I've now done a grand total of two mountain bike races in my life…and won them both. Am I a great reservoir of untapped mountain biking talent? Hardly. I'm more like one of the muddy puddles I splashed through today. My first win was in the Sparkler, held here in Breckenridge also on the 4th of July. Despite the name, this is not a race strictly for little guys, but let's just say I was the tallest one in the field. In my defense I had never done a mountain biking race before and didn't feel confident enough to tackle the 50-mile, 8000-vertical feet of the Firecracker. Now, with my entry into the Leadville 100, I entered the Full Monty.
Mountain bike racing is quite a bit different from the road racing I'm more familiar with. For one, mountain biking requires technical skills. Anyone who has ridden with me knows that I don't possess any and I have an annoying and painful tendency to fall over. Knowing this, I entered the Sport division of the race. It was announced at the start that riders in this division only get out riding 2-3 times per week. That matched my training and it was and probably still is the best division for me. My category was further divided into age groups, with most of them being 5-year divisions, but once it got to the old geezers, it was just 50+, which meant I'd have to compete with all the badasses over 60! Thankfully, the only badass that old was in the Expert division.
Unlike road racing, everyone is on the course at the same time and everyone gets mixed together. I hardly saw any of my competitors the entire race. This makes mountain bike racing much more of a time trial effort. You basically go as hard as you can sustain the entire time. Each racer's calf was marked with their division and age. Except for the women, come to think of it. It used to be that a woman never wanted to reveal their true age. I guess that still must be true. They'd probably like their true age written on their calf about as much as their true weight tattooed on their forehead. On my leg was "S51", signifying I was 51 years old and in the Sport division. Most of the women I saw had "FT" of "CT" on their legs. I pulled up alongside one of them and asked what it meant. It stood for "Female Team" and "Coed Team". Turns out 50 miles is a long way for a lot of people and many do this race as a team with each person doing one of the 25-mile laps that define the course.
The race has about 800 riders in it and has a wave start down Main Street, serving as the start of the 4th of July parade, which means the sides of the roads are absolutely packed with people cheering you on. For maybe a half mile the people are 5-10 deep on the sides. It's a very cool start. The fastest groups go first, so as to minimize the passing. The Pro Men go first followed by various categories of Expert Men. Somewhere in there the Pro Women go, all two or three of them. Then the teams go and then the Sport divisions. I was in the penultimate group to start and we were a mixture of three categories: 40-44, 45-49, and 50+. In my wave alone there had to be over 100 riders. I got there a bit late, nervousness forcing a fifth trip to the bathroom. I had to weave through the marching bands up to line. The only group behind us was the Sport women and all ages were starting together there and they were still quite a bit smaller than my wave. Turns out that while more women mountain bike race than road race, they still make up a tiny fraction of the total.
The women that do race, though, are badass. One of them even had a big, wide bad ass. I'm not sure exactly when I passed this woman and I'm sure I didn't think much about it. Of course I should be passing a women with a can that wide. But when she passed me back, much later in the first lap, after a long, high-speed descent, I was shocked. How could a women with that much back be passing me? The only time I've experienced such a thing before is during the Leadville 100 running race, where I got passed by every size and shape of female - people who didn't look nearly as athletic as I did, but crushing me. It was humbling then and it was humbling now. I did pass back for good, mind you.
But there were a number of chicks that I never did pass back. I seemed to be fitter than just about anyone around me. If it was a non-technical climb, I'd pass people, but on just about anything else I'd get passed. I traded positions quite a bit with one chick that was riding in a pair of jean shorts. She was very good technically but once again I could pass her on the ascents. I wondered what a rider this good was doing in such shorts. Riding behind her, I could see her black underwear peeking out the top. I had to go by, as this was too distracting and with my propensity to crash I needed all my attention on the trail. She'd eventually go by for good and I took solace in the "FT" on her leg, knowing she was only doing one lap.
