Tsali “Knobscorcher” XC Race

tsaliThe US Cup East, South East Regional Cup (or SERC) Series intersected with the Southern Classic Series and the American Mountain Bike Challenge (AMBC) Series for what was to be a huge mountain bike race — huge in both attendance and in terms of being physically challenging.

The Tsali trail system is located near Bryson City, in western North Carolina and is named for a Cherokee man who hid in this area in 1838. When the government ordered the Cherokees to move to Oklahoma (think “Trail of Tears”), Tsali and others escaped to these mountains.

Later, Tsali voluntarily surrendered after receiving a promise to allow the others to remain in the area. As a result, he, his brother, and two older sons were shot and killed. Today the eastern band of the Cherokee live on ancestral Cherokee land about 12 air miles east of the Tsali Recreation Area.

Aside from the history, the landscape is breathtaking. It is even more breathtaking (pun intended) when trying to pedal your mountain bike up the 3,000 feet of climbing included in the 30 miles of race course. Besides the climbing, there was single track trail winding around the edge of the mountains, overlooking Lake Fontana, some fast flowing descents, and at least eight water crossings.

The terrain was a good mix of elements, from smooth spongy trail covered in pine straw to rocky sections, small ledges, roots, and even some small jumps. Some of the race course was under tree covering keeping you cool while other parts were along the edge of the mountain with awesome views of the bright green lake below. Unfortunately, there would be little time to stop and enjoy the scenery.

Tsali is located nearly six hours from Fayetteville, so leaving Saturday morning meant no time to pre-ride the course. Fortunately I had ridden the course last year as a beginner and had managed to win my race in the process. This year, however, a similar outcome was highly unlikely. With two mandatory upgrades in a year, I was now racing with the “big boys”.

When I was racing Cat 3 I was able to give away gears and years. I raced a single speed bike in a field of geared bikes and I raced against riders who were as much as 17 years younger than me. When I was upgraded to Cat 2 mid-season, I was still able to give up one or the other, but generally not both. If I was able to race in a 50+ age bracket, I could generally do well, but if I raced against the 40+ riders, I would be further back in the pack being on a single speed.

Now that I have been upgraded to Cat 1, I cannot give up years or gears. Twice so far this season I have not podiumed because of my lack of gears. As much as I love the simplicity of riding a single speed bike, I could see that it was costing me races at this level. With the help of Robert Marion and the American Classic / Cycleworks Race Team, I finally decided to take the plunge and ride a geared bike.

Although I had ridden my newly built Raleigh Talus 29 Carbon Pro on two previous occasions, this was to be my first race on it. Not only did I have to think about shifting gears at the right times, but I also had to think about locking the fork for climbs and out of the saddle situations and then unlocking it for bumpy terrain and seated riding. These added challenges were probably more of a concern to me than racing against the big boys.

As an aside, I should probably mention that I am basically a spaz. I can hardly walk and chew gum at the same time. That’s why single speed was perfect for me. It is quite possible that shifting gears may exceed the limits of my cognitive function and coordination — it certainly seems that way in the early stages. Allow me an example or two.

On several occasions during the race, I remember getting near the top of a climb while thinking I just don’t seem to have any power, then realizing I had forgotten to lock my fork. I would then feebly attempt to lock it and finally succeed giving me additional power for the last 10% of the climb. Then I would forget to unlock it for the bumpy trip down the other side. Of course when I found myself bouncing down the hill without benefit of suspension, I would again fumble to find the hidden unlock button without taking my eyes off the trail for fear of certain death!

And shifting was just as bad. I would get to a place where I wanted to hammer and I would jump out of the saddle, and upshift instead of downshifting. Spaz! Then I would practically stall out and have to double downshift under power. And this didn’t just happen once or twice. It happened a lot. At the end of the day, the verdict is not yet in. I may prove to be too dumb and too uncoordinated to ride a geared bike. I guess I can always turn it into a single speed if I can’t make the learning curve. I digress.

Anyway, I had registered for the time trial on Saturday as well as the cross country race on Sunday. Saturday’s time trial started at 4PM with riders going off at one-minute intervals. I finished fourth in a field of four. Not good, but good enough for a couple of bonus points for the SERC series. I felt off — disconnected from my bike. Unable to climb (normally my bread and butter). Hopefully, some slower riders would show up for Sunday’s race.

