Friday, May 29, 2015

Growling and Grinding in Gunnison - Part 1

Powderpuff Power! 

The Gunnison Half Growler (1 mi = 1 oz) give or take an ounce was my first true A race this season. All of my efforts during winter trainer rides, gym work outs and airport intervals were powered by the hope of getting higher up on the podium at this race in Gunnison, Colorado. I’ve bagged 6th place and 4th place in my age-group respectively, the only two times I’ve raced this event and I knew I could do better. The race swaps directions every year and I knew I’d do better than 6th and had a pretty good feeling I could podium. I was mentally ready (in other words, so done riding my road bike) and feeling strong. I’d recorded a personal best in 20 second power the week leading up to the race. Yeah, I was ready to smash and mash the Hartman Rocks course into oblivion.

The MTB Wagon and one other car was at capacity; eight racers, each with their own reason for being there. From first timer, to just wanting to finish respectfully, to improving last year’s time, to world domination, we all had our own definitions of victory. But the trip was missing something. Two things, actually. Our good friends, Todd and April Eyberg had to sit this trip out. After an on-the-job accident with a power saw, Todd lost part of one of his fingers and they were waiting to see if the attempt to reattach it was going to take. That meant no riding period. We wanted to make sure he was feeling the love so we told him to come by and see us off. We knew seeing photos of us ripping it up in the mountains would bum him out so we gave him a few toys to play with that he could do one-handed: a paddle ball, a yo-yo, a set of zombie finger puppets and of course a tall can of Guinness. But there would be more… 

Can you guess which finger was cut off?

The drive was entertaining. When KGill wasn’t slinging sarcastic sentiments, EOB was sighing and using creative reasoning to defend his cycling fitness in an effort to keep him from thumbing for a ride back to Omaha from every truck stop. Poor Amy was coughing up a lung between LJK (Larry) and Mark Sullivan. I think you could’ve handed Mark a rabid badger and he still wouldn’t have stopped smiling. He’s been stoked on this trip since he signed up last December. A roadie at heart, he’d say, but with a dirt-eating grin. Adam and Jenni Stoll were in their car behind us, surely contemplating the topics of the MTB Wagon.

That night, we made good time to the Super 8 in Ogallala. The next morning, we revisited a little coffee shop in the tiny downtown that we discovered last year; advice of the little old lady who ran the motel cafeteria. It was also a Christian bookstore and bakery. And being in a small Western Nebraska town, they served breakfast burritos. Because everyone knows, Jesus loves breakfast burritos. 

By mid morning, we reached the edge of Denver and were greeted with grey skies and no mountain views. We skirted south on 285, past Red Rocks and through Baily. Glimpses of the mountains in the far distance showed signs of recent snow fall and we knew there’d be no riding in Crested Butte the day after the Growler. Coming down Kenosha Pass, the wide valley told the story that winter had not let go of this part of the country. Though the valley floors only had a dusting, the high peaks had fresh dollops of snow. We all hoped we brought enough layers.

By 1 p.m. we made it to our favorite road-side Thai place, Mimi’s Cafe, where we stopped for lunch. Usually we eat outside, but not that day. The pissing rain forced us indoors. It’s such an oddity but so good. Bringing newbies there is always fun because the food is really good and is so unexpected.

Eric making sure Todd was represented.

Finally we made it to Gunnison. The roads were dry but the sky was warning us of things to come. We dumped our gear at the condo and rode our bikes up to the course to show the new racers Kill Hill. After a moment to get our breath under control and take a memorial photo for Todd’s finger, we continued on for a couple more miles to the hole-shot. The track was super dusty and loose in the corners. But at least it was dry. We turned around after just a few pedal strokes into the single track and exited via Collar Bone, a roller-coaster section with high sides and deep g-outs that would be the end of the race course. We wanted everyone to ride it so that when they got there after many hours of racing, they would have a sense of familiarity and confidence. At the end of the trail was the timing trailer so this year, it would end at the parking lot at Hartman instead of back in town. Yay. We saw our friends Terry and Julie Higgins from Kansas City making their way up Kill Hill - more midwesterners taking on the Growler!

