the following is a guest post from my friend Christian Burrell in Utah
So after getting hooked on mtn bike racing last year, I waited and trained all winter long waiting for this race. Finally the day arrived! I rode down with a new friend Rick and met up with Dennis & Elisa Jones at the venue. Our little group of riding friends is kinda funny since we all ride for different teams (for now?). I woke up nervous but ready to just get it started already. All through breakfast I did whatever I could to get my mind off the event. But eventually I had to get focused. Once at the site, I set up my bike and checked all my bicycle parts and repair stuff.
Despite a forecast of perfect temps, the morning was a little crisp. I found a good little loop and started to warm up. Last year, I was SO out of shape that warming up actually did more harm than good. I never recovered so I just stopped doing it. But this year I was in MUCH better shape. I had trained very hard (lost over 30 lbs in fact!) but still didn’t have any clue how much I had improved. But I knew that warming was important so I decided to try. But since I didn’t know any better, I just rode in circles up and down the little hill loop near base camp. Then I heard the call to line up!
At the starting line we had to wait behind another group and the butterflies started to flutter. I tried a little small talk with the other guys, but decided to try and visualize what I was about to do. How fast would the group be off the line? Would I kill myself too much trying to keep up to the leaders early or should I just head out at a moderate pace (conserving myself for the entire lap) and hope to not get too far behind? So many thoughts! I tried instead to just focus on breathing and shut everything else out and just see myself and the trail. Everything hitting perfectly. Beautiful…
At the starting “gun” the opening sprint wasn’t that bad at all. I was right out front with the leaders. It felt good how controlled my breathing felt and how strong my legs were.
About the first 1/2 mile mark is a little steep hill that weaker riders have to shift for but I powered through it fast putting a little distance between me and the main group. But at this same time two other riders made a big push and shot forward to take a lead and sprint away. I had to make a snap decision. Was I going to chase or let them go and hope to close the distance later? I felt really good so I decided to go for it. The risk was that I might use up my energy too fast and bonk before finishing. I had never really been able to actually RACE before. All last season I had just tried to survive. I had never actually worried about race strategy before. This was new; and I had no clue how my body would respond to pushing it so hard.
I stood up, shifted, and started spinning hard (when you are clipped in, you can pull up on the pedals as well as push). I wanted to catch up before we reached the first wash (a narrow, technical gully with plenty of tall rock steps) where passing would be tricky. We had about a mile of rolling hills to go, but I was able to pass the first rider ahead of me fairly fast. The leader was still ahead. My thought was to get close to him and stay on his tire as much as possible and wait for him to tire out. We made the sharp, blind (re: dangerous) turn into the wash and POOF! He was GONE! I was stunned how fast he was riding through this section. He had just disappeared!
I focused hard to make sure I didn’t blow any of the moves in the wash so I didn’t lose speed. I was now in second (a strong position) with the third place rider maybe 20 yards behind me. One mistake and he would be on my tire. I knew that there was a long, steep climb coming up and I knew I could climb pretty fast if I could just hold my position. After the wash I kept my same gear and decided to stand up and climb as hard as I could to catch up. I actually caught back up to the leader before the next mile had gone by. I was climbing fast and the last part was the hardest. I thought I might be able to pass him there. I pulled him in to about 10 yards and thought I could hang on. But at the top of the hill he just zoomed away again. The next stretch was a long down hill. Long enough to recover pretty well before the next techy wash. The leader had some guts as he flew down with reckless speed. I lost sight of him before we reached the bottom. All my hard work to catch up was wasted! GRRRRR!!!
I figured we had one more big climb following this wash. If I caught him on the first hill, I should be able to on the second hill. Leading is always tough so he must be getting tired. Right? The wash had more of the hard steps to power the bike over. One, in fact, had shut me down on my practice loop. This wash was a little wider which was good for passing. We had caught up to the leaders in the first group to go out and I passed them here. I was able to clean the hard step by fully committing and shifting my body better than I had before. At the end of the wash I looked up the long hill that followed to see what distance I needed to close. I expected to see him no more than about 30-40 yards ahead. But BAM! There he was already at the top! I actually remembered my jaw dropping a little. I stood up again and tried to power up the hill as fast as possible. When I reached the top, he was totally gone. My only hope was that he might have a mechanical problem (you actually don’t WANT the other riders to have anything go wrong or crash). I glanced over my shoulder back down the hill and didn’t see anyone behind me. I had opened a BIG gap on the rest of the group. I knew now that I had earned 2nd place if I didn’t screw it up with a bad crash or flat tire. There was no way I was going realistically catch the leader now. So, I knew my only smart move was to take it easy and just finish strong.
A STEEP down hill brought me to one last little climb. Now I wasn’t quite as focused and made my only shifting mistake of the whole race. Stupid!
From here it was about a 1/2 mile sprint to the finish. Nothing bad could happen to me now so I pushed as hard as I could and crossed the line. Dennis had waited for me there (his wife was behind me somewhere on the course too) and congratulated me on my race. I had taken 2nd. A podium trip! This would be my first time stepping up. Yes, it wasn’t 1st, but I had raced hard and felt good about my effort. Sure, you could think back about places where you had possibly made little mistakes that slowed you down. Or someplace else where you could have pushed harder. Should I made my first push a little bit faster and worked harder to stay on the leaders wheel earlier? So many questions that are impossible to answer.
In the end, it was a great experience to finally see what i could do. Maybe I can figure out my energy use and breathing better next time. I now have one more month to train.
In other racer news: Dennis ran a fantastic race and won 2nd in the Mens Sport 30-34! Elisa won third in Beginner Women for her first race ever! Rick had bike trouble and had to switch last minute to a bike not set up for this course and suffered his way to an 8th place in Men’s Open 57+. Not a bad first day for our little group. Till next time everyone!