I was convinced this race would be canceled at the eleventh hour; it was raining hard on Friday night and the Saturday forecast looked grim. But I was prepared nonetheless and needed to act as if it were still going to happen. Turned out the race was still on, and the day’s forecast had lightened up a little, but I was wondering what kind of condition the trail would be in. I showed up at my customary stupid-early time, with Abby arriving a few minutes later. We got an ideal spot for pitting, so we assembled the rapid shelter and unloaded all the gear. Abby mounted up for an early reconnaissance mission to evaluate the trails and returned shortly with a bike that was only slightly muddy. That was a good sign.
Shortly thereafter, Jess Winebrenner and her duo partner arrived and made camp next to us, as Hal and Corey did the same on the opposite side. After we got all set up, I took the single speed out to see for myself what the trails looked like. There were a couple of slick spots on the lake trail and some shallow standing water in one of the turns, but nothing too bad or dangerous looking. However, it was enough to make me think the first lap might be a bit sketchy, but it would no doubt improve as the race wore on. Besides, Abby would be doing the first lap…so…not my problem, right?
I rolled back to our pit area and saw that others were arriving more quickly now, although it was not going to be a huge turnout. About this time, I noticed the Cycling Spoken Here van had pulled up and I wondered what kind of team they would have in the race. There were six duo co-ed teams and Abby had the lowdown on some of the personnel, pointing out the competition we needed to worry about and those who would not pose a threat. As with many of the races, the reputedly fastest team would be out of reach for Abby and me, so the real battle would be for second or third.
I then got some protein and berries in my tummy as Abby warmed up on the Santa Cruz. Our bike strategy for this event was to have me on the S-Works and Abby on the gears. Crabtree has zero technical challenges, so it was really just a matter of being comfortable with pedaling fast and handling the bike at high speeds, and Abby seemed more at home on the Highball. But I convinced Abby to take the first lap since gears would be key in getting a decent spot going into the woods. The turnout was low enough that the organizers decided to start the first lap at the boat dock, where the riders would wind their way through the parking lot before taking a hairpin turn onto the trail section.
I fiddled around and missed most of the pre-race announcements, but Abby had her head in the ballgame and was gathered with the others for the meeting and then the mass start. The racers were off at about 10:02 AM and Abby entered the woods mid-pack and looking strong in her new Jigawatt skin suit. I noted the time and assumed she’d be back in roughly 35 – 40 minutes, so I had time to use the bathroom about three more times due to all the coffee I’d consumed since waking up. That’s always the way it goes: drink coffee and get hydrated at the same time, then end up in the men’s room all morning.
After about 30 minutes I made my way to the transition area next to the hairpin turn to chat with other duo riders who were also awaiting their partners. One of those riders was Steve from CSH, who informed me that he and a shop employee were racing as a co-ed duo as well. Okay, I thought, these guys could be contenders for second place, so keep an eye on ‘em. At 31 minutes after the start, the fast riders started blowing through the transition zone, some of whom were duo and some solo racers. Hal was in the group of quick finishers, as he rode up next to me to give me a trail report. He told me the trail was pretty sketchy and he nearly crashed several times. This came as no surprise, as Hal is extremenly fast. One of the worst sections, he said, was after the second right-of-way crossing, where there’s a short bridge followed by a tricky root between two trees. I knew exactly what he was talking about and mused to myself that the famous diagonal root was bad enough in dry conditions, especially if you don’t scrub enough speed. I thanked Hal as he rolled away to rest between laps.
I began squinting hard at the next wave of emerging riders, hoping Abby would appear and I could be on my way. But before Abby showed, Steve’s racing partner (I forget her name) arrived first, and Steve took off. I would have to work hard to catch him in order to keep it close. Abby popped out of the woods about 40 seconds later and I jetted away, but not before I heard Abby say “I crashed!” I was alarmed, but realized that she’d made good time despite her wreck. Immediately, memories of Lake Norman welled up and I was grateful that Abby was at least able to finish the lap. I was confident her friends at the neighboring tent would help fix her up while I was out on my lap, but I’d need to be ready to double up on laps if necessary.
