It’s so nice to not be a rookie at Mountain Bike National Championships this year. Knowing WD-40 will wash my bike, Fox and SRAM will help me with mechanical issues, the bike paths are great to warm-up on, and that I’ve raced this course before gives my confidence a huge boost. Mammoth is a beautiful town to visit, making it hard to stay on my racer regime: strict food means no dining out at the cute restaurants, saving my legs means not exploring all the bike trails, and resting up means going to bed early instead of whooping it up at the bars. Not that the racers life in Mammoth is a drag by any means: boosting my energy at Stellar Brewing with a banana chai, icing my legs in a high mountain lake, and catching up with friends while watching dual slalom is pretty cool.
I took the XC start line feeling great! I’m finally recovered from giardia and have had a week of good training and eating well before arriving the night before the race. I really like the course: a climb with lots of good passing options and friendly less steep sections to catch your breath after particularly vertical zones, and the descent features tight burms around trees at the top then a series of drops and rock gardens as the bottom. Though loose and powdery mid-summer, I feel confident in my traction (with WTB Trail Boss tires that are a bit over-kill but confidence is magic) so the drift is not a concern of mine. Call ups (with the US Olympic Team Members called first – so cool to race with them) then the gun!
I had a terrible start. I missed my clip in so I had to do another pedal stroke at half speed to get into my pedals; an error that put me toward the back of the pack. Not to worry, there was a clear line along the fencing to get me back in position. As I moved into the hole, a nervous rider next to me hit me. Not to worry, I’m comfortable with some race rubbing and had just enough room to correct myself next to the fencing. But then a spectator leaned over the fencing with his camera and I hit him. Crash! I’m not sure if the spectator was okay, he just apologized to me as I got up and made sure my bike and body were no worse for the impact. Not to worry, Dirt Ninja (my bike) and I were fine; back to work. So fifty feet from the start line I was already a minute back from the pro women field. Not to worry (my mantra), the race is long and I can get back in the game if I am smart. Smart means not panicking, not sprinting up the mountain at top speed, not blowing myself up in the first twenty minutes of a two hour race. Trusting my fitness and skills I caught up to the back of the women. Patience. I waited for good passing opportunities; it is easy to exert a lot of energy getting around a racer at an inopportune location (as I did last year on this course only to be repassed and dropped like a hot potato a few minutes later). At the top of the climb I had worked my way to the front of the chase pack. I wanted to be with the lead pack but they were nowhere in sight.
Over the five laps of the race I kept my riding steady and smooth. My climbs were consistent, though two girls did get around me later in the race, and my descents were fast and had me gaining on the other riders (or stuck behind them without an opportunity to pass) each round. I am disappointed that I finished twelfth when I had expectations of a better showing, but am very happy at how I handled my disastrous start. Maybe one of my favorite things about mountain bike racing is that on any day, it is any girls race. A mechanical, bad hand-up or even a bad hair day can tip the scales in favor of a rider not expected to take the day. It is how a racer responds to mishaps that makes them great; so today my greatness may not come with accolades, but pride that I raced a smart race. Now to recover for tomorrows televised short track race (Pro Women STXC starts at the hour mark)!
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).
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!
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.