Monday, May 14, 2018


It's been a year since I won my age group at 2017 USAC Marathon Mountain Bike Nationals and I can say without a doubt that winning was one the most memorable experiences I've had and will stay with me forever. Just having the title and wearing the jersey changed my perspective. Wearing the jersey this past year represented more than just my ability to go fast. For without the support and infrastructure in place here in Omaha to learn and practice the sport, I wouldn't be where I am today as a mountain biker. I wore the jersey as a symbol of pride for not only the brands that support an aging racer, but more for the people who built the mountain bike "scene" and continue to keep it alive here and in all the places we ride. You are the ones that help make it possible for any racer to dream this big. Thank you.

The 2018 USAC Marathon Mountain Bike Nationals was another great adventure for me and all of our travel companions. Many of us had been training for this event specifically, putting in long training days in crap-tastic shoulder season weather. Spring was very late to join the party in Nebraska so trails and roads were either wet or ice covered well into March and April, thus limiting a lot of long rides to indoor sufferfests. So it was a bit disconcerting to say the least to find out the race-day temps were going to get into 80s. Most of us blue-bloods hadn't done any kind of hard efforts in that kind of weather so it was going to be a shocker to the system. 

The two weeks leading up to the race was stress-laiden. Fitting in race promoting, family time, training and working full time doesn't leave time to do much else. I don't know how he did it but Ryan managed to construct a wood bike rack to put inside a rented U-Haul so that the bikes were elevated to allow tents and wheels to be stored underneath. Never pulling anything with the new MTBLIMO, this was a new bit of learning and discovering how the Transit would handle the load. To Ryan's joy, it didn't give two F's that it was pulling a 2000 lb trailer containing another 500 lbs of gear. Unfortunately though, that wasn't enough to relieve Ryan's stress, which he took it out on a helpless gas pump late Thursday night in the middle of nowhere Missouri, giving it a couple punches b/c it wasn't pumping fast enough, nor printing his receipt. Needless to say, heckling about getting punched like a gas pump was quite popular the rest of the trip.

Our home-base for the duration was Bar-Fifty Guest Ranch, a small horse ranch about 20 minutes from the venue. Upon booking, I asked if they accepted non-horse rider types and since it was their off season, they were more than happy to welcome us dirtbags. We pulled into the ranch after lunch and met Marsha and Scott, the new owners. After unpacking and getting settled, we also met their barn cats, cattle dog, a few horses and two donkeys. The meadows were vast and full of birds and flowering trees. It was a nice little oasis for us city dwellers. 

Even though it was raining upon arrival, we still were able to ride a couple hours later to check out the trails. The track was as perfect and what little rain they were getting, by Sunday, it was only going to be better. I rode for an hour and most of the others rode for a bit longer. By the time we were all back to the van the rain was coming down a bit more so we headed back to the Ranch to clean up and relax before our home-cooked meal of real southern fried chicken, mashed potatoes, fresh buns and salad- all courtesy of Marsha and Scott. Such a treat and so convenient to not have to go into town. The rest of the night we spent listening to Ted's stories of bike lore (he's been racing a while) and trying not to sneak back into the kitchen for more chocolate cake that Marsha also made for us.

Saturday we were up early for another home-cooked meal of biscuits and gravy, eggs, taters and hash browns and of course bacon. Perfect grub to top off the calorie stores we'd be using the next day. We headed to the trail after breakfast to do some final recon riding and dialing in of bikes. Shim flew in from Omaha and met us there to ride. We brought his bike in the trailer so he wouldn't have to bring it on the flight. After a quick ride, we headed into town for lunch (yes, more eating), sitting outside a quaint cafe to enjoy the warmth of the day. On our way back we hit up liquor store for post-race celebrations. 

Back at the Ranch for the evening, I visited the horses and donkeys. It was quite therapeutic to be able to let go of the stress of the race and enjoy the tranquility of the ranch and beautiful animals. But surprisingly, I was quite calm going into this race. I'd done the work. Earlier this year, I overheard one of my teammates, a cyclo-cross world champion, say "train hard enough that when it's race time it'll seem easy (and more fun)". I understood what he meant and tried to put it into practice all spring. I was hitting record power numbers the week of the race in training and my mind was calm. I had the confidence of the jersey still with me. To add to the mind-body connection, I read the book Endure by Alex Hutchinson, a curious exploration into the science of endurance and in particular how to push beyond our own human capabilities. I put a sticker on my handle bars that said, "Shut Up Brain" to remind myself that my brain will tell me to slow down long before my legs will.

