Friday, July 18, 2014

Big Mountain Enduro - Keystone Edition

"After stage 1, it's pretty much DH runs."

That's what Andy, our friend and host for the weekend, posted on Facebook about the stages at Keystone, the 3rd stop on the Big Mountain Enduro tour. He lives in Dillon with his delightful girlfriend Lauren, and rides Keystone Mountain Bike Park regularly enough that he owns a downhill bike, which he prefers to ride there. But because the Enduro format involves pedal sections and untimed uphill transitions, he will be racing on his trail bike. As are we.

None of this beta is new news to Ryan and I. We raced this event last year and got a crash course in DH style riding. (Pun intended). While Ryan caught the DH bug, I am still a wanna-be. I've taken camps and clinics to help stoke my inner shredder but she is pretty shy and has yet to fully reveal herself. Despite knowing the mountain better than we did last year, we were still nervy.

To help calm our nerves we did some practice runs on Friday. Our good buddy Todd Wixon was in CO on vacation and his wonderful wife let him come play with us for a while. Todd went and got himself a trail bike and was itching to see what magical powers it possessed. We did the first stage as a warm up, to get our car legs moving and to make sure the bikes were set up and functioning properly. The run was all blue and green trails with names like Girlscouts, Suz's Cruise, and Sleepy Hollow. These were tracks that we could do on our XC bikes if we had to, which made Andy cuss and me giddy. I could just do those runs all day and have a blast but that wasn't to be. The gnar was waiting for us.

We decided to practice stage 2 which had sections with names like TNT, Punk Rock, Sanitarium. All were black diamond trails with Sanitarium being a double black due to the raised corkscrew trail that was hiding in the pines, like a monster waiting for its victims. But before we could get to it, we had to go through Cowboy Up, a messy boulder field descent and Punk Rock, a rock garden that helped define the term. When we came up a couple weeks ago we learned the left side of Cowboy Up had been "tamed". I reveled in the news, even though Andy's face soured when he told us. I felt like Smeagol after he finally got the Ring of Power. But it was still a big bitch to ride, don't get me wrong. I was glad that there was a line for us mere mortals on tiny 6" bikes.

Punk Rock was a different rocky animal. The boulders were big (think ride over instead of through) and they were tightly packed so riding around them required some trials-riding skills and although doable, not a fast option when you're racing. We got there and of course had to unclip. We walked the section to study it. Then watched a bunch of skilled riders come through and see which rocks they rode over. I walked my bike back up the trail to give it a shot, all the while visualizing the rocks I needed to push myself over. The approach isn't smooth. There are smaller rocks that are momentum killers so by the time you get to the bigger ones, it's more about brute force than speed. And I did it. I was shocked. The bike didn't buck or anything. It was all very controlled and it freakin worked. I went up to do it again and I got off-line, cussing along the way. I had to unclip. I walked back up the trail again and told myself that if I get offline to keep going so that I have a plan B. I got offline. SOB! but I didn't unclip and found my plan B route for race day. 

We eventually came to Sanitarium. (Scroll down to photo #4.I took the line on the left). The approach is an elevated bridge, going down and across the ski slope where it transitions back onto single track for a couple pedal strokes to set you up for the 3 rail-road tie steps that are straight down the mountain. The only way I could do them was to buzz my back wheel with my butt and hope that I didn't keep going down after the third one. All went as planned and entered the trees and onto the elevated trail. It rose up a smidge and then turned down mountain, snaking twice to the right and then to the left. I told myself to focus way ahead and picture my tire knobs grabbing the chicken wire that covered the wood planks. I couldn't imagine doing this if it was wet. I made it down. Wixon wasn't having any of it. He was on the side. I did the same thing the first time I saw it. Coming from NE, this is extreme riding! At the end of the wood bridge the trail drops and turns and eventually spits you out at a pretty steep but rollable drop at the edge of the trees. I was glad to get through it all. But as the trail continued, it got droppier and rockier and I had to walk a bit. Not a big enough deal. If I had to walk it in the race, so be it. 

I think it was on this run that Ryan cut his beefy front tire. While he repaired it, we went back up to go try and ride Jam Rock, a ridiculous cliff that had multiple lines ranging from chicken to freak of nature. I stared at the line I thought I could do way too long and talked myself out of it. Ryan saw us on his way up so we waited for him. He wanted to practice his line because he didn't do it last year. And when he got there, he took one peak over the edge and came down as if he'd done it a million times. He was stoked. That would be a huge time bonus for the race b/c the ride around is quite long and out of the way. Unfortunately, the afternoon rains began, so we headed down the mountain. Todd took a different trail and we lost him for a bit. He ended up top hanging out with a good friend who was also there for the race. Ryan, Andy and myself headed into Dillon for a quick but tasty burrito lunch. When we came out, it was pouring rain. Dumping rain, actually. We decided to get registered and do all that stuff and by the time we did that, the rain had passed and we were able to do one more run. We topped the night off watching the latest Rad Company video to get us stoked for the day ahead.

