I’m at the end of my first season racing mountain bikes, and have been taking stock. As I have previously explained, I don’t view myself as a racer or an athlete. But has my self-image changed over the course of the season?
|Yeah, he’s smoking
Some people seem to never reflect on themselves at all. Like a lot of politicians. This may be based on extreme narcissism – why reflect when you’re already perfect? Or, it may be that self-reflection is too hard, because they may not like what they see under the surface.
Others cannot meaningfully reflect, because they know only one way to be and have nothing to compare it to.
For my parent’s generation, self-reflection is for dreamers and layabouts. There is work to be done, and it is not always fulfilling. For them, self-reflection means reflecting the tangible facets of success that their community finds meaningful.
My generation, I suspect, engages in too much self-reflection. I’m guilty too. No surprise—this self-indulgent little blog is little more than a place to publicly self-reflect. Gross, right?
The difference may be that my generation has more choices because our world is becoming smaller – more diverse and we are more mobile. You see, meaningful self-reflection requires options. That you have choices of jobs, friends, lovers, locations. Self-reflection of this kind may involve painful separation from the values of your family and community. And self-fulfillment is the sort of undertaking that only a really privileged group of people can afford to undertake.
But what happens when your self-image changes?
As I said, I have never considered myself an athlete. So I had initially abandoned the thought of racing altogether. It was easy enough to do – there’s already a crowd of people whose mantra is “racing sucks.” This mantra is so appealing, that an entire bicycle brand bases its marketing on it.
|Don’t get me wrong – I love Surly bikes, and I own a couple. Just calling the marketing out for what it is. They are marketing a “lifestyle” just like any other big bike brand.
But this felt dishonest to me. True, it may be that some people legitimately dislike racing bikes. But, I had never raced, so it felt phony to adopt the mantra. How could I say that “anything” sucks, if I have never tried it? Seemed more like a cop out—like “I can’t do that, so I’ll claim I wouldn’t want to anyway.”
A better motto for me is “you don’t know whether you’ll like it until you’ve tried it.” This attitude has gotten me in trouble a few times in my life (bourbon!), but it has also opened some wonderful doors (bourbon!). And, it’s led me to realize that I don’t care for golf, stinky cheese, or church. At least I can say I tried.
But I love mountain biking and I thought I’d give racing a go. After talking with some experienced racers, I decided to enter the local race series this year as a Novice. And, I entered as a Clydesdale (200lbs or more). It was the least competitive class available to me. The thought was, I’m not an athlete and couldn’t hang with more competitive riders, guys with 10% body fat and training regimens. In Clydesdale, I might be able to place at a few races and enjoy some success.
So, I suited up to race. And guess what. It doesn’t suck. It’s really, really fun. Training sucks, but it’s a good suck. It’s hard. It’s hard to force weakness out.
And I surprised myself this year. I won my division. To win, my top five places from the season’s races were tallied. Out of my five best races, I had four first place finishes and a second, for six points. Because I had the lowest number of points of all Novice Clydesdales, I won. Pretty cool.
This week, to test my limits a little further, I raced in the Iceman Cometh Challenge. This is an amazing event. Something like 4,000 people raced. It’s a 30 mile race that starts in Kalkaska Michigan and it ends in Traverse City.
Last’s year’s race was brutal because of the weather. Wet, cold conditions made giant mud holes and slippery hills that racers had to walk with their bikes. Finishing times were abysmal. In other years, the race was done in snow and sleet.
This year, the weather forecast looked good. It was unseasonably warm, although there was a threat of rain before and during the race. I packed a lot of gear and hoped for the best.
My favorite item was my new Bontrager Old Man Winter boots from Breakaway Cycling. I love my old Lake boots, but they are wearing out, and winter is approaching. Now, I don’t normally talk up gear, but these things are baller. Warm booties slide into a water-proof and seam-sealed outer with a combat-boot style lugged sole. My only gripe is that if Bontrager had rubberized the bottoms of the inner booties, they would have worked as camp shoes too. Maybe I can try some Plasti Dip.
My teammate Joe Worboy and I left at early-o’clock on Friday to head out. We were set to represent team Breakaway-Quickdirtfor this race.
I expected Joe would post a good time. For myself, I was hopeful that I could finish in under 2 hours and 30 minutes, although I really didn’t know what to expect.
|The Grand Traverse Lodge, where we stayed and where the Expo was. It was a great place to stay.
|We arrived Friday with a little daylight left, so we decided to preride the last few miles of the course. I was still sore from working out on Thursday, and I probably rode a little too hard. But I couldn’t help it, I was jacked!
|Joe is fired up too!
