By: Cary Smith
When it was first announced by USA Cycling that Mammoth Mountain was going to host a consolidated National MTB Championship, I immediately knew I wanted to attend. I hadn’t been to Mammoth since the early 90s when they hosted the NORBA Nationals and I was curious as to how much it had changed. And, thanks to the magic of Red Bull TV, I have become an avid DH fan even though I have been an XC racer my whole MTB career. Now I would have the opportunity to see, in person, just how fast they go.
I figured if I was going to drive 850 miles for a race, I should make it worth it. To that end, I rented a condo for the whole week and entered three races: Single speed XC, age group XC and age group enduro. Getting there a couple days early was pure luxury. I could relax, get the lay of the land, figure out single speed gearing and tire choice and watch the Tour.
I have raced my single speed at several XC and Marathon Nationals over the last few years, experiencing a fair amount of success with 5 wins in 6 tries. Unfortunately, the last XC race I entered I didn’t finish so that weighed heavily on my mind. In other words, this is the race in which I wanted to do well.
Some people find it hard to believe, but even after entering all manner of races for most of my life, I still get incredibly nervous, even easily agitated, as race time draws near. I start to second guess my preparation, my equipment, my nutrition, even the lens color of my Smith glasses. I believe that this shows that it still means something to me and there is still a draw to toe the starting line.
This self-induced pressure, however, can sometimes backfire. My last few training rides before the single speed race went well, with my heart rate coming up easily, even at the 8000’ elevation of Mammoth. Outwardly, I expressed this as a good sign of being rested, but I knew that, for me, this can sometimes also mean that I’m too keyed up.
I haven’t raced in California for 20 years. Since most of the field was from California and Arizona I wasn’t familiar with my competitors. So, my race plan was to start fast to be with the leaders as we entered the first single track. Mission accomplished as I hit the single track in 2nd. Kyle Trudeau and I quickly opened a gap on the field and traded leads throughout the first half of the 22 mile race. I was pushing hard but couldn’t ride him off my wheel. I knew he was also trying to get away from me and wasn’t having any luck. It was good, hard racing but I didn’t feel overextended…until I lost my focus and he opened a slight cushion. I didn’t respond and he kept the pressure up. Now I was reeling. I started having some slight cramping issues and the floodgates of negative thoughts opened wide. My 3rd lap was significantly slower than the first two and I was passed by two competitors. I didn’t even try to ride with them. In a classic “too little, too late” situation I finally ate some Gu gel, which brought me somewhat back to life. Up ahead, I saw a single speeder who I thought was the 3rd place rider slowing down. I picked up the pace, got around him and drilled the final descent. Well, drilled it until I brushed a sharp rock with my front wheel and heard the sickening hiss of a flat tire. My sealant tried to plug it but every time my tire flexed, I would get sprayed and I was quickly riding on my rim. I made a game-time decision to ride it in for the last few minutes, trying to be light on my front end through the rocks and on the off-camber sections. I rolled across the finish line only to learn that the guy I thought I passed was actually a lap down. Oh well. At least it was a good test for an Enve rim. When I got home and cleaned my bike, I pored over the rim and there was not any evidence of damage. Chalk one up to Enve durability.
Looking back on the race, I made two conclusions. One is that I was too hyped up and let the pressure get to me. The other was that I was hungry. I was drinking Gu electrolyte tabs and only had about one gel packet. I needed more on that day and should’ve realized it sooner.
I spent the afternoon moping around, debating whether I even wanted to race the XC the next day. I knew I would, but the doubts were there. Luckily, enduro practice was in the evening so it was nice to go clear my head with some good old-fashioned fear!
Warming up for the age group XC the following day, I harbored no expectations. My plan had changed to one of riding a smart race and seeing how it pans out. I figured I would ride my race and see where that got me by the end. I didn’t want to be moving backward through the pack as the race progressed.
When the starting gun went off and we rounded the first corner I didn’t need to worry about moving backward, as I was in last place! I made some passes before the singletrack but just settled in, not worrying about making aggressive passes, but passing when I could. I was having a much better time today, riding smart and not burying myself. And I kept making passes, which made it easier to push a little harder. By the end of the 2nd lap, I thought I might be in the lead of my class but it’s hard to tell with all the other age groups out there. As I came through to start the last lap, I heard the announcer say I was in the lead. I felt some pressure at the top of the first climb of the last lap and decided it was time to make some space. I upped my pace slightly and rode in for the win. My lap times were markedly different from yesterday. Instead of decreasing each lap, my first lap was my slowest, 2nd was fastest and the last two were identical, which is a much more enjoyable way to race.
I had successfully learned from my mistakes the previous day. I ate more before the race, switched my drink to Gu Brew and ate a gel earlier in the race. I also hadn’t applied any pressure on myself to perform so I rode smoother and more calmly.
I was a little disappointed in my enduro performance as I rode worse than I did in practice. But, I didn’t crash, learned a few things and stoked my fire to learn some new skills so I can be more competitive and have fun riding unfamiliar terrain.
All in all, it was a fun week and so nice to have all the different disciplines at one venue. I hope that more races incorporate XC and gravity events into their schedule.
As with any good road trip, there needs to be a little drama. Instead of driving halfway home Sunday night, I had to be in Carson City, NV, Monday morning to get my new van checked as the computer was telling me it was going to shut down in 150 miles. This is not the first time this has happened-the first was driving home from the dealer with only 200 miles on it! They couldn’t fix it immediately, so I rented a U-Haul and drove the entire way home Monday, arriving in my driveway at 3am. I was excited to get in my own bed for three hours of sleep before work, only to find that the friend who was watching the house had taken the spare key with her. Not willing to break a window, we slept in the cab of the U-Haul in the driveway until I called her at six so I could get some clothes and go to work.