Monday, July 17, 2006

Fair Hill

I ride the mountain bike a lot. I pretty much enjoy any type of cycling, but riding the trails brings me the most enjoyment.

However, when it comes to racing my focus is on cyclocross. I've done less than 10 XC mtb races in my life. It's not that I don't enjoy them (even though they're really really hard) it's just that with a limited amount of time to devote to going to races I choose to use that time for 'cross.

The last time I started an XC race was at the 2004 Race for Chocolate. That one didn't last long as I blew up my chain about 15 minutes into the race. Since then all I've done is a few endurance events.

Earlier this year I decided to race Fair Hill for a couple of reasons...the trails and the training. The trails at Fair Hill are a seemingly endless ribbon of fine singletrack. It's tough to pass up a chance to ride these trails without worrying about getting lost. Plus, with 'cross season quickly approaching I needed to get in some hard training. There's nothing like a mountain bike race to work you over and make you stronger.

I picked up Bernie at 6 and we rolled up 95 for the 45 minute drive. Bernie likes to punish himself and since he had never raced a mountain bike he was looking forward to the experience. We warmed up by riding down a long gravel road connecting a bunch of horse paddocks. We also took a peak at the last mile of trail before the finish. I was surprised to see that it was pretty muddy. Baltimore had not received any rain, but Fair Hill had been dumped on the night before.

I don't mind slick trails, but they usually mean a harder race and more mechanical issues...not to mention being covered head to toe in horse poop.

Staging for our race was a bit intimidating. There were huge numbers of riders in each class, with over 40 in just our Sport Vet I (35-39) field. We were staged behind the Sport I and Sport II's so that was close to 100 riders in front of us, with even more staged behind. It was going to get crowded once we entered the singletrack.

The start was on a long (~1.5 mile) double track farm road. Given that our race was pretty long at 23 miles and I haven't raced this year I didn't want to go too hard at the start only to blow up later. I rolled up the road in about 20th place with guys doing stupid shit to move up a place. It was like a cat 4 road race. I just held my spot and stayed in line until we approached the turn into the singletrack.

By then a number of guys were fading from the initial effort. I moved up to about 15th heading into the woods. From there I started to pass guys whenever I got the chance. There were a number of spots where guys bobbled on a slick climb or lost traction on a muddy rock or root. I was trying to stay relaxed and not fight the trail.

I had moved up onto the tail of the leading group and was feeling really good. I had recovered from the initial effort, was flowing in the singletrack, and was in a good position somewhere around 5th.

So just as I was settling in for the long haul I took a fast left hand bend and felt my rear tire start to washout. "Uh oh...not good" I muttered to myself. It wasn't flat yet, but it was down to about 20 psi. I was bummed, but there was nothing to do but stop and fix the problem, most likely a pinch flat from slamming a root during a pass.

As I listened to rider after rider whiz by I tried to decide what to do. I was anxious to get back in the race without losing any more positions. At first I was just going to jam a CO2 big air on the valve and fill 'er back up, but since I was running tubes and no sealant that would have been a very dumb thing to do. So I proceeded to do a very slow tube change as all of my class and most of the SS class passed me by.

At this point I was initially bummed, but I was out here to ride some great trails and do some training, not necessarily to get a result. I got back on my bike with the goal of passing as many guys as possible and having fun.

I was still feeling good and passing a lot of riders. I caught up to Fort James, who was in the SS class. He and I rode together for a while. He said he was dying, but he was still riding well. He really helped me out by giving me a head's up on a short & very steep rocky climb and encouraging me to pass a big group on another climb. Together we passed a couple of large groups before having to dismount on a climb that was crowded with walkers. That was frustrating but we still passed a few more guys during the hike-a-bike.

On a couple of the insanely twisty sections the race turned into a logjam with a train of riders held up by riders that were not feeling the flow. Every curve turned into a brake check with riders coming together and kissing tires. This was really tight singletrack with very few places to pass. All I could do was use these spots to recover and save energy.

As soon as possible I passed and hit the gas to get away from the logjam. Without a line of riders in front I could ride these sections much faster with the same amount of effort. Although I would slide in many of the curves the Maxxis High Rollers always grabbed and kept me on course.

I caught the next big group of riders on one of the exposed field climbs. With the blazing sun and stifling humidity these things were like death marches. I was suffering, but I knew that the open climbs were the best places to advance through the field. I was doing a pretty good job of measuring my effort and trying to save a bit for the end. I was picking off guys that were fading during the last quarter of the race.

I managed to catch and pass the 4th place rider in my field and kept rolling in search of the first 3. I didn't know how far ahead they were, but I was going to keep pushing until the finish.

On one of the late climbs I was starting to feel the cramps coming on. I grabbed a handful of sport beans out of my pocket and gobbled them up, washing them down with the last remaining fluid in my Camelbak. I tried to keep the effort steady to avoid locking up. I was still moving pretty well when resurgent Fort James passed me flying up the hill. He was totally kicking ass and charging.

This fired me up and I tried to stay with him. The cramps started coming back so I settled back down and kept rolling. Other than the cramps I was still feeling good. I passed more guys by riding a rocky climb that they were walking. It hurt, but I knew it would hurt more to get off and walk.

After passing the 2 miles to go sign I was psyched. Bernie and I had pre-ridden this section and I knew there was nothing too challenging the rest of the way. I kept the pedals turning and cruised ahead in search of 3rd place.

Then my chain blew up. I wasn't even pissed...I just laughed. It happened as I was riding up a short rock-covered rise. I wasn't shifting and I wasn't even putting a lot of torque on the pedals.
It takes me a while to fix a chain even under calm conditions with the bike in a stand. On the trail, mid-race I'm all thumbs. I did a quick calculation and then started running.

I ran and pushed my bike until the quads started cramping, forcing me to walk. As soon as the cramps subsided I'd run again. So this was how I finished the last mile and a half or so of the race...running, walking, and pushing my bike. A bunch of guys passed me, including 10 in my class putting me at 14th, less than 4 minutes out of 4th.

Melanie's comment was that at least I had gotten in my running for the week! 8-)
In any event, I had a blast and got in some fantastic training. Without the flat and broken chain I might have gotten a decent result but I'm not at all upset about it. I got to spend the morning riding amazing singletrack with a bunch of cool people.

Bernie finished up saying that this was the hardest thing he's ever done on a bike...and he's done some hard races on the road! Hopefully he'll be back out on the mtb soon.

The Delaware Trail Spinners put on one of the very best races in the country. From the course to the organization and army of volunteers they do it first class. Based on the number of racers that show up every year there are a lot of people that agree.

I don't know if I'll be able to get out for any more mtb races this year, but I'll be back to Fair Hill next year for sure.


Marc said...


so this morning I slipped out of the house and hit fairhill trying to get some miles in before the heat kicks in again. I rode a bit of the course backwards, and in the last field before the finsish what do I see. I chain laying in teh trail. My first thought, after reading your report, was that's chris's chain!!! Do you want me to go back and get it tonight?

Chris said...


I saw that one too as I humped up the field. Mine exploded further down the trail in the woods. I think there were a lot of mechanicals on Sunday. A saw a singlespeeder rip his saddle off the rails when he remounted at the top of a climb. It was a tough day for the bikes.

Thanks anyway.

Fort James said...

There was a 2 mile to go sign??

I tried my best to keep up with you and I appreciate the help you gave me during the race.

If that were me riding this AM at Fair Hill, I would have picked up the chain. Chains are big $$!

Chris said...

that's the freegan way!

there was a course marking sign for the sport class and a dude saying only 2 miles least that's what i remember.

given the heat and effort, i might have been hallucinating!