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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Sea Otter, oh Sea Otter!

Sea Otter Pro XC RocksI’ve been on the road for the past few weeks to explore some new bike terrain (Reno, NV and Santa Cruz, CA), kick off my 2016 cross country race season and the grand finale of my travels was to Sea Otter Classic; and it was icing on the cake!

Minibike Pump Track Shenanigans
Minibike Pump Track Shenanigans

Sea Otter Classic is bike racing, bike showcase, bike silliness, bike inspiration, bike awe, bike bliss.  There are races for all categories and ages in road, cyclocross, and mountain biking (cross country, enduro, DH and Dual Slalom). Thursday through Sunday from 7am to 6pm races are starting and finishing on the Laguna Seca race track that surrounds the festival venue and extends through the hillside and surrounding Monterey oceanfront.  Constantly there is a racer zooming by in kit spandex or bright baggies to cheer on. The infield venue is a state fair for bikes: bike industry booths showing off their new goodies, clinics to dial in your Fox suspension, head out on the trails with your bike idols for some tips, samples of Clif Bars new nut butter filled riding snacks, eat the lunch Skratch Labs makes for their Grand Tour riders , yoga classes taught by trials rider pro Ryan Leach, meet and greet (and pound a beer) with Missy Giove, “bike side-shows” where you can race the pump track on a minibike, a business suit up commuter crit, and that is just the stuff on the program! There is something for all bike passions and you will have a hard time leaving not having found a new one.

Bike Goodies Galore
Bike Goodies Galore

But, I was there to race in the largest pro women’s field in the USA.  This year Sea Otter Classic hosted the second stage of the Pro XC US Cup, a HC rated UCI cross country race (highest level of international racing except the World Cup) so the best of the best from all over the world (even Ren Changyuan, the Chinese National Champion, made the trip over the Pacific) were in town to crush.  Pre-riding the course on Thursday was like a reunion; getting to catch up ladies far and wide I see only at races and big bike events.  We discussed road tactics for the big speedway climb out of the stadium, merits of the high line exiting the rock garden, how to lose the least speed through the barrier s-turn as well as sharing news of pregnancies (yeah Joy!) and whose home town is building new trails. It was obvious the course would be very fast giving the advantage to a rider in peak fitness over a technically strong gal. 

Dual Slalom - WOW!
Dual Slalom – WOW!

Friday morning was the short track race; an urban bike style mile long loop through the venue over bridges, gravel pits, and around cement barriers where we race for 20 minutes plus three laps.  More than sixty women lined up to roller derby style race.  This being my second ever short track race I wanted to get in the mix but stay safe and learn more about tactics for future races.  My bars were smacked, my wheels rammed and my ribs shoved; only my hair was not pulled nor was I bit! I was caught up in a big crash over the bridge where ten more seasoned racers jumped over the pile of riders cyclocross style (clearly I have some new skills to hone).  The race was exciting and just as quick as it started it was over.  I was pretty pleased with my finishing position and now feel I understand short track racing well enough to really put the hurt on next time. 

The course was beautiful, too bad I was not looking around while racing.
The course was beautiful, too bad I was not looking around while racing.

Saturday was my big event, the Pro XC!  All nerves I went into the flower studded hillside and loosened up by doing a few loose gravel bike handling drills and slowly raising my heart rate.  Once warmed up, I pedaled a chill lap on the course to see how the terrain had changed with a day of riders previewing it and the eBike race using part of it on Friday.  Call ups felt like being at the Oscars with the top thirty girls getting their race pedigrees announced as they took the line.  I took my position near the back of the pack knowing my job was to get to the front early on the race track climb to be clear of crashes that are inevitable in such a big field.  I was too successful and halfway up the climb I found myself in the front row.  In a rookie moment I panicked and let off the gas a quarter turn.  That was all it took to be swarmed by twenty riders.  Dough!!! That mistake marooned me between the two big groups of riders climbing into a headwind.  I just regained the lead pack at the rock garden and was behind two girls who crashed.  I was forced to stop and another ten girls went right by me.  As the laps progressed I moved forward in position cheered on by spectators at every course twist and turn.  On my fifth lap some guy tried to give me an ice cream cone; it was so hot out and looked so delicious I would have taken it if I wasn’t breathing so hard.  Six laps in blazing speed.  I was happy with my early season result and it will be a spring board for the rest of my season.  I made a few tactical, mechanical and mental mistakes and my fitness is in it’s infancy as the snow is just starting to melt in Bend, OR.  So there is much room for improvement.  I can’t wait for the next US Cup race in June to see what I can do!

Bike Show Awe
Bike Show Awe

With my Sea Otter Classic race over I got to savor the show.  I had a brawny WD-40 guy wash my bike, lounged at Fluid with ice cool recovery beverage, heard the race antics of some junior racers I work with (seriously check your hydration pack for rocks if you are racing DH) and spectated the Dual Slalom with my mouth agape.  Fun.  Sea Otter is a marriage of everything awesome bike and you want to be a part of all of it.  I’ll be there again next year camping up on the hill with some amazing industry folks, so put it on your 2017 calendar and join me.