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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Missoula XC With Unwanted Teammates: How Amoebas On Board Don’t Make You Faster

Start of the U23 Men
Start of the U23 Men

I am drenched, huddled under a pine tree hoping not to get struck by lightning and watching my bike get pelted by hail.  My warm-up now abandoned, I can only plead for the thunderstorm to pass by and am thinking of a new selling point for super-light carbon bikes: less metal to attract lightning! Frightened? Yes, but it is hard not to laugh that THIS STORM, not the saga of the past week, may cause me to miss the start of my race: the Missoula Pro XC.

 

I want to win one of these so badly! (Don't worry, Ben said they are from roadkill.)
I want to win one of these so badly! (Don’t worry, Ben said they are from roadkill.)

I LOVE the Missoula XC.  This course is the real deal – a monster climb with switchbacks so tight and steep that I have put a foot down in fatigue, a descent dappled with off camber water bars in the middle of steep corners and opportunities to get some air with an audience.  While racing, there is an announcer broadcasting the play by play to a large crowd that is cheering you on.  And this year the race is the last chance for racers to vie for a spot on the USA Olympic team.  The racers are hungry, it is going to be game on and I can’t wait to play!

The "Bull" Ramp
The “Bull” Ramp

The last two weeks in preparation for this race has been a disaster.  I’ve been pretty miserable with abdominal pain that I could not sort out causing me to forgo my training and most food.  My “stomach bug” symptoms waxed and waned, but three days before the race my health was pretty bleak and I found myself at Instacare. Unsure of what was going on, but confident I was not terminal, my Doc sent me on the road to Montana with pending lab results and a recommendation to purge my digestive tract.  On my arrival to the race venue I had a message saying I was not dying, but have giardia.

Brandon of Summit Bike Club made sure I would have my smallest gear to climb. THANKS!!!

What is giardia?  It’s a water born amoeba contracted by drinking contaminated water.  I have absolutely no idea how I got it.  I have only been drinking city water in the past few months, have not been doing open water swims due to the very cold spring in Oregon, but maybe I got a splash in my mouth while grinning as I biked across a creek? The critters invade your intestines and ferment your food making you burp, fart, cramp and have frothy poo.  Did I mention I’m camping at the race venue?  Port-o-pottys? A gnarly antibiotic course will make me healthy but I have a big race in less than forty eight hours.

No, not to disinfect me! This is a brilliant way to wash your bike at a race.
No, not to disinfect me! This is a brilliant way to wash your bike at a race.

My dilemma: do I postpone treatment so I can try to race with symptoms I am familiar with or do I start antibiotics and hope they get me feeling well enough that the medication-induced nausea can be overlooked?  I feel so lousy I can’t imagine a big physical effort unless my symptoms lessen and in the last week I’ve eaten less than a roadie; my energy reserves won’t last more than twenty minutes at race pace unless I can keep some food down.

Racers zooming by my campsite

I chose to start treatment believing my symptoms were so terrible (and worsening by the hour) that I was not going to be able to race without intervention.  Being out of state it took some crafty work and kind medical professionals to get meds in my hands by mid-day Friday (28 hours to start time).  I then raided the local grocery for calorie dense but bland foods: chicken broth, rice crackers, ginger ale and plant based protein drinks foods.  Yum!  Just what every elite athlete wants to eat in preparation for a big race.

Bye-Bye Giardia
Bye-Bye Giardia

Antibiotic are MAGIC! In eighteen hours my symptoms are manageable, I’m getting some nutrition in, and a good night of sleep camping at Marshal Mountain has made me hopeful enough to warm-up for my race.  If it goes well I’ll take the start line and see if I can tick off a few laps of the race before I blow through all my glycogen reserves and my muscles simply stop.  And this is why it is so ironic that I may miss my race due to a storm.  I’m a twenty minute pedal away from the start line on single track overlooking the Clark River and if the storm does not pass in a few more minutes I won’t make it.

I'm suffering but totally stoked to be RACING
I’m suffering but totally stoked to be RACING

The Gods smile on me; the storm clears as abruptly as it swept in.  I warm up by sprinting to the start line.  I made it with enough time to towel the mud off my face and look composed for call ups.  The race starts in true Montana style with a rifle discharging into the hillside.  My start is slow, but by the time we hit the single track I’m in a good position on the wheels of the girls I expect to be on the podium.  But that glory was not to be mine today and half way up the first climb I fell off the pace.  I was passed by Hannah but felt good at the bottom of the first lap.  How could this be? I’m heading out for my second lap.  Better slurp down a gel.  Two laps become three and in disbelief I pass Hannah (despite my unwanted amoeba teammates hitching a ride) and am on track to beat the time cut-offs.  Lap four is not so peppy but I am ahead of the cut and with a huge smile, not stomach cramps, I race the final lap!  Just getting to race was a huge win for me, finishing the race was beyond my dreams.  I was so spent afterwards I almost fell off my bike when I tried to spin out my legs.  I try a real meal; chicken noodle soup!  And then a whole bag of rice cakes.  And then a box of graham crackers.  And then another can of soup. And then… I passed out before 8:30pm with the loud speakers announcing the single-speed race and keg toss like a lullaby.  Never fear, more food was in store.  I was wide awake at midnight and starving.  I actually got up and made another dinner: pasta with salt and butter.  I was starving for breakfast too.

Local love, I made the papers! Whoo hoo.
Local love, I made the papers! Whoo hoo.

This race was not the “shot at the podium” that I had hoped it would be, but I left satisfied and stoked at how well I did.  Managing my health, being optimistic but realistic about my situation, and focusing on the possibilities ensured I had a fantastic experience.  Now onto Angel Fire XC next week to see how much strength I can recoup with my amoebic hitchhikers discarded!  Ladies, look out.

 

UCI Education, Take One!

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.

Megan Chinburg manualing off an obstacle in the Eliminator for the win.
Megan Chinburg manualing off an obstacle in the Eliminator for the win.

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.

Spectator Love
Spectator Love

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.

MSLA XC Results
What an all-star cast, pinch me!

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!