That night, we did what we always do, eat and prepare for a day on the bike. I had decided, in my quest to be on the podium, to wear a hydration pack and carry two bottles, so I wouldn’t have to stop. I laid out everything I was going to need on the bedroom floor so I wouldn’t forget it. See, I had left my heart rate strap at home and figured I’d just buy a new one for the race. When we arrived at the condo, the owner was there cleaning out the garage so we could fit our bikes inside (so nice!) and she handed me a new Garmin heart rate strap asking me if I wanted it. Helz, yeah! How’d you know? An angel was watching over me, I guessed.

Race morning was nervy. Everyone was talking about the window-shuttering thunderstorm that blew through. Huh? I’m like the lightest sleeper I know and I didn’t hear squat. My ear plugs worked quite well, obviously. Ryan didn’t hear it either but I guess it was the mother of all thunderstorms with lightning and rumbling thunder. I’m glad I didn’t hear it else I would’ve stressed it all night long and probably never gotten any sleep. Then our oats wouldn’t cook on the stove and everyone was needing to eat. Kinda stressful but we managed things and were all riding up and down the street by 8 am to get warmed up. I did a few high-cadence drills to spike the heart rate. It was chilly and cloudy with some breaks in the clouds. By race-time it was in the fifties so I decided full summer kit but with a wool base layer. I brought my wind jacket just as a precaution.

We all rode up to the start line a few blocks away. Music was blaring and everyone was milling about. Larry and I got up about 10 rows back to stake our spot. One last potty break and a chance meeting with Deb Prellar, the woman I met doing the BME series, who had moved to Colorado from Washington State. It was great to see her on the line!

I'm directly under the left stop light.

Soon the gun went off and the buzz of 600 knobby tires filled the air. Fans lined the streets as we were escorted by police through the town, across the highway and onto the paved road up to Hartman Rocks. Maybe 5 minutes in, some jack hole braked so hard he went sideways and almost took out everyone around him. It was pretty calm after that until we hit the strait away to the course entrance. The pre-race pep talk warned us of muddy, rutty roads due to the thunderstorm. Little did we “outsiders” know how muddy. Let me try to explain: how about sticky cookie-dough made with cement glue. The ruts were deep and the mud was thick. I took a very wide line, in the grass to avoid some of the deepest muck. That saved me. People were already pulling over to clean their drive trains. Come on Powderpuff! We’ve been through worse! Kill Hill was next. It was very wet, sandy mud. I had to sit back on my saddle to apply pressure enough to keep the tire from spinning out, much like putting sand bags in the back of a rear-wheel drive truck. At first I though my freewheel was going but it was the slippery slope. I stayed to the left, as it was smoother. I didn’t want to get on the edge in case the mud would force me into the guard rail or into someone else. I wanted to make sure I had room on both sides to maneuver as necessary. Mark and Larry were up with me. I could see a few women too but not many. We managed to make it to the top without unclipping or sliding out. I took a few breaths, a few gulps and it was me a Powderpuff against the world! 

But as much as I wanted to blast off, the road had turned into a wet beach, making it feel like I was riding on a flat tire. It took extra power to keep a good pace. Wide, deep puddles forced us off the road at times. The air was thick with the scent of sage. I finally reached the hole-shot. The single track was gloriously tacky. I flew over the whoops and down to the first climb. I got stuck behind a tall rider who didn’t want to descend as fast as I wanted him to. At my first possible chance, I passed him up. The next section of single track was tacky and slimy. I slid around some parts and mashed through others. Everyone was just trying to stay up-right and then make up time on the open roads. It was a power show-down. I eventually found myself around Larry who was riding smooth. Suddenly I started seeing white pellets hit the ground and before we knew it we were racing in a stinging hail storm. It was then that I had wished I kept my arm warmers on! Ouchy! 

