Missoula Pro XCT: Where Even Mechanicals Can’t Dim My Race

STXC pain (2)
Yeah, this race is tough, and yes that’s dirt on my teeth.  Photo: Kenny Wehn

With my Dad as co-pilot, in a downpour that lasted almost the entire eleven hours of driving, I anticipated the Missoula Pro XC with glee.  This would be my third year at this race and it is my favorite UCI XC course.  It features a lung exploding climb with tight switchbacks, a steep descent that you cannot let your guard down on for even a moment, a heart-in-your-throat gap jump, and is lined with cheering crowds.  Not to mention that Marshal Mountain is in full wildflower bloom and town full of good eats. 

My race season started a bit late this year so I could savor the ski season, and only now am I in race form.  I could not wait to see what I could do at this race.  Afternoon race starts are tough for me to manage my nerves.  My Dad was a trooper putting up with me bouncing around in the endless rain which generously called it a day as the pro women took the start line. 

bull jump
Landing more gently off the Bull Jump than I’d like to.

As expected, the pace for the first lap was insane.  I held tight in the lead pack up the climb but prayed the second climb would be humane.  Thankfully the descent loomed and I launched over the first water bar.  A strange sound from my bike greeted my landing, but I had no time to ponder it as the second water bar was just feet away.  When I landed the second time I could not control my bike and crashed into the lupine.  I was unhurt, but mystified that I made an error on a simple terrain feature.  I freed my handlebars from the cables, put my chain back on, did a quick run through my bike to make sure nothing was damaged, and got back into the race a few riders back from my pre-wreck position.  I pressed through the next tight turn to the left and then the following one to the right.  But on the second turn my bike felt as if it was flexing.  Not good.  I trusted my scan of my bike after my crash and was confident nothing serious like a cracked frame had happened, so I surmised my bottom bracket lost a few bearings or my rear hub was damaged.  Neither mechanical would be so catastrophic that my bike was unsafe to finish the race, but I would have to descend with caution and at less speed than I like to carry.  I would have to make my gains on the field climbing instead of relying on my downhill skills as I usually do.

I rode very cautiously on my second lap amidst sporadic grinding sounds from my bike.  It took me a while to adjust to the lateral flexing my bike made when I make turns to the right or compressed my suspension.  The rider behind me took my wheel.  I needed to decide: trust my evaluation of my bike and race or drop out.  On the descent, I started to understand how to handle my bike with confidence and headed out for the third lap.

 

Dad and I
Dad greeting me at the finish.

Though I could not zoom the descents or air obstacles, I maintained my position in the race with strong climbing.  The last lap came and I felt good.  It was time to put the hurt on the women around me knowing if I didn’t put enough distance between us on the climb they could catch me on the final downhill.  My legs were up to the challenge and I got around the women near me.  I even saw a racer ahead of me who I’ve not been able to catch before late in the descent, but was unwilling to press my bike mechanical issues to close the gap.  Elated, I crossed the finish line in seventh place.  My best UCI finish yet!  If I had been able to ride the downhill sections at full speed I may have been in contention for a spot on the podium.  I was stoked!

 

 

missing pivot
Missing Pivot.  Doh!

Washing the mud off my bike, I saw the mechanical problem.  I had lost one of the pivots.  Pivots are the bolts and bearings that connect the rear triangle of a full suspension bike to the rest of the frame.  With one missing my bike would in fact flex whenever force was put into the frame.  It validated my cautious riding and I was glad I stayed safe.  I must have broken the pivot landing the first water bar and it must have come out on the landing of the second one.  This is a mechanical problem that is extremely rare, and just luck of the draw that it happened. Because this is a part of a bike that is almost never damaged, no bike shops or race mechanics had one to repair my bike with.  I really wanted to race short track on Sunday morning, but my bike was unsafe to ride.

 

XCT passing (2)
Being able to race Short Track was a miracle.

The bike community is AMAZING!  When word got out what had happened to my bike, the Bear Development Team came to my rescue.  They race Trek Top Fuels too and one of their junior men offered to let me borrow his pivot bolt so I could race.  I literally jumped for joy. Adams race was right before mine and he finished second.  After his award ceremony, Jack, the team mechanic, dismantled Adams frame and installed the pivot on mine.  I had ten minutes before the start of my race and did my best to warm-up my race tired legs in a few minutes instead of the hour I usually take.  I rolled to the start line just in time and we were off.  It took a few laps for my legs to warm-up and my sluggish start put me in a position that was hard to claw ahead from.  But it didn’t matter, I got to race!