I set a good clip for my first lap, but conditions did not allow for full-on braap, so I remained careful and tried to look well ahead for any nastiness that might put me on my ass. The course was still relatively crowded and I needed to manuever judiciously to pick off slower racers. I then spotted Steve on his trademark pink Trek; he was perhaps 20 seconds ahead of me and I was gaining slowly but steadily. I finally overtook him on the “Sled Ride Climb” section of loop 1. He said a few friendly words of encouragement as I passed, and he managed to keep me in sight for the rest of the lap. I guess all he needed was for someone to set a pace for him, because if I pushed a little harder, he was still right there, the same distance behind me. As I approached the short bridge section that Hal had warned me about, I noticed the trail leading up to the bridge was quite rutted, and I wondered if it was perhaps the site of a few spills.
As I neared the finish, Steve still on my tail, I made a wrong turn and ended up costing us 22 seconds. Stupid mistake on a trail that I knew very well. Frustrating, but not devastating I’d hoped. When I made it back to the transition zone, I saw that Abby was ready to go and looking fresh, an indication that her crash was not race-ending. Once back at our camp, I checked my phone to see if there were any messages. Sure enough, Abby had more details on her crash and her condition (indeed it was her who had gone down near the bridge with the ruts and other signs of crashing), and as I’d hoped, she had received ample first aid from her friends encamped next to us. Thanks, friends! I then proceeded to stretch and refuel with protein and fruit while chatting with other competitors about their race progress.
Before long it was time to await my turn again. I swallowed a couple of shot blocks and headed to the handoff point where Steve was waiting once again. He soon started on his second lap since his partner had managed to gap us a little more during Abby’s lap. Apparently, she was fast, despite pushing plus-sized tires and a rigid fork. But as Steve sped away I yelled, “I’m going to try and catch you!” I never did catch him on that lap, but curiously, I passed the female half of one of the Storm Endurance duo teams…twice. I think she must have made a wrong turn near the flowy “ETD” section, thereby cutting off about 1.5 miles of trail. I was not going to make a big deal of it, but that’s only because they were not a threat to Team Velocibraaptors (Abby and me). Otherwise, accident or not, that’s cheating. As I neared the home stretch and the “fingers” section (I don’t know the actual loop number), I was pleased to see one of the OCCP guys encouraging riders by blaring out show tunes on his radio as riders passed him. He is known for doing this at cyclocross races and the occasional endurance event like this one.
After turning in my fastest lap, Abby was off once more and I continued my stretch-eat-socialize ritual. I deliberately did not check the standings, as is often my wont, but Jess told me that we were vying for third place. I felt good about that, and was resigned to the prospect of finishing behind the Cycling Spoken Here team. Not too bad; at least we should have a spot on the podium, sporting our new Jigawatt skin suits and looking pro. Jess also mentioned that Abby may be open to doubling up on laps and evolving our strategy to give her more rest, because of her leg injury. That did not sound like a bad idea.
When Abby got back and I took off for my third lap, something was not right with the bike. I rounded the first banked turn and felt the telltale signs of a low tire. I jumped off and gave it the pinch test, only to find that it was almost flat. This happened only about 30 yards from our site, so I bushwacked up to the tent to announce my predicament. Abby was heads-up and yelled that she’d take another lap, then rocketed away as if she had not just finished one. Great, it’s the injured party who must take the first double. I felt bad, but I knew Abby, at her exquisite fitness level, was completely equal to the task, as she whisked away with her customary youthful aplomb. Thank goodness, I thought, then set about putting more Stan’s into my tire and airing it up with a CO2 cartridge. Sean Murphy lent a hand with the task, and I have no doubt that we looked like a fine-tuned NASCAR pit crew, as we had that fucker squared away in less than two minutes. Thanks, Sean.