The course is brilliant and, in my mind at least, a really fair mix of terrain. It has a great mix of jeep roads, where it is easy to pass, technical single track, easy climbing, hard, rocky climbing, fast descents, technical descents - it has it all. It starts with a road climb of six miles that is half paved and half dirt, but all smooth and wide. While there are some steep sections here, it only gains 1200 feet in those six miles. This is about half the average angle of Flagstaff Road. My speciality, when it comes to mountain biking, is gently angled, smooth road climbs. When that's your strength, you race the Sport Division. When that's your strength you wonder why you're mountain bike racing at all. Except that is, during the specialty. After the neutral roll-out down Main Street, where I slapped fives to at least 100 kids, I began to move up from the back of my group. I was wearing a heart rate monitor and made sure I backed off if I ever hit 160 bpm, conscious that I had a long way to go. I passed at least 100 riders on this climb. I studied every calf as I went by. One marking had me confused: "C". I pulled up next to a big guy and asked. Clydesdale.
This race also has tremendous support. There are aid stations at the 6, 11, and 21-mile marks, plus the finish, at 25-miles. At each station they have water bottles of water, Heed, and Gatorade and gels and Shot Bloks. You can do this 50-mile race very light. I started without even a water bottle. I had nothing in my jersey pockets and only a small saddlebag of tools and a spare tube if I flatted. At the first aid, I picked up a bottle of Gatorade, a couple of gels and a Shot Blok. I struggled to get as much of that down before hitting the singletrack where I'd need both hands on the bars. At each aid station, I'd toss off my empty bottle and get handed a fresh one. On one stretch I dropped a bottle with a lot of liquid in it. I kept going, in race mode, and thinking I'd be okay. I was was, but at the end of the first lap, I took two bottles and got them both down halfway up the road climb. I felt like a Tour de France rider approaching the aid station. I pulled out both bottles tossing them aside where the throngs of cheering fans hustled after them for a souvenir and then being handled a fresh bottle and food by my soigneur. On my second lap, before heading up the worst climb, an aid-station volunteer was pushing the Shot Bloks hard, saying "These prevent bonking." I didn't need the sales pitch. I've bonked enough times. Which only means that I bonk less often now, not that I've eliminated bonking from my racing. I put out my hand a bit late, but he ran after me, caught up, put one in my hand and tucked a second one in my jersey pocket. Stellar support. Great, friendly, knowledgeable people at every aid station.
As long as I'm raving about the volunteers, I must give huge props to the race director who communicated valuable information via email at regular intervals. The organization at the start and finish were stellar. Check-in went smoothly that morning and I got a shirt and a nice pair of DeFeet socks. At the finish, lunch is served. This wasn't the most delicious lunch, at least for my tastes, but I still ate heartily. The chicken was quite good, but that was the only highlight for me. Everyone also got a water bottle.
Back to the race. After the road climb you enter the singletrack, with a short, but quite steep, technical climb. I messed up shifting here and got my chain stuck over my chain stay. I could still pedal, but the chain was rubbing over the bar. I stopped to pull it out and it took some effort. I got passed by a number of riders while I did this, but that mattered not to me. The singletrack is fun riding, but quite windy, steep in spots, and technical in spots, and very narrow in spots. This wasn't terrain upon which I was comfortable pushing too fast. And there is no way to pass here unless the rider in front lets you by. When the trail went uphill slightly or when I caught slower riders that started earlier, I call out "on your right" (or left) and go by, but more often than not, I was getting passed by all those real mountains bikers I passed on the climb. Things would get backed up at times, but that just meant that I wasn't holding people up. If a gap opened up between me and the rider in front and I couldn't close it, then I'd pull over and let people pass. While on my two ascents of the road I passed at least 200 riders, the total amount of riders I passed on the descent was zero.
My stated goal going into this race was to not crash. That's a pretty unambitious goal for a competitor like me, but I was acutely aware of my shortcomings and pretty ignorant about mountain bike racing. I hadn't done that much training for this race and was really using it to just train for Leadville. It would give me at least one experience with a big, long mountain race. The singletrack sections were a bit stressful for me as I tried to balance racing with not getting too close to crashing and also not wanting to screw up anyone else's race. Road racers have a reputation for being dicks and they got this reputation because that is true for at least a significant portion of the peloton. In their partial defense, road racing is quite dangerous and one mistake by one rider can take out a bunch of people, sending them to the hospital and destroying very expensive bikes. Having only done two races, I can't comment much about mountain bike racers, but from my experience in this race, they seem extremely nice. Maybe I was so far back that the racers weren't as intense, but everyone was very courteous about letting me pass or waiting behind me until we got to a good passing place. I almost always offered to let people by before they asked, but on one occasion a chick behind mentioned that there were a few riders clogged up behind and might I look for a place to let them by. She was very nice about it. I didn't know I had a train behind me. I pulled off and four riders went by. A couple of other times riders came up on me and I was moving quite fast. Passing at that speed was too dangerous and I was rolling, but I didn't want to mess them up. We talked about it while riding along. "You okay back there?" "Yes. If you find a convenient spot to let me by, cool. If not, no worries, mate. You're doing great." "Okay, the double-track is coming up soon, you can go by then." Before the race one of the emails sent out by the race director was titled "Don't be a dick." Apparently some riders were pre-riding the course too and bothered one of the pillars of the community. At least where I was riding, everyone abided by this rule. It was a great experience for me.
