Monday, October 12, 2015

Monarch Crest Enduro - Rough and Rowdy Riding

When we heard about this event several months ago, we took about two seconds to say hellz yeah! Why? Because it was a new race on new trails that we've been meaning to get after for years. We drive over Monarch Pass every time we go to Gunnison or Crested Butte, gazing wildly at the high alpine, wondering what trails lay beyond the gift store parking lot on Monarch Pass. Now we know. (And you should too).

The Monarch Crest Enduro promised 3 days and 5 stages of massive elevation loss and some gain. Is it too soon to say the promoter approached it old school? They published the tracks so anyone could practice, they said ride any bike anytime, change out parts, whatever - just come race! They promised free beer (check), free food (check) and shuttle service (check). This was not a lift accessed bike park event. This was as back-country as you can get (within safety and forest service allowances of course) which is the main reason we didn't hesitate to sign up. When we pay big money, take time off work and go a long distance, we want an adventure. The MCE gave us that and more!

After almost finishing pimping the MTB WAGN, we grabbed the Todds and the Proper Asian and hit the highway late after work on Wed. We bedded down in good ol' Ogallala so we could partake in our regular stop for Jesus burritos and the Lamp Post coffee shop. By early afternoon we pulled into Salida and to our home away from home. Salida is a classic, slow cowboy town with many local art galleries and the house was a mini gallery of sorts. Lots of fun eye candy and a private backyard and full garage to get our bike shop on. 

We were a ride away from downtown so we unloaded and road a few blocks for some awesome local 'za and then hit up registration at Rivers Edge/Absolute Bikes. The promoter, former Omaha native (and Westside grad '82) Keith Darner, gave an inspiring talk about what to expect how to prepare. Beer flowed freely. We saw folks from other Colorado races we've done and not doing any of the other gravity focused events this year, it was good to see some friendly faces and as always happens at these races, meeting many new ones.

Starting the weekend out right!

DAY 1 
Stage 1 - Starvation Creek dropping some 2000 feet in a little over 4 miles.
Stage 2 - Silver Creek dropped just under 2000 feet in roughly 4.5 miles

Starvation Creek
Silver Creek 
The start of the day was perfect. Summer kit with a wind vest and all my Geoform armor was all that was needed. We took a transfer shuttle to stage one where we had to ride just a tad to the starting gate. 

Early start means eating on the shuttle ride.

The only thing I did to get ready were a few squat jumps to get the legs ready to burn. When you live at sea level sitting in a squat position for over 20 seconds is rare. Now do it for twenty minutes. Yeah, searing pain but a good kind. Starvation was a gorgeous ribbon of trail that pumped up and down a creek bed. The fall colors were starting to pop. I couldn't look around much but I could see the gold all around. I really wasn't on my game that run. This was the first time on my new PIKE fork so I was kinda testing the suspension, um, at speed. There were some pedaly bits and I never felt like I would fall to my death. It was a hard ride but a good first track for those of us just getting our legs under us.

All morning, we kept hearing all about the shitty, long and relentless climb up to Stage 2, Silver Creek Trail. Well, it was long and relentless, but shitty? Hardly. It was all on wide double track service roads and the grade wasn't even enough to force us to walk. And with golden leaves falling like autumn snow and the sound of a bubbling creek constant, us low-landers were in bike heaven. 

Golden canopy of happiness!
Stage two, Silver Creek, was a bit of the same but with some additional rock out croppings and some crazy rock slides that you had to stay on top of else it was like walking on, well, a rock slide. I felt a bit better on that track and it was faster too. Aside from one stupid 45 degreee turn, it was a blast and I'd shuttle that shit all day! The Remedy was waking up! 

Photo Credit: Pink Bike
After Day one, I was happy to see I wasn't last. Blind racing on terrain is not part of my DNA. It's really hard. Especially for someone who's cautious like me and has control issues. Letting go (of the brakes) doesn't come naturally so I have to force myself to commit. Yay, head games.

That night we hit up the promised beer and buffet back at Rivers Edge. Pulled pork sammies? Sign me up! The rest of the night was spent dialing in bikes and preparing for the weekend's longest day.

Stage 3 - Canyon Creek dropped 4400 feet in over 10 miles!

You know how people thought the transfer between stages 1 and 2 sucked? They must have really had a hard time on day 2! Our shuttle was over an hour and then we had another 2-3 hours to pedal, hike and drag our asses and our bikes up to Granite Mountain's peak at over 12,500 feet. Blue bird skies blessed this day else there would have been some bailouts for sure. Not long into the ride, the promoter was handing out bacon to the riders. Unfortunately when I got there, they dropped a plate of them in the dirt and wouldn't serve them. What happened to the 5 second rule!!! 