 

Dad and I headed to The Big Dipper for a celebratory ice cream.  We talked about my races, and even though both had some bloopers, I was really pleased with how I did.  I kept cool through a mechanical and used it as an opportunity to test my climbing fitness.  My endurance is expanding; I could pick up the pace for the last lap and was not wasted from the race (aka I could keep my eyes open during dinner).  I am part of a community that is generous.  I am understanding race strategy more and can plan my attacks and know when to be patient.  Most of all, I had a great time. 

Special thanks to my awesome bike shop, Sunnyside Sports in Bend who overnighted a replacement pivot to meet me at the next stop on my race tour.  Also a shout out to Open Road Bicycles in Missoula and Velo Reno who both incredibly offered to take a pivot off a floor bike but unfortunately did not have a match, and Reno Cycling that got my frame bolted together again.  What an adventure. 

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Hopi Gods at the Chile Challenge Pro XC

Start line nerves
Start line nerves

In the depths of winter when my trails were buried under feet of snow I began putting my 2016 race season together.  It was with utter delight that I saw a new UCI race venue; Angel Fire New Mexico!  I grew up in northern NM and my parents still live in Santa Fe.  I could not pass up the opportunity to race in the southern Rockies, have my parents cheer me on, and eat some red chile.  I think I was the first woman to register for the race.

Camping at the yurt

Recovering from the Missoula XC and giardia, I took the scenic road to New Mexico staying in a yurt outside of Pocatello, ID, catching up with my sister in UT, and finally returning to the high desert of my youth.  Of course I stopped for blue corn enchiladas shortly after I crossed the state line.  (Giardia is not a fan of spicy food…)

My folks met me in Angel Fire with their sweet camper van, which was a welcome refuse from the thunderstorms.  My mom made sure I was regaining my strength

The fray to start the single track from the start
The fray to start the single track from the start

by preparing feasts and my Dad (a former cyclist) actually enjoyed talking to me about all things bike race that can put the

So HOT in Utah!

most obsessed bike enthusiast asleep. Friday morning I pedaled to the ski hill to pre-ride the XC course and check out the Pro GRT (downhill) seating runs.  Angel Fire has hosted DH events for a few years and has a reputation for being a burley course so I was excited to gawk at the feats of gravity defying bike handling by over 70 pro downhillers.  Wow.

Rallying. Grinning.
Rallying. Grinning.

The new UCI XC course at Angel Fire was a dream for me.  A burley climb gaining 600 ft. in the first mile, a burmed descent through the ponderosas with two jumps near the bottom, and two very short sections of double track.  The course would require patience and strategy to pass, the climb would spread the racers out, and the descent will make you grin.  A perfect

Get your chili fix in Taos

course for me!  My health was finally coming around and I had a solid training plan to account for the torturous altitude of the venue: 8500 ft. at the base of the ski hill. 

Umpoinaqa, the Hopi Thunder God, must have been happy to have me back on New Mexico soil because the rain stopped

Done!
Done!

for the Pro Women XC race.  Chloe set a blazing pace off the start line, showing us what it takes to be an Olympic Team Member, and I chased.  I was in great position on the first climb in eyesight of Chloe, but somehow the pace picked up for the second lap and I was at my max.  I fell back a few positions but felt strong in my third lap.  But as I headed out for my

Umpoinaqa, the Hopi Thunder God

fourth lap, Koshari, the Hopi Clown God, tacked a parachute to my shoulders making the climb brutal.  My breath was rapid and deep, but my low elevation heart could not get enough oxygen to my burning legs.  My pace slowed, but the other women were suffering too and I gained on Hannah W. ahead of me.  As we approached the top of the climb I could

Short track zoom
Short track zoom

accelerate and pass her, but decided the effort might tap my reserve and she could pick me off in the final climb, so I stuck to her wheel on the descent to pass on the next climb.  But pass I could not!  The fifth and final lap was an effort in consistency and looking forward to my family waiting for me at the finish line. 

Koshare, the Hopi Clown God

The Chile Challenge course made for easy spectating, my parents were able to see a grueling part of the climb and an open section of the descent where riders caught a little air over a jump into a burm.  I prepped them with info on the other women; like who they ride for, who I admired and who I had my eye on to be shoulder to shoulder with.  My Mom cheered

My pit crew: Mom and Dad
My pit crew: Mom and Dad

for my friends with such enthusiasm her cowbell blistered her palm.  My Dad offered a critique of my start and had some tactical suggestions for future races.  And on Sunday they got whiplash watching the Short Track race zooming around the ski base.  Having a team to support you is pretty fantastic!

