April 30, 2005: The Lemurian

Before we fell asleep last night (See April 29, 2005: Ghosts of the pioneers), Romulus and I both agreed that the course was relentlessly tough, but doable -- as long as it didn't rain. Rain would make many of the steep uphills unpullable and turn many of the steep downhills into rivers of molten earth.

And they're off!

It rained during the night, but while the rain did add some mud spots to the course, the extra moisture was actually beneficial to certain parts of the trail.

Cross-country mountain bike racing requires a unique mentality. As with boxing, before the race starts competitors are fully aware that they're about to walk into two to three hours of pain, sometimes very intense pain. There is no avoiding it, no matter how fast or slow you go, them hills is gonna hurt. And of course, the harder you push it, the more it's gonna hurt. During the race, you see riders walking their bikes up hills or barely moving through technical sections, and you wonder, "are they enjoying this?" Why do people look forward to these races for months in advance? why do they train at night, in the rain, when they're sick? Why do they want to be in pain?

These questions are quickly answered when you venture into the singletrack, and when you crest the top of a long, steep hill, and while you're chasing down a rider in front of you, and after you cross that finish line to the shouts and applause of total strangers. Is it enjoyable? Based on the huge clutch of enthusiastic riders huddled around the starting line this morning, the answer is "hell yeah!".

The lead pack pushes for glory
Weaving through traffic up the first dirt road

From the start line, hundreds of mountain bikers streamed up the marina road to the main paved road. During this quarter-mile climb, Romulus and I settled into the back edge of the middle of the pack. From our pre-ride yesterday, we knew we had another quarter mile of pavement and then about one and half miles of gradual climbing on a wide, comfortable dirt road before we hit the dreaded uphill gravel climb -- plenty of time to get ahead of the major chaff.

Just before the turnoff to the dirt road, I clicked up a couple of gears. got ahead of a large clump of slower riders, and hit the dirt road with some favorable momentum. I lost sight of Romulus at this point, but I could still feel him very close behind me.

Again, from yesterday's pre-ride, I knew that I could open up the throttle a little bit on this hill because it was not very steep, just a gradual climb. I was torn though, because I knew that bitch of a gravel uphill was coming, and based on yesterday's miserable performance, I had tormented visions of having to walk most of it.

Not today. I pulled the entire hill, passed a lot of riders, and felt great doing it. I used strong and clear lines, good pacing, and deft maneuvering around the multitudes who were turned back by the stones, the steepness, or the traffic. More than once, I was forced to pull a one- or two-second track stand on a tractionless 15-degree incline while the rider in front of me flailed to a stop and clipped out. Nothing was going to knock me off the pedals today though. I zigged out to the thin line on the downhill side of the trail; I zagged back and forth between the doubletrack lines barely visible amongst the stones (the rain actually helped pack these stones down a bit, so that also helped).

This climb looked like the Chilkoot Pass, circa 1898. From the bottom all the way to the top, a string of riders was slowly crawling their way to the top. Alongside them were an equally long string of riders walking their bikes. Romulus and I both witnessed some riders who clipped out at the very bottom of the hill without even attempting the climb. All along the torturous uphill grind, riders were clipping out in defeat and resignation.

Cresting the top, I quickly re-engaged my front and rear suspension and started mentally preparing myself for the frights to come on the way down the Gas Can. With a lower seat and reduced tire pressure, it was, again, a whole different experience from yesterday. Where yesterday I had been tentative and downright chickenshit, today I leaned into the corners, braked less, and trusted my lines. Good fucking times!

I lost telekinetic contact with Romulus as I started down the Can, but because I was following a slightly slower rider the entire way down, I expected to re-engage with him on the upcoming paved section. Unfortunately, I did not see him again until the finish line. Romulus later told me that he was about 15 yards back the entire climb up the dirt road, but got caught in some traffic on the gravel climb and lost track of me by the time I crested out. Romulus also pulled the entire gravel climb, a masterful feat of strength and balance.

Faster than a shuttering F-stop
Burnin' down the mountain
Romulus picks it clean

Back down on the pavement of the main road, I hooked the wheel of a rider passing me and latched on to the back of a three-bike train. We hammered across the Whiskeytown Dam and went flying into the downstream drainages, hitting 40 MPH on one long downhill.

From there, we piled into the Canal Trail singletrack and I soon left my train behind. I was really grooving the singletrack and starting to feel pretty good about my chances for a fast time. I knew there was still another massive hill to come, but one of Cannonball's maxims is: take time when you can, mark time when you have to. I was making good time.

Things were going great until somewhere around mile 8 or 9 where the course makes it first couple of stream crossings, which were really more like mud bog crossings. Yesterday, I had walked all the mud sections and most of the stream crossings to avoid getting my bike all muddy before the race, so I was not prepared for what would happen today when the bike became coated in mud as I blasted through the mud and stream crossings.