Per usual, I didn't sleep much that night. This is a pretty regular occurrence even when I'm not racing. The alarm went off before 5am but Ryan let me sleep a bit past five before rousing me (that meant I actually dozed off). He already had coffee brewing (such a sweetie) so I got up and got ready. Not long after the guys were following the smell of coffee in our room. Marsha was also up making us a to-go stash of breakfast burritos, bacon and coffee. When the mountain bikers find out about her...look out! We were on the road by 6am, cranking the stereo to get us amped. Upon arrival, Ryan (since he was the event announcer) got the OK to park in the pro-zone area next to the finish line and once parked, felt the need to pump EOB up with Beyonce's All the Single Ladies. So here it was 6:30 in the morning and we were already bringing the party. 

The Race

So far, so good. Everything was going smooth with no hiccups, until I turn on my Garmin to go warm up. No power data. Shit. 45 minutes to race time. I shot back to the pit and I replaced the battery. Still no data. I had only heart rate. I turned the computer on and off and still it wouldn't pick up my power meter. Well, nothing I can do about it now so I just turned off the power window screen and like I did at that last big race, just used heart rate and perceived exertion. No big deal. Old school. My mind was calm. I hit the loo one more time and as I was rolling around the start line area, I hear my name - time to line up I guess. I rolled up to the front, dead center. It wasn't til we were on course did I realize all the 40-44 and 45-49 were grouped together. I was late to roll call and just assumed it was all my age group which was why I went to the front. An official asked me my age-group so being at the front with the 40-44 must have been ok. Anyway, at the 1 minute warning, Ryan is wishing me luck. I locked my eyes on the edge of the parking lot. As the seconds tick down, I switched on the Garmin. On the GO I clicked right into my pedals, stood up and and after just a few pedal strokes I was at the front! As I crested the small rise in the road, a rider came around and sat right in front of me, which was fine with me. I stayed with her on the 90-degree turn onto the highway shoulder, which was also a slight downhill. Our pace was strong enough that I tucked into my frame and coasted the entire way down. The next turn was another 90-degree right hander. I could see another line forming to my left in order to take the turn wide. The woman in front of me began to slow as we approached the corner and I didn't want to get trapped so I yelled, Right Side! and cut the corner super hard, leaning the bike way over, which sling-shotted me about 3-4 bike lengths in front. Now I wasn't planning a flyer but I was so damn proud of that move that I just let the adrenaline kick take me up the next rise, which by then the rest of the group had caught up. After a couple more short rises the turn onto the dirt appeared. Not enough room to try another risky move, I took the turn responsibly and that's really where the race blew apart. The climbers were off the front, punishing everyone. I was probably top 10 going up the double track climb. By the time we reached the start of the main loop, I couldn't see much of the front (our calves were marked really dumb W or W1. 45-49 was W. From far away and legs moving, W and W1 weren't all that dissimilar.

Right away we were in the back of the masters men traffic. I didn't recall it being a problem last year but this year was totally different. I got in train of women who were hauling ass, one of them was on flat pedals and she had a bell and was ringing the shit out of that thing to try and get the dudes to let us pass. Sometimes they would but there were too many times where our nice request was met with acceleration so we had to become more stern, especially if it was two guys riding together. So annoying. I understand for mere organizational purposes all the guys go than the ladies but putting us behind the freaking 60-70 year olds is a joke. About 45 minutes in we start seeing the back of the 29-39 women. Abbey came into view and looking strong. She was by herself. The women I was with were going strong. We got up to Abbey. Two women went around on a climb and I stayed back but we caught back after one of them spun out on a corner and we went around. Then we caught a woman on a SS who had slowed just before a technical climb. When she turned to ask if anyone wanted by I stood up and went around all of them, up the climb. I could hear yelling and cussing behind me knowing that stair step climb was giving people some issues. I may have turned on the gas a bit after that but it wasn't long until I was caught by a couple of the W1s I had been with. They seemed to be getting faster or I was getting tired. Almost an hour in and I'm still in Zone 5 heart rate. We got behind two dudes who would not move out of the way. I probably lost a couple minutes easy b/c of all the traffic. Finally at the entrance of the feed zone half way through lap 1 a guy who had been in our way was taking his time, trying to find his feeder or whatever and finally I just told him to get the Fuck out of the way for fucking sake. Then I sped up to EOB, swapped bottles and took off. I was with the W1 ladies still and our flat pedaler was done. We thanked her for the pace and pushed on. It wasn't too far after that when I kinda started to fall off their pace. It was them I wished I had used a camelback so I could keep the fluids coming in faster. I kept on the gas, hoping to come up on a W. When I finally came out of the woods I shoved some jelly bellies down and a waffle. With 5 miles left of lap one, I had no idea where I was in the race in terms of placement so I finally settled in.

