Last week, I was so stoked after doing that crit that I decided that I wanted to race again this weekend. So, I decided that a mountain bike race would fit the bill just fine, even though I have never done one, and I am pretty much a complete hack on the mountain bike.
The thing I like most about mountain biking is the beauty of being out in the woods. There is just no place I would rather be. I really enjoyed getting out a few times on the MTB last year, and I must say that it helped me immensely with bike handling and confidence. It's just a fun experience all around.
My mountain bike is a Cannondale Cujo 1, a rather forgiving 27.5+ bike. I am currently running a 3" WTB Ranger tire up front and the 2.8" version in the rear. The bike is plush, fun, and easy to maneuver and/or roll over stuff.
Mountain bike racing is pretty much the complete opposite of mountain biking that I have done thus far; it's intense heart pounding action. The whole point of it is not just to get over stuff, but to do it faster than anyone else. I have a lot to learn.
The Raccoon Rally has been going on 29 years right in the heart of one of my favorite places on Earth, Allegany State Park. I signed up to do the middle distance, Sport, race which was 16 miles. The race features some pretty big climbs at the start with some intense downhill action. Then it goes off into single track and finishes with a pretty nice grinding climb.
My plan going in was to work my way up from the middle and hope that by the time I hit the climb, my road fitness would be enough to get me past some folks. I would be lying if I said that finishing was going to be my one and only real goal. I also wanted to not totally embarrass myself.
When the race started, it was a mad dash. My heart rate was through the roof. It felt like a cyclocross race. Hard effort, rest, and hard effort again and again and again. This is why I enjoy different types of racing, as it gets me out of my comfort zone and gives me experiences that I do not engage in normally on road only rides. The power surges and high heart rate spikes are good training. I will admit that this race put the hurt on me several times throughout the course.
I have been a flat pedal MTB guy since crashing a few times on early rides. The flat pedals are great for building confidence and everyday trail riding, but they are not well suited to a race like this one. On the longer climbs, being clipped in really helps you maintain your cadence and drive up the grades. With flats, you often find yourself a little preoccupied with keeping a good foot position. On the road bike today, I rode up a small climb on my commute, and it is apparent how being clipped in helps. It was a no-brainer, just spin, spin, spin some more.
When bombing descents on the flat pedals, you run into another problem: yep, spinning the pedals again. On the Cujo's 1x set up, I have a 30t wide-narrow ring up front. Going 25-40 mph downhill doesn't give you much chance of spinning in the 30/11. At least not in flats. I realized I was better off finding a stable position until I could resume pedaling. I would have been able to pick up a little speed if I was clipped in, I am sure.
The first part of the race was lots of hills and descents on what seemed to be ski or snowmobile type trails. The flat pedals cheated me out of a little of the roadie advantage I had hoped to get. I stayed away from some of the pack, but that only lasted until the single track kicked in and slowed me more.
I still felt mentally (and physically) strong until I got into the single track, but I was soon passed by a bunch of people when I got off track. I blew a switchback and had to dismount, and then I came undone on a small climb when I just wasn't in the right gear and could not spin up to speed on the flat pedals. I had to put a foot down and lost momentum. It is pretty hard to regain that spin when you have flat pedals. The single track was tons of fun though, and this was where I realized it is all about the fun. I was glad I had the flat pedals, as I could have crashed in here more than a few times.
Not having anyone to follow along the trail, slowed me down but I methodically worked through the trail to try to get in place for a surge on the last climb. That chance simply never materialized. I passed many people on the hill, but only one or two of them were in that group that got me on the single track. The rest of the racers that I was seeing were from the beginner race. They did everything but the single track section.
I got a nice cheer from the team as I finished in a little under 1:28. I got 25th place in the Sport category. Not too bad, but improving on the single track would have helped me get into the top half. Those folks who passed me there knocked me out of the top 50%. I lost almost a whole 2 minutes on the fastest of them from what I can tell. (Results).
Mountain biking is fun, but mountain bike racing is super hard and competitive. I definitely look forward to racing more, and I am sure that as my technical skill level improves that I will improve time-wise. Maybe one day I will even try the clipless MTB shoes and pedals that are collecting dust. The tough nature of mountain bike racing did not manage to take all the fun out of it. A hard day on the bike can be a fun day, too.