Sheri witnessed one event where maybe things didn't go quite right. At the very end of the lap, you come down a steep hill with many switchbacks. Normally switchbacks are a bear for me, but these were wide enough and had huge, banked berms. I still didn't take them fast, but others did. Sheri saw a girl riding down this section with about six guys clogged up behind her. She crashed at one of the switchbacks and immediately shrieked at the guys, "Don't yell at me!" We don't know what happened before that. Maybe the guys were too aggressive in asking to get by or maybe she wasn't pulling over to let them by.
After an extended singletrack section we got onto a 4WD road and blasted downhill. This first one wasn't too bad and I went quite fast as well, but still got passed. I stayed in the best, smoothest line while braver, better riders passed on trickier terrain. Actually, this didn't happen much as the speeds were just too high for much passing. At the end of this hill, we made a sharp turn to the right and climbed up steep singletrack just for a bit and then back onto a 4WD road, still climbing, but more gradual. The second aid station was here at mile 11.5. Above lies the worst, rockiest climb, where everyone in sight was forced to push their bikes. The pros probably ride this entire course, but there is no way I could ride this, as it is too rocky and too long.
The climb was all singletrack and at the top we went down a very steep hill and crossed a creek, all on talus. I decided to walk my bike down this section both times. I might have been able to ride it but I didn't want to take the risk. Running down this hill only took about ten seconds. Afterwards more singletrack led to another fast 4WD road descent and then some steep, rolling climbing before really plunging on a road that was made up almost entirely of rocks with one tiny dirt path through it. I descended this fast but slowed whenever things looked too dicey. To go off this path into that sea of babyheads would mean a catastrophic crash and likely a hospital trip.
The final aid station was next and then a grueling climb up singletrack with switchbacks and technical sections. This was all ridable, but barely, and in the granny gear. Eventually the trail turns down and it is very tight and has tons of turns and switchbacks all the way down to the finish. Sheri was at the bottom of this hill taking photos. I didn't even stop going through the finish area, but grabbed my bottles and some gels. I smiled at Sheri and was off for lap two. The first lap had taken me just a bit over 2.5 hours. I was thinking that this race might take me 6-7 hours but now I was thinking that under 5 hours might be possible. Of course, it would be difficult for my second lap to be faster than my first.
I climbed easily at first, working on getting my calories and liquids down. Once finished with all that there was nothing left to do except working hard on the climb. I flew by riders here, feeling really strong still. Early on this second lap a rider with "S50" had gone by me. I hadn't seen this rider before and now he was passing me on the road climb - my strength. "Well, I'm not winning, that's for sure," I thought, but maybe a podium was possible. Yes, I couldn't resist the pull of competition and was now thinking how I might finish up. Not that it really mattered because I was doing all I could do anyway and I wasn't going to change strategies except for maybe going a bit harder on the climbs now that I was closer to the finish. But once I finished fueling, I dropped the hammer. I caught S50 and flew by at a pace that clearly said, "You don't want any of this." I never saw him again.
This time I negotiated the singletrack climb above the aid station with aplomb and had no one behind me for a bit. Eventually people came up behind me, but we were a lot more spread out for this second lap. Without the pressure of people all around me, I felt I was moving faster here. Things went smooth until the next aid station where shortly above it, I dropped my bottle again. This time, acutely aware of the need to hydrate. I stopped, went back, and retrieved it.
