Saturday, July 29, 2017

Another thrashing at Nationals

The 2007 Canada Cup in Canmore was my first crack at National level racing, with National Championships coming a week later at Mt. Washington (we were headed to the island for a family vacation so what the heck, eh?). My coach at the time cautioned me that national level courses are supposed to challenge riders both technically and physically and are a step up from the few provincial level courses that I have raced up to that point. In short, I got owned by the loose dirt in the Coal Chutes, and the slick roots at Mt. Washington. I learned a lot watching riders push the limits of their bikes on descents (if it's not making a terrible noise, you aren't going fast enough) and adapt to adverse conditions. I also did a lot of walking.

Humbled, I spent the next couple of seasons working to improve my technical skills and by the time Nationals returned to Canmore in 2010 and 2011, I was ready. I felt confident on the courses and had an excellent race in 2010, but flatted 2x in 2011 (I had to run a tube after denting my rim at a race earlier in the year).

Nationals returned for 2017 and will again in 2018. But I was a little hesitant to sign up to race with the big guns. XC racing has changed a lot from the long, fun, downhills of 2007, to shorter laps in 2010 and 2011, to even shorter laps for 2017. As well, drops and other awkward features have become crowd favourites and have worked their way into courses. Shorter laps mean you do more laps, and hence are setting up for those features (or taking the time penalty on the B-lines) more often. Shorter laps mean you are more likely to get lapped, or pulled from the race before you are lapped.

I've had good legs the past 2 seasons, and I had done a bit of pre-riding of the new sections of the course in previous weekends. I found them manageable. I also started hunting out steeper descents in Edmonton to prepare myself and boost my confidence. I put a fresh set of tires on my bike. Maybe I could survive until 1 lap to go? Looming wildfire smoke in Canmore was my last excuse but I signed up with a couple of hours to spare. In my experience, conditions on race day are rarely as bad as the forecast makes them out to be.

I can't remember the last time I arrived a day early to pre-ride a race course, but since I had to pick up my race number before 5pm on Friday, I took advantage of the opportunity. Dry weather and lots of traffic on the course had made it hard to get traction on the extremely loose descents. It felt like I had a couple of close calls, and one random crash that beat me up pretty good so I left the pre-ride pretty intimidated. And Kabush is racing on Maxxis Aspens?
Dusty and loose on a fresh section of trail completed in June.
Spectating the women's race was crucial to get my mind focused on the race. I watched riders with great skills taking advantage of those sections. I watched riders make calculated decisions to play it safe. I also heard the "thud" and "ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh" from the crowd as some girl paid the price and hit the dirt.

30 seconds to the start.

The back row attack! Lots of room to settle into position on the start loop and first climb of the lap.

Setting up for the B-line
I rode flat sections like "Buried Alive" and the run into the Eye Dropper better than I ever have.

Starr Trail Solutions sure know how to make trail.

The reality sinks in, but I know what I have to do. Ride the hills as hard as I can and not get in anyone's way on the descents. DFL at the holeshot but the climbs of the course alternated between singletrack and doubletrack making it easy to move up. The first descent was okay. but the 2nd descent contained 3 cruxes in quick succession (awkward rock armoured corner, Get Down, Organ Donor) and would lose huge chunks of time taking B-lines and walking. But I didn't let that faze me. Each time I hit the base of a climb, it was full gas, emptying the tank by the time I got to the top. I've never felt so good on the climbs (I must be getting lots of recovery time on the descents). Yes, it was frustrating having to chase riders I had passed before, but the course made it easy to do so. But eventually I ran out of time and got pulled with 3 laps to go just as I could feel the legs starting to hurt.

I survived, but I've got my work cut out for me before I even think about signing up for next year. If I can limit my losses (I sound like an American grand tour "contender"), maybe I can make it to the lead lap, or one to go. I was pumped to see fellow Albertans Mitchell Thomas and Ian Murray finish on the lead lap.

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