I got to the feed zone at the finish line and when I rode up to the tent there were two people in it who I didn't know. They were leaning on our coolers but moved off of them when I approached. It was puzzling. (Later I found out people were hiding from the hot sun anywhere they could, even if it wasn't their tent). I downed a 5hr energy, wiped my face with a cold rag and took off for lap 2. More traffic. As a single rider, I didn't have problems asking to pass. The second lap wasn't as eventful. We were more spread out and the heat of the day was taking its toll on people. I was among them but it was manageable. I just slowed down a tick but was still high Zone 4 heart rate and instead of putting down so much power, really tried to spin faster. Nothing really hurt. It was just the classic stomach issues I get when I go out hard and don't put the calories back in fast enough. When I got to Aid 2, I had EOB pour water on my neck. The water was so cold I lost my breath but it shot new life into me. 

The last ten miles of the race are a blur but I did manage to catch a W! She was someone I had passed at the start of the race on a descent but she had a great spin and could just pedal away up the climbs. I came up on her with another guy. I'd saw glimpses when the trail turned in on itself until I turned a corner and they both were getting off their bikes to walk up the stone steps. I yelled, "I'm riding this" and they both got to the side just in time, cheering me on. At the top my heart was pegged but I knew my fitness would allow it to come down within a few seconds so I soft pedaled a bit and then turned on the gas when the trail started to go down, knowing she wasn't going to do as well. Now when I say down, I mean down-ish. This was classic power riding, with ups and down and turn after turn. There were never any straight aways on the single track which is exactly my riding style. I loved it. I knew I could pedal hard into a corner and take it at speed. I was jumping kickers and just having too much fun. My Fox-32 fork was eating up the trail and the Super Fly was living by its namesake. I didn't see her again but I was running out of trail. I still didn't know what place I was in (should have asked EOB) so I just went on to try and bag me some Ws. I got passed by a couple of women from the younger group who I must have passed earlier. I passed a lot of dudes who were smoked, crawling up the hills. As I got close to the end, I saw that my time was way better than last year and that gave me a huge boost. My finish time last year was 4:47, this year it ended up being 4:31! But it was only good for 3rd, surprisingly. The course was faster this year for sure but so were two other riders; one was the woman I beat at the line last year and the other, I'm told, is a record-holding CX racer. Not too shabby of a result, I'd say.

I pulled into the finish area. Ryan called my name but made now indication that he knew me (so pro). I saw the crew hanging out in the tent but I wasn't ready to socialize. I needed to wind down so I pedaled around the parking lot a bit before finally getting off the bike. About 15 minutes later Abbey came in (the same time I did it last year - which put her 4th in the older age cat). She was the only one in her category so she won the National championship for 17-18 girls!!!!! 

During the podium presentations, I was thinking about all the work, all the training, all the reading and focused concentration was done yet I wasn't sad. 3rd in the nation, improved my time and nothing was broken. Life was purdy good at that moment, even while watching the winner get the Stars & Stripes  jersey. I'm really proud of my race. I didn't win but I've become okay with that. Yeah, it sounds really soft of me to say that but I KNOW what it's like to put on that jersey on a national stage. I know what it's like to feel the infusion of love of family and friends and a community after winning last year. Instead I was feeling genuinely happy that she too now knows how it feels. And why not? We're not professional racers. We're all just wanna-bees who dream of the chance to be the best racer on days when it really counts. Send out the good karma, right? Right. 

