“NC State Championship” XC Race at Charlotte, NC

The sixth race in the Southern Classic Series was held this weekend at the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Not only was it race six of fourteen in the series, but it was also the North Carolina Championship race — a one race championship.  In other words, this one race was for all the marbles and the winner would be crowned the North Carolina cross country mountain bike champion for 2013.

Two weeks ago I raced at the Ocoee Whitewater Center, site of the 1996 Summer Olympics whitewater slalom competition.  This race was at the official training site for the US whitewater Olympic team.  Must be some connection between whitewater and mountain bikes.  Hmm.  I digress.

US National Whitewater Center Mountain Bike Trail

US National Whitewater Center Mountain Bike Trail

Like many of the trails in the mountains of North Carolina, this is both a beautiful and a challenging course.  It was well groomed and had a great mix of climbing, fast flowing downhills, technical sections, climbing, wide open double track, rocks, roots, red clay berms, and did I mention a lot of climbing?

Just how much climbing?  Try 2,887 feet to be precise.  That’s 152 feet per mile.  Certainly, it’s not as much as Ducktown or Tsali, but anything over 100 feet of climbing per mile is a “climbing” course and this was half again that much.  And of course, what goes up, must come down.  This trail had lots of fast descents.  Some were smooth but many were rooty and technical making me very glad I had a 100mm travel shock up front.

Funny, I guess because I have raced so many times in the last two years, most of the courses just seem to run together in my mind.  Certain things stand out about particular courses, but honestly, I couldn’t remember a thing about Charlotte.  In my mind it was just another race course.  Try as I might, all I could remember was a half-mile gravel trail approaching the finish line where I was passed last year when I raced a single speed bike and couldn’t spin any faster.

As it turned out, the only part of the course I remembered was not included this year, the start and finish were in a different place, and some new sections of trail had been added so none of it seemed familiar.  Because I wasn’t able to go up a day early and pre-ride the course, I was left with the next best thing: a “virtual”pre-ride.  For those unfamiliar, that means going on YouTube and watching videos posted by other riders.

There are a number of advantages to “virtual” pre-rides.  Certainly they are a lot less work.  You just watch a helmet-cam view of some other rider as he huffs and puffs up steep hills and down technical descents.  Sometimes you even see crashes and in some twisted way you are happy — not that he crashed, but that it was not you.  I like to virtually pre-ride with a glass of wine in my left hand and my computer mouse in my right.  Try that on a mountain bike.

On the other hand, however, there are some definite disadvantages.  One disadvantage is that trails change from year to year.  Last year’s course might not be the same as this year.  Another disadvantage is that most videos tend to minimize the elevation changes so you arrive with a sense that there is only a minimal amount of climbing and it turns out to be a lot.  Certainly, you deal with it either way, but it is easier if you are mentally prepared for the level of suffering in advance.

The question of whether to pre-ride or not is one that I continually wrestle with.  I am beginning to lean toward not pre-riding the course unless I can pre-ride it several times and several days before the race.  If my pre-ride is the day before, the advantage of actually riding the trail in advance is cancelled out by the inevitable poor quality sleep from camping, poor diet, and dead legs from riding in Zone 4 the day before.

If I go strictly by the Garmin data, I perform better on races where I sleep in my own bed, eat well the day before, and drive to the race early on race day.  In a perfect world, I would pre-ride the course early in the week several times a day and take Thursday and Friday easy and Saturday off.  But for now I’ll have to settle for virtual pre-rides and my failing memory unless the course is more than three-hours away.

That being the case, my actual pre-ride was my first lap of the race.  Where most people tend to slow down on their second lap, I sped up, and by about two full minutes.  I am certainly not a scientist but I have observed something at work in my own riding.  Please feel free to give me feedback on this if you have a different explanation or similar experience.  I’d love to hear about it as I refine my theory.

When the whistle blows and the race starts, I ride flat-out for the first mile or two, all the while my muscles are burning fuel and throwing off lactic acid, as evidenced by the muscle burn in my legs.  I don’t know if it is due to my age or if it’s universal, but it takes my body a few minutes to adjust — to figure out how to get rid of the trash and take on more oxygen.  When it does I get sort of a “second wind” and things sort of normalize.

I’ve also noticed a change in my reflexes and reaction times.  It normally takes me a few miles of racing before I settle down and begin to ride smoothly.  For the first ten minutes or so, I’m sluggish, and I tend to miss lines I’m aiming for, react late to technical elements, and in general just don’t ride as well.  Somehow after a few minutes I settle in and everything seems to come together.  When I start to get really fatigued I start to fall apart again in terms of my technique.

I’m beginning to think I need to warm up more before the race, but I don’t want to use up what little energy I have and run out of gas before the race is over.  Again, I welcome some input on this as well.  I have absolutely no clue how to get “technically” warmed up before the race.  If I could solve those two problems, I think I would be noticeably faster.

For anyone interested in riding this trail, I think you would find it a great balance of flow, technical elements, climbing, descending, and fun.  It is well maintained, easy to follow, challenging, and yet not over-the-top-technical (where you are constantly hoping you don’t get hurt or break your bike).  There is great parking (at $5 per day) and eating and bathroom facilities.  There is also fun for any non-mountain bikers in your group with hiking, trail running, and the whitewater center open for rafting.

2013 NC State Championship Cat 1-50+

2013 NC State Championship Cat 1-50+

As for details of the actual race, it was pretty uneventful.  I got to the first turn in third place and I ended in third place.  I had no spectacular crashes, didn’t lose any blood, no broken bones, no messed up bike… just a flat out hammerfest for 1:29:38.  I was happy to finish third to two great riders:

Jim Frith, the winner and now NC and VA state champion, also finished third place at the Sea Otter Classic last month, competing against top riders from all over the world.  Randy Shields finished second and also took second place at the Cyclocross World Championships earlier this year.  I felt honored to be on the same podium with those guys.  Maybe one day I will ride like them.

With this race, all of my state championships are now in the books for this year.  I finished 4th place in the Virginia state championship, I won the South Carolina state championship, and took 3rd place in North Carolina.  Overall I’m happy with my progress, but it feels like I have a long way to go to be competitive at Nationals.

Here are my Garmin numbers for this race:

  • Avg HR: 93 % of Max

  • Max HR: 112 % of Max

  • Avg Power: 204 W

  • Max Power: 1,241 W

  • Max Avg Power (20 min): 222 W

  • Normalized Power (NP): 217 W

  • Intensity Factor (IF): 0.838

  • Training Stress Score (TSS): 105.2

  • Work: 1,103 kJ

Here are my numbers for the last race:

  • Avg HR: 91 % of Max

  • Max HR: 105 % of Max

  • Avg Power: 204 W

  • Max Power: 908 W

  • Max Avg Power (20 min): 203 W

  • Normalized Power (NP): 213 W

  • Intensity Factor (IF): 0.821

  • Training Stress Score (TSS): 64.2

  • Work: 704 kJ

My average heart rate is finally back to where I want it to be (over 90% of max) after being off a few weeks when I was first upgraded to Cat 1.  Average power is identical to last week, although max power is quite a bit higher.  That’s probably because yesterday’s climbs were shorter and super intense and not the long steady climbs of the last race.

Next weekend I race the US Cup East SERC Series race in Jackson, Georgia, about halfway between Macon and Atlanta.  That’s about a five and a half hour drive each way and I’m planning on leaving early Saturday morning.  If anyone is interested in racing in a very well-run series and would like to ride along and share expenses, please let me know — I’d love the company.