Tsil, Hopi Runner God

It was not until I reflected on my race did I realize this was the first Pro UCI race where I was not worried about making the lap cut-offs, instead I was focused on strategy and managing my effort.  This is a huge milestone.  Now to get completely healthy and crush at National Championships in three weeks (after I devour huevos rancheros (Christmas) like I was caught by Tsil, the Hopi Runner God who will chase you and pour chili powder in your mouth if he catches you.

Fat Bike National Championships 2016 (Wind Tunnel Training)

bling
Showing off my bling!

I have always thought it would be cool to feel how (or how not) aerodynamic I am in a wind tunnel like Lindsey Vonn does.  Be careful what you wish for!  Held for the second year at Utah’s Powder Mountain, Fat Bike National Championships provided riders the opportunity to hone their streamline position with gale force gusts.  However, the event was so much fun the wind was unable to blow smiles off participant’s faces.

Fat bike racing is a blend of cross country bike handling and road bike strategy where dialing in the bike for the terrain conditions can make or break your day. For this reason I budget a few hours for pre-riding the course the day before with a bike stand and full tool kit at the parking lot. I also check the weather report morning and night for the week leading up to the race to get a feel for what the conditions will be like. The most important detail to get right for fat bike performance is tire pressure. Fat bikes run really low pressure, usually 4-12 PSI tire pressure on snow depending on the snow conditions. Due to the large volume of fat bike tires, a 1 or 2 PSI change will make a noticeable difference in how the tires grip and float on snow. If the snow is deep or recrystallized “sugar snow” I typically run closer to 4 PSI (the zone where the side-walls wrinkle) so the tire oozes over the snow instead of sinking into it. If the snow is hard pack I will run closer to 12 PSI to reduce rolling resistance but aiming for the pressure zone where I’m on the verge of bouncing on frozen ruts. A firmer tire provides more speed and efficiency, too firm and the bike will buck. Pre-riding the Fat Bike Nats course I experimented with my tire pressure to find the sweet spot. I started with my tires at 8 PSI and adjusted from there. A digital pressure gauge and a hand pump are a must for a pre-ride. On race day I do carry a CO2 cartridge for that emergency flat fix, but a 20g cartridge will only inflate a fat tire to about 5 PSI. Though the course on the ski hill was groomed, the temps were turning the snow to slush in many spots so it took me a while to find the zone where I was floating on the slushy snow but still efficient on the climbs. On race day the winds and clouds set in keeping the snow more firm than the day before so I upped the PSI a bit.

Fat-Bike-National-Championships-at-Powder-Mountain-2-27-2016-IMG_2629
Climbing in the wind

Next is gearing.  The Fat Bike Nats course was a six mile loop where the first three miles featured a steady descent with burmed turns and a wiggly single track through the aspens.  The second half of the course featured a long climb back to the start with one headwall of slush that I ended up walking each lap no matter how I approached it during the race.  Though the descent was fast, the climb called for a reasonable chain-ring.  I chose a 30 T and I used EVERY gear.  A 2X drivetrain was probably the best choice on this day; I was spun out on the descent when the wind gusts were merciful but climbed into the headwind at a steady 4 mph pace in my smallest gears.

cheerleader 2
Exuberance at the finish

I have a demon who loves to assault me with last minute derailleur problems at races and Fat Bike Nats was no exception.  At the end of my pre-ride as the sun was approaching the horizon I shifted into my smallest gear and my chain jumped into my spokes and bent the derailleur hanger in the process.  With the barrel adjuster I was able to get my shifting functioning in the middle of my cassette, but the hanger needed to be straightened to let me use my smallest gears again.  Fortunately angels chase demons and as I headed to the parking lot to try and find an open bike shop to help me I ran into Bill Warburton who was working as crew for the event.  Bill runs the Bend Endurance Academy and gets lots of opportunities to help out kiddo’s on the trail fixing all sorts of mechanicals.  He did not pause to take the time in the snow and dropping temps to get my shifting back on track.  The next morning I lucked out again and bike mechanic John from Bingham’s Bike Shop gave my derailleur a last minute touch up for that added boost of confidence.  My drivetrain was as good as brand new!

 

local glory
First interview for TV!

