“Shootout at Angler’s Ridge” XC Race

The Shootout at Angler’s Ridge was the second race of my mountain bike season, and was located an hour north of Greensboro, just across the state line in Danville, Virginia. Like last year, this race was the Virginia State Championship race so it attracted lots of the best riders from all around the area.

Last year’s Angler’s Ridge race was my second ever cross country mountain bike race, and I managed to win the VA state championship as a Cat 3 (beginner) rider. Not bad. This year I hoped to repeat as a Cat 2 (sport) rider, so even though it’s not part of either the Southern Classic Series or the US Cup East (SERC) Series, I still included it on my race calendar.

I arrived at the course Saturday afternoon with friend and super-fast rider, Bart Wellisley, winner of the VA state championship last year in the single speed class, to pre-ride the course. We’d heard rumors that the course was being run in the opposite direction from the year before, but we had not heard anything about the course being about 90% new trails. Good thing we decide to pre-ride.

anglers ridgeThe course had a lot of climbing. In fact, it had just under 1300 feet of climbing in only 14 miles. And the climbs were steep and many had very sketchy traction. For example, one climb was about 60 yards of rocky and rooty incline with lots of loose rock and gravel and some mud thrown in to make it interesting. Just getting to the top was a lung-busting, quad-exploding, balancing act as you constantly moved backward over the rear wheel to gain traction, only to lean forward when your front wheel came off the ground.

Another of my favorites was about a 100 yard false flat (slow burning uphill) into a 180 degree uphill hairpin turn that was strewn with rocks, loose gravel and roots. The effect was one of burning your legs to fatigue on the false flat, just as you hit the hairpin where you needed more. Lots more. And then the fun began while you made a 180 degree turn while climbing a 45 degree incline of about 10 feet over rocky and rooty terrain. Picture riding along the side of a mountain, making a sharp 180 turn uphill to riding back along the side of the mountain while climbing the entire time. Oh — and throw in some sketchy traction, rocks and roots.

On Saturday’s pre-ride I was barely able to ride the entire course in the 32:17 gear ratio I had chosen for the bike. On the way back to Greensboro to Bart’s house, where I stayed the night, I remarked to Bart that I was thinking I needed to run just a tiny bit lower gear. I was thinking the 18 tooth cog on the rear instead of the 17. That would make the climbs a little easier but the tradeoff would be that I would have less top speed.

As we talked about it, I was torn. On one hand, if I put on the 18 like I ran last year, I would be able to climb the hills and maintain a higher cadence and go up the hills with less work. On the other hand, if I could push the taller gear, I would make the climbs faster, out of necessity. In the pre-ride some of the climbs were literally all I could do, so I was leaning toward the 18. The 17 was really bogging me down to the point of almost stalling.

But then I thought, the pre-ride was not at race pace, so I had less momentum going into the tough climbs. Plus, I had already pre-ridden the San-Lee trail earlier in the day, and spent most of the day in the car. I hadn’t had a good lunch, and it was late in the day. In the actual race I would be fresh, I wouldn’t have already pre-ridden a tough course, and I would be at race pace and have the added boost of adrenaline.

So, probably rooted in the laziness of not wanting to work on my bike after dinner, I managed to talk myself out of changing my cog to the 18 and decided to keep the 17 tooth rear cog. After all, I’m stronger than last year. And, I would have adrenaline. Roll with it, I thought. Leave the gear alone and get a good night’s rest.

I began to think about my strategy for the race. Knowing I was riding a single speed bike in a field of geared bikes, I knew I had to be the first one into the first turn or it would get ugly. Nothing is worse than being stuck in a relatively high gear behind someone who decides to shift to granny gear because “it’s a wittow too hawd to climb”. It would be even worse to be stuck behind 9 of them when they started scrambling for their lower gears. I would be walking my bike up the mountain. I decided I would go all out and do whatever it took to be the first one into the woods.

Next, I decided it was about time to register. If I didn’t get registered Saturday night, I would have to pay $10 more to race by registering in the morning. When I went onto my USA Cycling App on my iphone to register, I noticed that there were a couple of riders from tiny towns in Virginia — riders I had never heard of — and riders who didn’t have annual USAC licenses. Knowing that it was a state championship race I thought there was a good chance they were some local hot shots who rode that trail all the time and knew it like the back of their hands. Why not jump in, get a one-day license, and scoop up the VA state championship?