After cleaning our bikes and our bodies, eleven members of our race team met Chip Harris and his friend who had gotten our huge party reservations at a nice local restaurant. We had a great time talking bikes and racing and hanging out before going back to our campsites and/or hotels for the night. I was ready to get some rest and hopefully do better in the morning.

Last year as a Cat 3 rider I started at 11:30AM but this year, my Cat 1 group raced in the “Yellow Wave” starting at 9:30AM. The temperature was a chilly 48 degrees at the start but by the end of the race had risen to a very comfortable 66. I had opted for a base layer under my jersey, but by the end I was burning up. Note to self: 30 mile races take a long time… dress for the middle, not the beginning.

I remembered the race as being one of the toughest in the entire season last year and that was when I raced only 13 miles. This year I would be racing 30 and I would be doing it on a geared bike. I was dreading it and looking forward to it at the same time — further evidence of my mental problems. Mainly I just wanted it to start and finally it did, but not before several trips to the bathroom and one trip to the woods.

Note to Tsali race promoters: Boys have to pee before races too. What’s with only having a girls porta-john at the start line?!

Finally, the whistle blew and the race began. Last year, by the top of the first long climb I had amassed a three minute lead on second place. This year, against the big boys, I was near the back of the pack. Last year we completed the 13 miles loop one time. This year we did the 13 mile loop twice and the 4 mile time trial course for a big finale!

The race, overall, was uneventful. No dramatic crashes. No exciting wheel to wheel combat. Just a spaz on a geared bike riding on a long trail. I did manage to pass a few people but I was also passed by many people who started in groups after mine. As a consolation, I was only passed by two pro women riders, although I did have a good head start.

I have to admit that this race was a very tough one for me, mentally. We all have those days when we have to face utter discouragement. I had the mountain bike equivalent of PMS. Because I was often in the wrong gear or my fork was not locked out when it should have been, or locked out when it should not have been, I felt heavy. Bloated. Inefficient. I felt overwhelmed. I was mad at USA Cycling for upgrading me too soon. I felt like quitting the sport.

I rode my best but it was just plain tough. In the end, I placed 10th in a field of 14. Two didn’t finish. I was 30 minutes off the winner’s time and 20 minutes ahead of the last place finisher’s. After the race, team leader Robert Marion encouraged me saying that I was in the right Cat. I should be happy finishing mid-pack in Cat 1 and that I was racing against some really fast guys. (The winner in my class, was actually faster than some of the pro riders. Who knew?)

After the race and some time to reflect, I’ve decided that I’m not quitting, but I sure felt like it during the race. I imagine that we’ve all felt that way at some point. I just need to train more. I was talking to Troy Zimmerman, the winner of my race and we discussed training. He trains 20-30 hours a week! No wonder he’s so fast! And Jim Frith, second, also finished in a different time zone. The rest were within a few minutes of my time. Maybe with some more training and some time learning my bike, I can find my way to the podium again.

Looking at my Garmin file, it was clear that my heartrate was off my normal race-pace as was my power. For those that care about the numbers, here they are:

Avg HR: 88% of max
Max HR: 105% of max
Avg Power: 180 W
Max Power: 701 W
Max Avg Power (20 min): 205 W
Normalized Power (NP): 191 W
Intensity Factor (IF): 0.954
Training Stress Score (TSS): 229.0
Work: 1,639 kJ

To put it in perspective, here are my last race’s numbers:

Avg HR: 90 % of Max
Max HR: 108 % of Max
Avg Power: 189 W
Max Power: 1,018 W
Max Avg Power (20 min): 215 W
Normalized Power (NP): 198 W
Intensity Factor (IF): 0.991
Training Stress Score (TSS): 154.3
Work: 1,074 kJ

When I try to analyze the numbers, a couple of possibilities pop out. My last race was 1:33 in length. This one was 2:32. The last one was basically flat and this one had 3,000 feet of climbing and was more than twice the distance. Maybe 88% HR is okay for a 2.5 hour effort. All I know is it was the best I had. I would think that my power numbers would be higher on this race, but maybe that is related to having gears.

This weekend we get a break in the schedule, so I hope to put some miles on my mountain bike learning how to shift gears and lock the fork. In two weeks I race in Columbia, the second of three races for the South Carolina state championship. I would be interested to hear feedback from anyone as I continue to analyze my race. All I know for sure is I did my best, and it wasn’t good enough… yet. But, I have many more races before nationals, so hopefully things will get better.