“Bump and Grind” XC Race at Jackson, GA

This week’s race was the 2013 US Cup East / South Eastern Regional Championship series (SERC) race #6, the  American Mountain Bike Challenge (AMBC) race #6, and the  Georgia State Championship series race #4.  The intersection of these three races, coupled with double USA Cycling ranking points made for a very well attended event with many top competitors bringing their “A-game”.

I dubbed this race the “bump and grind” because the course was probably the bumpiest course I’ve ever ridden.  There were lots of roots and rocks sufficient to kill any momentum you developed and forcing you to grind along the trail under power most of the time.  In other words, there was not a lot of opportunity to rest.

Just how bumpy was it?  Riding this course was much like having somebody beat you with a ball-peen hammer for a couple of hours.  You know it was brutal when the race is over and your hands, feet, shoulders, and arms hurt worse than your legs.  Although I have no first hand experience with which to compare it, I imagine it is much like operating a jackhammer for a couple of hours.

If you showed up with a rigid bike (a bike with no suspension) you were in for a bad day.  For that matter, having a “hardtail” bike (a bike with only front suspension) meant you were going to suffer.  No doubt, this trail was best with a full suspension rig.  My bike is a hardtail so that meant I was going to get a beating, and sure enough, that is precisely what happened.

Something to smile about -- one of the few smooth sections of the race course.

As with most cross country courses, when riding the Jackson trail you were either climbing or descending — no flat ground.  Now combine the ups and downs with the very bumpy terrain and you have a challenging course.  In other words you were either carefully picking your line up short, steep climbs or grinding your way up long steady climbs, either way with plenty of roots and rocks to contend with.

When you finally crested the top, you then began your way down fast and bumpy descents, sometimes so bumpy the bike would literally bounce down the hill, leaving you gripping onto your bike for dear life and hoping you didn’t bounce off the trail into a ravine or tree.  (More on this later.)

As a brief aside, when I raced Cat 3 40+, I was able to get by on fitness.  I was giving up as much as 17 years of age, and I was riding a single speed bike in a geared class, and still I was on the podium nearly every race. After five races and five top-five finishes, and leading the series by 100 points, I was mandatory upgraded to Sport (Cat 2).

In Cat 2, I often got to race with 50+ riders, and when I did, I was generally able to podium.  If the event didn’t have a 50+ category, and I had to race 40+ Cat 2, I generally didn’t podium.  In other words, in Cat 2 I could give up gears, or I could give up age, but I couldn’t give up both.  After seven races and six top five finishes in Cat 2, I was again mandatory upgraded to Cat 1.

In Cat 1 I am racing against seasoned veteran riders, and many have raced for decades.  Besides experience, nearly everyone in Cat 1 is in great shape.  Fitness is a given, not an anomaly.  There are no fat Cat 1 riders.  Another thing I noticed was that Cat 1 riders don’t race “crappy bikes”.  These guys are serious and have been racing for years.  These are guys that are old enough to have some money and who are not afraid to spend it on their rides.

Everyone in the field has lots of experience.  Everyone is committed to the sport.  Everyone trains hard during the week and comes to compete.  Nobody in Cat 1 wakes up and says, “Hmmm.  This seems like a nice day to go race my mountain bike.”  Most race a lot.  Many race multiple series in the season.

The first thing I realized was that in Cat 1, I couldn’t give up anything.  No more single speed in a geared class, as much as I like riding single speed.  So I built a 1×10 Raleigh Carbon Talus Pro (geared bike).  The bike is awesome, turns like it is on rails, and is very stiff and responsive.  I still ride like I am a single speeder and I only use a few gears, but I think it makes me a little faster.

I’m also training harder.  Maybe too hard.  I’m actually starting to feel a little burned out, but I have some very fast guys to catch up to and not that many years to catch them.  Unfortunately, they are training hard too, so the sad truth is that I may never catch them.  Time will tell.  Now back to the race.

I got up early Saturday morning, loaded up the bikes, the gear, and Dingo (see my article about Dingo the Trail dog).  I was up late Friday night getting everything ready, so I didn’t sleep well.  I drove six hours to Jackson, Georgia and pre-rode the trail once so I would be prepared.  I wanted no surprises on Sunday.  I had dinner with my teammates and drove half an hour to my shared hotel room and was in bed by 10-ish.

The hotel was on I-75 and our room faced the freeway, so the traffic noise was non-stop.  My air mattress was right next to the wall A/C unit as well, and every 10 minutes it would cycle on and then run for 10 minutes and cycle off.  The noise from the A/C was bad enough, but the constant change in temperature was enough to keep me awake most of the night.  I would be burning up, and then freezing, again and again, all night.  I finally quit trying to sleep and got up a little after 4AM and read.

By 7AM I was showered, dressed, packed and on the road to breakfast and then to the race.  By 8AM I was at the trail unloading my bike, going through the normal pre-race checklist.  Tire pressure… check.  Number zip tied.. check.  Hydropack ready… check.  Spare tube, multi-tool, pump… check.  Turn on the Garmin and sync the power and heart rate… check.  I was ready.

I had decided I would test my new theory with a short pre-ride.  If you recall from my last race report, I made the following observation:

“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.”

I had decided I would try an experiment.  I would go out and pre-ride part of the trail for 10-15 minutes and spike my heart rate to the point where my muscles were creating lactic acid.  The idea was that I would let my body begin to deal with making the necessary adjustments and hopefully I could then not waste the first ten minutes of the race waiting for my body to regulate.  I also thought I could warm up my reflexes so I wouldn’t feel like a spaz on the trails for the first ten to fifteen minutes.

