“SERC #9” XC Race at Ft. Payne, AL

The South East Regional Cup (SERC) Series #9, the American Mountain Bike Challenge (AMBC) #9, and the Alabama Mountain Bike Series #6, all came together this weekend at DeSoto State Park in Ft. Payne, Alabama.  Since 1982 Ft. Payne has been famous as being the home of the “June Jam” festival hosted by the country-rock band Alabama. The park downtown has bronze statues of the band members that are larger-than-life size.

The Ft. Payne race course is typically 10 miles in length but was shortened to a 6.5 mile lap this year due to the excessive rain and flooding.  The Grand Masters 1 (Cat 1 50+) raced three laps so we did 19.5 miles total, making it one of the shorter races in terms of mileage.  The reason they cut the mileage short, however, is that the course is also the most technically challenging on the SERC Series.  So technically difficult, in fact, that they have to bribe riders to come.  You actually get a 15 point bonus (or half the points of a win) just for starting the race and then you add to that your finish points.

Because of that, it is nearly impossible to be competitive in the series and not race Ft. Payne.  Any rider who is in contention for the US Cup East has to race this one.  No choice.  So, being in fourth place with a good shot at third, I skipped the Southern Classic race in Greensboro and made the eight hour trip to Ft. Payne.  I rolled out at 6AM Saturday with my bike, my gear, and Dingo.  We met teammate Bart Wellisley in Charlotte and rode together for the rest of the way, arriving in time to pre-ride the course and then hang out with friends and tinker with our bikes.

This photo captures the slimy rock surfaces that made for challenging riding.

Tara Ludwig Photography captures the slimy rock surfaces that made for challenging riding.

I must confess that I was apprehensive when I set out to ride the course.  I’d heard stories about how brutal the trail was and that the rocks were… well, unbelievable.  Two different riders told me that it was common for riders to make the trip to Ft. Payne, go to the line, wait for the start, collect their 15 bonus points, and then get off their bikes and load up and go home, getting a DNF (Did Not Finish).  So, I was nervous when we started our pre-ride.

I learned a valuable lesson:  Don’t believe everything you hear.  Was it rocky?  Well, yes.  Did it live up to all the hype?  Not even close.  At the end of the day it was not half as tough as the San-Lee trail in Sanford, North Carolina.  Those are some big-ass rocks.  Ft. Payne had lots of rock gardens and rock descents, but they were tame compared to San-Lee.  In fact (and this is out of sequence) when I was nearing the end of my third lap a rider came up from behind just as I hit one of the most rocky and technical parts of the trail.

He said, “Rider back!” allowing me the opportunity to move out of his way as he went by.  Normally, I would just move over, but because this section was so treacherous, I said, over my shoulder, “Sorry dude, but I’m not moving over until we clear this sh@t…”  Within a second or two, I saw a rider with a red beard come blazing by on my right, skipping along the tops of the rocks as he flew by.  I said, “Or you can do that.” and he laughed out loud as he flew past me.  I had just been lapped by Thomas Turner.

Were the rocks tough?  Sure.  Were they as bad as everyone said?  Not even close.  I actually enjoyed this trail more than most.  It was challenging and it was unlike anything I’d ridden before.  Very cool trail.  Of course there were a few muddy sections because of the rain the night before, but overall it was a very fun trail even if it was hard on bikes.

While on the subject of “hard on bikes”, I have never been to a race where there were more people broken down on the side of the trail, generally with a flat tire.  Because there are so many rocks, it is common for people to cut their tires and flat.  One of two things typically happens.  Either the rider has tubes in his tires and has his pressure too low, resulting in a pinch flat when striking a rock, or (more common) since most people ride tubeless tires these days, their flats are a result of cutting their tires on rocks.  Okay, now about the actual race.

My team leader, Robert Marion, had told me I was doing fine for my first year in Cat 1 and that I should focus on only one thing: getting the hole shot (being the first one into the woods after the starting whistle).  So I was determined that I was going to get the hole shot.  The whistle blew, I smashed down hard on my right pedal and then I picked up my left foot and tried unsuccessfully to get clipped into my left pedal, ultimately slipping off the pedal and onto the ground below.  And of course that spastic move was right in front of the maximum number of spectators!  So much for the hole shot.

Here is my awesome hole shot!  Somebody please shoot me!

Here is my awesome hole shot! Somebody please shoot me! Photo by Tara Ludwig Photography.

I entered the woods in last place, and then set out to work my way up through the field as far as I could.  It was a big traffic jam for the first mile or so, as we rode down a winding muddy trail with a few rocks and roots to make it difficult.  Soon we were at the first major technical section: a pile of rocks to navigate into a crevice going left around a big boulder the size of a car that had been buried up to its windows that was in the trail straight ahead.

As I approached the traffic jam at the first major obstacle, I noticed that the second and third place riders had crashed and second was still in the middle of the trail with a flat tire.  I was able to navigate my way around the chaos and go from last place to fifth.  Soon we were climbing and I was able to ride around another two riders as they got held up trying to make their way up a muddy and rocky climb.  I was in third place in the first two miles of the race.  But could I hold it or maybe even move up?

We continued to ride, over tough technical sections, up brutal climbs, and through slick, muddy patches until we reached a top and the trail turned left into a very fast rolling recovery section of relatively flat winding trails.  This race course could be easily divided into thirds:  The first third was difficult with lots of technical sections and long climbs; the second third had minimal climbing, was relatively smooth, fast, and not particularly technical; and the final third was very difficult with a long, technical downhill and a long, technical, switchback climb ending at the short asphalt downhill back to the start.