So of course, after a nice dip in the lake and loading up the van, food and drinks were on everyone's mind. We hit up the first Mexican place we saw that had an alcohol sign in the window. Didn't want to make that mistake again! Lots of laughs and stories, celebrating each other's accomplishment of finishing. Shim got 5th, Noah got 10th, Ted 11th, Mark had a better time than last year, Rafal didn't quit after a nasty crash and of course our Abbey, getting to put on the jersey! 

We continued the celebrations back at the ranch, even dragging a fire pit from a storage barn with permission from Marsha. I tried taking a nap after showering but instead I hung out with my new friend, Donkey. I told him all about my race and as long as I fed him grass, he was an attentive listener. I stared out at the land surrounding the ranch and to the forest beyond the meadows. For once, I didn't yearn to grab my bike to explore them. It was time to rest.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Don't Bet With Mother Nature - Ouachita Challenge 2018

If we would have believed the dim forecast near Hot Springs, AR, or let the defecting commenters on Facebook sway our minds, we would have skipped the 2018 Ouachita Challenge. 

Instead, we put our faith in Mother Nature and our fellow travel companion, Rafal the Polish Punisher, that maybe for once, he'd be right. All but one of us doubled down and hit the road for our first mountain bike race of the season and for some of us, the first tires to dirt this year. 

Unfortunately for Ryan (or should I say his competitors) he decided not to race. His deep chest cold wasn't going away and racing in potentially cold and wet weather was not the remedy he was looking for, so he shifted into support mode and needless to say (but I'm saying it anyway) it was the most chill I've seen him traveling to a race.

This was the maiden voyage for the #mtblimo with a group of people. We arranged the seats to accommodate two of the tallest racers we know and had room to spare. I think we made the right call buying the Ford Transit.

We went part-way to Bentonville Friday night, picking up Boo-Noah in KC, who had driven down from Des Moines. We arrived late in Walmart-town but the hotel was great and made for a good night's sleep. 

Towel Monkey

The morning was good times with waffles & Rafals.

We arrived at the perfect time to Big Brushy trail head to pre-ride. Most of the tour crowd had already been through so the trail was open for riding. We saw the usual suspects from KC. Ryan tried riding because you had to when it's 70 degrees out but it only confirmed his lungs didn't give a shit if it was springtime and the trails were dry. So while he rode back to the van, the rest of us put in some time dialing in the legs and what I thought was a working fork. More on that later.

After the pre-ride we hit up registration. Nobody was around so we got right in and out. Then it was time to head to the cabin, but knowing eating options were scarce I mentioned we should probably get something before going to the cabin. We went to a place I've been wanting to try b/c they claim they have the best burgers this side of Heaven, despite being a sketchy looking structure, half former gas station, half house. So we all put in or order for something fried with a side of fried and it was delicious. I know some were skeptical and I agree that OSHA probably hasn't ever been there, but like I say, Put Some South in My Mouth!


After lunch, we headed down the winding road to our cabin. It was nice. There isn't an abundance of places to stay near the racecourse but we scored with a cabin that was only 25 minutes away with enough room and beds for all of us, plus a nice yard and pond. It was close to the main street but other than that, it met all of our expectations for cabin life, complete with a friendly dog from next door who enjoyed resting on the deck with us. 

Race Day.

The weather was going to hold until later in the day so the goal was to finish before the rain. The start temps were in the 40s and it was only going to get into the 50s so I went with just arm warmers and wool layer under my summer kit. I took a camelbak since it wasn't going to be hot to ensure I'd drink regularly.

We got to the start finish around 6:40 after a delay trying to find Eyberg's computer which he did find but then didn't have his HR strap so he borrowed Ryan's. After a good warm up and got in line about 1/3 way from the front.

The start of this race is neutral for quite a while so one can continue warming up until the single track. The river crossing wasn't as deep this year (in fact none of the crossings were as deep as last year). It was still rushing over the road but at least we could see the road this time.

