“Santos Vortex Trail” XC Race

The US Cup East, South East Regional Cup (or SERC) Series is the largest USA Cycling sanctioned cross country mountain bike series this side of the Mississippi river. It brings in riders from all over the Eastern US and is equaled only by the US Cup West Series on the other side of the country. In other words, the US Cup is the mother of all mountain bike series.

This year the SERC Series kicked off at Ocala, Florida, a few miles south of its traditional venue of Gainesville. Like many Florida trails, Santos is in an old abandoned rock quarry. Unlike my visit a month earlier for the 12 Hours of Santos endurance race, when the overnight temperatures were below freezing, this time the highs were in the upper 80s and the overnight lows were in the mid-50s.

My GM-1 group was slated to race in the “Yellow Wave” starting at 9:30AM. The temperature was a near perfect 68 degrees, with not a hint of sunshine. The wind was blowing about 15-20 mph and dark clouds were rolling in threatening to rain. Blustery, is the perfect word to describe it. We weren’t overly concerned because once the race was underway, we would all be under the cover of trees for the most part.

Just as we lined up to start the race, the sky opened and it poured for about 2 minutes, then just as quickly, stopped, leaving the trail tacky, the riders wet, and the air humid. Most of us sat on our bikes and just laughed. Talk about perfect timing. While we waited I managed to meet a couple of my competitors who, ironically, ultimately turned out to be the first and last place finishers.

Because of the impending storm, we were asked at the line whether we wanted to race three laps or the four that had been scheduled. The group overwhelmingly favored the shorter race so we would race for an hour and a half instead two hours. Nice. The whistle blew and off we went.

Although I had ridden much of this trail system only a month earlier, this was an entirely different course than before. First, they decided to eliminate about half of the smoother and less technical part of the trail for this race. Next, they switched the direction so even for those of us who had just ridden here, it was a brand new course. Last time it was about two-thirds easy and one-third difficult. This time it was the other way around.

Having ridden the course twice the day before, I felt I was prepared. Now it was time to execute. The race started out on a wide open rocky field, made a quick left turn followed by a quick U-turn to the right, and into the woods. The trail was very smooth, winding in and out between trees on a bed of topsoil and pine needles. It was like riding on carpet, with an occasional tree root or patch of sand to contend with. Easy stuff. The only challenge was not going too fast and overcooking a turn and slamming into a tree.

After about two miles of smooth, fast single track, the course made a quick left turn onto about 30 yards of straight trail with a big boulder blocking the entire trail. A four foot high wire fence was to the left, and a rock wall to the right. Think of it as a “Welcome to the Vortex” sign not too dissimilar to the welcome sign at any state line. This “welcome sign” to the Vortex was a boulder about the size of a small riding lawn mower, and the only way to continue was to go over the rock.

At first glance it is intimidating, but the trick was hitting it at enough speed so that your momentum would allow you to carry the rock, while simultaneously lifting your bars so as to minimize the impact and keeping you from just bouncing off it onto the ground in a heap. A little tricky but not that bad. As soon as you were over the rock, everything changed. Now we were on the Vortex trail, a rocky, up and down trail winding around the outer wall of the rock quarry.

Short, steep climbs, on loose, rocky terrain, generally with a tight switchback at each end. The switchbacks ensured the maximum suffering because they prevented you from developing any real speed to assist you in the next climb. Besides the constant ups and downs on very rough and rocky trail, there were a number of obstacles scattered randomly throughout to make things even more challenging.

santosOne such obstacle was between mile three and four. The trail climbed a steep and rocky ascent, made a left turn through a short and mild rock garden, jumped a ten inch ledge onto a pile of jagged rocks, weaved between two of the larger ones, turned about 120 degrees to the right while going down a pile of basketball sized jagged rocks onto the rock floor of the trail below. Although I had safely navigated it twice the day before, the third time I was not so lucky.

In my short mountain biking experience, when it comes to falling, I am truly an expert. Ask around. Or look at the pictures. As many of you know, my legs and arms are forever covered with the latest trophies indicating my superior falling abilities. On three previous occasions, I’ve cracked ribs while taking dives over the handlebars. They say that practice makes perfect, and… well given all the practice, I’d say I’m a regular sensei in the art of falling off a bike.

I have learned in my vast experience, that there are basically only two types of falls: the “slow-motion-life-before-your-eyes” fall and the “what-the-heck-just-happened” fall. Let me give you an example of each. A week ago Friday I was pre-riding the Bouldergeist course at San-Lee park in Sanford, NC. I had already won the “idiot of the day” award by somehow bringing my road shoes instead of my mountain bike shoes. Because the cleats are theoretically the same, I decided that since I had driven an hour to meet up with several other riders, I would go ahead and try to ride with the road shoes.