Photo Credit: Pink Bike

Like everyone warned, it took somewhere between 2-3 hours to get to the top. About 1000-1500 below, I changed into my armor because from the looks of it, there wasn't going to be any barrier from the elements at that height. I dove into some trees and put on my armored shorts and then the rest of the ensemble trail side. The effort to get to the top was herculean. Like in previous races in Crested Butte, this was a track we wouldn't have done on our own. It was stupid steep. My bike became a carbon walking stick. At times I had to get off the trail because the rocks were more loose than the ground next to it. Switchbacks after switchbacks offered even more challenge as they were generally more rocky and steeper than the trails before and after. Towards the top it was steep enough that I could look straight up and see people above me. At one point, we could still see the moon in the sky. Finally on top, there was no hiding. In order to pee, you either mooned a couple people or everyone. The view was breathtaking (of the mountains, not moons). This was my and Ryan's 6th anniversary. And we were at the top of a mountain. Seriously, people, does it get much better?

Yes, actually.

You know the saying, what goes up must come down. After a couple hits off Wixon's sipper of vodka and Redbull it was go time. All the ladies lined up together so we wouldn't have as many dudes running into us. (Well, most of us :) We were told the pros would finish in 30ish minutes or more. That meant for someone like me, who knew, 60 minutes? The start was wide open, treeless terrain. The trail was cupped and we were told to watch for sniper rocks that would be in the trail ready to catch a pedal. That's all I thought about. Avoid the snipers. About 500 yards in, the trail went up slightly for 50 yards or so. I stood up but my lungs said no, no, no. So I sat and mashed at 12,000 feet. I turned a corner and the earth disappeared to my left. All I had to do was get down the narrow ribbon of death that lay before me. I really should call it the ribbon of life cuz that was the only way to get down alive. 

Photo credit: Pink Bike
Once down from the top, the exposure was minimal. The rest of the descent, which if you ask anyone, will be the same: blur, blur, blur oh shit! rocky section blur blur blur oh shit! fuck! hold on, blur blur blur, thank you God, blur blur blur how deep is this fucking water crossing blur blur blur camp ground, where the fuck am I?, blur blur blur, where is this rock wall? is it over yet? blur blur blur, oh thank god a trail marker, where is the fucking end? another water crossing? rock wall, fuck it I'm walking, I can't feel my hands, another marker, gotta be close, blur blur blur, seriously, where is the end, oh thank god the end! THAT WAS THE BEST THING EVER. CAN WE DO IT AGAIN?

I think something happens when mountain bikers get up to that elevation. The lack of oxygen instead of saying danger, danger, says total awesomeness ahead and we think we are super heros blasting down to earth. 

Yes, it was one of the most intense riding experiences I've ever had. Not stopping for 48 minutes is a long time! I've raced longer down the Whole Enchilada but this was different. The pure steepness kept us on the gas. I had to sit on the flatter sections so I could get feeling back in my trailing leg. (Again, seated squats. I know what I'm doing in the gym this winter!) Ryan said he lost feeling in his hands due to arm pump. He couldn't break nor hit his dropper post button easily. Adam yard sailed at some point. The Todds were just out of gas by the end, just like everyone. Nobody does that kind of riding regularly at race speed. It was kind of an equalizer. And it kicked major ass! 

The ride back to the van was a hoot. 2-3 miles of open gravel roads. We were probably hitting like 30-40 mph and smiling like a bunch of hooligans. What a ride. What a day. It was a night for celebration for sure. We found a local Mexican restaurant and ate our weight in chips and quac. Glasses clinked to a day of amazing experiences and a marriage of equal measure. We were in the moment, living a large and graced life.

DAY 3 
Stage 4 - Greens, dropped 3014 feet in roughly 6-7 mles
Stage 5 - Fooses Trail, dropped 2850 in about 7-8 miles

We arrived at around the time we thought we'd need to get on the last shuttle, after the pros. Well, we were literally the last people so we got to ride up with Keith in his SUV to the first stage. In the parking lot of the Monarch Pass gift shop I thought, I finally get to find out what's in back of the behind. Our bikes had gone up before us and when we arrived, they were propped up against the shuttle trailer. Being last of the last does mess with your brain. You have this hurry up mind-set and you can get panicky. It was important to stay calm and collected.

Until it starts to fucking snow. 

Ok, no big deal, I put on my rain jacket. Stop. Pull it out, people passing, including my riding buddies, husband, etc. I'll catch up in a second....
The snow is coming down harder now. It's sticking. Ok, no big deal. Now we can see "the line", I thought. 