Then it was off to meet Andy and to check out the Expo. Andy was running the IMBA booth. He had already been there all day and was hoarse from talking and was a little sick. But he was still grippin’ and grinnin’. And his booth was bumping. They signed up many new members for the local IMBA chapter, NMMBA.
|Andy is not in this picture. He took it.
|NMMBA does a great job taking care of these trails and cleaning up after the race, so, if you have been there and enjoyed the race, consider throwing a couple dollars their way. It’s less than you spend on gels for the ride.
We also talked with our Ohio homies at the Kenda booth, who were in force. Great folks there, who are committed to the local MTB scene. I like the Kenda Karmas on my 29er. I know a bunch of folks run the Honey Badgers too.
Joe and I shopped for a while and picked up some Iceman gear and some clearance merchandise from the vendors. Bells beer is a sponsor of the event and I particularly enjoyed the tallboys of Two-Hearted Ale on offer.
After the expo, we hung out with my good buddy Gary Fisher for a while. Seriously, I think he was tired of having his picture taken at this point, but he was still his same super friendly and kind self. Then we headed for the hotel buffet to carb-load.
|Gary Fisher photobombs Heidi
| At dinner we were joined by some of Central Ohio’s finest mountain bikers, Heidi Coulter, Jeff Rupnow, and Austin Francescone. Austin told me that carb loading is a myth. I did it anyway. So did he. Or else the guy just eats like a horse. I wanted to add value for this group of experienced racers, so I explained to the group how I learned that packing beers to drink during a race is not a good strategy. They didn’t seem surprised by this revelation, although they were surprised that anyone would consider such an option. I wanted to hang out and party more, but we had an early start and a long race the next day, so we headed off to the hotel room to crash.
The next morning, it was back to the buffet for more carbs. And bacon. Joe and I were starting in waves 15 minutes apart—his at 10:30 and mine at 10:45. This meant that Joe was starting four waves ahead of me – so there were round 250 racers starting between him and me. It was early, but we still had to park at the finish, catch a shuttle to the start, and make sure our drop bags were on the truck for the finish. So we ran out of the hotel at 8:00.
|The line for the shuttle. Transportation to the start went really smoothly.
We made it to the race start about an hour early. What a crowd! Joe and I were amazed at the people and their bikes.
We watched a few waves leave and then posed for the obligatory team photo.
It was cold—in the 40s, but the sun was out and the trails were still dry. Idea conditions for the race.
Pretty soon, Joe was off. Then it was just me. That’s when it hit me. I’m racing today! My adrenaline started flowing and suddenly the happy faces around me turned into evil competitors that must be squashed.
My wave came up quickly. There were over a hundred of us, and about a dozen of us elbowed each other for a spot in the front line. When the announcer shouted “go” I went out as fast as I could. I knew I had a few road miles before we hit the singletrack, and I didn’t want to get stuck behind a rider who was not skilled in the woods (in the end, I came in 6th of the 67 riders in my wave).
Almost immediately, my speedometer came loose. Tough choice: do I stop and fix it, or go the whole race without. I opted for the latter, pulled it off and shoved it in my jersey pocket. It would suck to not know my speed or mileage, but I was going to pedal full out the whole race anyway.
Most of the race was on doubletrack, wide enough to pass. About 2,400 racers started before me, so I was constantly passing. It reminded me of marathon running. Passing in the singletrack was much more difficult, but more necessary because people were bottlenecking behind less proficient riders. This is where my season of OMBC races paid off. I was used to passing in tight conditions, and could often pass six to ten people at a time. On the hills, the same was true. Many people were walking the steep hills, causing a bottle neck. I was able to charge up past quite a few people on those spots as well. Still, hopefully next year I can start in an earlier wave and save all the time I lost to passing people.
Throughout the race, one rider from my wave kept dogging me – rider 3486 – Mark Miller. He’d pass me, then I’d pass him. He was panting every time he passed, so I know he was hustling. I lost sight of him around six miles out. In the end, Mark beat me by two minutes – Mark, if you’re reading this, great race!
Anyway, I blew through the first aid station without stopping. A light rain started, which turned to hail. Fortunately, it was over in only 15 minutes or so and hadn’t made the trail any worse for wear. Then I passed the second aid station. Then the third. My heartrate was redlined the whole time, but I was still feeling strong. As the last five miles approached, I burnt myself up, knowing that there was no point in conserving energy any more.
