Tuesday, September 17, 2013

My First Time Racing a Mountain Bike

Photo: Shane Mathews, Flickr Creative Commons

Today's post is inspired by Fat Cyclist's fairly recent post complaining about the short answers he often gets when asking about people's rides. He didn't ask me about my experience in the Dauset Trails Dirty Duathlon this weekend, and neither did you, but here's my answer.

I bought a mountain bike back in May and before this weekend I had ridden it four times on trails. Of course, it seemed natural that I should go race it this weekend at the Dauset Duathlon in Jackson, GA. For those not in the know, a duathlon is like a triathlon, except they replace the swim leg with an extra run leg. This race was a trail race with a nearly 2-mile run, nearly 7-mile bike, and that run again. All courses took place on single-track trails through a wooded area.

First, the basics: My runs were good. Had this been just a pure trail run, I would have been fourth place in my age group in the top three or four for every age group but one. I don't even think I had a great day with my running, actually. I felt a little sluggish, but I can't decide if that was the terrain or me. The bike leg, however, was a different story.

My lack of excellence on the bike is not surprising. My Strava segments for cycling are drastically different depending on whether you're looking at a road ride or a trail ride. On the road, I'm usually almost exactly in the middle of the rankings for the big climbs. It's bizarrely consistent, actually. I consider this pretty good, given my size (slightly taller than 6'2" and over 200 lbs). Obviously, I'm not a natural climber. On the downhill segments, I'm frequently in the top quarter. I think this is also due to my size. On both the road bike and mountain bike I frequently have to use my brakes to not pass smaller riders in front of me on the downhills (assuming we're not on a technical trail).

On the mountain, things change. Suddenly, my performances fall to near the bottom of the Strava rankings for a given segment. The problem is not my fitness. You give me a smooth, relatively straight section of trail and I can keep up with some of the best. The problem is that you rarely see that sort of path on mountain bike trails. Instead, you have to navigate for the best lines and know how to handle different obstacles and terrain to take advantage of your fitness. I have the fitness. I'm a pretty strong time trialist. I can maintain a fairly high level of effort for a fairly long time. I can't keep up with a pro, even a bad one, but you have to be an exceptional amateur to hope to drop me on flat terrain. (You just need to be my equal and 40 lbs lighter to drop me on hills.) I don't have the technique. I get extremely uncomfortable going downhill, especially when there's anything more than a gradual turn during or ending the descent. I waste a lot of speed braking on the downhills to keep within my comfort zone while descending. I climb better (after a period of learning from my mistakes this spring) but I'm still slower than I could be due to my lack of experience and understanding of how to more efficiently navigate technical sections. I also think I have a tendency to turn my handlebars on sharp turns instead of leaning into them like I should, which is weird. I don't have that problem at all on the road bike.

That's exactly what happened in this race. Instead of gaining on guys who were a little faster afoot than I am like I do in road triathlons, I lost a ton of time on the bike this Sunday. Coming out of the first transition, I was in fourth place in my age group. I was less than 60 seconds out of third and and 1:35 and 1:47 ahead of the two next closest guys in the group. Things were going good. Then I had to start pedalling.

The course was surprisingly challenging for a location well south of the nearest real mountains, but I was doing well. I was handling the terrain confidently (but a little slowly). I actually passed several people during the climbs, but I was passed by several people during technical flat and downhill sections. Just so you know, passing and being passed on singletrack is frustrating for everyone involved. First, it's expected that if you're the slower rider in the front, that you make it possible for the faster rider to pass. Second, if you're the faster rider behind, you have to wait for the rider in front to find a spot where the trail is wide enough to allow safe passing. In a duathlon, there's also the added fact that the slow rider was faster than you during the run so it's your fault that you're having to wait for his fat, inexperienced ass to feel safe enough to get over to the right for you to pass.

I would also suggest that if you pass a guy that you not have to have to hike-a-bike up a short technical climb that he cruises right over while passing you, forcing both of you to go back through that annoying social interaction of passing on singletrack all over again.

It wasn't until near the end when I finally had any real problems (other than not being able to take advantage of my strength due to my lack of skill). On the roughest descent of the day something happened. I hit a patch of sand, caught a large root or rock off center, or I misjudged a bend in the path. I can't remember, but I ended up losing control of the bike momentarily and ended up in the bushes at the edge of the trail. This was not a real fall. I managed to unclip in time and get a foot down, but I did somehow bust up a knuckle on my left hand and leave a fairly big scratch down my right shoulder that I didn't notice until I got in the shower after the race. I was a little rattled for the next half mile. A fall always leaves me less competent than before because I've come to realize that it's safer to to be less cautious on a mountain bike than to be too cautious. I still consider this to be a success. For once, my only fall while riding the mountain bike came during the hardest part of the trail.

Luckily, I nailed the biggest climb of the day not long after that fall and was able to get back into that zone that I had been in earlier in the race so that I finished the course feeling confident in my abilities. The only time I had to get off the bike the entire ride (other than that fall) was when a longish, easy flat section ended suddenly in a not-quite-hairpin turn that instantly turned into very technical, very steep climb. It came up so fast and unexpectedly that I had no time to downshift to a gear that would have let me attempt it. It seemed to catch a lot of guys off guard judging from the fact I didn't see a single person in front of me or behind me riding it.

Mickey, who was riding near the front of the pack, claims he was able to ride even that section of the trail, but there's no way he can really prove it. Having seen him ride several times before, I tend to believe him, but there's no way he can prove it.

No matter how happy I am with my riding, I don't get time bonuses for self-satisfaction. It took me 51 minutes to finish the bike course and my 1:35 and 1:47 advantages had turned into 10-minute and 6:30-minute deficits. Not only that, but the podium finishers had pulled even further away to a 13 minute difference just to reach third place. There was no way I was going to run two miles 13 minutes faster than someone who ran the first leg in less than 16 minutes, although I'd love to be able to knock out 2 miles in 3 minutes. If I could, I'd quit my job right now and go pro. I wouldn't even have to get any better on the mountain bike. I'd just have to post 1:30 miles on all the running legs and laugh as I blew past guys who had smoked me on the bike.

I didn't post 1:30 miles (or even 7-minute miles), but my last run wasn't bad. I was a little sluggish during the first half mile on that significant, but not ridiculous, hill that started the run course, but after that, I got my second wind and went on to post a time that closed in on both of the guys who passed me on the bike. I cut the lead of the guy who had been 10 minutes ahead of me to only 3 minutes. That makes it sound like I ran like the freaking wind, but in reality it's because the guy apparently blew himself up on the bike and had to walk most of the way. Over 26 minutes on a 1.84-mile course seems ridiculously slow, especially for a guy who posted one of the fastest overall bike times. The other guy who passed me on the bike started the run with a 6:30 lead, which I managed to carve 2 minutes out of. Unfortunately, the run just wasn't long enough for me to catch them. I really think that had the run course been one more mile, I would have finished in 4th instead of 6th. On the other hand, if the bike leg had been much longer, no length of run would have allowed me to catch up.

I'm actually okay with my overall result, though. I knew coming in that I don't have the trail-riding chops to match my road-riding abilities. I didn't go in expecting to place. It was nice to see some of my friends place (none of whom would have been racing if I hadn't signed up and nagged them to race too), but it was annoying to realize too late that this race classified Clydesdales as 200 and up and that would I would have easily made the podium if I'd registered for that, but I'll survive.


Julie said...

Isn't the thrill of the downhill, zig-zaggy turns supposed to be the allure of riding a mountain trail?

Jacob said...

Yes. However, from a racing perspective, it's what I'm the least competent at. Also, I'm not exactly an adrenaline junky.