher speeds. I had learned a lot during the few intermediate training sessions leading up to the race and I had the bruises to prove it.
We pulled into the parking lot near the beginning of the race course. The air was still brisk, but sky was perfectly clear with the sun's rays beginning to melt the frozen dew that glistened on the park grounds. We had about an hour before the race and took our time unloading the bikes, riding around, and warming up. Even though mtb racing is still somewhat of a niche in cycling, I was dumbfounded with the amount of gorgeous bikes and pro looking riders that were zipping around me. The call to the staging area rang out over the loudspeaker. I rolled up next to my fellow competitors, who were also all beginners; some with equally reluctant expressions on their faces. Their bikes were modest, yet I was the only one with a single-speed in my group, which some guys quizzically pointed out. As the clock started ticking down my heart started pounding and my became breathing heavier. I didn't attempt to calm down. I was going use the adrenaline to carry me out and in front of the pack.
3.2.1... Go! We're off and I immediately have issues clipping in. After about 5 yards I finally get my cleat locked in and I can push ahead. Unfortunately a few people were already in the lead and I was at a bottleneck along the course. The group thinned out and I found a passable position and took it. I finally got out in front, but soon after I arrived at the the first obstacle; a log on an inclined path. Dismounting I scramble over the log as best I could, all the while my opponents are gathering behind me. Yes, I was that jerk that was holding everyone up, but I didn't care. It was a race and I was there to win, or, at least, try too. Back on the bike and I was pushing through the course. It's was all mostly a hurried, exhausting blur. Throughout the course I felt my lungs and legs completely burning from exertion. Fortunately I only was required to do two laps for my category. The first lap I'm passing people. The dude on the twenty five year old steel mountain bike is in the lead. I catch up to him at one point during the middle of the race and then get stuck behind someone for stretch of single track, and consequently lose sight of him. Every downhill in the race is a moment to rest my burning lungs, but only for a few second before I'm pumping away again on my 32x22 gear ratio. In the last few minutes of the race I finally catch up once again to my rival; the vintage mountain biker. Once passed, all can think is, “don't fall. Don't screw up. Don't fall!” The last leg of the course has a gnarly little downhill section where, if you don't take the correct line, are greeted with a muddy little rock garden. Seeing other racers fall into this trap, I'm quick to avoid it, but I miscalculated in turning the wheel and slipped. I shook it off like nothing happened, with only a wounded ego, as a lady perched nearby looked at me with a comical smirk. From there it was all downhill, literally. A small jump and down a rock and I'm flying towards the finish line. I'm out. It's over. I barely have enough energy to lift my arms, but I give a small whoop and pump the air in celebration. The torture can finally end!
Somehow I made it into first place and won my first mountain bike race. It was an incredible experience and plan to do more in the future. With a day or racing done we headed back to “Happy Valley” for some much needed rest and recovery. I was cold, tired and hungry, and absolutely pumped for the chance to do more riding and racing in the future. Mountain biking is such a beast of a sport, but at any skill level it's fun and challenging experience. As the race day had come to a close, I couldn't help but think of the phrase coined by Greg Lemond, “It doesn't get easier, you just get faster.”
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