As we entered the single track the race stacked up per usual on a rock garden at the top of the first power climb. Two women were there, one on SS and the other geared so I made sure to keep them in site (the category is women open so all women are contenders). The SS rider was tough but didn't descend very smooth. She and the other woman were yo-yoing together until the geared rider had to dismount. Then it was me and the SS rider yo-yo-ing. We popped out of the single track at Big Brushy not really knowing our place. I was able to shove down some food before making my way to Blowout Mountain. I was feeling pretty good. Ryan was at the road crossing cheering me on saying we were 4th & 5th place. The SS rider was with me and asked to go ahead, which I let her do knowing it was going to get steep and rough quickly and I'd see her again. Which I did. I dismounted as soon as I could pedal efficiently and took to hike a biking. My trusty rubber-soled shoes were perfect for this situation. No slipping on carbon shoes! 

I eventually passed the SS rider and reeled in the 3rd place rider. We didn't exchange places but I pretty much glued myself to her hoping I'd wear her down, hoping I'd force her to go harder than she was wanting to or make a mistake. We came out of the trees together and into Simms where Ryan was waiting with a fuel-up and I took a much needed nature break. Whew! It's amazing how much better it feels when you're a liter lighter! Unfortunately, the seal was blown on my fork and from the look of it, it was staying down in it's travel. 

The good news I was through the most technical part of the course but I still had about 3 hours of rough riding ahead without much suspension in the front. Oh well, run what ya brung. That break dropped me back from the 3rd place rider and the SS rider caught me as I left Simms but with the open road section and more gears than she, I was able to drop her and catch the wheel of a lone dude. Once the road went up, I took a turn at the front and didn't look back. In the trees for a quick out and back, I found and passed 3rd place and upon the next gravel road connector, 2nd place was soon in my wake. 

Womble - an IMBA epic trail that starts out as flow and then just when you finish yelling "Wheee" for the 5th time, it turns into a never ending grind. Though not really technical, the fact that it just winds and winds in and out of the classic folds that make up the Ozark Mountains, your mind starts looking for the end sooner than it should. The good thing is my stomach was doing great and my legs were in their zone too. The bad news, I was on the front of a train that had the woman from the beginning of the race and she was riding well. Nobody asked to pass so I just held my pace. I didn't go faster than I wanted and nobody complained. I did mess up one switch back but I was back on the bike and no foul was called. Finally, we came out on the road. There were 3 guys and us two ladies. One of the guys asked if we wanted to work together on the gravel so I got in behind since I pulled everyone through Womble. When it was the other woman's turn, she attacked. It wasn't a huge attack but I had to answer so I kept her insight knowing there was still another short single track segment coming. We had to slow down to get our bracelets too so I was able to catch back on to her wheel. Once out of the trees though she used every tooth in her 52 or whatever to blow my doors off on the straights until she was out of sight for good. Well crap. The rain started too. Ryan had been at every station and had pulled around me on the road yelling my gap time. I still finished strong with the best time I've recorded there ever at 5:49. I gave 2nd place a high five and congrats on a strong battle. First place was another 20 minutes ahead of my time so wasn't even close. Not sure I'll ever win this event but I'll keep trying.

The guys all had great races as well. Eyberg tried tackling a tree but other than that, it was a great race for everyone - even Ryan, who true to his nature, had tunes blasting from the mtblimo at the last gravel climb and was giving everyone a push over the top. The day finished out with petting a baby goat, taking a hot shower and then devouring mounds of ribs in Hot Springs. That's doing things the Southern way if ever, right?! 

Back at the cabin, we rested a bit and watched horrible horror movies on TV. Then we forced ourselves outside and around the fire pit to properly end the evening looking at stars above while enjoying drinks below. It's as if Mother Nature had bet we would.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Great Escape - Palo Duro Canyon

I'd had enough. Enough winter. Enough gray skies. Enough wind. Enough cold, dark nights. Enough trainer rides and enough gym nights. Enough.

I had 5 days of vacation to use or lose and I wasn't losing nuttin' except maybe my sanity. I took to the interwebs for weather forecasts and searched for the warmest places within 12 hours drive. In fact, we even lowered our expectation to just be dry. Warm is relative but had it to be dry and sunny. For the love all mankind, there had to be sun somewhere.

RF: "Ever heard of Palo Duro Canyon?"
ME: "No. Is it dry and sunny?"
RF: "Yep."
ME: "Perfect. We're going...where is it?"
RF: "Texas."

