I woke up with a bad attitude. I wasn’t in the mood to race. …this is not like me at all.
It was Sunday morning and there was an OMBC race at Scioto Trails State Park near Chillicothe at noon.
I’m usually the eager guy whose eyes pop open at 5am and is the first to arrive at the race venue. But I had a bad cycling week leading up to the race and my head was filled with lots of doubts.
After a week of beautiful, epic riding in Utah, my next three training rides in Ohio were cold, wet and miserable. Each ride I underestimated just how cold and wet it would be and I was underdressed. I lost feeling in my hands and I was so uncomfortable that I cut all three rides short. …that is not like me at all.
Plus, I felt really slow. I’m not sure if it was the cold weather or that I was just fatigued from my big trip. I just couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that I was dragging a 20-pound sled behind me. My legs had no giddy-up. It was frustrating to go so slow, when I all I wanted to do was have some productive training rides.
So, when I woke up in the morning I did the math about all the people that were going to beat me at Scioto Trails State Park and the prognosis wasn’t good. Everyone posted PR’s in the previous race at Mohican State Park while I was in Utah. It seemed like they all had gotten faster while I was gone. How could I compete with them? I even knocked myself down two slots in my calculations to account for some random, local fast guys from Chillicothe that were going to show up and kick my butt.
However, despite the gloom and doom, I’m the team captain for Breakaway Quickdirt Trek and I told everyone I was going. I needed to set a good example and attend my ass-whooping with a smile on my face.
When I got to the venue, it didn’t get any better. It was cold. I dreaded the thought of stripping down to my short-sleeved kit and shivering at the start line. I was sick and tired of the stupid cold. Stupid, dumb, idiotic cold. I’m over cold. I’m ready for summer.
And there were two issues with the course that were bugging me. One, I was told that the course was in mostly good condition, except for the downhills which were muddy. I’m slow on downhills. I’m awkward in the mud. Put them together and I’m a mess. I was dreading the 5 or 6 muddy descents I was going to navigate.
Plus, this course has a lot of gravel roads and last year all the geared guys left me in the dust because my singlespeed bike didn’t have the gearing to compete on the flatter, gravel sections of the course. I selected a harder, 32:16, gear ratio, but would it make a difference on the roads or would I just end up walking more on steep climbs. I definitely had my doubts about the decision.
And, as if I haven’t whined enough already, when I was warming up my legs felt so tight and heavy that it felt like I had 10-pound diving weights strapped to each quad.
I just wasn’t in the mood for racing. …which is not like me at all.
So let’s fast forward to the race. The temperature had risen to about 50 degrees or so. Warm enough to race in a short-sleeved kit. Cold enough to make you shiver at the line.
Ready, set, go! The race starts with a paved road for two-thirds of a mile. I was in 6th of 11 riders in my wave. Middle of the pack. I was drafting. Heart rate was good. I was smiling and conserving energy.
The course then takes a sharp right onto gravel and starts climbing up a long, steep hill. For me, this is one of the best starting scenarios I can ask for. I love climbing. This is a great way to separate the field before the singletrack. While everyone started sprinting up the climb, I just let them go. I stood on my pedals and started mashing out a steady, yet powerful, singlespeed cadence. Head down. Left, right, left, right, left right…
I started passing guys once the hill started to take its toll and they began shifting to easier gears.
I wasn’t aiming for anyone. My head stayed down and I could see them drift by in my peripheral vision.
By the time we reached the top of the hill I was in first place. Wow. That felt fantastic. I didn’t even feel like I was pushing that hard. I still had gas in the tank. That made me feel a little bit better about my race.
I surged forward to the singletrack which immediately started going downhill. The descent had an ample amount of mud. I felt uncomfortable and was riding slowly and awkwardly. Racers behind me started to catch up. Then I missed a turn when my tire wouldn’t grip in the mud. I came to a stop in the weeds and watched 4 guys zoom past me.
Crap. I knew that opening climb was a fluke. Is this how I’m going to lose it today? The positive thoughts were short-lived and the negative thoughts started washing across my brain.
Breathe deep. Breathe… (inhale) …deep.
I jumped back on my bike and survived the rest of the downhill. The leaders put a gap on me and I was determined to close it before it got out of hand.
Over the next half mile I caught up and was within striking distance when we hit, what is arguably, the toughest climb in Ohio mountain bike racing – the Three-Tiered Bitch (as it is affectionately called by the locals). I couldn’t touch this hill with my 2:1 gear ratio, so I jumped off my bike and started jogging it up the slope. The 4 or 5 guys ahead of me, were in their granny gears spinning furiously. Amazingly, we were going at the exact same pace. Despite the fact that I was on foot, I wasn’t losing any ground to them.
But this climb is a real… well… it’s a bitch. It’s so long. It has water bars that cause the slope to constantly undulate. It is a mental beast and a lung buster. Even though I wasn’t pedaling, this was the highest my heart rate reached all day.
