Finally… Race season is here. The Challenge at Mountwood in West Virginia is the first XC event of 2015 for both the WVMBA and OMBC race series. This isn’t just a good tune-up event, this is a great way to start the year. In 2013, they had around 260 racers show up, which makes it one of the largest XC events in the area. Attendance dropped in 2014 because the race wasn’t included in the Ohio series. But, Ohio is back and this year the race directors have a goal of trying to get 300 racers out. I’ll be there on April 12th to see if they hit their objective – or to tease them if they come up short.
In 2013, I had an amazing time at Mountwood. It was beautiful weather, a great turnout and I won my sport age group for the first time ever after 5 years of racing. So, I might be a little biased about how cool this event is. (Although, I did get a speeding ticket on the way there, so that brings my skewed perspective back into balance). But, despite my personal history, I can tell you that this trail system will lay out some cool challenges for riders of every skill level.
I went last weekend and met up with race directors Chase Barnhart and Bill Lane for a preview of the expert course. I happened to mention the ride on Quickdirt’s Facebook page (which you should definitely “like”), and a dozen or so of my closest riding buddies showed up to ride with us.
I drove down with Dan Fausey (Team Breakaway Quickdirt) and Joe Worboy (who is unaffiliated, but really cool because he follows Quickdirt on Facebook) and arrived just after sunrise around 7:30pm. Temperatures had dropped to 14 degrees F, which we were not prepared for, and we started our ride with numb fingers and a frozen crunchy trail. We were there two hours before everyone else and did a little warm-up ride. It quickly became apparent, after a few wrong turns, that the network of 30+ miles of trail was large enough that a guide would be necessary to successfully navigate the entire course.
At 9:30 the rest of the riders showed up and we met them at the Marina – which is the starting point of the race. Chase’s plan was to lead the group through the 22-mile expert course and stop along the way to point out where the novice and sport courses turn off to the finish. With such a large group it was hard to keep track of everyone and within the first 5 miles we had lost half the group. Hopefully, they weren’t eaten by bears, but I haven’t confirmed that yet.
The course is 22 miles for expert, 13 miles for sport, and 7 miles for novice. Chase’s GPS recorded 2679 feet of climbing, which puts it on par with Mohican State Park for ascending. I got the impression that the climbing got worse the further along into the course we went, (but maybe I was just getting fatigued). The course starts at it’s low point – the marina – and slowly climbs to it’s highest point at the 8-mile mark. After that, the course is downhill on average, but that doesn’t mean you are done with the climbing. There are a ton of cool, fast descents back down to water-level and then you head back up again. Then down. Then up. Then down. Then up. I’m not sure if you see the pattern here.
This course counts for points in both the Ohio and West Virginia series, and because of that, both sets of age groups have to be taken into account when arranging the starts. Since the age groups don’t line up exactly, they choose to do larger starting groups so that racers are guaranteed to start at the same time as other racers in their group, regardless of state. There will be 5 starts, one for expert, two for sport and two for novice. This means that Ohio racers that are used to starting with 5-25 racers, will probably be taking off with 50-80 racers in their group. This might sound like a lot of people to start with, but the course begins with a 1.8 mile section of paved road and gravel double-track that thins the pack. The start is just as fun and intense as almost any other point of the race with 75 racers weaving in unison up and down the jeep trail trying to position themselves for the singletrack. This section is wide enough to allow passing, but technical enough that you have to choose your moment or risk washing out at the bottom of a gravel-covered turn.
If you survive the opening gauntlet, you will take a left turn onto the singletrack and begin the slow, steady climb into the woods. In general this course stands up well to weather. In fact, it stands up really well. Chase told us that we were actually pre-riding on a “bad” day, in the sense that we were seeing the worst of the freeze-thaw conditions. He said that the course stands up much better to rain, than the freeze-thaw cycle. The trail was in fairly good shape that day, so I can imagine with warmer weather and a little good luck the course has the potential to be pretty fast. On this particular day, once the temperatures went above freezing, some of the climbs got a little slick and the wheels were spinning out on some of the slopes. If you are the kind of person who switches tires often, then you might want something with more teeth to grip the slopes if you suspect the conditions will be moist.
One highlight for this trail is the numerous amount of fast downhill sections. At times, you will be flying through the trees like an Ewok in the speeder bike scene in Return of the Jedi. Some downhills are open and fast, while others are twisted and rocky. Either way, the only things that will slow you down are fear and your own skill set.
The trail has plenty of rocks scattered throughout, but there aren’t any major rock gardens that will bring you to a halt. There are a few well-place rocks that are good for jumping. But mostly, you will just need to remain calm and let your bike flow over some rocky chatter in the trail.
I did notice a lot of thorns in the woods along the trail. If you veer off the singletrack, you may be in danger of getting a flat. Make sure you take an extra tube. Or, like myself, you can go tubeless and let Stan’s Notubes protect you from the thorns. I just made this change to my bike last week (finally) and I’m hoping it helps me avert disaster on April 12th.
Click here to read reviews of Stan’s Notubes and see how much it costs to convert your tires to tubeless. If you live in Delaware County, make sure you head to Breakaway Cycling and talk to Dan about making the change to tubeless.
For the novice riders, you will race the same course for the first 5 miles. I’m told that when you make the turn off for the finish, you will be treated to two miles of super-fun downhill. Sounds like a great way to end a race.
Sport riders will experience their biggest climb about 7 miles in and also get to finish with a downhill.
For the experts, there is a new 2 mile section of trail, so the course will be slightly longer. On this particular day, this was the messiest and most difficult portion of the trail. I’ve been told that this section may or may not be used depending on weather conditions that week. After riding it, my vote would be to not include it if it’s moist. It was very difficult to ride and needs a little more time to be broken in. If it’s dry, then this would be an awesome addition to the race. Be mentally prepared for a the course to either be 19 or 22 miles depending on whether they include this section or not.
They used to have a downhill that was steep and led into a sharp turn onto a bridge. This used to freak me out, but as far as I can tell it is no longer included in the course. There are several man-made bridges, but nothing seemed too dicey or worrisome. There are at least two creek crossings, but both were easy enough to navigate with a little momentum. A few of the hills get steep enough that they will become hike-a-bikes for the majority or riders. I’m not saying they aren’t rideable, but I will probably be walking at least 2-4 of them, so don’t feel bad about yourself if you have to hop off your bike and push.
Chase was really pushing pre-registration. I can vouch for the fact that in 2013, there was a long line to register. If you register on-line with bikereg.com, you will be asked to register for your WVMBA class first and then your OMBC class next. It’s a simple process. The price is the same, but there is a $3 registration fee. However, it’s probably worth the money to be able to zip through sign-up on race day.
On a personal note, I am excited because this will be the inaugural event for my new Breakaway Quickdirt Mountain Bike Race Team. We have 11 guys and over half the team will be there. We won’t have our sweet new jerseys yet, but if you see our group hanging out make sure you come say “hi”. Maybe we can even enjoy a cold post-race beverage together!
I’m excited for April 12th. This course is challenging and fun. It will be my first expert race ever and I plan on leaving it all out on the trail. I hope to see you all out there at the start. Let me know if you have any questions about the race in the comment section. And, make sure you follow Quickdirt on Facebook and subscribe to the blog in the right-hand column to get more great highlights throughout the season.