About 1.5 hours into the race, we came up onto a road they call Powerline and Dave Wiens, Mr. Leadville himself, was up there asking riders to walk. The ground was made of the stuff of mountain biker nightmares; derailleur sucking muck that stuck to everything. I first tried riding. Then when my back wheel quit spinning due to all of the mud packing up into the frame. I jumped off and tried running. The bike was 50 pounds. I slung off some of the mud and then sat on the top tube and surfed the next few feet to the bottom of the hill. Just as I was getting off the road I hear Ryan yelling like a wild man and flying down the hill like it was loamy singletrack. He recently had sold his race bike and was doing this event on his long-travel aluminum Remedy and was killing it. I was so proud. He hit the bottom of the hill and flew up the other side. Eventually I caught him as he ushered everyone by, looking stoked. My drive train sounded HORRIBLE! The sandy mud, mixed with the water crossings, had stripped the chain clean of any lube. It creaked and moaned with every pedal stroke. Shifting was iffy and my shoes wouldn’t clip in right away. Man, it was going to be a long, long day! 

Once I got going, I caught up to Adam, who was also on his long-travel bike and having a good run so far. His technical riding prowess kept him pretty far up in standings at that point and I was happy to ride his wheel on a couple of the descents. Once the trail went up, he pulled over so that I could catch a woman who was just ahead of him. We went back and forth for a bit but was able to shake her after the next technical section. That was around mile 17 or so. Half way!

Photo by Dave Kozlowski - Top of the World
The rest of the race was a mix of super fun and super painful. Hartman Rocks put it to us. I do think I prefer this direction, however, every time I thought I was done with the climbing, I'd turn a corner and saw many a racer above me. I recall riding The Ridge climb last year but this year, not so much. First I caught my pedal on a rock and it tipped me over the edge of the trail, sending me toppling. I was saved by a large sage bush but it gave me a good slice around my ankle. Larry was right there. I tried to let him and another go ahead but he was good where he was. I soldiered on. Up and up and over and up and off the bike and walking walking and pedal striking my leg and riding and up and over, WHERE IS THE TOP OF THIS THING! Last year I arrived at the Top of the World trail ON my bike. This year, I arrived on foot. A few ladies had passed just before this section and then a couple more after. I was making dumb line decisions and getting hung up and then started doubting my skills and well, I kinda started falling apart. But I held it together long enough to cross the line in 4th place in 40-49 and 11th overall. So close. I was kinda bummed but considering the conditions and all, it wasn't really so bad. 

Within minutes, Larry came flying down the finishing shoot and then Adam and then Mark. Yeah, Mr. Roadie. So stoked. Ryan wasn't much farther back after that. The mood was light. Lots of crazy battle stories and high fives and stoking each other. My favorite part was when Dave Wiens came over to our group. Mark was star struck and I told him to ask Dave for a photo. Because Dave is that kind of guy, he graciously posed for the photo and asked Mark about his race and was genuinely excited for him. He thanked us for bringing so many friends so far and apologized for the weather. Yeah, Dave, can ya do something about that next time? Sheesh.

We hung out for a little while and then headed back as it was starting to get very windy and we were cooling off. We cruised into town for our complimentary post-race party. I got another coffee mug instead of the growler. We chowed down on some curry chicken and free beer. The wind was really whipping so we headed back to the house to get some more layers on. We didn't stay long though, feeling we needed to get back to the house to get warm and start dinner prep. Pastor tacos all the way from South Omaha! We spent the rest of the night hashing over the race, each of us with our own battles. Despite the conditions, everyone came in and all bikes and body parts (minus some skin) were accounted for. EOB killed his time from last year by 30 minutes. Amy, sick with upper respiratory issues, beat her old time by 20 minutes. Mark was blown away at the sheer epicness of it all and surprised himself at a decent finish. Kevin donated some skin to the course, nearly missing a collarbone break (you should see the shiner on his shoulder) yet despite those things, he battled those demons and crossed the line. Those are the stories I look forward to hearing about. Those are the memories I hope our friends take home with them. That they came, the saw and yeah, they kicked ass.

Up next: Part 2 - Salida Shredding; aka Sunday Bloody Sunday

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