Monday, March 15, 2010

6 Hours of Heritage Park

I didn't intend to go to 6 Hours of Heritage Park, but I'm glad I did. It ended up being a lot of fun and a really great race. Originally, I didn't think I was going to race at all this past weekend, but after another disappointing Snake Creek Gap, I definitely wanted to race. I had heard about a 6 hour race in Raleigh NC, and thought I might go to it. It had night laps, which would have been fun, and I'd never ridden there. But Friday afternoon, the Raleigh race got canceled. What! I really have to pay closer attention to the rain-or-shine clauses in race announcements! I couldn't stand the idea of not racing at all after I'd gotten into the mindset for it, so at the last minute I decided to go to Heritage Park for the 6 hour race there.

To keep costs down I was not going to stay overnight near the race, which meant I was going to have to get up at 5am to make it to race-day registration. I'd recently been mulling over how to do hard efforts with less than ideal rest, and specifically about budgeting sleep during the Colorado Trail Race. I decided to purposely get less sleep than I should, to see if I'd notice any effect. I stayed up late so I had a little less than four hours of shuteye for the night.

The weather was clear and in the 50s at the race venue. It had been raining earlier in the week, but I remembered from last year that the sandy Heritage trails drained well. A forecast of rain, but I didn't think it would be too bad. I decided to keep my race wheels on the bike, which currently have an Ignitor in front and a Small Block Eight in the back. The Small Block is not really a good mud tire, but I didn't believe the mud was going to be much of a traction issue, and I'd run the same tire combo at Yargo last year in thunderstorms and was fine. The bike was in great shape and had been dialed in after last week's trouble. I did, however, carry a full size #10 allen wrench in my jersey pocket just in case my crankarm decided to part company with the bike again.

At the start line I was talking with Nicki and looking around to see who else was racing in our category. The field was small but included 2008 TransRockies champ Lisa so I knew it would be a real serious race. I'd never raced with her before but know her by reputation as someone who's fast at both short and long distances.

The start was a parade lap and I stomped on it to get ahead of the crowd before they started stacking up in the techy switchbacks at the second mile. I went into the singletrack in first place among the women and just after the group of male leaders. The first lap went smoothly and I was feeling great. They had rerouted the course since last year but luckily hadn't taken out some of the fun bits, a couple downhill switchbacks and some slightly technical runs. This trail has a lot of tight twists and turns through the trees, and a lot of crisscrossing roots interrupting the trail. The Pro29 was a fantastic bike with great geometry for these conditions. And the Lefty fork really is a precise implement, stiff and responsive. The big wheels were eating up the roots and rocks, and I was taking techy sections at speed without hesitation.

A couple miles into the second lap I saw Lisa coming up behind me. When the trail flattened out for a minute I sprinted to try to open the gap, and as I mashed on the pedals my chain just broke! She passed me as I was getting the quicklink out and I wished her a good race. I got the bike moving again but shortly afterward I had to stop for some chainsuck as I shifted into the granny ring for a climb. The trail was pretty muddy and having the wheelbase set so short meant my front der and rings were pretty gross even after those few miles. I got the chain free and decided to just ride the rest of the race 1x9 using only the 32-tooth middle ring. The climbing on the course was pretty short and I thought I could do it. It would also keep my overall speed higher not to downshift and spin, and if it didn't kill me it would make me stronger.

I assumed I would be playing catch-up the rest of the day but didn't really know how much time I'd lost on the broken chain issue. Apparently after the second or third lap, I'd passed Lisa while she was at her pit. I didn't have a real pit, just some extra bottles in a tote bag, and no one was telling me my position in the race. Suddenly in lap five, I saw her through the trees behind me! I widened the gap stomping up a climb but was definitely looking over my shoulder after that. I put a few slow riders between us and breathed a bit easier.

I was riding really well and enjoying the flow of the trail. It was great to have such a good competition in the womens' field. It felt so great to be pushed, the two of us really just testing ourselves against each other. It's not about money or series points or souvenir pint glasses, I would have paid just for that feeling of chasing. I've heard people tell me that a fast group ride is just as good as a race but I don't believe it. Even at its most competitive a group ride is still a collaboration. Group rides stop for broken chains. A dropped rider is eventually sought out. First place and last are known only to those who were there. But a race, especially against people you've never met, who have rolled up to the start line with unknown skillsets and issues, a race is a completely different animal. The start line is not hostile, but it is not collaborative at all. Benignly ruthless. Seeing her behind-- or ahead-- every few miles made me push myself past the point of logic. 100% committed.