Now I had to get in the mindset of completing back-to-back laps, so I downed lots of fluids and refilled both water bottles in preparation. I also swallowed some Sport Legs pills in an effort to stave off any forthcoming leg cramps, something that dogs me on especially humid race days. When Abby returned and I took off for my double, I tried to pace myself a bit more intelligently than I would if it were a single lap. That did not last long. I pedaled with the same urgency as before, and found that two-thirds of the way into the first lap, there was a problem beginning to develop. Head sweat started its slow, inexorable journey into my left eye, and I found that I could do nothing about it. My gloves were useless for wiping sweat since they were themselves saturated with perspiration. I was forced to try and squint the sweat away, but that worked about as expected, which was almost not at all. I was reduced to riding one-eyed while laboring to squeeze away the sweat-blindness in the other eye. This has happened before, and I find that it usually passes. Luckily, it did pass by the time I started my second lap, as I found a bit more vigor at the prospect of two functioning eyes. But halfway into my second lap, I was beset with the same problem, and this time in both eyes! I was determined not to stop as I set about switching between eyes, one open and one shut while I worked to squint away the sweat. This must have looked comical, and I was nearing despair. Then I hit upon an idea: stop briefly and squirt some water into my eyes for some relief, although I had nothing to wipe away the water. As I relaxed my pedaling to make an emergency pit stop, I was attacked by some particularly vicious leg cramps. The pills did not work! Dammit! I then realized that I needed all the remaining water for beating back those cramps, and I would have to tough it out with the sweat blindness. So I motored on, repeating the cyclopian eye switch and struggling to maintain a decent speed. It then dawned on me that if I slowed too much, we may slip out of third place contention, so keep pedaling. At one point, I shouldered a tree when I transitioned from one eye to the other and almost fell. I must have been a sight. Suck it up, Matt. After all, Abby crashed rather badly and happily doubled up on laps with no complaints (as far as I know).
At last I heard the OCCP dude with the bullhorn radio, and I knew the lap was almost finished. The song was the Gilligan’s Island theme, and I somehow managed a grin through the extremity of my half-blinded demeanor. By the time I made it to the fingers, he’d queued up “Baby Got Back,” and I could not help but roll in at long last to our pit area with a renewed spirit. Also, my laps were done.
I dismounted and headed for a chair, not so much sitting as falling into it, but not before irrigating my poor eyes with about a gallon of water. Then I wearily checked webscorer.com to see how we were doing. It appeared we were solidly in third place after battling from the fourth place position. That’s cool. We’ll take that. Laura showed up about that time and I briefed her on all that had happened. After chatting with her for about 20 minutes I tried to get up and stretch, and that’s when the cramps came rushing back with a vengeance. Laura poured cool water down my throat as I slowly stretched away the demons of lactic acid buildup, and I was soon good to walk around a little. Note to self: do not sit stationary for too long after turning in double laps.
I had finished my last lap at 3:12, which was plenty of time for Abby to get back before the unforgiving 4:00 cutoff time. I calculated that she would return at about 3:50, so Laura and I walked a short way into the woods and I got my iPhone ready to snap a photo of her to preserve the memory. Like clockwork, there she was. I bade her smile as I took her picture, and indeed she grinned widely. It was a great finish, and I felt satisfied with third place. But Abby was still smiling broadly, almost giddy in fact. She knew something I didn’t. Then I saw why: behind her came the female racer from the Cycling Spoken Here duo, which meant that Abby must have passed her, which meant…
Yes, with hard work and an on-the-fly strategy, we fought back from fourth to second place by a mere 31.9 seconds. Steve was nearby as well, nonplussed as he witnessed the unfolding drama and its implications. That’s the way things go sometimes, and Steve knows full well what can happen in a race, as he is an experienced veteran in all things bicycle. Theirs is a strong team and will no doubt be back to compete again, so we must stay on our toes. But Abby pulled it out and she deserves much of the credit; she saw the CSH racer, she gained on her, she put her in her sights, and she made her move like a pro. Okay, it’s just Lake Crabtree Mountain Bike Trail, a moderately easy trail hosting a race in a regional endurance series, in the eastern part of the United States, in a somewhat niche sport. But damn, that felt good.