RACE DAY 1 - Kind of a shit show.

We got to the venue early so we could get a good parking and also get in a run before they closed it down. It was on this run that I punctured my back tire. The sealant wasn't plugging it up enough for me to feel confident so I turned down the mountain and rode the ski run straight down to the nearest gravel road. It took forever, but I nursed the bike to the bottom. We decided to just get a new tire. The first shop was out so we went to a shop that wasn't on the main street of the resort. I scored a Maxxis Minion. I was so glad. Ryan totally took care of me and we were set for the day. Luckily our start times were much later than anticipated so that kept the stress to a minimum. Soon they were off to head up the mountain. I didn't feel like waiting around for 2 hours up top so I hung out at the van for a while until I started getting antsy and hot. I went up and not surprised, the line was long. I found the other ladies and hung out until it was our turn. The day was beautiful and the views were heavenly. As we got closer to go time, I started doing mini sprints on the service road to let my legs know it was time to wake up. 

The old lady category (Masters Women) were almost the last group, just before the juniors. The first stage was pretty tame compared to the rest, lots of pedaling but with a few technical features. I felt slow as a turtle. The bike felt good. The tire felt great but I was a dead log. I got down with no issues.

The format of Enduro is hurry up and wait, especially when it's all lift access. There's lots of milling about. And since we don't know what's happening with the start line up top, you just kinda guess when it's time to go up. It gives racers the opportunity to hang out with each other, stop by the event tents, eat take in the views and stew on the sections of the trail that are the scariest, like Sanitarium or Wild Thing, a double black diamond waterfall of railroad tie drops with boulders at the bottom of each. But I wasn't alone in my thoughts. The other ladies were asking each other if we were going to ride it or not. It was about 50/50.

Photos by the lovely Lauren at

I still had to get through the other parts of the track. Most of the 2nd run was black and double black with some blue transitions so you could shake your hands out. I got through Cowboy Up that fastest I've ever been able to and had a good head going into Punk Rock (got off line, but plan B worked!) and slid down Sanitarium without too much issue. Lauren, Andy's g-friend was taking photos of the race and was sitting just below the raised track and got some excellent shots. I shouted to her and continued on. I had to walk a couple steep, blown-out spots later on but it didn't take me too long. The rest of the course was blue runs, so no issues other than burning quads and lungs. Yay, altitude. I'm pretty sure I'm going to need to do squats like every day to get ready for Crested Butte!
Exiting Sanitarium. You can't see it but I'm smiling!
The final run of the day was where the sh*t hit the fan. The run was all blues until Wild Thing, which since I knew I'd have to walk that part, meant I had to hall ass up to and after it. Well, that was the plan. About 5 minutes into the run, I suddenly had no rear breaks. None. They went from on to off. Now most sane people would have stopped. Had I not been racing, I would have definitely stopped. I figured there was just a bubble in the line so pumped it a few times. I was out in an open section, across a ski run, so if it were to happen anywhere, that was the place. By the time I got back into the trees and technical trails, I was flying on just a front break, which is a recipe for disaster. I sat way back on the bike and feathered the break. I slowed down as much as I could in order to get down or over features. I thought I was in the clear until I wasn't. I rolled over two huge table tops, and as I exited the second one, the bike went out from under me and I hit the ground on my back side and slammed my head on the ground harder than I ever have. My legs were up mountain and the bike was on top of me. Nothing felt hurt so I popped right up, adrenaline rushing through my body. "I'm okay. I'm okay," I said inside my helmet. The bike's handle bars were all twisted around and I'm trying to mount the bike that way, freaking out a little. I told myself to calm down. I looked over the bike and everything was working. I untwisted the bars and jumped back on the bike. I still hadn't made it to Wild Thing yet and when I did, I walked everything, not wanting to risk anymore big falls. Needless to say, it was a long run but I rode some stuff without breaking, which is really how you're supposed to do it. ;) When I got down, I went immediately to the Shimano tent and asked for assistance. They were already shut down for the day. (Had I been a pro, they probably would have helped me out). I rolled over to the van where the group was waiting for me. When I told them what happened Ryan pointed to my rotor. The break pads and ejected from the bike completely. There wasn't anything there. Not the pad, not the screw that holds them in and not the safety pin that holds the screw, in case of, oh say, a catastrophic failure. I got mad props for coming down with just a front break but that didn't make me feel any better. In fact, as minutes passed, my tailbone and neck started to ache. The adrenaline obviously starting to wear off.

