There really is just one event that inspired me to get into mountain bike racing. It can be summed up in 4 letters – OMBC – the Ohio Mountain Bike Championship series.
It was 2008. In my entire life I had only ridden my mountain bike on trails two or three times, yet I was invited to go to an OMBC race at The Wilds near Zanesville, Ohio. It was the fourth race of the year for the series and I was immediately drawn to the format. Each year there were 10 to 12 races and they gave out points depending on how many seconds you finished behind the first place finisher in your age group. You add up the best 6 scores to determine a season champion for each division. It just sounded fun to me.
I never thought of myself as a particularly good racer, but I always looked forward to racing as much as possible to get the series points.
The first year I raced I started out in the middle of the novice pack and slowly improved over the remainder of the season. I ended up finishing 2nd in the Novice Veteran 30-39 age group. I thought that was pretty good for my first season, but it forced me to make a big decision. Should I race one more year in novice or should I move up to sport?
With only a half season of riding on trails I didn’t really feel I was ready for the sport level of competition. The races were 50 to 100 percent longer and the competition was much faster. I didn’t think I had the speed or endurance to compete. When I looked at the times of the sport winners compared to my novice efforts, I felt embarrassingly slow.
I thought it would be fun to race Novice one more season and go for first place in the division. I felt like I could justify it considering I hadn’t even raced a whole season in my first year.
However, I was worried about being called a sandbagger, so I decided to move up to sport.
I’ve never been sure that I made that right decision that year.
Are you a sandbagger if you allow yourself to be the winner for one season before moving up?
What about you? Have you ever felt like choosing which division to race in was a tough decision? Did you regret moving up or staying where you were?
The next two years were highly demotivating. I was racing against guys with dozens of years of experience and I was getting left in the dust. I didn’t have the time to train or knowledge about how to prepare for these races. Furthermore, my bike was in a constant state of disrepair because I didn’t have the skills to fix or maintain it like I should considering all the additional miles I was putting on it. I felt like a big slow loser and the frustration nearly made me quit the sport.
Then gradually, over the course of a couple years, I started getting better. My riding was more technically sound. Endurance was increasing and I was getting faster. Then I plateaued. I felt like I had reached the limits of my genetic potential. When you considered the amount of time I was willing to dedicate to racing combined with the amount of money I was had to spend on equipment it seemed like I no room left for improvement.
In my mind I was destined to be a mid-level sport racer. I was fine with that. It was a good excuse to stay in shape.
Then, as anyone who has been reading my blog would know, I lost weight and I got a lot faster. I started reading about training and discovered that my preparation for races was sub-par. With my new body and training regimen I was able to increase my average finishes from the 50th percentile of sport finishers to the 90 to 95th percentile (this is just an estimate).
For the first time I won my age division in a race in West Virginia. Later in the season, I got my first win in an OMBC race – a perfect score of 60 – at Scioto Trails. It was exciting. I was placing well in a lot of races and when you looked at the results I would be the winner of most of the sport age groups… except mine.
I was racing in the most competitive sport age group, and despite my newfound speed and the fact that I attended every OMBC race, I was only able to finish 3rd in my age group. It was great being part of such a competitive division but considering how much work I had put into it, the 3rd place finish was a little disappointing. It left me hungry for a rematch – for my opportunity to be the winner.
Maybe it was my imagination, but I could already hear the word being whispered… sandbagger.
UrbanDictionary.com defines sandbagger as:
A person who pads a handicap or acts as if he/she is at a lower skill level than he/she actually is so he/she can achieve better during competition that’s handicapped or by skill level.
If I stay in sport for one more year, do you think I am being a sandbagger?
I take this decision very seriously because I don’t want to rob anyone of the chance of being competitive in races. However, I feel like I have paid my dues and supported the winning seasons of plenty of other racers. Someone has got to win right?
In six years of racing, I have only won one OMBC race for my age group. The highest I have ever finished for a season is third overall. If I look at the times that expert racers were getting last year, then I would be one of the slowest finishers in most expert races.
Here is what I would like to do and I hope you will give me your feedback. I want to race one more season in sport and then move up to expert the following year. I think I will continue to get faster now that I am training with a power meter and I understand the underlying concepts of race training. So, even if I don’t win my division, I would still move up.
Let me be clear, I truly think that I am on the bubble – good for a sport racer, but not yet fast enough to be even close to competitive in expert. Once you move up to expert you can’t really move back and I don’t want to regret it like I did last time I moved up.
There are many reasons to move up or to stay where I’m at and they aren’t all about my skill level, some of them have to do with my life off the trail. We weekend warriors have to juggle the needs of our racing goals with other factors in our personal lives.
I’m not going to lie. I would like one more opportunity to try and win in sport. If you look at the short six-year arc of my mountain bike racing career (Can you call it a career?), I have spent most of that time being mediocre. It would be nice to think that six years of hard work could lead to some kind of success. If I move up to expert too soon, it might just lead to frustration.
Here is a little of my reasoning…
On the personal side, I am a stay-at-home dad. That might make it sound like I have a ton of time to workout, but it’s really quite the opposite. My children are still too young to leave them on their own. I am constantly having to attend to their needs and I can’t leave the house to ride until my wife gets home from work. Many times I end up squeezing in rides after the sun goes down and that starts to limit my training options.
Also, I don’t want to bolt every moment my wife is home. I’d like to have a balanced family life too. The training commitment for expert level races is higher and I don’t want to take that time away from my family. As my children get older, they will get more independent and that will give me more freedom to train and get better. Postponing a move to expert buys me a little more time.
Furthermore, when last season started I was still in the middle of losing weight and I would like to see how my riding develops when I can focus on building up power in my legs versus shedding pounds.
Improving in racing is also limited by your body’s ability to adapt to training. It takes time for your muscles to repair and get stronger long-term. I improved my training and started using a power meter in the middle of last season. I would like to see how a full season with my new methods turns out.
Usually during the winter I allow my fitness to wane. This year I’m focused on staying fit during the colder months and I would like to see what affect that has on my early spring races. Scoring high at the beginning of the year might be what I need to finally win a very competitive sport division next year.
Also, I am considering trying to qualify for the USA Cycling National Cross Country Mountain Bike Championships, which are scheduled for Bear Creek Resort in Pennsylvania for 2014. I don’t think I can win this, but it would be a cool, once-in-a-lifetime race where I can hang out with other like-minded folks and experience the energy of a national event. This is definitely the perfect year for me to try and do this since it is on the East Coast. It would be a little weird for me to race expert and then move down to sport for nationals.
On the other side of the coin, with all the improvements I’ve made to my training, maybe I need to strike while the iron is hot. I’m not getting any younger and maybe moving up to expert would give me the extra motivation I need to take my riding to the next level. You never know until you try.
What other advantages or disadvantages can you think of? Even though I’m leaning towards staying in sport for one more year, I haven’t made my final decision and I would love to get your thoughts. Do you think postponing a move up for one year makes someone a sandbagger? What about when you consider the arc of my mountain biking “career”?
Regardless, I plan on keeping you updated on my racing season here at Quickdirt.com. You can find out firsthand if I made the right decision or not. And, you can learn how I am training to prepare for my races. Maybe you can leave me some advice in the comment section and we can help each other get faster over the course of the season.
Let me know if you’ve had to make this decision in the comment section. If you know someone who is struggling with this same dilemma then pass this article on to them. Also, if you thought it was interesting, then please share it on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.
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