Ryan is stopped up ahead next to a tree putting on gear. It was a solid 7 mile undulating ride to the start line from the drop off. We were at about mile 4 so I decided to put on all of my armor in case the weather got worse. They work as great insulators. Ryan headed up the trail. I had to take off all of my layers to put on my armor. Luckily it wasn't that cold or windy. After I put on all my upper body stuff, I started on my legs. Shoes off, hopping on one foot I tried to get my shin guard on but it won't go over my calf. Fuck, I put my shin guard on my elbow (they all look the same)! So I have to take off ALL of my layers AGAIN and swap out pads. I'm thinking, don't panic, things are fine. Adam rolled up during my clothing swap and he did the same. When he was ready, we continued on. Up and down, up and down. Where the hell is the start? The tracks were starting to get covered up with new snow and it was slippery! At about 6.5 miles in, after descending a few hundred feet, I start questioning if we missed a turn somewhere. He didn't think so, so we kept on and just as we came over a rise, we could see bikes across a meadow. Whew! And there was a shelter and a FIRE!!! Adam was so happy. His poor toes were numb. When we got there, only our crew was left to drop in. There was a light layer of wet snow everywhere. It was spitting rain. The rocks were black and angry looking. 

Photo Credit Sienna Martin

I said a little prayer, and dropped in. Adam was still getting feeling back in his feet. We were told this was a rowdy little bitch of a trail. Relentless, they said. Chunky. Roots at all angles ready to take you out. Well, those were all accurate statements about Green's trail. I have no idea to this day how I didn't yard sale it 20 times down that track. All I have to say is Maxxis Minions for the win! I didn't ride that track. More like I skidded, sledded, swerved, and slid every which way. My back end was sideways more than once and I had a few outloud PTL moments (praise the lord) when I made it through a sketchy section. There was one part where I had a flashback to several years ago when I drove myself into a tree a broke my clavicle in South Dakota. A similar situation happened on this run where, on a very flat transition to a short power climb, my tires hooked up in some really soft soil and the bike became possessed. For a few fleeting moments I couldn't steer and was heading for a very large tree. I super-manned it across the entire width of a double track section, off the trail and thank the lord almighty that I landed between two trees. I didn't know if I should get up and quit right there for living or keep going. Adrenaline kicked in big time and I ran my bike up the climb and hopped back on. For the rest of the race, it was fast and crazy. The sun came out at some point and the trail started to dry out. We ended on a thin bench cut ribbon next to a creek. When I popped out 30 minutes after I dropped in, I was so happy to be all in one piece and shocked that my bike was still in working order as well. That run could have gone bad at any turn but it didn't and I felt like I had won the damn World Cup.

We didn't have time to waste. We still had to get shuttled back up to the Pass for the last run. The van was waiting for us. Racers inside had shoes off, trying to dry them against the heaters. Not much chatter during the ride. People were f-ing exhausted for sure, but in a good way. Food was being consumed and most were just trying to rest. 

Up at the drop-off, Adam called it a day. He said he was too tired and getting too sloppy and didn't feel safe to continue. It was hard to leave him but only he could make that decision. We rode back up the same route. The sun was out now and the wind was howling. I was alone and in the moment. I stopped a few times to take one last look around. Amazed at the days past and present. And the same track was dry as a bone. You wouldn't have known it just snowed a couple hours ago.

We came to the start shoot. It was very windy and cold. Not a place to linger. The shoot down Fooses was no joke. Fault-line trail full of baseball sized rocks. 

I dropped in, sitting on my back wheel, surfing down the chute. I got hung up a couple times and had to stop. Not an easy thing to do on steep terrain. I got down the chute safely and continued on. It was dryer than Greens but rowdy none the less. It did flatten out for a bit towards the end so I was able to put it into a bigger gear and stand up a few times. I got passed by a few riders who caught me but I didn't care. I just kept telling myself positive reinforcements and to just get the hell off this mountain in one piece.

Soon into this stage, I was one with the pain in my back leg. The searing burn was just that, a pain. It didn't stop me from continuing. I had accepted it as part of my current state. Once I did that, it was less of a concern so I could focus on the trail and keep the rubber side down. 

I was tingling with happiness when I saw that last finish line 30 minutes later. One more high speed gravel ride down to the van and our adventure was over. We were all on such a high I was worried one of us would case it down the gravel road. But we made it just fine. 

Upon arrival back at the bike shop, we were dirty, beyond exhausted and kinda sad it was all over. We had taken so long that most of the racers were already cleaned up and partaking in the post-race festivities. Since the awards ceremony was coming up, we just decided to stay, dirty race clothes and all. We called Adam and told him to get his ass to the restaurant cuz it was time to eat and drink all the free beer. And we did. Mounds of fries and pints of beer were consumed before, during and after the awards ceremony. I think Wixon had at least 8 before the night was over. I got called up for women 40+. Though I was a lone soldier in my category, it was still pretty rad to be up there, knowing I had finished all of it, just like the fast chicks. 