The hecklers started about a mile out. I loved it. There jeers and taunts had me pushing even harder. And at the finish, when we rolled under the Bell’s banner, I heard my name called. What a rush.
I had finished in 2:20! Far from winning, but better than I expected. I was the 1,481stfinisher of 3,666 a top 40% finish. I’ll take it. Joe finished in a fast 2:11 (top 25%), Austin in a very fast 1:56 (top 8%), and Jeff in a smoking time of 1:47 (54th place, top 1%).
The first person I saw at the finish was my friend Jeremy from Detroit.
He pointed me in the direction of the bike corral, the drop bags, and most importantly, the beer tent.
After a beer and I shower, I found Joe. We had hamburgers and I had more beer. We strolled the finish area for a while, found our results, and packed up to head back to the car.
Back at the hotel, we had some much needed rest and I might have found some bourbon. Then we met up with Heidi, Jeff, and Austin again and headed out for some grub. We met up with Greg Ratcliff and Jeremy at the Blue Tractor. They had Founders beer on tap and some great pizza.
Austin and I had worn our Ohio State gear into the bar. We struck up a conversation with some locals wearing Michigan caps. They didn’t really want to talk about it. When Austin struck up a cheer of “O-H . . . “ I figured it might be time to find our table. We had hoped to watch the OSU game on one of the many TVs, but with an MSU night game on at the same time, the best our server could say was “I’ll ask, but I doubt it.” We tried a second bar – same deal. This was NOT Buckeye country. Nothing left to do but go back to the hotel and watch the game in our rooms.
The next day, Joe and I decided to get up early and do a “recovery ride” on some local trail that Jeremy had told us about. We headed out in frosty temperatures to Glacier Hills trails, near Bellaire Michigan.
|That was one cold toilet seat
I have to admit, I was pretty jealous of Joe’s minivan by this time. The interior space was huge – it was comfortable to change in. Yeah, I got naked in Joe’s van. Haven’t you? But seriously, why doesn’t everyone drive a minivan? Back to that self-reflection, I suppose. Folks identify themselves with their cars. And most 40-year old guys want to project an image of “cool,” not, “I’m practical and I have kids.” Viewed that way, driving a minivan is an act of rebellion, an act of non-conformity. It’s like wearing ruffled sleeves- a man’s gotta be pretty comfortable with himself to do it.
Anyway, I left a little donation for the trails crew and rode on. The trails were professionally built. The layout of the trails made the most of the very hilly landscape and the benching and grades were excellent. Glacier Hills trails are seriously fast flow trails. My only knock on them is that there were no technical features at all – no rocks, roots, drops, bridges, logovers, anything. Even flow trails need a few features to break up the monotony. Still, we had a blast and, if you find yourself near Traverse City, I highly recommend giving Glacier Hills a try.
On our ride, Joe stayed behind me. If he had gone in front, he might have dropped me in parts, and we wanted to stay together on these unfamiliar trails (although they were the best marked trails I have ever seen).
A lot of the people I regularly ride with are still faster than me. But I’m getting faster. If I want to be as fast as them, it will require a level of intensity in diet and training that I’m not sure I’m ready for. This leads me back to my opening on reflections. Has my self-image changed? Do I think I’m an athlete?
Here’s the thing. I don’t feel like I’m entitled to call myself an athlete. When I race against other guys my age, whether running, riding, mountain biking, or triathlons, I’m not setting any records. I’m usually somewhere in the middle of the pack. I lack the natural ability that some guys have. And many of the people I ride with are faster than me and more proficient at bike handling. I have a desk job. I’m still overweight. I’m not ready to worry about bike weight, or my VO2 max, because I’m still struggling to keep myself from subsisting entirely on donuts, bacon, and beer. Seriously.
But it would be unfair to the guys I raced against all year in the OMBC class to say that I’m not an athlete. It would demean the hours of training that they have done. And it would fail to recognize the tough races we had and how good at riding some of those guys are. And, if I’m not an athlete, what does that say about the other 60% of the racers at Iceman that I beat? And maybe it’s not fair to me either. I do put in hours of training. I run, even when there’s no race coming up. I get up at 5:00 am to go to the gym. I have logged at least 5,000 miles on my bike this year.
Still don’t know what it all means. But I’ll be racing again next year. And I’ll try to go faster.
Be brave and take a look at yourself.