Good call, Matt! I hadn’t ridden a mile down the trail before I came to a sharp, gravelly, uphill, switchback, only because of the gear choice I was running, I didn’t have enough momentum to carry the corner and I stalled out mid-climb. I tried to unclip my pedal and to my surprise, the cleat wouldn’t let go. There I was, doing a track stand leaning inside and slowly, ever so slowly, I came crashing down on my right side, sliding off the trail into a ravine, with the attached mountain bike following me down and landing on me.

The fall seemed like it took an eternity and I was able to ponder the many errors of my ride as I ever so slowly crashed and slid down into a heap. This is a textbook example of the “slow-motion-life-before-your-eyes fall” and it was flawlessly executed. My fall during yesterday’s Santos race was the other type of fall. Allow me to paint you a picture.

One minute I am scaling the obstacle, and a split-second later, I am trying to pick myself up from the rock floor wondering “what-the-heck-just-happened”? It was that quick. And it was truly a good fall. As falls go, this one was probably rated highly as it had all the critical elements of any good fall. For the uninitiated, those critical elements are:

1. A good initial rate of speed for both bike and rider;
2. Encountering a trigger event, often an obstacle or sudden loss of traction;
3. A rapid deceleration in the speed of the bike;
4. The ensuing catapulting of the rider away from the bike;
5. A brutal landing, complete with maximum impact and carnage;
6. Bonus style points for the bike landing on top of the fallen rider;
7. Intense pain and/or momentary lack of consciousness; and finally
8. (Optional element) A brief bout of cycling tourette’s syndrome.

As falls go this one was between an 8.8 and a perfect 9.0 as it had all the critical elements and even the brief optional element 8. It happened so fast that I have no clue what went wrong. One minute I was riding fast onto an obstacle (elements 1 and 2) when apparently, my front wheel stopped (element 3) and I went over the handlebars onto my face (elements 4 and 5). I remember picking the bike up off my body, while experiencing excruciating pain, so I apparently got elements 6-8 as well.

Because I landed on my right temple and right wrist before rolling and skidding down the rocky trail floor, I instantly experienced a headache that stayed with me for another lap or more. My right wrist began to swell and as it did, I was having a harder and harder time holding onto the handlebars. On several rocky descents, my right hand almost fell forward off the bars but I was able to save another fall. The real problem, though was in my climbing. (See photos below.)

Unlike riding a geared bike where you climb by remaining seated and simply downshift the gears until you find the appropriate ratio to allow you to clear the incline, when riding a singlespeed, climbing is all about power and momentum. You must hit the climb with the maximum speed and momentum, and then by standing and pushing on the pedals while simultaneously pulling on the handlebars, you power your way up the climb.

Since I had, for the most part, lost the use of my right hand, climbing was very, very difficult. Several climbs that I had cleared easily, became impossible in my condition. And my hydropack was banging against what were becoming very sore ribs. I thought the race would never end. Halfway through the first lap I crashed and that meant riding injured for the remaining two and a half laps.

Although a new Cat 1 rider, I had passed one other competitor by the time I crashed and I was determined to finish ahead of him. On and on I rode, for what seemed like an eternity, determined I would finish the race. As I rode on I began to notice that lots of the spectators were talking to me and had really odd looks on their faces. Although generally I am in my own world, I began to listen to what they were saying. “Are you okay?” they asked again and again.

Besides my wrist, my ribs and my headache I was feeling okay — well, okay enough to finish. I thought if everyone was asking me if I was okay, I must really look bad. Apparently I did. Although slightly dazed for a lap or so, I still managed a decent effort. I maintained my lead on the last place finisher and continued to gap him, but I never caught the rider in front of me.

I just didn’t have legs after crashing. Looking at my Garmin file, it was clear that my heart rate was up to almost normal race-pace, but my power was off. For those that care about the numbers, here they are:

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

I must say that I was truly glad to be finished with this race, and although I was hoping for a better finish, I was happy to just pick up my 24 points and to not have hurt myself worse than I did. The head wound will heal in a week or two and the swelling is starting to subside in my wrist. It looks like I’ll be sleeping in my recliner for at least a few days and trying hard not to laugh, cough, sneeze, or hiccup.

It was a lot of fun hanging out with my friends and new teammates. Everyone was very helpful and supportive and we had at least a dozen or more of us helping each other out, racing together, and just having a great time. That kind of fellowship and camaraderie makes the long trips enjoyable. All in all, a great weekend of racing and yesterday’s crash might have finally qualified me for my pro license in cross country mountain bike crashing. I’ll keep you posted. Woohoo!