At the top of the hill, Brad Smith, who was leading the race, shot off from the pack. Everyone else was spent from climbing and was trying to recover. When I hopped back on my bike my running muscles were tired, but my riding muscles felt great. I sped off after Brad and was surprised to see everyone else falling behind.
Less than a quarter mile later, I had caught Brad and the rest of the field was out of sight. I was honestly shocked at how quick my fortune had changed. I kept looking over my shoulder wondering when someone was going to make their move.
I rode on Brad’s wheel through the singletrack and one thing became clear. He was way faster than me on the downhills. He looked like a majestic deer prancing down the hill and I was just a pig wallowing down a mudslide. He gapped me big time and I turned up the pace to try and close the gap.
We came to another famous climb, Fire Road 5, which climbs for a mile or two, and Brad was about 100 yards ahead. Brad has won this race the last two years, so I know he excels here. I’ve raced him enough over the last 3 years to know what a great rider he is. He has been featured here on Quickdirt numerous times and he usually beats me. (Check out my article with Brad called “How to Race a Blogger at East Fork State Park“)
I knew that if I was going to hang with him, then this climb was a key moment. I put my head down, stood on the pedals and started rocking my singlespeed back and forth. Left, right, left, right, left, right…
Slowly I started reeling him in and I caught him half way up the climb.
For now I was satisfied sitting in second place in Brad’s draft. There had been no sign of anyone behind us since the Three-Tiered Bitch. Although, I wouldn’t call the pace easy, it was very manageable. It was still early in the race and I decided to chill and save myself rather than burn a match on trying to make a move.
But this was the moment when my feelings started to change dramatically. I was basically tied for first and I felt the best I had felt in the 2017 OMBC season. There was definitely potential for a strong finish. Even if I couldn’t hang with Brad over 23 miles of racing, I had a good shot at second and that was enough to make me satisfied with my potential results.
The gravel road flattened out and I noticed something else. Brad wasn’t pulling away from me on the roads. My decision to switch to 2:1 gear ratio was paying off. I was much faster on the road and the few climbs I had to hike I wasn’t losing any ground. More good vibes were flowing.
The race continued on with Brad and I neck and neck the entire time. There was a pattern though. I would fall behind on the downhills and then play catch up everywhere else. Every time I I caught up, I tried to draft Brad on the road as much as possible and every once and a while he dropped back and drafted off of me. I thought we actually did a great job working together as a team, which I wanted because I thought that would give the two of us a slight advantage over the rest of the field.
With 4 miles left, Brad and I were essentially tied and I didn’t sense any weakness coming from him. He was Mr. Consistent and wore his poker face well. The final stretch basically boiled down to one more long climb up Fire Road 5 and one long scary descent down the YCC Downhill.
I knew that this was my chance. I had to beat Brad up the climb because if he got to the downhill before me he would win the race. I put my head down, stood on the pedals and started rocking my singlespeed back and forth. Left, right, left, right, left, right…
Would he dig deep and try to match me? He had already beaten me handily at Mountwood and made me crack at East Fork. How much gas did he have left in the tank? I kept my head down and just focused on the task. Curiosity got the best of me though and after a while I looked back. He was falling behind. And better yet, I still felt great. This was highly motivating. My cadence increased with my excitement. I needed a big gap before that downhill started. The positivity was flowing through my veins. I was in first place with 3 miles to go. I had never won an expert race before and now it was a real possibility. But I never count Brad out. He is rock solid and has broken my heart many times.
When the gravel flattened out, I started sprinting along it as fast as I could, tucking into the aero position on the downhills and trying to eek out every bit of speed I could find. Pretty soon I could no longer see Brad behind me. Heck yeah. Let’s do this. I pedaled faster.
I finally reached the YCC Downhill and this was without a doubt the most treacherous part of the course, a fall-line downhill, covered in mud, with water bars every 100 feet or so. I had to ride it or I would lose to Brad. I was scared to death and tried to approach it with caution. Oh no. Too much brake. My wheels locked up and I was sliding. It felt like I had attached snowboards to the bottom of my rims and now I was just skiing down the slope. An expert rider, that we had passed earlier from the Open class, passed me and it shook my confidence. I put my foot down twice to catch myself. Crap. crap. crap. Is this how I’m going to lose this thing? I limped down the rest of the slope.
When I reached the bottom I looked back over my shoulder. Brad had closed my huge gap to about 50 feet. Oh no.
All that was left was a singletrack sprint to the finish. I had never ridden this course before, so I had no idea how long it was and what it was really like. There was so much uncertainty. Any more downhills or mud and I was toast. I gave that stretch every ounce of energy I had left, weaving through the forest, splashing through full streams and hoping to hold Brad off.
At last I could see the road and I had built up a small lead on him. I sprinted across the line in first place. After 9 years of racing, it was my first win on the Expert level. It felt so good.
After almost two hours of racing, Brad and I were only separated by 15 seconds. We could see each other almost the entire time, a true race. It was a battle I will remember for a long time.
I look forward to squaring off with Brad and the rest of the guys in the Expert 40+ division the rest of this season.
And once again, I feel really good about racing. Feeling positive.
See you at the Mohican 100 on June 3rd!