I've been running for long enough that I don't bother coming up with strategies for races. I've had 20 years to learn my strengths and weaknesses and have spent countless hours at race effort, so it's automatic. On the mountain bike, however, I haven't raced enough to have this ingrained in my mind and muscles. And, the differences between race courses means that a new strategy is needed for each. This learning curve is exciting and motivating.
I hadn't raced on foot or bike since October, so Sunday's Orchard Hill Assault mountain bike race was my 2018 rust-buster. It's1/2 mile from my house and therefore I can't miss it. Also it's low key, but still draws stud riders... a good way to ease into a year of competing. For what it's worth, it's not my ideal race course. I've figured out that to be competitive I need a longer race and technical trails. This race is short; it's held in a tiny patch of woods that means the trail makes tight corners almost constantly, favoring hard-acclerating-riders; it's only mildly technical; and on Sunday it was raining and so was entirely covered in chocolate-icing mud.
My mountain bike racing strategy this year is to go out near the back (we're sent off in small waves) and eat up spots as the race grinds on. I'm now racing in the Cat 1 Open/Pro division, so anybody that outsprints me off the line is unlikely to screw up and slow me down (more like vice versa). Therefore I can afford to give up spots early in the race and follow my prefered strategy of grinding and attrition. However, this wouldn't work at O'Hill because it's a short race. The race started with a 10 meter straight sprint, a hard and wet left turn onto a short grass climb, and then entered the singletrack, where it would remain save for a short/steep grass hill to end each lap. I went out in 6th place. Good enough, because I wasn't stuck behind anybody slower than me. I'd ridden 1 lap on the course as part of my warmup, but given the mud and rain, kept the rest of my pre-ride on the roads. As such the fine bike handling regions of the brain hadn't fully engaged. I skated over the slick mud and crashed 3 minutes into the race. I lost 2 places and maybe 15 seconds - not a lot but places are hard to make up on this course.
By the end of lap 1 the relevant brain centers came online and my feel for the bike and the trail improved. I took stock of where on the course I could make up time: a flat balls-out straight near the beginning of the lap (but this was very short); the first slick grinding climb; and the steep grass hill at the end of the lap, the only place on the course with enough traction to hammer out of the saddle. The descents and the second singletrack climb were too sketchy for anything ambitious.
By lap 2 of 5 I'd closed some gaps in the forementioned stretches and made 2 or 3 passes. I wondered if the race would be long enough to make up more ground and get back into top-3 contention, which was my goal. In retrospect, I regret taking 10 seconds to remove my jacket on lap 2, because those seconds mattered at the finish.
At this point I should make clear that this course is FUN, and was especially fun today, in rain and mud that made every inch of the course treacherous, slow, and demanding of bike handling skills. I think most of us were smiling as we suffered. But this mud was a special kind of awful. Tires gunked up and floated, never getting purchase, neither on corners (2 wheel drift) nor on climbs (standing up on the pedals was impossible! Must keep all weight on the rear tire!); and it quickly filled the bikes' drivetrain, taking months off the life of all moving parts and slowing progress. But... it was fun as hell to ride in.
By lap 3, places 4/5/6 were tantalizingly close. I saw them just yards away where the trail bent back on itself. I made up ground on them on the climbs and maintained everywhere else. It's easy to say now but I think given another lap or two I could have eaten up a few more places. Those guys kept their composure and they stayed out of reach for laps 4 and 5. I finished 7th out of 14-ish starters in the Cat 1/Open race, 4 minutes off the winner in 1 hr 10 minutes. I sort-of-almost caught the 6th place guy on the grass climb to the finish, but he was strong, dammit. (Here those forementioned 10 seconds would have borne fruit.)
The UMass Bike Club did a great job again this year. They changed the course at the last minute and avoided most of the grass section because it would have literally sucked, and gave us a short, tight singletrack course that tested twitchy bike-handling skills above all else, making for an event with a unique suite of characteristics. And they didn't break us down into age groups, which I appreciate. This was my first race with the Laughing Dog team and we had a good showing, with Noah winning Cat 3 AND single speed, 2 races and 2 wins in one day. Speaking of Laughing Dog, they ensured my bike was in prime condition before I brutalized it during this race.
Most of my mountain bike racing this year is on courses that play more to my strengths and hopefully I'll make more of mark than I did today. There will be some trail/mountain running races too of course - 2 national championships, including both a familiar challenge and something brand new to me and long overdue, because the learning curve is the fun part.
Hot damn it's good to be racing again!