Photo Credit: Pink Bike

I went back up one more time when I won a raffle prize. Eyberg got called up first and he took home the biggest prize up there, a set of wheels (not his size, though). It was fun to watch him try riding back with those things.

Back at the ranch the after party began. Wixon was a drum machine away from starting a rave. The rest of us watched and burned wood on the pit fire. So much radness. So much gratitude for what we all just achieved. We pushed ourselves out of our comfort zones time after time and we all came out better, more experienced riders. That to me is winning at life. To heck with the race.


Friday, August 14, 2015

Day 3 of Larry's Big Bike Birthday Trip - Wheeler or Bust

One thing we promised Larry - his birthday trip would be epic with a side of epic. I don't know if it's the altitude or the promise of new eye-candy but the idea of riding up and over Wheeler Pass after a race day was either going to be the ultimate test or the ultimate disaster. Almost as much climbing as descending, we'd have to pay to play but that's Colorado riding. You go up to come down. 

The beginning of the route was a new one for RnR. We've been up there via different routes but Ryan was wanting to explore it from the south and fair warning, there was going to be some steep hike a bikes. We invited my coach, Fastcat Racing's Jason Hilimier, who lives in Boulder, and is always up for long days on the bike when time allows. Sometime between 7-8am the van was locked and loaded and we were off. April and Jenny were riding Peaks Trail with Andy and Lauren. It's a trail between Breckenridge and Frisco and the plan was we would descend Peaks into Frisco and then someone would take Ryan to go fetch the van. Another thing about adventuring in Colorado: you have to be flexible because plans can change. Quickly.

Packed for a full day in the saddle, we started our way up. We had to cross a low creek only a few yards away from the van. Crap! Wet feet. Boo! The trail was a dirt 4wd road that went on and up. Nothing too crazy technical. Just demanding at sub 10,000 ft. This was the climb before the climb, by the way.

After maybe less than an hour, we found the Wheeler trail head and up the only option. For the next couple of hours we mainly walked our bikes. There were a few fun descents for sure or flowy sections but if you asked me what I remember most about that day I'd have to say the shear altitude gain and that most of it was on foot. It wasn't so bad until we got up into the clouds. The trail was wet, very steep and the temperature was dropping with every 1000 feet gained. By the time I made it to the next intersection (I was last in the group) it was decided that we would have to turn around. The rain clouds weren't simply passing by and we still had several miles of climbing to do. Jason was shivering b/c he only had a windbreaker and everyone's fingers were getting cold from the rain and wind. It was a no brainer. We put on more layers and went back the way we came. 

The descent was kinda scary. Some of us had to take it easy as it was not something we were used to riding. We got to an intersection and waited for Larry. And waited. And waited. Finally he appeared, declaring he had crashed and had gone off the mountain! He was OK but knew it could have been way worse. We took it pretty easy until we got to more level ground. Instead of heading all the way back to the van on the steep trail, we rode a wide 4wd trail, Boreas Trail. It was one whoot'nhoot'n good time. Fast and wide open with lots of rocks and roots and just a freaking riot! I'd gladly pay to get shuttled up that for a day. Seriously good times. As we got closer to town, Eyberg got a flat. More standing around made for colder bones. Jason was down at the bottom of a hill with his knees tucked under his jacket, rocking back and forth. We needed to get him inside pronto. We finally popped back into civilization on the south end of Breck and went straight for Clint's Bakery for some hot coffee and food. With everyone inside, Ryan and I, guarding the bikes, made plans to get the van but then something awesome happened. Once everyone had a chance to warm up and caffeinate, they were ready to go out for more. We stuck to the original plan of riding Peak's Trail back to Frisco. That trail never gets old. So much awesome. And as we pulled into town, April and Jenni just happened to be walking by. We continued on to the condo. The sun had come out finally so we all sat in the driveway warming up. I brought out the chips and salsa and everyone enjoyed some beverages, glad to be back, safe and sound.

Despite the setbacks with the weather and not being able to ride the planned route, we still made the best of it and everyone had fun. When Ryan went to get the van, he brought back pizza from a place in Dillon. I think we ate our weight in dough, only to top it off with ice cream sandwiches using chocolate chip cookies Jenny brought (one of the many surprises for Larry - it's one of his favorite treats). With a gut full of beer, pizza and ice cream, going to sleep wasn't an issue. 

The next day we packed up and headed down to Crested Butte for the second leg of the trip. We added Wixon and EOB would be joining us as well. Nine friends in the Colorado backcountry - a formula for shenanigans of epic proportions!