Six Hours O’ Shiner’s Revenge 2012

Fellow mountain biker, Eric O’Connor, and his amazing crew of volunteers put on their very first mountain bike race at I.C. Dehart Park in beautiful Woolwine, VA. Excerpted from the promoter’s website: “On the weekend between the last two Southern Classic XC races and two weekends before SM100, stretch your legs with some lung-busting climbs, hair-raisin’ descents and challenging technical trail.”

Under normal circumstances, that would be a very accurate statement, perhaps a slight understatement. This weekend, however, was to be anything but normal. Oh, it started normal enough, but… well, you be the judge.

The I.C. Dehart Park trail is a brand new mountain bike course consisting of almost exclusively single track trails. It includes nice sweeping berms, banked wooden bridges, rock gardens, roots and small tree limbs to jump, blazing descents with jumps to launch the adventurous rider, and even an optional teeter-totter that I skipped.

Each 8.3 mile lap had over 1,000 feet of climbing and enough technical sections to keep even the best rider on his or her toes. Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia, the scenery was nothing short of breathtaking.

This photo doesn't begin to do justice to the amount of muddiness.

This photo doesn’t begin to do justice to the amount of muddiness.

I left Fayetteville Saturday morning after the 6:30AM C-4 “Ride-Before-The-Club-Ride” ride. I didn’t need to be in Greensboro until lunch time so I thought it would be good to go for a nice short easy ride to get my legs moving first thing. Apparently, Steve Watson was feeling spunky and we blazed out of the parking lot and rode speeds of 24-25 for much of the ride. So much for “a nice, short, easy ride”.

By 8:30 I was back home, showered and loading my bikes for Shiner’s Revenge and by 10AM I was on the road excited about riding another endurance mountain bike race. I met up with friends and fellow racers, Bart Wellisley and Tyler Graff in Greensboro, helped load the trailer, and set out on the remaining hour and a half ride to Woolwine in time to pre-ride the course.

After setting up our race camp consisting of a large trailer, two easy-up tents, an A-frame bike stand, shop work stand, work bench, chairs, and tents to sleep in, we change into our riding clothes and went to check out the course. Shortly after getting camp set up, we were joined by fellow Fayetteville riders, John Myers and his wife Jane Schwarting.

Having gone a little harder than I wanted to earlier in the day, I told myself that on this pre-ride I was not going to break a sweat but rather just take it real easy. Clearly I hadn’t factored in the climbing. It is not possible, given my level of fitness, to ride my single speed bike on a trail with a 1,000 feet of climbing per lap without breaking a sweat, and within 5 minutes of leaving camp, I was huffing and puffing my way up the seemingly endless climbs, sweating profusely.

The course was everything we had hoped for and more. It was so challenging that I was thinking about riding six to eight laps but wondering how well my legs might hold up. Only time would tell. After a brisk but not too fast 50-minute lap around the course, we returned to camp, changed clothes and hung out talking racing until the cookout started.

After eating too much free food and hanging out under the stars talking to other racers until late, we went to bed excited about the next day’s race. The sky was clear and temperature was perfect. All was well until about 4AM when we heard the patter of raindrops on our tent. Rain? From a clear sky? I had to open the tent door to check for myself, and sure enough the rain was beginning to come down.

As anyone from the south knows, our rainstorms are generally short-lived, so I figured it would be over in 30-45 minutes. Sure enough, in about 45 minutes the rain had wound down to just an occasional drop. I remember thinking the trail had been a little dusty the day before and the light rain would probably do it good. Then about 5AM the bottom dropped out and it poured for over an hour then backed off to just a sprinkle.

When it backed off, we started getting ready for the race, hoping the trails wouldn’t be too bad. The race was scheduled to start at 9 and by 8:45 it was raining again. Most of us were starting to wonder how the red clay trails would hold up in all this rain. We were soon to find out.

The race began with only about a 3-minute delay and we rode through the grassy infield then up a paved cart path heading for the trail. Within a few feet of hitting single track it became painfully obvious that we were in for a very long day. Maybe the rain would let up and the sun would come out. Well, that was not to be.

How can I describe the riding surface in a way that will do it justice? Muddy… that was easy. But muddy doesn’t begin to describe it, really. There is mud — the kind your kids played in and then tracked into the house — and then there is mud. The mud I am talking about is of the world-class variety.

For those of you who are parents or who have cared for a newborn baby, I will be able to somewhat describe the mud for you, but for the rest of you… well one day when you have a newborn you will then understand. The mud we slogged through for the next six hours was like a mixture of equal parts meconium stool and extra chunky peanut butter, with extra sticks and rocks thrown in for texture.

Now I’ve raced cyclocross under very muddy conditions, but this was far and away the nastiest, stickiest muck you could possibly imagine. Don’t forget, the trails were mostly composed of red clay. For those of you who have never had the experience of riding red clay I will try to describe it for you. In less than 50 yards, my 1.9” wide knobby black tires became 4” wide orange-brown racing slicks. Nothing quite like red clay.

Because the surface of red clay is not particularly absorbent, the rain initially only penetrates about half an inch down. Then when someone rides across it, the half inch muddy layer peels off like the little chocolate cork screws on a fancy dessert, leaving perfect little orange-brown curls on the trail. Then the rain continues to soak the new top layer as well as those neat little curls and repeating the cycle over and over until the trail is coated in between one to four inches of red-orange tar. But this was not just any red clay.

