Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Cranky Monkey: Race 1

Last Sunday I made my debut as a mountain bike racer. I've always loved mountain biking -- hell, I taught kids how to do it for three years -- but had never considered myself the racing type. But, it was one of my biking-related resolutions earlier this year, so I made the leap. I registered to take part in the Cranky Monkey, a three-part race series that takes place at Wakefield Park and Fountainhead Regional Park, both in Northern Virginia. Race 1 was a run of the mill race against a field of competitors at Wakefield, Race 2 will be a time trial (you against the clock) at Wakefield, and Race 3 will be another run of the mill race at Fountainhead.

Race 1 involved 50 or so riders taking on a 9 mile course, the majority of it semi-technical singletrack. For the non-cyclists out there, this translates as paths wide enough for one bike which wind in and out of the woods and feature a variety of natural obstacles such as stream crossings, exposed roots, aggressive switchbacks, and log jumps. I arrived early for the race, which was slated to start at 8 a.m., and couldn't help but feel both nervous and excited. As I lined up at the start line with my fellow competitors, I did what most bikers at this level do -- I checked out what the competition was riding, who I thought I could take and who would probably take me, and fought the feeling of impending doom. So much of biking is image-related -- the clothes you wear, the bike you ride, whether or not you "look" like a biker, etc. For all I knew, the guy wearing tennis shoes, riding a discount-store bike, and looking like he had stumbled accross the wrong morning event could very well have been a world champion in disguise, but I managed to convince myself that I could at least beat him. The race's organizer gave us a quick rundown of the rules, and we were off.

For those of you who have never seen how a mountain bike race starts, let me say this -- it is the least graceful, least athletic event a human could ever witness. Everyone jumps on their saddle at once and tries to get a jump on the competition -- which is impossible, considering you're surrounded by other bikers trying to do exactly the same. There is a lot of pushing and shoving, you try in vain to keep your balance as riders in front of you haphazardly start and stop, riders to your left and right knock you off balance and riders behind you ride up on your rear wheel. The start was on a gravel road, with enough space for seven or eight bikers across. Twenty feet away from the start line and around a corner was a brief yet steep hill, which few expected and even fewer were prepared for. This is where the first thinning of the pack begins. The challenge here is to power your way up the hill while dealing with riders coming off their bikes left and right -- I managed this, and consequently, emerged in the group of riders heading up the pack. Fifty feet later came what I term the "funnel effect," or the second thinning of the pack. Essentially, this was where gravel road turned into singletrack. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that packs cannot all squeeze onto singletrack paths, much like three lanes worth of vehicular traffic cannot all get into an alley at once. This is where the real jockeying for position begins -- the more quickly you get through the funnel, the better off you are for the rest of the race. I got through quickly enough, preceeded by 20 riders. From this point on it was pretty much singletrack the whole way, meaning that spare any daring attempts on your part to pass riders in front of you, you were stuck in the position in which you entered.

This part of the ride featured some challenging singletrack, and towards the end of this first section I made my first daring attempt at a pass -- and thankfully succeeded. I was riding closely behind the rider in front of me, and as we reached a small incline, he slowed, and slowed, and slowed. Anyone who has biked knows that slowing down on a hill threatens your ability to balance on a bike, forces you pedal more slowly, and compromises the power you need to actually make it up the hill. In a rush of adrenaline I hopped to his left and powered by, leaving him and those following me behind. I emerged from this section of singletrack unscathed, raced back down the gravel road to a second section of singletrack, and felt a surge of confidence. At this point you could still see your competition ahead and feel your competition behind, providing a much-needed sense of urgency and motivation to not slow down or fall off.

And on I went, and the group thinned considerably. The closest rider in front of me was twenty feet off, the closest rider behind me was nowhere to be seen. I rode confidently the rest of the way, satisfied with the fact that I would not only finish, but may well finish near the top. Some forty minutes later I spied the finish line, made a last-breath sprint for it, and crossed it with a time of 53:53. I finished seventh overall -- way better than I would have hoped, and significantly more tired than I would have expected. While my legs are strong from my road biking to and from work, my arms aren't nearly strong enough to withstand the constant jitters and pounds that are part and parcel of riding off-road. The guy who finished before me was ripped in the arms, and now I know why I just couldn't catch him.

Race 2 is in August, so I have time to prepare. The course is shorter -- 1 mile -- and you are given 30 minutes to complete as many laps as possible. If I can start well, I'll ride like a bat out of hell, and maybe finish better than I did this time. All I have to do is work on these scrawny limbs I call arms.

By the way -- that guy in sneakers riding the cheap bike? I beat him.

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