The Ohio Mountain Bike Championship series (OMBC) held race #7 at West Branch State Park in Ravenna, Ohio on Sunday August 10th, 2014.
The social media rumor mill was warning about swampy conditions at West Branch so I was a little nervous on the drive up. The previous year the course did not dry as well as expected and it was probably the muddiest race of the year. Portions of the course were so bad the year before that I could barely keep my bike upright in the corners on the trail south of Cable Line Road.
On the warm-up though I was pleasantly surprised. There were a few mud holes in the prologue to the singletrack, 1.5 miles of snowmobile trails, but the tread on the path seemed firm. This was going to be a much faster race than the year before.
It was a gorgeous day and that led to a great turnout. Attendance was up 61 percent over the year before. The forecast called for upper 70s and low 80s, but my GPS thermometer was registering 72 degrees in the woods – near perfect racing conditions.
The Top Times Of The Day:
- Ross Clark – Vet Open 35+ – 2:25:50
- Drew Purcell – Expert Open – 2:29:42
- Jim Litzinger – Singlespeed – 2:29:43
- Jason Spieth – Veteran 30-39 – 1:46:16
- Tom Pollock – Veteran 30-39 – 1:46:47
- Bill Mickey – Master 40-49 – 1:47:50
- Mark Bender II – Senior 19-29 – 59:10
- Mike Gatien – Grand Master 50-59 – 1:00:08
- Jamie Sharp – 40-49 – 1:01:19
- Expert – Emily Ponti
- Sport – Julie Lewis Sroka
- Novice – Chris Sharp
My Race – If You Can Call It That
Each race has a million stories. Every rider has their own personal narrative in the trees. While I would love to tell all of these stories, I can only see the trail from the perspective of my own cockpit. For most of this season, I have told you a story about competition, the horse race of the Sport Masters division. But today I want to tell you a tale of perseverance – struggling to finish. While it’s fun to compete for the best times and finishing spots, sometimes you are forced to change your goals. For me, this was one of those days.
I carpooled to the race with Greg Ratcliff, also of Combo Race Team, who was racing in the Sport Grand Masters division. We pulled into the park about 2 hours before the race start, so we had ample time to register, get dressed and warm up.
The trail was in better shape than I expected and that helped relieve some of my anxiety. Sloppy trails are definitely one of my weaknesses. The initial rock gardens were challenging, but I was happy with how quickly I was able to ride through them. They were easier than I remembered and that enforced the feeling that my technical skills have been improving this season. Sure it was only the warm-up, but things were off to a great start.
I finished my warm-up early – maybe too early. I spent time hanging out with my fellow racers and realized a few minutes before the race that things were going to start any minute. I lined up and got a good spot in the first row. That’s not always an easy task in the largest division of the day. The Sport Masters and the singlespeeders lined up at the same time – 29 guys.
Bill Mickey and Brian Gonser lined up on either side of me. Between the three of us, we owned all the wins in the sport masters division this season. I know these guys were amped up for a rematch after our close battle at Lake Hope.
On “go”, the sprint started vigorously. Bill Mickey left us in the dust. I fumbled a bit trying to get my foot clipped into my pedal and felt like I was losing ground quickly. When I did get it secured, my legs felt a little dead. They didn’t feel as light as they did in my pre-race ride. Had they already cooled down from that early warm-up or were these guys just going that fast?
Mickey and Gonser led the pack followed by Chris Knapp and Kunihiko “Max” Tanuma (“Max” is his English nickname. It’s short for “Maximum Velocity”) The gap was growing between me and the front. I doubled down and pedaled harder because I didn’t want them to get away. My only goal was to survive the opening 1.5 mile sprint to the singletrack. I figured my quads could recover in some of the tight turns we would soon encounter.
I glanced down at my power meter for a split second. I usually don’t pay attention to it during races, but I couldn’t believe how hard this initial effort felt. We were pushing ourselves to our VO2 Max – this is the point where your body is processing oxygen as fast as it possibly can before it turns anaerobic. Racers can usually only hold this level for a few minutes. What we were doing bordered on unsustainable.