It was during this pre-ride that the wheels began to fall off the wagon.  First, I felt flat.  Dead legs.  Nothing in the tank.  It seems the lack of sleep coupled with the pre-ride Saturday was coming back to haunt me.  As I was finishing my short 2 mile warm up ride, my Garmin flashed the “battery low” message.  Although I had it plugged into the charger all night long, apparently the outlet at the hotel was dead.  There was no time to fast charge it in the car, so I would have to hope it would be enough to last the race.

From left, Asa Marshall (50), Mark Perri (50), Mark Gilliam (51), and yours truly (58).  Yes, I'm old!

From left, Asa Marshall (50), Mark Perri (50), Mark Gilliam (51), and yours truly (58). Yes, I’m old!

Soon it was time for the riders meeting and then it was time to start racing.  When the whistle blew we all sprinted up a 200 yard gravel hill and at the top made a right turn into the single track.  I got a reasonably good start and was third or fourth at the top of the hill.  By the time we got a mile into the race I was squarely in dead last place.  I had even been passed by one rider who I had never lost to.  Not a good start for a tough race.

My lack of sleep the night before was beginning to take its toll.  One mile down, and twenty-nine to go and I was in last place and losing ground.  Mentally, I was reeling.  I had trained. I had prepared.  I pre-rode.  I was ready.  And yet somehow I was beginning to have my worst race of the season.  And I was angry.  Angry at myself.  Angry at my body for failing me.  Angry at USA Cycling for catting me up twice in my first year.  Just angry.

I decided I would simply ride my best and if that wasn’t good enough, oh well.  Lap one — I rode my best but caught nobody.  Lap two — I finally caught my first competitor.  Shortly into lap three I saw another rider in my group.  I was determined to reel him in.  Eventually I passed him, only to have him pass me again when I bobbled a hairpin turn and put my foot down.

Then I passed him again and this time forced myself to ride flat out so I could put a gap on him and hopefully mentally break his will to challenge me.  In another mile or so he was out of sight.  I settled in and started riding really well.  I was in the zone.  And then it happened.  It happened so fast I had no time to react.  It just happened.

I was riding up a rocky climb that went between two trees that were just a little over two feet apart.  As I climbed that rock pile, my front tire bounced off one of the jagged rocks and it threw my bike to the right slightly.  Nothing drastic but enough to catch the right end of my handlebar on the tree, and that started a chain reaction of events.  My bars instantly whipped around 90 degrees to the right and before I knew what happened, the rear wheel was going up and I was going down, over the handlebars.

I almost saved it — really I did.  Somehow I managed to stop the bike just before being catapulting down the trail. When it came to rest, the front wheel was sideways on the ground and the rear wheel was five feet into the air, and I was miraculously dangling by my pedals that had not come unclipped.  The entire bike with me hanging from it was propped up against that tree.

I had to get unclipped and get rolling.  What if I got passed again?  How big was my gap?  Hurry!  You can’t let anyone catch you.  I somehow managed to get free, righted my bike and resumed my progress down the road.  Pedal, dammit!  Don’t let anyone catch you.  And fortunately nobody did.  I rolled through the finish gate a full eight minutes before the next competitor.

I was elated, inspite of my less than stellar performance.  I finished 5th.  Not great, but considering the guys I’m racing now, very respectable.  I rode hard for three ten mile laps, and left it all on the trail.  The winner was 50 year-old Mark Perri, a veteran of at least 13 years racing USA Cycling events, and he is very fast, and he is a regular on the podium in South East Regional Cup races.  I don’t like being beat, but it’s really not so bad when I lose to people the caliber of Mark.

Here are some post-race analytics:  Most riders averaged a drop in speed from first to last lap of about 4 minutes.  I dropped less than 20 seconds, with my third lap (including the crash) faster than lap two.  All three laps were within about a 40 seconds window.  That means I’m consistent, and my fitness is good for the 2-hour-plus race.  It shows me that where I need to improve most, in order to catch these guys, is my technical skills, and that only comes from riding my mountain bike.

 Here are my incomplete Garmin numbers for this race (because it ultimately died eight minutes from the end of lap two):

  • Avg HR: 89 % of Max

  • Max HR: 120 % of Max

  • Avg Power: 193 W

  • Max Power: 1,592 W

  • Max Avg Power (20 min): 217 W

  • Normalized Power (NP): 210 W

  • Intensity Factor (IF): 0.81

  • Training Stress Score (TSS): 92.9

  • Work: 1620 kJ

Here are my numbers for the last 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

My average heart rate is nearly where I want it to be (over 90% of max) and since my speed picked up on the last lap, I imagine my heart rate did as well.  I assume that the Garmin file for a complete race would have pegged me at 90-91%, but we’ll never know since it died mid-race. Power numbers look similar to last week, although max power is quite a bit higher, probably due to the shorter and yet more intense climbs.

Our team leader, Robert Marion before his race ending crash.

Our team leader, Robert Marion before his race ending crash.

Our race team leader, and good friend, Robert Marion had a tough day.  In the pro race, he was riding about 10 seconds off the leader and in second place when he had a bad crash.  He was taken by ambulance to the emergency room at a nearby hospital where he learned he would need surgery to repair his shoulder.  We all wish Robert a speedy recovery and as little pain as possible, but he may well be out for the rest of the cross country season.  Bummer dude.

Next weekend I get to race one of the coolest trails I’ve ridden: the Southern Classic Series race in Uwharrie National Forrest near Troy, NC.  It’s also one of the closest races on my calendar so I get to sleep in my own bed Saturday night and ride up Sunday morning.  I’m looking forward to another great race!  If you are considering doing a North Carolina race this season, try this one — you won’t be sorry!