The drive train was instantly affected. The chain started rasping and grating and within a mile I had my first chainsuck of the day. Half expecting it, I jumped off, ripped the chain out of the pivot, and was on my way in less than 30 seconds. OK, I thought, don't get rattled. But soon the chain started slipping on and off cogs and shifting became unreliable. Then another chainsuck. And another. And another . . .

I lost track of the major chainsucks after the seventh one. By major, I mean chainsucks so bad they required me to get off the bike and manually extricate the chain from between the middle chainring and the chainstay. Those were just the major ones. There were probably 30 to 40 other times when it chainsucked, but I was able to back it off (pedal backwards to work the chain out of its bind) and avoid dismounting.

Things got so bad that the chainsuck was happening constantly, even when I wasn't shifting gears. This was bad, as bad as I've ever experienced in terms of frequency. Fortunately, I've shaved so much aluminum off of my frame (See April 16, 2005: T minus 12 hours), the chain can now be pulled free by hand in a matter of seconds rather than requiring five minutes (or longer) and a chain tool (See April 25, 2004: The Napa Valley Dirt Classic). Still, this added at least five minutes to my time and dealt a couple of body blows to my morale.

All through the rolling singletrack in the middle of the course, a section on which I had expected to pick up some serious time, I was plagued by the chainsucks. When I could pedal effectively, I was doing well. I continued to pass other riders only to have them pass me back minutes later while I was on the side of the trail fixing my chain. I passed one guy five different times in about a three-mile stretch!

I handled the first few sucks cooly, quickly dismounting, fixing, and remounting. However, as chainsucks started to happen while simply pedaling, I began to worry that I was going to break the chain. This was the low point of the race for me because I wasn't sure the bike was going to make it. I was also worrying about my time. I could feel the minutes slipping away with each suck.

Slowly, over the course of five or six miles of singletrack, I was able to determine that the chain ran smoothly in some gears but not others. After about mile 18, I was able to greatly reduce the number of chainsuck incidents, but I had only about 7 to 10 functional gears -- mercifully sprinkled across all three rings -- at my disposal.

Finally, I started to get a rhythm going on the uphill dirt road precursor to The Couch and The Recliner, two very steep and painful uphill tows. I was dealing with the shifting situation very effectively and passing handfuls of riders. At this point in the race, the long course merged again with the short course and there were lots of short course sufferers to hunt down and pass.

The Couch and the Recliner killed me yesterday, and even before the race started this morning, I had planned to walk sections of these climbs. They're not brutally steep or technically impossible, but coming at about mile 18 in the race, they hit you when you're most mentally and physically vulnerable.

I had been doing a pretty good job of hydrating, and I took water at both aid stations. Even though I was feeling slightly nauseous I had also forced down an energy bar; I picked up half a banana at the second aid station. I felt OK, but not strong enough to pull the huge climbs posed by The Couch and The Recliner.

As soon as I turned off the dirt road onto the singletrack of The Couch, I jumped off Blue Sugar and started striding uphill. The key to walking sections is to keep moving forward. Jog or run if you can, but always keep moving. I passed several walkers who were standing next to their bikes resting. You're not getting any closer to the top of the hill if you're stopped.

I tried to jog a section of The Couch but only managed to stumble forward a few steps before I retreated back to my death march pace. Finally, finally the ridgeline came into view. I started preparing myself for the upcoming fast downhill finish, including the Ice Box and its gauntlet of XXX obstacles. These steep, rooted, downhill plunges required a delicate balance of speed, agility, technical precision, and courage.

Smelling the finish line, I zipped through these sections with literally a smile on my face. I was flying. This was probably the high point in the race for me because I knew all I had to do was stay on the bike and I'd put up a decent time.

Not so fast Melvin. On the very last XXX section, a downhill slide dogleg left with plenty of deep ruts and roots, I had settled into one of the ruts and was skiing nicely into the turn. Just at the apex of the turn, a photographer and a couple of spectators called out to me, disrupting my concentration just enough that I missed my line into the turn. My front and rear wheels slid into two different ruts. Uh-oh.

Instantly, the back wheel reared up over my head and before I knew it, I was catapulted up and over the handlebars. I hit the ground running though and was unscathed. Blue was not so lucky. Spit out of the rut like a heimliched piece of meat, Blue took an onside kick bounce and cartwheeled into the adjacent forest, coming to rest a good 10 feet off the trail. I scrambled back up to her and found the handlebars awkwardly twisted. Flummoxed from the wipeout, it took me a few seconds to figure out how to untwist the bars. The only damage was a broken cyclometer cable. If there's one cable that's expendable, it's that one.

Romulus said this was the best part of the course for him, passing many people in the XXX sections. He not only got through these sections, he blazed through them even though by this point in the race, the grit and mud of the creek crossings had completely worn down his rear brake pads. No rear brakes, no problem for Romulus in the XXXs.