I started to doubt whether I could maintain that effort all the way to the woods without damaging my performance later in the race. I was in the middle of doing the mental math and recalibrating my goals when my left foot started to feel unstable on the pedal. What was happening? I already had problems with my pedal on the start, but I just figured it was my poor technique. Now it was bothering me again and starting to affect the amount of force I could apply to the pedal.
I wiggled my foot around trying to get it locked back in. After 15 or 20 seconds I was still having no luck. I decided to lift my foot and see what was happening. Underneath my shoe there was only a spindle left. The rest of the pedal had fallen off. I was only 1 mile into a 19.5 mile race. Arrgh!
Chris Knapp later told me that he could tell by the tone of my F-Bomb that disaster had struck.
Now the mental math went to a whole new level. Could I still be competitive? Could I even finish? I continued to pedal hard and was keeping up with the pack, but this opening section was non-technical. What would happen on the rocks and roots of the singletrack?
I entered the woods in 5th place and attacked my first challenge, a long section of rock garden, with vigor. Bouncing on the rocks knocked my foot off the side of the pedal and my bike came to a halt.
I’m not sure how the tone of that F-Bomb was, but it couldn’t have been much better.
I pulled my bike to the side and let a handful of riders pass me before making a second attempt at the rocks. My body tensed up and I was making progress, but I was going slow.
“C’mon James,” came a voice from behind. It was Wayne Bowers giving me a friendly little nudge. I had transformed from racer to roadblock and was holding up progress. I pulled over and let him and several others go by.
Would I have to DNF? I didn’t have a back-up plan. It never even occurred to me to go back and look for my pedal at the time? I really hated the idea of giving up. It’s not like I could pack up and go home. I had to wait for my carpooling buddy.
At this point, I needed a top 3 finish to improve my season score and it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. There were 25 guys in the masters division. Was I going to be number 25 across the line? I pedaled and thought – thought and pedaled. What was my new goal?
I reached a short downhill and tried to open up my brakes and get some speed, but the roots and rocks kept bouncing my foot off the pedal. Those little spindles are pretty slippery. Not only could I not pedal with power, I couldn’t descend quickly either.
At one point a slick section forced me to dismount. I didn’t think of the trail as muddy when everything was going well, but all of sudden the mud I was stepping in was making it harder to grip the pedal when I remounted. Now I was seeing mud everywhere. Every rock, root and mud pit was conspiring to take me off of my bike.
My body was tense from trying to stay upright. My balance was off. At one point I rode off the side of a low bridge and did a mini-endo. Another time, my foot slipped and I stabbed myself in the ankle with the nub of the pedal.
This was not going well and I was starting to worry about injuring myself.
I no longer had to fret about heart rates and VO2 Max. I couldn’t pedal hard enough to keep up the beats per minute. Every time I pushed myself harder my foot went astray.
“A bad race is still a good ride in the woods,” I remembered some of my fellow racers saying at previous races. I tried to put a positive spin on things, but then the nose of my saddle jabbed me in the back of the thigh and left a bruise. Ouch.
At least I was getting a good workout. My entire body was getting tired from the extra effort. The arch of my foot started to ache from balancing on the spindle.
When I came to the end of the first lap, I decided that I wanted to try and finish. I am stubborn and hate to give up. I may not have been going fast, but I was still going forward.
My new goal: finish two laps before Steve Twining and the rest of the experts started to lap me. It was a good motivation. Little did I know, Twining was in the middle of his own DNF situation.
Riders continued to pass me. I kept looking over my shoulder, but all the number plates were still red. I could still finish before the experts. Every once in a while I would try and pick up the pace on the smoother sections just hoping to not get caught.
My foot was really starting to ache, but I pedaled on. I hadn’t planned on biking so long, so I was low on food and water. I was tired and dehydrated. I’m not sure if I was having fun, but I was surviving.
I exited the woods after 19 miles and enjoyed the final stretch of downhill leading to the finish because there was no pedaling involved. For dramatic flair, I lifted my left leg in the air and used only my right leg to pedal across the line in 20th place out of 25 Sport Master racers – ahead of Ross Clark, the first expert finisher.
There were 7 DNFs that day, but I was not one of them. I didn’t win or place, but I still conquered.
Hope to see you at Dillon State Park on Sunday, August 24th, 2014! Check out all the details at www.ombc.net.