April 24, 2005: Napa 2005

Romulus recaps the 2005 Napa Valley Dirt Classic:

The Napa Valley Dirt Classic takes place in Angwin, CA, 30 miles east of Napa and 8 miles from the beautiful town of St. Helena. It is a small Seventh Day Adventist community situated on Howell Mountain and the race itself is held at the town’s centerpiece, Pacific Union College (PUC). Race organizers set up shop along a small southern section of the campus at the athletic track & field and route the course through the southeastern perimeter and into the rolling forests of Howell Mtn. It’s a 22 mile course that is crazy fun and a huge challenge. Last year I couldn’t shift into my middle ring during the race and I still finished in 6th place for my class. This year I raced Sport Class and had the modest goal of cracking 2 hours and a top 15 placing. Beyond the setting and the actual track, what makes this race so cool is the complete grass roots feel it has. The only complaint is the absence of vendors - a few banners, some expensive cycling shirts for sale, three dollar burritos, buckets of sliced bananas & oranges, 3 barrels of Cytomax and a bucket of water - were the extent of the post race cool down. Unlike the colorful expo that is the Sea Otter, at least we get a free t-shirt for this race.

Having done this race in 2004 I thought I knew what to expect for the day. However, several race day elements provided a good bit of surprise. First off was no Cannonball. Last year was a tough on him with a chain suck problem virtually destroying the experience, yet it was also his first foray into the XC discipline. The compelling opportunity offered by his first love - 24 hour racing - was perhaps just too much to pass up. Sure, the selfish side of me could say Cannonball pulled a fast one and left me hanging. But a more objective conclusion is that the man did win a contest and the prize was a free MTB endurance racing experience at the 24 Hours of Temecula. And on the really bright side, my family came along to support me and I can proudly say the two tots were model citizens. My wife would have loved to race and most likely capture another podium, but Duke had a good time anyway and she even drove 75 minutes from SF.

A second variable was the weather. Rain lingered in the forecast for the weekend, but it was tough to tell if anything measurable fell. The skies were pretty threatening from early morning through noon on Sunday with the temps between 55 and 65. This was a huge difference from last year when I raced in a sleeveless with the temps easily in the high eighties. Hence, the race course was not the dusty strip I recalled, but a moist, tacky surface where tire pressure played a big role. The new IRC Seracs (26x1.95) I’ve been running the past few weeks are pure serpents, clinging to the trail and shrugging off pinchers like the wider freeride wheels. Lower air pressure makes for extra sticky traction on hard surfaces like the Sea Otter, but during Angwin 04 I had perfect traction running higher pressure on a pair of Pythons. Unfortunately, I tried the same thing this year with the Serac and guessed wrong. The soil had just enough moisture to get slippery in spots at high speed or where lots of torque gets on the pedals. Midway through the race I successfully passed a rider only to take an endo spill less than a half mile later. It was benign enough for me to greet my foe as he passed and I gathered myself to pass him again on the downhill that ensued.

Another element of surprise was the move up in class. Finishing 20th out of 28 riders in my class (or 160th of 345 total racers) was humbling at worst, and very encouraging at best. Again, my goal was time and I improved nearly seven minutes (official time = 1:59:18). The same kind of time improvement next year will put me in the top 100 riders and likely secure the top 10 finish. The truly surprising part of it all is just how competitive the Sport ranks are. Racers seem to get faster with age so that’s encouraging for me. In fact, the 30-34 SC was slower than mine and my class was slower than the 40-45 SC, the exact same pattern found at the Sea Otter. Since this race goes off in two minute intervals, traffic is only a problem at the start. All SC males were the seventh of 11 groups out and it was also the largest contingent of riders. Of course, with the start being my biggest weakness, I was shuffled immediately to the rear.

From the parking lot we climb up a small hill for about 300 yard before entering the PUC lands. Within the first mile is a hike-a-bike section that leads to a long dirt road tracking the perimeter of an airstrip. These first few miles of the race present the perfect passing opportunities as the course speeds through rolling doubletrack. Just shy of the four mile mark are the notorious pair of whoopdeedos - super steep, rocky sections requiring a precision line and good traction/gearing to conquer. I made this section easily but what followed is my other main racing flaw. The singletrack at Angwin is some of the best anywhere but it is also relentless with its tight twisting turns, dark sometimes closet-like canopy, numerous slippery roots, rocks, and overhanging branches to boot. I’m most comfortable on singletrack in open meadows or pastures as I seem to get decidedly slower in the more enclosed areas where I feel crowded and tentative. Skegss, Annadel, and Camp Tamarancho certainly have their tight singletracks, but none of them have that sustained “Sherwood Forest” feel to them that Angwin presents. If the course were not marked so well I could easily see a recreational ride turning into a Hansel & Gretel nightmare because the forest is that dense. Long story short, I lost loads of time on the premier singletrack sections and I can only hope familiarity with the course will help me improve as I’ve managed to do at other venues.

The final shock to the system was Howell Mountain itself. I don’t recall the climb being so tortuous last year but it blew me up this year. Cannonball said he hit the wall about the 18 mile mark last year and the only time I peeped at my distance meter during this year’s race it said 17.5 miles and I’d just passed the cheering spectators at the “other whoopdeedoos” - the hottest, rockiest, steepest, most rutted and technical section of the course. (For some extra sinister drama there were at least four downhill sections that flattened out at turns with the apex gutted by a deep water break - a perfect scenario for a rim bending, fork bottoming, high speed shoulder cracking illustration of human rag-dolling). Whatever pride found in navigating this portion of the race is quickly exterminated by the grueling climb back out. This is where I had the most severe traction problems because if I did not sit in the saddle and select the proper gear (all granny at this point) I would spin the tires. This is a common ailment after spring rains in most of the Bay Area because rocks also come into the mix and make tracking very tricky. Unfortunately, this resulted in me walking more than I did before, almost entirely due to traction and not fatigue. I’m certain of this because of the Soulcraft girl. She was a back marker in the expert female class and I stayed on her wheel the entire 2.5 mile climb up, dismounting at the same sections as her because of traction. I was spotting her at least 75lbs. so the gender thing is probably a wash, and besides, she and I passed at least a dozen men during this section. Once the major climb(s) are over another mile of rolling doubletrack reminiscent of Bolinas Ridge spits you back out to the meadows just beneath the wooded area that surrounds the airstrip passed earlier.

The final half mile of the race traverses the same territory as the start so the initial hike-a-bike becomes a fun technical challenge. A high-speed muddy section gives the racers one final rinse before 50 yards of grass leading to the parking lot appear. Spectators cheer and direct you over to a lap of the track and it’s all over. My wife got a picture of my finish and I felt good to be unscathed and faster than the year before. For 2006, my strategy will be full attack mode from the start because that is the only way to get a top finish in XC. When I first started in 2002 a pro told me the simple truth of XC racing – get a good start and maintain a good pace, and focus on time. As I’ve learned the hard way, if you don’t start well it’s too difficult to keep a pace because traffic upsets your rhythm and ultimately your time. Somehow, I must figure a good way to build a “start technique” into my training program. Perhaps I can learn some more next weekend at Whiskeytown.


Mileage: 22.0 Time: 1:59:28 Avg: 11.0 Max:  Weight: 

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