The break pads weren't having fun so decided to bail.

We all headed back to Lauren's house to change so we could go eat. I popped some IBU and tried to not wince when I got dressed and while standing at the restaurant, waiting for a table and while we were eating. As the night went on, the pain kept increasing and it was hard to sit. I must have landed on it first before throwing my head back and hitting the ground, thus causing mild whiplash. Now I know why some guys wear neck protection! When we finally got back to Lauren's, I laid on my stomach and put ice on my tail bone. That and more IBU was helping but my neck was pretty stiff. 

Come morning, I couldn't even lift my head off the pillow without using my hand and any use of my core resulted in a zing of pain shooting through my glute. Though I was uncomfortable, it wasn't too bad. The only thing that could keep me from racing was if it hurt to sit on the bike. As Andy and Lauren prepared breakfast, we went out to get the bikes ready. Ryan, at first, thought I had heated up the pistons and didn't think they'd go back in but using a special tool for this purpose, they popped back in. He put in a fresh set of pads and tested it. I was back in business. We just needed to pop by the Shimano tent to get some pins. After looking at both our bikes, none of the breaks had the safety pins! Not any more. 

RACE DAY 2 - Not exactly redemption.

The second day of racing was to be even harder than day one. Two of the courses had sections that I'm not payed well enough to attempt. One was Wild Thing again and the other was Jam Rock, that cliff-like section, which was part of the true downhill course at Keystone!

The first run was all of my favorite tracks. Yes, because I could ride them all! On one particular section of a track called Paid in Full, is a drop made of wood instead of wood to dirt because it's on a fault line. I only just learned to clear it two weeks ago. As I raced towards it, I told myself to square up and sight the edge. As I did this, I caught my 30-second rabbit there as she was trying to walk down the side of it right at the lip of the drop. I was like, well, I'm not going to stop so I yelled "rider back!" and luckily she heard me and got out of the way. I zipped down the drop and sped back into the trees. I was able to hold her off a bit but she caught back up. She was in a different class so it really didn't matter in terms of results, but ya still are racing no matter who it is! I made it down with no issues, although my fork suspension settings sucked. I noticed after the run when I crashed that I hadn't been using all of my travel. I thought I adjusted it correctly before the dropping in but it was still too harsh. I was getting pissed off so I walked over to the Fox tent and asked for some help. They politely assisted and I thought I was good to go for the next two runs.

The second run was short but would end with Jam Rock. I had been thinking about it since Friday, thinking I could possibly get down one of the lines but by the time I got to it, I talked myself out of it and went the big chicken route and then had to walk a bit more after. It was pretty humiliating but again, I wasn't alone. Many other girls expressed the same as we rode back up the mountain for the final run. Instead of finishing at the bottom of the mountain on stage 5, we finished part way and then rode a gravel service road (neutral transition) to the final run, which aside from Wild Thing, was pretty all doable for me. I even rode past the spot where I biffed the day before. Before the run, as I waited in line, I grabbed a twig and let some psi out of both my front and rear suspension. I wanted a comfy run. I was the dead last rider of the day to leave the start line. All went well. To my surprise, as I came out of the trees towards the bottom, I could hear Ryan yelling my name and people screaming. Many of the ladies and my friends were waiting for everyone to make it down safely. (You wouldn't see that in an XC race). High fives and hugs welcomed me as I came to a stop at the Dale's beer tent. Everyone was excited to be done and all in one piece. I felt like I was returning from the front lines, exhausted both mentally and physically and happy to just be alive. 

The rest of the afternoon was spent drinking and reveling about the weekend with all of the other racers. From pros to bros, we had all ridden the same courses and had all beat down our own doubts and demons to make it to the bottom six times over. Though some of us were less successful at it than others, it didn't matter. Each of us knew what the other had gone through, sharing a level of camaraderie, an unspoken understanding, requiring no explanation nor clarification. What may have sounded like bragging was more like uncontrolled excitement at the mere fact that we had raced down the face of a mountain multiple times, at crazy speeds, on mostly capable bikes; hurling ourselves up, over and onto rocks and roots; through mazes of trees inches from our handlebars; down loose and steep trails that dared us to not crash. 

In my eyes, everyone there was a winner.

Won back the $80 tire I had to buy!

Nick, Lauren, Andy and us

Ryan did amazing, placing 26th out of over 120 in his age group. 

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