Thursday, June 28, 2012

The beauty of new trails: Westhill-Grafton Ponds XC

Every mountain biker has favorite home trails. We ride these trails again and again, to the point where we can rip them at fantastic speed. We can also get a little bored riding them by the middle of the season. Racing  at different venues offers the opportunity to try something new. Sometimes it's not so good, sometimes it is better.

photo by Thom Parsons

The Grafton Pond XC trails are great. The Grafton Ponds center is a nordic ski area in the winter. (I have never skied there either, but I may make a trip this winter.) The start was in a large open field next to the pond. The pond is big enough for a swim raft and canoeing, so families had plenty to do while dad or mom was racing. The first section of the race course was a long double track uphill. The distance from the line to the first singletrack was almost half a mile!. The trail started level but progressively got steeper until just before entering the single track.

Once the single track started, the fun was at hand. Grafton Ponds has some gorgeous manicured single track trails. Lots of well built bridges, nicely placed rock crossings, and even linked bermed turns. I had fun racing just for the great sections of singletrack. Between the trails were enough flat double track sections to grab a drink or punch up some speed. Two tough double track climbs at the end of the lap gave us a chance to crawl  into the pain cave for a few minutes. I love this course.
photo by Thom Parsons

With a preview lap as my warm up I hoped I could turn out a podium result for the first time this year. I slotted into the front row and went for the long long hole shot. I was third wheel coming off the line trailing Carl Smith and Will Raymond. He and I had the same idea and attacked up the steep part of the hill leading into the singletrack. I followed Carl through the first trail section with most of our group stacked up behind us. At the next double track section, I attacked around Carl. I took the lead and created some separation from the bunch. Heading into the next singletrack section I drop my chain off the middle ring. My shifting had been touchy during the pre-ride, but I had hoped to have tweaked it enough for the race. I had not. I would drop chains three more times during the race. I quickly remounted in third wheel and pounded the pedals to catch back up to the leaders.

I caught Carl Smith at the end of the next singletrack section. The guy who was in the lead had attacked through the singletrack and was out of sight. The rest of the race Carl and I would trade attacks, each getting a 10-20 second gap, then the other pulling back. In the middle of the last lap I dropped my chain for the third time, this time off the inside of the cog, while I was leading Carl by 30 seconds. I yelled, swore, and got to re-setting my chain. Carl cruised passed me as I was fixing the gears. He realized his chance and pushed the pace. I tried to pull back the gap, but felt demoralized by the mechanicals. I lost a minute to Carl in the last mile of the race.

My effort was good enough for 3rd place. I was on the podium at a mtb race for the first time in 2 years. I clearly did not have the legs for the win, but I was happy to execute my race plan. I hope to find more great trails at the new Stonewall Farm XC race in July. Until then, go check out Grafton Pond's trails if you have a chance.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Domnarski Farm XC: the good, the bad, and the muddy

Domnarski Farm XC is an old timey mountain bikey course. I only suppose this is so, since I've been racing mtb for 6 years. The guys I train with used to race mtb "back in the day" on narrow long loops of mixed dirt road/jeep trail/single track courses that sound just like this one. So I imagine this course appeals to racers who fondly remember Onza pedals, Suntour XC group, and Oakley pilots.

I found the course really challenging to ride and more challenging to race. The course is a ten mile loop starting and ending on a narrow strip of farm trail. I came early to do a preview lap since I had never ridden at Domnarski Farm, and my category was racing only one lap. Immediately I saw that the narrow start track heading quickly into uphill single track would mean a front row start would be vital. After the first single track climb the course meandered around the woods, in and out of wide dirt roads. The challenge was that every so often a hub deep pool of murky water covered the track, both in the single track and on the dirt roads. These mystery bogs could be fast, could be slow, and could hide wheel breaking obstacles; sometimes in the same mud hole. There must have been two dozen of these death traps around the course from the monsoon like rains of the prior week. No one could avoid them. A few times I wished for a snorkel and mask.

I finished my preview lap muddy and a little beat up. I had just enough time to change jerseys, clean the mud off my glasses, and hustle for my front row spot. I kept my elbows wide as we rolled up to the line so as not to get shuffled back, but all for not. Off the line I missed my pedal twice and faded back to 6th wheel. I kept driving into the single track and picked off a couple of guys as they fell on slippery roots. Once we got to the flatter single track, Will Raymond caught my wheel and cruised past. No worries, I figured I could catch him in the double track and pass him on the hill. No such luck.

Once into the double track I kept pushing the speed. I found the mystery bogs easier to ride at race speed with a little bit (alot) of dumb luck. At the end of the race I saw broken bikes eaten by the monsters in the bogs littering the field. Once at the power line hill I could see Will about 30 seconds ahead. Unfortunately he was hoofing fast, and worse John Allen rode up to my wheel. John and I traded positions back and forth up the steepest hill on the course. Once we got down into the boggy single track I realized we only had 1.5 miles left to race. Another guy in our category was closing on John as well. Being the good cyclocross racer I am, I started running every deep mud section. I put a solid gap into John and his chaser. Then coming into the last wide mud bog my bad luck caught up to me. I picked the wrong line, endo'd on a submerged log, and splashed down in the murky muck. John and the chaser passed me as I was remounting. I had half a mile of down hill single track to try and catch them. It was not enough course to close the gap. I rolled across the finish line a few seconds behind them and pounded my handlebars in frustration.

Solid effort, lack luster result. But on the bright side, I've never raced a muddy mtb course better. I supposed that if I close my eyes and imagine the muck monsters just aren't there, they go away; at least for a little while.

P.S. Thank you to Matt Domnarski and his family for putting on a mountain bike race at their beautiful farm. Worth the trip.