Palo Duro Canyon: the 2nd deepest canyon in the U.S. But unlike the Grand Canyon, where one spends most of the time on the ledges looking down, at PDC, one goes into the canyon. It's also quite wide in the actual park boundary, with open meadows full of scrubby evergreen bushes and prickly pear cactus and yucca plants. It seemed more like western Colorodo, specifically like Fruita, with true single track that combined flat and rolling high speed sections on one side with much more technical rock drops and climbs on the other. Of the 26 miles of rideable trails, only a few sections were too steep to climb but that was due to it's proximity to the top of a high cliff. It really had trails for every kind of cross country rider. That's right. You'll have to pedal. This is still Texas after all.

Me and the hubs put the new #vanlife vehicle to the test. It was the first vamping excursion in the mtblimo and we were living in luxury. With lots more headroom (Ryan can almost stand full upright) and having more storage space, we could move around a lot easier. But we did find out one thing; our propane heater wasn't quite strong enough when the temps dipped into the single digits so we'll be making some upgrades. Overall it worked out amazingly.

We spent 4 nights in the canyon. Our campground was primitive but as long as I have a pot to piss in, I'm living large. But the crazy thing was the park put us right next to other campers even when there were plenty of empty sites AWAY from people. We didn't understand it. Then when we were the only ones left on Monday morning, by afternoon, there were new campers DIRECTLY ACROSS from us. There had to have been 20 sites open. It was an odd situation, but we did end up chatting with them and they were a lovely retired couple from North Carolina and even extended an invite to stay at their home and ride the famed trails around Pisgah and REEB Ranch! Schwing!

Our neighbors were not our only visitors in the campground. Every morning, a couple road runners would walk around the site, waiting for us to drop some scraps. I'd never seen one before and they're nothing like the cartoon version (meep, meep). 

And kid you not, there are scads of coyotes in the canyon so now we understand where the concept came from! We only saw 2 coyotes the whole time but man do they crap a lot. There was so much scat on the trails! Other birds began to show up too, like cardinals. We set out a bowl of water and suddenly there were a half dozen birds in our campsite.

With temps in the 50s-60s it was summer kit time! The winds were pretty high so we couldn't have a pit fire but it wasn't the end of the world. We'd get up with the sun and brew up some coffee and down some oats. Then we'd hang out a bit with the road runners and the cardinals before hitting the trails by 10 am and not returning until sometime in the mid afternoon. 

The first day we hit most of the trails to get a lay of the land. One side was easier than the other so by day 3 the harder side was harder still! We did manage to climb all the way up on top of the red rock cliffs via a popular hike & bike trail called Rock Garden. It gave us a great view of the valley but was gnarley going down. My favorite trail was actually on the easier side called Red's Rocks. It was a wide open trail that had some fun flow and technical outcroppings so we always had to stay aware but we could get up some good speed and get a little air here and there.

A few of the trails lead to some cool rock formations. 

The most famous is the Lighthouse Rock. We couldn't ride to it per se. We had to scramble up a deep crevice to get up onto the top of the mesa where the formation was. We didn't climb up on it but kinda wish we would have. The view from the ledge looking back was quite breath taking!

The canyon also had trails that got us close to the topography. It's crazy to get right up next to canyon walls that we usually only see from a distance. The colors and textures were amazing!

On the first day we discovered this little oasis stop along an out and back loop. Before we got there we stopped at at small steep hill with a winding trail and bench at the top. Of course I had to go up there. Looks like it was a favorite spot for someone pretty special.

At the oasis, there was a sign-in book. We signed it and on our second visit, left an R&R sticker on the stand. A little Briar Rabbit figure welcomed us to his patch.

By the last day we were cooked but we had to take advantage of the dry trails warm temps. The sky was a bit overcast but the wind had died down a bit. After our ride we celebrated with a long shower and a hike to the top of the rim for a sunset view. Though the sunset was blocked by clouds while up top, we were rewarded with a beautiful sky before the sun finally set. We spent the remainder of the evening chatting with our new friends and watching the moon light up the landscape at night. It was so bright we didn't even need head lamps!

For anyone wanting to escape the cold up north, Palo Duro was just what our hearts and minds needed. They have a cafe and trading post down in the canyon so you never need to leave. There are ancestral Texas long horns that live at the top when you enter. They are from a lineage of long horns that originated in the area. Though we didn't do it, visitors can zip line up top and ride horses. For a small canyon park, there was much eye candy and areas to explore. This could definitely be a place we get away to again in the future!