USA Cycling Cross Country Nationals at Macungie, PA

This week I had the privilege of competing at Nationals, and I have to say, it was a truly great experience.  One of the coolest things I’ve ever done.  I learned a lot but I also had a lot of fun.  It was awesome, and it is hard to convey the entire nationals experience, but I’m going to do my best to help you get a feel for exactly what I experienced.

The venue, one of America’s smallest ski resorts was for a week the site of one of mountain biking’s biggest events.  Bear Creek Resort in Macungie, Pennsylvania, about an hour north of Philadelphia, hosted the 2013 USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships.

“Bear Creek is one of those mountains that is often and generously referred to as a “local’s” hill. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for with miles of challenging trails. The mountain bike race course there is regarded as one of the toughest, rockiest and most technically demanding tracks in the country.”  – Bicycling.com

Now I’ve never competed at a national level in anything… I’m what my friend Howard Rhyne calls a “newb” or new to cycling and have almost finished my second year of racing mountain bikes.  Like everyone else, I started as a Cat 3 or “beginner”.  I did well and instead of spending a season or two as a beginner, halfway through my first season I was upgraded to Cat 2 or “sport”.  I wasn’t happy about it since I was leading the Southern Classic Series as a Cat 3, but unfortunately I had done too well as a Cat 3 and was forced to move up.

The starting chute is empty awaiting the throngs of gladiators on mountain bikes.

The starting chute is empty awaiting the throngs of gladiators on mountain bikes.

I finished out my first season as a Cat 2 and still managed to get second place in the series as a Cat 2 after being “catted up” mid-season.  All winter as I raced cyclocross I was getting ready to have a great year as a Cat 2 rider and planned to race two different series — the Southern Classic and the South East Regional Cup as a Cat 2.  Then my second season started and after only one race, I was again mandatory upgraded to Cat 1.

That meant that I would have to race this year as a Cat 1 or “expert” after only a year of riding.  I tried to appeal the upgrade to USA Cycling, but to no avail.  It seems that after age 55 (and I am) that all categories race together at Nationals as one.  Since I had already podiumed at several qualifying races, I decided to set my sights on racing at Nationals.

I should interject that although I have done very well for a new rider, I also have a healthy view of reality.  As Clint Eastwood said in one of his Dirty Harry movies: “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”  This year, since being forced up to Cat 1, I’ve had the privilege of racing against some of the best riders in the world — not just best because of their ability to go fast, but because they are some of the coolest people I’ve ever met too.

And I’ve quickly discovered that some of those riders are just in another league completely.  You can have great fitness and great endurance but world-class skill doesn’t come in a year or two.  In fact, it may never come.  And some of the riders I am now competing with are truly world-class athletes and I’m a guy trying desperately to catch up for having not raced the last 20 years.

All that being said, I set my sights on racing at Nationals, and started preparing early in the season.  I had no illusions (think hallucinations) of being on the podium, but I thought I might have an outside shot at a top ten finish.  I built a solid training plan and stuck with it.  I raced thirty races so far this year working to improve my skills and fitness.  It seemed to be coming together for me as my results have slowly improved and I seemed to be peaking just in time for Nationals.

The Challenge.  Bicycling.com said it very well:  ”Bear Creek is one of those mountains that is often and generously referred to as a “local’s” hill. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for with miles of challenging trails. The mountain bike racecourse there is regarded as one of the toughest, rockiest and most technically demanding tracks in the country.”

Words fail me as I struggle to adequately describe the racecourse.  How many ways are there to say rocky?  Or brutal?  But I’ve always heard that a picture is worth a thousand words so I’ve included lots of pictures of various riders on different, although not particularly unique parts of the trail.

I’d like to give credit for the following photos taken from the USA Cycling website and J. A. Murdock Images.

Velo News put it like this: “The descent at Bear Creek Resort was long, technical, and fast. Riders had to pay attention to the sharp rocks, which claimed many riders this weekend.”  “Claimed many riders” is an understatement.  In Saturday morning’s Cat 1 race, after the leaders had completed only two of their three laps, the announcer proclaimed over the speakers that the race started with over 250 riders, and more than 60 riders had already abandoned the race.