Back in the fray, I chewed on the fact that my trailside detour had cost me two places, a real bummer considering how close I was to the finish line. No matter. Coming down the last mile or so of the course, I was beaming. The heavy lifting was over, I'd survived the chainsucks, I'd performed well, and I was going to finish. Totally pumped by the cheering spectators, I did a 20-MPH 2-foot bunnyhop over the finish line to cap the race off in style.

Bobbing and weaving
Letting the bike do the work
Flyin' high

Going into the race, Romulus and I had both hoped to break 3:00:00. I flew across the finish line at 2:57:17 and felt pretty good about the time. I was hoping for maybe a top-30 finish overall, but ended up finishing 49 out of 129 overall and 18 of 48 in the Men's 35-44 group. Hot on my heels, Romulus blew across the line in 3:06:29, 60 of 129 overall and 22 of 48 in the Men's 35-44 group. Killicks, by the way, finished third overall on the intermediate course. Sandbagging bastard.

After the race, we basked in the satisfaction of finishing and finishing strong. Romulus had overcome his traditional slow start but had been bottled up in traffic through the singletrack. Romulus made his time on hills -- going up and coming down. Rom was most proud of his work on the XXX sections. I was really jacked about being able to make that first gravel climb, but I think I was most proud of my ability to hang in there through all the chainsucks and keep plugging away without giving up.

Enjoying huge post-race burritos, we soaked up the scene. There was a buzz I haven't felt at very many other races. Riders eagerly awaited the famous Lemurian schwag giveaway, and the giant tent where everybody was gathered for the awards ceremony was only 20 feet from the finish line. Periodically, the cry of "Rider up" was heard, and the crowd erupted in cheers and applause as a lone rider pedaled across the finish line in glory. People want to stick around after this race because they feel the love from the event organizers.

Before the race and after it, everybody was talking about The Lemurian's famous schwag giveaway. Romulus said they always give away some cool stuff, such as the jersey he won a couple of years ago. I was dubious however when they announced that the grand prize in the schwag giveaway was a Chris King headset. A headset? What's that like $120 tops? The rest of the schwag consisted almost exclusively of tires, tubes, and pumps. Lots and lots of floor pumps. The market is completely flooded with floor pumps right now and manufacturers can't even give them away. I found myself hoping my number wouldn't be called whenever they brought a floor pump out to give away. Turns out I didn't need to worry, neither Romulus nor I had our numbers called. We were able to flag down some water bottles and chain lube that was being thrown into the crowd.

One of the interesting things about cross-country mountain biking is the racing classification taxonomy. There are the requisite men's and women's sections, which are composed of numerous age divisions. There are also ability classifications such as Pro, Expert, Sport, and Beginner. This gives everybody a better chance at finishing on the podium because while riders are ostensibly competing against every other rider in the race, they are really only competing against the other riders in their specific category and classification.

Beyond the basics, they are some fun categories like tandems, singlespeeds, and Clydesdales. The singlespeeders are an amazing breed -- a funky mix of new school technology like disc brakes and old-school craziness like no deralliers. Singlespeeders are the coolest of the cool. It's like 27 gears is just too easy for them, they want a real challenge: one gear, all the time.

But the most amazing category of racer is the Clydesdales. To qualify as a Clydesdale, you have to weigh more than 200 pounds at the conclusion of the race. Some of these guys are huge, but they can post some damn competitive times. You look them and wonder how the hell can they lug all that poundage around a course like this one. Very impressive.

Among the riders lounging under the big top was the women's overall winner (and women's overall winner in the MTB cross-country at the Sea Otter two weeks ago). It was pretty sad to see her groveling for petty schwag along with the weekend warriors. Clutching her mostly worthless schwag, she wore a rueful expression that seemed to ask, "Tell me, why am I doing this again?". She didn't seem to be excited about her victory at all. In fact, she seemed completely bummed out by the whole scene -- bummed out that she cannot make a living at something for which she has such talent and ability.

By 3:00 PM it was time to hit the road. Both Romulus and I had experienced some cramping coming up The Recliner, and my legs were aching pretty badly as we piled into the team car and headed for home. Reviewing the map and our safety checklist, we rolled out of town on a high note.

The drive home was a long one, but we were sustained by good conversation and the glow of another race well done. We had just completed our third races in as many weeks (See April 17, 2005: Race Day, April 17, 2005: Otter pop weekender, April 23-24, 2005: The 24 Hours of Temecula, and April 24, 2005: Napa 2005), a nifty accomplishment in itself.

I think I'm going to need a little bit of a break from the bike after this stretch. We've been training pretty hard since February, so I'll probably put the bikes away for a week or so to let the batteries recharge. I do need to get Blue cleaned up right away so that I can take her in to get the self-adjust bushing installed to fix the chainsuck -- particularly pertinent following today's chainsuck meltdown.

POSTSCRIPT: Upon cleaning Blue Sugar the following day, I discovered that I had broken a tooth on the small chainring. This probably contributed significantly to the race day mechanicals.


Mileage: 26.0 Time: 2:57:17 Avg: 8.8 Max: 40.5 Weight: 165.5

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