And then there is personal equipment.  The temps were in the 40’s, but so were the wind-speeds.  My Bar-Mitts would catch the wind and spin my handlebars during warm-up so they had to be removed. It was hard not to put on a wind layer over my kit but I resisted being weary of getting too cold from excessive sweating in the wind.  I did put a set of Hot Hands in my gloves to make sure my fingers would stay warm enough to engage with my brakes and shifter. No fashion mistakes today! (Okay, I did warm-up in “Granny” wind pants and a puffy jacket but there is no documentation of that.)

With my equipment sorted out, it was time to take the start line.  The pro women field was not large, but the ladies were all quite accomplished racers.  Off the start we jockeyed for the front of the pack as we tried to figure out our strategies.  I was feeling frisky at the strait-away before the climb began on the first lap and stretched my legs. At the end of the first lap I had a modest gap on the field which I built on for the rest of the race.  I effectively time trialed this race, keeping an eye on my heart rate.  Being the break-away can be a head game but knowing what my body is capable of doing for a race of this length helped me stay steady in winds that blew me off the cat track and literally stopped me in my tracks a few times.  It also gave me confidence that my early move off the front was not a mistake.

And yeah, being the Women Pro Fat Bike National Champion is pretty cool!

champ
Pretty stoked on my new jersey

Check out Park City TV ‘s report of the event (and laugh at my rookie interview skills).

Hip Hip Horray for Nationals

On my last descent to the finish
On my last descent to the finish

“Go Evelyn, Go!”

“Drop her Evelyn, you can do it!”

That was the cheering I heard for my first three laps racing Mountain Bike National Championship XC in Mammoth, CA. And no, I was not sad the crowd was supporting Evelyn Dong (2014 USA World Cup Team member) instead of me (new and unknown lady in the pro line-up); I was elated to be on the wheel of such a talented athlete. Plus, hypoxia makes your hearing fuzzy so it was easy to hear “Emma win” instead of Evelyn!

The National Championship Pro XC course was run in the UCI format: 5 laps (90 min of racing plus one lap) on a 4 mile loop with 800 ft climbing, technical descending, and lap time cut-offs. For my second race of this format, my goal was to make the final lap cut off, have zero left in the tank when I crossed the finish line, and to have fun soaking up the experience of racing at the top level with the best women racers in the nation. I was victorious on all fronts and surprised myself with how well I did (especially at altitude which I no longer live/train at).

Pro ladies racing short track
Pro ladies racing short track

The start was a spectacle! The girls contending to be the National Champion had entourages, including an umbrella boy to shade them. The start was a blur of nervous pedal pounding and I elected to hang in the back to let the dust and jitters clear knowing there was a dirt road climb after the feed zone where I could jockey for a better spot before hitting the single track. That was the right call as there was a big crash in a loose corner entering the feed zone that I was happy to ride around. Half way up the climb I found my rhythm and Evelyn’s wheel. This turned into a good learning experience for me. On the second lap I was antsy to go a bit faster and tried to make a pass on a wide uphill switchback. My path was derailed and I went into deep gravel; causing me to lose momentum and tap my energy reserves. Later, we hit a gravel road to cross a ski slope and Evelyn slowed as we popped onto it. I was surprised and took the pass. I should have known better; as we entered the clearing there was a wind gust pushing a dirt cloud strait into us. Evelyn had looked ahead and saw this. She ducked right behind me and I ground us through the gritty headwind. As soon as we were protected in the trees and my energy was tapped, she jumped around me; what an expert tactician! Learning, learning, learning.

On the fourth lap Evelyn dropped me, though my pace remained steady. I kept my eye on my Garmin and made my calculated last lap cut off with a little time to spare. I watched the start/ finish as I worked through the venue to head out on my last lap and saw no other girls make the cut off time. I knew I could not catch the rider ahead of me unless she significantly slowed and believed there was no one behind me (it turns out they did not cut riders for the last lap, but I had enough of a time gap so I was not caught – whew!). I was cooked and my climbing legs were a bit shaky. I topped the climb, opened up my suspension and played with the final descent catching air and high marking the burms. This was total bike bliss as I grinned ear to ear over the finish line to a twelfth place finish!

My in-laws, Jill and Terry, surprised me by coming to the race to cheer me on
My in-laws, Jill and Terry, surprised me by coming to the race to cheer me on.

Post-race I inhaled what must have been 5000 calories while I soaked my legs in Twin Lakes. I pulled out my phone to share my good news to my family and saw a text message from my in-laws; last minute they drove to Mammoth from Reno to watch me race. They were hiking down the mountain to congratulate me. Tears filled my eyes. I know I have so many friends and family members who cheer me on this adventure, but the depth of love from all of you is incredible. I am humbled.

Hip Hip Hooray for Nationals!