That’s an attrition rate of nearly one in four expert riders and the race wasn’t even over yet.  My friend Zdenka Cahojova-Worsham, who placed 3rd in Cat 1 Female 30-34, had this to say after her podium finish: “The course was extremely difficult — pretty technical (fun) in combination with crazy heat (not fun).  After a high number of Cat 1 guys didn’t finish their race due to heat, injuries or broken bikes, the officials decided they wouldn’t put ladies through the same torture and shortened our race from 3 laps to only 2.”

In other words, between the overall brutality of the racecourse itself, and Pennsylvania’s record setting heat wave, this Nationals had to be one of the toughest challenges ever.  The temperature at 4:30PM when we started was 94 degrees and the humidity had to be nearly 100%.  I’ve raced well over a hundred bike races, and done a fair number of endurance races as well, and I can say that I’ve never come to the finish line as utterly depleted.

The Race.  We departed Fayetteville at 6AM on Thursday and made the eight hour drive to Bear Creek, checked into our hotel, and arrived at the racecourse by late-afternoon in time to pre-ride.  While I am not a fan of pre-riding a racecourse within a day of racing, in this case I really had no choice.  I didn’t have the luxury of coming up early, and I certainly had no intention of racing “one of the toughest, rockiest and most technically demanding tracks in the country” without at least one pre-ride.

So my plan was to ride it as easy as possible and not “blow up” my legs before the race.  Great plan.  Not possible.  The climbing made it virtually impossible to pre-ride without getting my heart rate into zone 4 which is way too high.  To make matters worse, the trail was not marked properly so we rode parts that would not be on the race course.

After finishing the pre-ride several from our team went to dinner and then finally got to bed sometime around midnight.  During dinner I was talked into one more pre-ride first thing Friday morning, so by 8:30AM we were on the trail attempting once again to keep it easy.  Again not possible.  Once again, we rode parts of the trail that were not on our course, but finally decided that between the two pre-rides we had probably seen the entire racecourse.

We went back to the hotel to get a shower, give the bike a final once over, and then get some lunch.  Speaking of lunch, how do I eat for a 4:30PM race anyway?  I’ve finally worked out morning race nutrition, but hadn’t ever considered late afternoon races.  I opted for a Reuben sandwich that was not overly heavy or greasy and had some whole-grain carbs.  I skipped the fries and traded them for applesauce instead.  As it turns out the applesauce was super sweetened so I passed on that as well.

No breakfast, a small-ish lunch, and not enough to drink.  Most of you would think I had plenty, but I typically drink a lot of liquids throughout the day.  So far Friday I had had a 44 oz diet soda on the way to pre-ride, another on the way back to the hotel, two 12 oz bottles of unsweetened ice tea, two 12 oz bottles of coconut water, and then two 16 oz diet cokes and a glass of water at lunch — probably half my normal consumption of liquids.   Not to worry, I should be okay.  I got another 44 oz drink on the way to the race, and then began my pre-race warm up routine.

I was still feeling pretty well during my warm up although the temperature was 94 and steamy.  Most of us continued to ride our bikes slowly around the infield until finally the call came to stage for the race.   I was fortunate enough to get the sixth call up so I had a front row starting position.  The announcer built the excitement, the music got louder and louder, and finally the starting whistle blew and we were off.

I pedaled as fast as I could, although this field was definitely stronger than any I had ever raced before.  I was mid-pack going into the long climb up the ski slope and into the woods.  On the way up the climb I was passed by one rider and then we finally got to a small downhill and I was out of gas.  I was not a mile into the race and by this time I knew I was in trouble.  My legs were dead.  I had nothing left after the two pre-rides.  “Oh well”, I thought, “The race must go on regardless of how I felt, so it was time to suck it up and ride.”

The first half of the course is basically a continual, mostly-technical climb with occasional momentary reprieves as the trail would crest a short summit, only to turn upward again.  Eventually and mercifully I reached the top of the mountain.  My legs were screaming, my lungs burning, and my heart was pounding.  Now it was time for a series of technical descents.  By “technical” I mean very difficult to ride.  Again, I am at a loss for words to adequately describe the level of difficulty.  Just look at the pictures and imagine riding there.

Just as the first lap was coming to an end I was thinking to myself, “Is there anything that could possibly make this course more difficult?” and as if on cue, there was thunder and the rain began.  Apparently watching us ride this trail was not quite entertaining enough so God had turned on the sprinklers, making all the rocks and roots good and slippery.  I just had to laugh.  Now it was perfect.