Midway through lap six I was cranking up a short climb out of the saddle (still in the middle ring) when Nathan lapped me, in the process of completely crushing the men's solo field. As he came around I said "go Nathan" and then right on his wheel Lisa passed me as well. I jumped on her wheel and paced off her for a few minutes, watching how she was riding. She looked pretty strong and I could tell the last hour of this race was going to hurt. I looked for a place to pass her back, and when I got around her it was at the start of some fun techy stuff that I had dialed in over the earlier laps. I pinned it all the way to the end of the lap, cranking up the last hill at a redline. I went out for the seventh lap without stopping to get another bottle and kept hammering right through to the finish. I held on for first and finished two minutes ahead.

Awkward podium photo. I couldn't muster the "it's my birthday" podium stance this time, guess that sleep deprivation experiment was catching up to me. Photo by Mark D.

This race was really the first serious test of the new bike and it convinced me of three things. First: the Pro29 is a great bike for me. I never felt like I was wrestling against the bike to get it through the turns, which I often felt like I was doing with the Epic. I have the chainstay set as short as I can right now on the sliders and it feels really solid (without a front derailleur in the way it could go even shorter). I didn't get too fatigued over the course of the five and a half hours of riding and I didn't miss the rear suspension at all, but it felt stiff and responsive when I was really mashing. Second: the Lefty fork really is fantastic. It is as precise as a rigid fork, smooth through its compression, and doesn't bottom out easily. I felt so much more in control through the rough stuff than I had on the Fox. And third: 29ers are the way to go. On small drops and corners I felt no hesitation, and felt like I could maintain speed well through the roller-coastery ups and downs of the course. For my efforts I got a great podium prize-- Maxxis tires, even a tread I like (Ignitor!) but they were in 26 inch size. I had to laugh. This race had just pretty much convinced me I would never need to use these tires. Oh well!

It was a hard day of mashing in the middle ring. It hurt. I am sure I ended up riding more effectively because I was not downshifting for the climbs but just suffering through them. The experience has got me thinking about racing 1x9 more often on low-priority cross-country races like this one. Not just because it would lighten up the bike, but because it will force me to ride harder gears and power up short steeps. Unless I'm in an endurance race with 45-minute-long climbs and long flat big-ring gravel, a simple 1x9 might be a great way to go fast and get faster. Also being somewhat sleep deprived didn't seem to have much effect on my race either, though I don't think it was something I'd do again except when required.

Thanks to new race promoters Chainbuster for setting a really fun course, for not canceling at the threat of rain, and for being so good to everyone all day. It was a really fun day in the woods.

Much respect and many thanks to Lisa for pushing me so hard out there. It was such a pleasure to be so evenly matched over the entire 6 hours and have such a close race. I am really looking forward to racing with her again.

Thanks also to my awesome sponsors especially to the ones responsible for setting me up on the big wheels. I'm never going back to little wheels, so I better not piss Bike29 off. Not only did George build me two sets of fantastic wheels but also gamely answers questions I have like, "why am I going faster on this bike than my old bike?" and "what can I do to go even more fasterer?" and as far as I know has not started screening my calls yet. You guys are awesome! Also many many thanks to Lynskey for designing and constructing such an incredible race machine. This bike took a lot of abuse over this race and performed beautifully. It looks cool standing still, but it looks even better when it's going fast.


  1. Nice race. Sounding to me like you need to ditch the persnickety gears and just go singlespeed.

  2. Always seems like Second Place wins a Baby... check last year's ORAMM Podium Pics.... 2nd Place ....Babies... be glad you won! congrats!

  3. Great job out there, I was done after 2.5 hours! Surprised I hung on as long as I did :)

  4. brado1: That's why I aim for the safety of 3rd place. No baby! Funny stuff.

    Buck the trend and go 3x1

  5. Once you get the bike working, you are definitely going to be a force to be reckoned with. Enjoyed the read!