My nerves are so active I can hardly get my GU into my jersey pocket; I’m suiting up for my first International Cycling Union (UCI) XC mountain bike race at the Missoula Pro XC. I’ve been racing mountain bikes for a few years now and can only laugh at feeling like more of a rookie than I did at my very first race. This is my first year racing USA Cycling sanctioned mountain bike races. I’ve worked my way through the categories this spring to obtain my pro license. I want to race with the best women mountain bikers and see how I stack up. UCI races draw the biggest names in racing and the largest fields. I’m realizing my dream; I’m here where the “big girls” converge to test themselves. I understood the UCI XC race format is different, and planned on my first UCI race to be a dress rehearsal for future races, but I had no idea how much I would learn. Now that I have my first race at this level under my belt, I will be ready to “act like a pro” in the future.
I hit the road on Wednesday morning for the ten hour drive to Missoula. Over a tasty lunch in Spokane, WA I looked at my e-mail and had a personal message from Don Russel, the USAC official for the race.
Don: “Emma; You need to purchase your international license to unpend your Pro license.”
Emma: “I’m so new to this, I had no idea! How do I get one?”
Don: “Emma, are you a Pro MTB racer or is that an error?”
That unseated my confidence! And yes, I am a card carrying pro rider. Don was fantastic when I met him Wednesday night. He walked me through the process of getting my International License and ensured that I would be able to race on Saturday.
Thursday and Friday went smoothly. I pre-rode the 5km course. It was a tough loop up a ski hill with tight, steep and loose switchbacks up and a fast descent full of off-camber turns, water bars, a gap jump on the “A” line with a landing between pad-wrapped trees (there is a “B” line to avoid the big air, but the UCI official called it the “chicken line” at the Elite/Manager meeting so I was a little embarrassed that I had planned on riding the “B” line), a crowd pleasing ramp jump near the finish, and plenty of powdery dirt to degrade as the race day wears on. The course is the real deal, you have to be fit and strong to make the technical climb and have guts backed by strong bike handling skills to descend without losing too much time. After four practice laps I felt ready to attack the course on Saturday. I spectated some of the pro’s race in the downtown eliminator, refreshed in the Clark Fork River, and camped at the venue with junior the coaches and junior racers of Summit MTB team.
Races started at 9am on Saturday, but the UCI Pro Womens race start was 4:30pm. I had all day to try and manage my nerves. I watched some of the Cat 3 and junior races but seeing bloody riders and a junior toss her breakfast after just one lap did not help keep me calm. Walking through the team tents, I overheard conversations about the course degrading and gearing choices. This only had me second guessing my preparations. I hydrated, I tried to eat, meditated, visualized perfect flow down the course, reviewed my goals for my race. Joe gave me a great pep talk on the phone that calmed me down enough to eat some cookies for lunch, but when it was finally time to kit up I was relieved to have a job at hand.
Finally my warm-up: 20 minutes to slowly raise my heart rate, run through some cornering drills, and a few quick accelerations. I did my best not to fall off my bike as I star-gazed at the women I would be racing with, women I recognized from bike magazines and videos! Then a final stop by the port-a-potty in route to the start corral. Yes, start corral! This level of race has a designated start order where they introduce you to the crowd as you roll up to your spot on the start-line. In the corral I was warmly greeted by Evelyn Dong and Sarah Kauffman who I know from UT which made me feel less out of place and met two other racers making their UCI race debut too. As I was called to the line, the Missoula crowd cheered for me and my nerves finally steadied. I am ready, let’s go!
I don’t even remember if the start was a gun or a whistle, but in a storm of dust I found my spot in the pack for the first climb. UCI XC races are on short loop courses where the field does enough laps to last 90 minutes plus one lap. We were assigned five laps to race. The first lap was blistering fast (18 minutes). I hovered in the middle for the first climb to get a feel for the pace, FAST. On the descent I was on a strait away setting up for a particularly loose and technical corner and dropped my front wheel into a blown out edge of the trail and cartwheeled down the hillside. Scraped up, but not hurt I retrieved my bike and hiked back up to the course. I regained my confidence after another lap and rode my third lap really well. I was no longer with the lead pack but knew I was still in the race. I conserved my effort on the fourth lap so I could give my all for the last, but did not earn the opportunity. In UCI XC racing if you fall twenty percent off the pace estimated from the leader’s first lap time you get pulled from the race. I missed the cut off by one minute and one second! I was devastated. Time to spin the legs then plunge into the creek to wash the dust and sweat from racing ninety minutes in blistering temps.
Watching the Pro Men’s race I got the opportunity to talk to the other pro women and process what I had just experienced. It turns out that not making all the laps is just a part of the race; about half the field does not get to race all their laps. It does not mean you are a DNF (Did Not Finish), but your placing is the order of being cut after the racers who get all laps done. I was the first woman cut after four laps, several were pulled after three. In a field of twenty two women I placed 13th! My strategy to conserve my energy on the fourth lap was poor. In the future I need to go all out for each lap to make the last lap cut-off. The teams have someone at the support zone calculating the cut-off times and let racers know if they are on pace or falling off of it. If I had known I was on the bubble starting my fourth lap I may have been able to make up the time (probably not, but it would have been nice to have tried).
My first UCI race was an amazing experience. The style of racing requires a distinct strategy compared to regular XC racing; now that I know what game I am playing I will be able to really race at the next one. The race director, officials, competitors and volunteers welcomed and ushered me through my awkward first race phase. I’m so grateful for the cycling community. Racing at this level is tough, and I’m counting down the days until I get to do it again!