So there I was, absolutely smoked, in the most important race I’ve ever competed in, on the hardest course I’ve ever ridden, and the rain began to fall making the course even harder to ride.  I was determined to continued on and give it my best, and hoped that I wasn’t alone — that some of the others were suffering as much as I was.  In a straight-up battle of endurance I can generally do well.

On the second lap, the trail conditions in combination with my exhaustion was making me have to dismount and push the bike in some sections.  One of the keys to being able to ride on some of the rockier sections is momentum.  As long as you can keep your bike rolling forward, it will tend to roll over rocks.  (A body in motion tends to stay in motion.) If you ever get stopped, it is very difficult to get the bike moving again until you make it to a smooth section. (A body at rest tends to stay at rest.  I knew I took physics for some reason!)

Imagine trying to clip into your pedals, while pedaling forward and bouncing over basketball-sized rocks, all the while trying to build up your speed to 8-10 miles an hour once again.  It’s as futile as trying to stack greased bb’s in a stiff wind.  If you look at the photos you will see several pro riders doing the “hike-a-bike” in some technical sections, so you can imagine what I was doing.  It just adds to the fun.

The Crash.  As I was nearing the end of the final, super technical descent,  I somehow managed to navigate the infamous, over 90-degree, downhill, rocky, left turn and start moving straight along the trail to several wheel-sized piles of rock.  I rolled over the first one but apparently had lost enough momentum that when I came to the second pile my front wheel bounced off the huge rock, sending the bike backwards and to the right, and me flying through the air.

If I were to try it again a thousand times I could never duplicate what happened next:  Somehow I jumped over the handlebars and landed on my feet in the middle of the trail, and was able to walk down the six feet or so below and retrieve my bike.  After carrying it back up to the trail I pushed it to the next smooth section where I could resume my final trek down the mountain.  All I could think of for the rest of the race was how in the world did I pull that off?

When I finally crossed the finish line I was absolutely spent.  More so than I have ever been at the end of a race.  More than after my eight-hour Off Road Assault on Mount Mitchell.  I hurt everywhere.  My quads were smoked.  I had developed a cramp in my left inner thigh about halfway through the second lap and I was somehow able to stay on the bike and fight back the urge to lay down in a fetal position and scream.  Best of all, I had not let the course beat me (although it was obvious that I’d been in a fight).  I’m convinced that had  doctor seen me on lap two, he would have pulled me from the race.

Jim Matthews won, Jim Frith finished second, Paul Curley was third and Alan Blanchard was fourth.  Not in the picture was Kevin Willson who finished fifth.

Jim Matthews won, Jim Frith finished second, Paul Curley was third and Alan Blanchard was fourth. Not in the picture was Kevin Willson who finished fifth.

It was finally over and I didn’t even wait around to see the results.  My team was ready to eat and I knew the results would be posted eventually and I also knew there was no chance I was in the top ten (my personal goal).  I was pretty sure that I wasn’t last, and I needed to shower, eat, and drink.  When we eventually made it to dinner I was too tired to eat and only managed to finish half of my meal.  Eventually the results were posted online and I learned that I finished 19th and I was happy.

Since I had been beaten so soundly, I decided to check the USA Cycling website to see exactly who was in the field, since I had only met two of them prior to the race.   As it turns out, 13 of the 22 finishers were from the Northeast, where all the trails are rocky.  The average finisher had competed in 4 National championships.  My friend Jim Frith who I had predicted to win, finished second to a local racer named Jim Matthews by over five minutes.  Talk about a home court advantage!  Third place went to Paul Curley who is a multi-time national champion in several disciplines.

Here are some of my key numbers from the race for those of you who are interested:

  • Avg HR: 91 % of Max

  • Max HR: 118 % of Max

  • Avg Power: 202 W

  • Max Power: 1,264 W

  • Max Avg Power (20 min): 226 W

  • Normalized Power (NP): 214 W

  • Intensity Factor (IF): 0.825

  • Training Stress Score (TSS): 135.8

  • Work: 1,455 kJ

Since Nationals I’ve had a couple of days to reflect on the race and I think I’ve learned a few things I can carry into future races.  Mainly I’ve gained valuable experience riding the worst conditions imaginable and that will make future courses seem that much easier.  If I ever decide to race Nationals again, I will plan to go up for the entire week and pre-ride and get into a good routine of eating, resting, and sleeping so I will be fresh for the big race.

Now that Nationals is in the books, I finally 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 if I can finish the season strong.