Going up the "push" climb the second time I was definitely feeling the mileage and the effort. I still was able to push by a few guys. On that climb and the subsequent fast descent I was with an "S46" guy. I was slightly stronger on the ascents and he was, big surprise, faster on the descents. He was super nice, though. At the top of one climb when I caught him, he asked if I wanted to go by and I declined, saying he was faster on the descent. This was a good decision as I didn't see him again. Late in this second lap with no one behind me I was going a bit too fast on a narrow singletrack when it bent, off-camber, around a loose hill. I knew I was in trouble and braked to slow down, which probably made things worse, but at least when I hit the deck I was going slower. It wasn't too bad, just some minor trail rash. I popped up immediately, looking back for any riders. There was still no one there. I hopped on and rode scared.
A couple of Expert riders caught me just before the final technical climb. I let them by and followed them up the hill. The front guy blew and pulled over and the two of us went by. As we started the final descent I bid adieu to the Expert rider and "attacked out the back", as my friend Kreighton says. I slid-out and crashed one more time, once again going too fast on an off-camber turn. This time I almost hit a tree. This time I rode a bit more conservatively and a number of people caught me and I moved over for them. It was humbling being passed by so many young women, but their skills were greater and there was no question about it.
I finished without anyone else right behind me, but they were closing on the final switchbacks. This close, I wouldn't have bothered letting anyone by and I didn't want to look like I was holding up other people, but I had enough of a gap and kicked hard into the finish line to maintain it. I finished in 5:03, which was a lot faster than I originally thought, but not enough to break five hours. I thought I was maybe going faster on the second lap, since it was less crowded and I held back less, but apparently I was more fatigued. Sheri took a couple more photos at the finish. I was covered in dust and dirt and a little blood. The course, while super nice, was a bit dusty. At times, on the descents, it was even hard to see that clearly at high speeds. In those situations I tried to keep my mouth closed to avoid swallowing too much dirt. Despite being filthy I got in line for the post-race lunch.
Sitting there in the park, surrounded by hundreds of other racers and their friends and families, in perfect weather, Sheri told me about the other races. The winning female Pro came in at around 4:08. The Male Pro finished in 3:29 or so. He was from Switzerland. Dave Wiens, 6-time Leadville 100 winner and my brother's boyhood friend, got third. Later Danny would ask me, "Why didn't Dave win? He's one Leadville six times?" Well, Dave is now 48 and he still took third in the Pro division. The real question is why didn't more 20-something pros beat him? Dave has some serious game on a mountain bike. Compared to him I'm doing a completely different sport. They have very little resemblance except that our vehicles look somewhat similar. Just as Sheri told me about Dave's performance a guy walks by and I think it looks like Dave Wiens. I've only really seen him in the movie Race Across the Sky, but I've seen that movie a couple of times. I tell Sheri, "I think that's Dave Wiens." She gives me a look like I'm crazy. Just because she told me about Dave the very next instant he is going to walk by? Yeah, right. But I call after him, "Dave?" He immediately turns around and I stand up and ask, "Are you Dave Wiens?" He says he is and I tell him who I am. We've passed some emails back and forth when he was helping Chris and I get into the Leadville race. We chatted things up like we were old friends. He is an incredibly friendly, humble guy.
It was almost too nice out and Sheri got hot and said she was heading back to the condo. I said I'd follow in just a second, but I was going to go have a look at the results, just to see how I placed. I found the board and was pleasantly surprised to see my name at the top. Second place was 5:11 and third was 5:14. They said the awards for my category were coming up soon so I stuck around. They were giving out these awesome "Champion" cycling jerseys for each category winner and I was very excited that I'd be getting one, but when they got to the Sport division they announced, "There are no jerseys for Sport riders. You have to step up to Expert if you want one of these." Dang. But by the time they got to my awards they had jerseys left over and when I stood on the podium, they took one look at me and my belly and said, "Extra large?" Actually, he said "Large." I also got a first place medal, an insulated water bottle and some chain lube. The jersey was the big prize, but it will be a challenge to wear. "Oh, my. You won the Firecracker 50? Awesome. Are you a Pro? You look so old and slow." "No, I didn't win the Pro diviion." "Oh, so it was an Expert age group victory?" "No, it was in the Sport division." "…Oh…I didn't know they award prizes to that division." "Oh, they give ribbons down to 12th place is some events…"
Total race stats according to my GPS watch: 48.7 miles and 6577 feet of climbing. They advertise this race as having 8000 feet of climbing. It sure felt like a lot of climbing.