About halfway up one climb that had been easily ride-able just the day before, I was now pushing my bike in front of a local rider and we were both discussing the unbelievable muck. I told him that I had ridden on red clay mud before but that this was clearly worse than anything I’d seen. He told me that this was not just red clay mud. It was Patrick County Red Clay Mud… who knew? All I can say is that Patrick County truly has an exceptional variety.

Thoughts of riding 6 or more laps were quickly replaced with thoughts of trying to stay on the bike. This was shaping up to be a race that none of us would ever forget. I had put on my largest rear cog so that I could handle all the climbing, but many of the mud-covered climbs were simply not climbable with any gear ratio. There was nearly no traction and it was getting steadily worse with each passing rider and the non-stop rain.

By lap 2 the mud was so bad that you had to stop every few hundred yards and bounce your bike to dislodge the mud from between the tires and frame. I ride a very light, sub-twenty pound, hard-tail 29er but in these conditions it weighed closer to forty pounds. And because the mud was so sticky, it would coat the tires, allowing them to pick up rocks and other trail debris, and then wedge the muddy debris between the tire and the frame, locking up the tires as if the brakes were applied.

On and on we went, in what was one of the toughest endurance events of my life. I knew I had passed the third and second place riders in my group earlier and was determined to stay in front of them. Many people use water bottles on their mountain bikes, but I have found a hydropak system to be better for me. One drawback of the hydropak system, however, is the sloshing of the partially filled bladder continually giving the impression that a rider is coming up from behind. That adds a layer of pressure, particularly if you are trying to protect a lead.

Finally after three laps, the rain began to let up and the trail actually seemed to get a little tackier in places, although it had a long way to go before it would be rideable. I had by that time discovered that if I rode through all the standing water and mud puddles, it would have a cleaning effect on the tires allowing the bike to lose some of the caked on mud, making it much lighter and easier to ride.

Under normal conditions, I expend a lot of energy on climbs, but then I’m able to coast and relax a little on the descents so I can recover. Not in these conditions. I found myself killing myself climbing (and pushing) only to reach the summit and start riding down trails so slick it was tough to keep the bike on the course, effectively giving me no break. Nevertheless I had now managed to stay upright for over three complete laps without incident. But then nobody was leaving this course without a fall, and I was no exception.

On one particularly long and slippery descent, the trail curved slowly to the left and while the riding surface was off-camber, sloping to the outside. I rode downhill as fast as I could, but as I neared the bottom of the descent where it dropped down a ledge and turned left onto a fire road, the trail got really, really slick where everyone had applied brakes in their previous times through. I modulated my brakes trying to gain an ounce of traction and keep from sliding over the ledge onto the fire road below.

Finally, just within a foot or two of the ledge, my tires had skid enough mud off to suddenly gain traction when I hit the grass at the edge of the trail. When that happened, my tires immediately grabbed and I went over the bars to the fire road below, still clipped in, with my bike flipping over on top of me. I landed on my head and skidded on the mud to a stop about the time the bike landed on me. Awesome!

I did a quick survey of body parts and all seemed intact, so I got back underway. By now I had been leading the Open Solo 50+ class for three laps and I felt that I might just win it if I didn’t do something stupid and hurt myself or my bike. I also knew that the cutoff time for the last lap was getting close. (Those who reached the finish line before 2:30 would be told to ride another lap, and those who didn’t were finished for the day.)

With the cutoff time and protecting my lead in mind I will admit, that I eased up a little. I really didn’t want to ride another lap if I could win and not ride one. I was absolutely exhausted from nearly six hours in some of the most unbelievable and memorable riding conditions imaginable. Still, I didn’t want to work that hard and not win the race, so if you were to look at my Garmin file, you’d see that I really only let up about 5% or so.

On the podium after a very tough race.

On the podium after a very tough race.

I eventually finished lap four and headed for the finish line where I nearly collapsed. I rode directly to the bike wash station where I spent 10 minutes getting MOST of the mud off the bike, and then stood while a volunteer sprayed me down with a pressure washer. It was finally over and I had managed to pull off another win. I later found out that they had decided to call the cutoff at 2:00 because of the extreme conditions and as it turned out, I’d won by over a lap. I have never been so glad to be done with a race.

Finally, I’d like to share a few random thoughts about the race. The promoter, Eric O’Connell, and his entire staff were superb and tried very hard to put on a great race. They succeeded in spite of the weather. They couldn’t have done a better job. Their sponsors were top notch as well.

The course (when dry) is an awesome mountain bike trail system with lots to make it both fun and challenging. It is like a really cool mix of Danville, VA, Tsali, and Uwharrie all rolled into one course with a few hints of Katsumi thrown in for your climbing enjoyment. Nice. Very nice.

Husband and wife, John Myers and Jane Schwarting placed third and first, respectively: John in Single Speed and Jane in Amateur Solo Women. Bartholomew Wellisley finished second in Single Speed and Tyler Graff, after losing a half hour replacing a tire and tube, still finished a strong fourth place in Amateur Solo Men.

New friend and Generals teammate Brent Lester finished third in Open Solo Men. Dingo (my Australian Cattle Dog) won the hearts of many racers and had a great time playing with all the new friends and fellow canines. Everyone there was a pleasure to hang out with. Very, very cool. You see, mountain biking is the best because the views are great and the people are the coolest! And if you’ve made it this far in my report, you are the coolest too! Thanks for reading.