When I say technical I mean hard to ride.  Tricky, with lots of rocks and wet roots.  What makes rocks and roots more difficult to ride is that you must maintain speed to carry over them, but if you ride them with speed you have very little reaction time for the many surprises you will encounter.  Tires could slip, your bike could bounce off rocks suddenly changing your direction, or you might just roll straight in the direction your bike is pointed.  With wet, muddy roots and wet, muddy, jagged rocks there is no real way to know what will happen.

After the failed hole shot and the early crash, the first lap was rather routine.  John Fleming, a rider from Texas who stopped in on his way to Nationals, managed to take back third place on a muddy section where I momentarily bobbled.  He managed to build up a 40 second gap by the end of the first lap, placing him far enough ahead that I couldn’t see him much of the time.  And then it was time for my second mishap.

John Fleming leading me just before I moved into third place.

John Fleming leading me just before I moved into third place. Photo by Tara Ludwig Photography.

As I cleared the chicane at the finish line and headed for lap two, one of the course volunteers waved me to the left, up a paved road.  It seemed odd but he was one of the officials and he had a radio so I heeded his direction.  About 100 meters up the road I had not noticed any course markers so I asked some spectators where the course was.  They pointed me back toward the official.  I was furious, turned my bike around, and sprinted back to where I came out of the grass.

I found the course again and continued my pursuit of third place, having lost precious time.  How much, I don’t know, but my third lap was almost two full minutes faster than my second lap.  By this time John was out of sight so I just tried to push myself as hard as I could to try and recapture third place.  Nearing the end of lap two, Mark Poore (the rider who was in second place and flatted) had managed to catch me and ride past me when I unclipped on a technical switchback.

Now I was not only in fifth place, but I was behind a rider who I’ve beaten at every single encounter.  And that was after he repaired a flat tire!  I followed him through the scoring area and beginning lap three.  I was simply not going to allow Mark to beat me.  About a mile into lap three, on a climb I saw my chance and shot by him and never looked back.  I rode as hard as I could trying to build a gap, and eventually I put some distance between us.  But was it enough?

I continued to hammer my third and final lap, again in fourth place and closing on third when it was time for mishap number three.  I was nearly a minute ahead of Mark when it happened.  At first I wasn’t sure what it was — my bike just started handling really funny.  It felt suddenly heavy.  Then I realized that I had a flat front tire.  I was still a mile from the finish with a three-quarter-mile switchback, technical climb in front of me.  I decided that if I was going to beat Mark, I would have to ride it with a flat tire.

I stood up and transferred all my weight to the rear of the bike and hoped for the best.  I happen to have the best wheels in the industry for just such an occasion.  My American Classic Race wheels have a patented bead lock system that prevents the tire from rolling off the bead.  That stuff always works in the lab, but would it work on one of the most brutal, rocky trails in the Southeast?  I continued to favor the rear wheel and managed to complete the climb and onto the final pavement descent.

Just before being sent the wrong way by a course marshal.  I'm even smiling.

Just before being sent the wrong way by a course marshal. Photo by Tara Ludwig Photography.

As soon as I got on blacktop the bike got really squirrely and I had a steep downhill quarter mile sprint to the finish.  I clicked it up gear after gear, hammering down the hill and held my breath as I rounded a corner, the whole time hoping the bead held.  I got to the bottom of the hill nearing the finish line and had one last obstacle.  Coming off the road there was a small ditch that had been half filled with water only after all the racing had become a mud hole.

My front wheel went in up to the axle and stopped dead.  I jumped off my bike and running, pushed it the final 20 yards to the finish line.  I had managed to hold off Mark Poore but after flatting was unable to ever catch John who ultimately beat me by a minute and five seconds.  Had I not made a wrong turn could I have taken third place?  What if I’d not flatted?  I’ll never know.  But flatting is racing, and so is getting lost.  In the end, I was happy with a well earned fourth place finish.

Here are some of my numbers from the race:

  • Avg HR: 92 % of Max

  • Max HR: 130 % of Max

  • Avg Power: 200 W

  • Max Power: 1,943 W

  • Max Avg Power (20 min): 225 W

  • Normalized Power (NP): 221 W

  • Intensity Factor (IF): 0.853

  • Training Stress Score (TSS): 129.1

  • Work: 1,285 kJ

Here are the numbers from my last race:

  • Avg HR: 90 % of Max

  • Max HR: 121 % of Max

  • Avg Power: 215 W

  • Max Power: 1,967 W

  • Max Avg Power (20 min): 210 W

  • Normalized Power (NP): 231 W

  • Intensity Factor (IF): 0.893

  • Training Stress Score (TSS): 188.2

  • Work: 1,832 kJ

My average heart rate seems to be back for good, so I guess I am finally getting used to the longer races.  Most of my numbers are better than last week, but then the race was significantly shorter too.  My 20-minute power is the best I’ve ever had on a mountain bike and my normalized power was slightly lower than my last race.  Intensity Factor and Total Stress Score were both better, so overall I felt pretty good about my numbers.

This Thursday I travel to Bear Creek Mountain Resort at Macungie, PA for the 2013 Cross Country Nationals.  I’ll miss the Off Road Assault on Mount Mitchell (ORAMM) this year so I’d like to send out best wishes to many of my friends who will be doing it without me this year.  I hope you guys have a safe race and I hope you clear Heartbreak Ridge before the rain comes.

After Nationals I get a week off, and then it’s on to Fontana, Greensboro, Woolwine, and North Wilkesboro to finish off the mountain bike season by the end of August.  I’m currently in fifth place in the US Cup East (SERC) Series and in second place in the Southern Classic Series and have a real shot at moving up in both series.  Please keep me in your thoughts and prayers as I travel to compete at Nationals this week.  I truly appreciate your support. Photos courtesy of Tara Ludwig Photography.