Sunday morning I was up early, went out to the garage, cleaned my chain, methodically went over my bike, added about 10 pounds of air to my front fork, set my tire pressures to 20 pounds in the front and 22 in the rear. I was ready. Should I put on the 18 tooth gear? No, I felt good. I could push the 17. I was superman. I went back inside, Bart was up, and we both ate a quick bowl of oatmeal and we were off to the races by 7:45. An hour later we were parking the car and unloading the bikes.

About the time we picked up our numbers and checked in, the Cat 3s (what I was last year) started their race. We made the rounds and caught up with our friends from around the series, small talking about the course, upcoming races, bikes, and waiting until it was time to get ready for our race. Single speeds, Cat 2s and Clydesdales (over 200 pounds) started at 10:30, each wave leaving 2 minutes after the previous one. I’d be in the fifth wave so I would start at 10:38.

As usual, I needed to go to the bathroom about 5 times pre-race. Nerves. Pre-race jitters. Finally our turn came and we were off. A very fast competitor from Wilmington, Philip Hatcher, lined up next to me and he leaned over and asked me what I was planning for the start. I told him, since I was riding my single speed bike, I was going to try to be the first one into the woods where the climbing began. Otherwise, I would be stuck behind a long traffic jam. He said, “Sounds good!”

The whistle blew and I hammered as hard as I could, and apparently, it was good enough, because I was in front. After the 300 yard sprint up a gravel road, we turned hard right into a single track climb that went on and on. Fortunately, my plan was coming together. We got to some of the steeper stuff, and just like Saturday, it was all I could do to climb it. What?! I was fresh! I was superman. I had adrenaline! I had momentum from riding at race pace! But I was still geared wrong. Oh no! This was going to be a long race, and I was in trouble.

Just like that my plan went to crap. I was furious at myself. I pre-rode and I knew I was geared wrong. But I talked myself out of going with my gut. Lesson learned. I knew it was only a matter of time before Philip would be knocking on my door, and I was right. about a quarter of the way through the first lap, I heard the words I was dreading: “Rider back. On your left.” BAM! Just like that he was by me. I tried to hold his wheel but there was simply no way. He was gone.

Okay, I’m still on the podium. Just ride hard and hopefully nobody else will catch you. My legs are about to explode. My lungs are burning. My heart is pounding. I’m channeling all that anger at myself for not changing gears and putting it into my pedals. About halfway through lap one, after a fairly long and fast downhill, as the trail levels out for a few yards, I hear those dreaded words again: “On your left.” I pulled to the right slightly to allow him to go around, and about that time he said, “Never mind.”

As I’m thinking, “What the heck?” about that time, the trail turned down again, over a bunch of gnarly roots and rocks for about 40 yards, then over a three foot jump in the middle of the trail, and back down for another 30 yards or so over some loose gravelly terrain and into a right turn. But as I am hanging on and trying to manage the downhill, I look to my right and see the guy who’d said “Never mind!” taking a different trail that was smooth and a short cut. Hmmm.

Immediately, I knew it was one of the locals. If you didn’t know that shortcut was there, you would take the line I chose. But if you knew it was there, you could make up a lot of time. By the time I got to the end of the downhill, that rider and, as it turns out another one with him, had both taken the shortcut and put a 30 yard gap on me. My trail went down, then right. Theirs was sort of the hypotenuse of the triangle, both shorter and smoother.

Try as I might, I never caught them again and they both beat me by over a minute. I did manage to keep from getting passed by any of the others in my group, and I also managed to pass quite a few of the riders from earlier waves, but I was not going to podium today. What made it worse was that had I listened to that voice inside, I might have won. I certainly would have podiumed. Another hard lesson: Trust your instincts.

All in all, I was still happy with my performance. I was able to sustain a Heart Rate of 93% of max, above my Lactate Threshold (LT) for the entire 1:13 minute effort and peaked at 110% of max. My best 20-minute power was 232 watts (17 watts higher than last week) and my Max Power was 1,028 watts. For those of you who care about such things, my Normalized Power (NP) was 229, my Intensity Factor (IF) was 1.145, and my Training Stress Score (TSS): 156.4. Now I am not a scientist, but apparently that means that I left it all out on the trail. Trust me, I did. I’ve never worked so hard to finish fourth (or as Bart so encouragingly put it, to be the 3rd place loser).

I’m glad the weekend is over, and I plan on sleeping like a baby tonight. Tomorrow morning I’ll do a nice, slow, recovery run to work some of the lactic acid out of my legs. If you happen to see me hobbling down your street at about 6AM and moving very slowly, don’t worry. I’m not really crippled… I just raced today. Next weekend, Bouldergeist at San-Lee State Park in Sanford, NC. Woohoo