Monday, May 9, 2016

Bitten by the Bear, Doubling Up at the Bear Brook Classic

...the great bear was like the mountains, unrivalled in the valleys as they were in the skies. With the mountains, he had come down out of the ages. He was part of them.  - The Grizzly King by James Oliver Curwood


photo from The Bear
When I was leading wilderness trips for kids I regularly showed them my favorite "man vs. beast" movie, The Bear. This film is not like most of it's type, both the man & Kodiak bear are complex characters in it. Both are hunters & the hunted in the drama, yet both are portrayed with empathy. Some times you hunt the bear, some times the bear hunts you, to survive either requires as much humility & luck as courage.

My original plan for this weekend was to ride a dirt road century. The Dirty Kanza 200 was exactly four weeks away, so long dirt miles & tempo efforts are the training recipe. But when State 9 Racing decided to revive a mountain bike race at Bear Brook State Park, I was intrigued. I was even more interested when they included an "endurance 'cross" event. I certainly would benefit from a couple more race efforts before the Kanza. By racing the xc category in the morning, riding some tempo laps between events, then racing the endurance cross in the afternoon I would get 6+ hours of saddle time. That would easily equal the effort of a long dirt road ride, perfect, right?  
Root 66 Series Start Line in full effect
I had never raced at Bear Brook. Indeed I've only ridden the trails there twice. The last time a mountain bike race was held at Bear Brook State Park was 12 years ago, just as I was getting interested in xc events. But back in the day it was an important venue on the New England mtb circuit. I imagined that the endurance cross course would be like the old Big Ring Rumpus, a 6 mile loop of wide open fire roads. I was terribly & painfully wrong about that.

I arrived at Bear Brook State park just as the overnight rain stopped. The trails were tacky but not muddy. The course was a long loop of 9 miles for the xc events. A few stretches of fire road broke up the technical single track sections. Since this was my first mountain bike race of the year I lined up on the front row, being the shameless hole shot hero I am. The field for my category was large too, 41 guys on the start line.  Many of them were targeting Kenda Cup or Root 66 series points: it was going to be all out from the gun.


The whistle blew & off we went. I had a weak start & drifted back to 5th place as we headed up to the opening rise. The first single track section was just 200 meters from the start, so we bunched up quickly. The pace was snappy but I felt comfortable following the leaders. As we hit the first fire road section a gap had opened to the front 3. I made a move to close on them but only got half way across before the next single track section. A couple of guys made aggressive passes to get by me. I kept reminding myself to ride an all day pace, but we were racing dang nabit! The rest of the first lap I continued to swap spots between 6th-8th place. I finished the first lap with plenty of confidence in my shot at a top 5 result. Oh my high hopes....

on the front at the start of the Cat 2 40-49 race.
The second lap began as the first lap had gone. I was gaining on the technical downhills, holding my own on the fire roads, and giving up a little ground on the climbs. Then it happened, the one big mistake. Coming down the last steep technical drop on Carr Ridge I slipped on the exit of a rocky choke point. I was over the bars before I knew what happened. I got up with only a scrapes to my elbow & knee. But my bike was in worse shape, the lockout cable was undone, the chain wrapped around my crank arm. Bike maintenance at trail side with adrenaline spiking through your system is never easy. For a moment I thought my derailleur was bent too. A few deep breaths & running through the gears confirmed that my drive train was intact.

After a few minutes I got the cranks turning again. In that time I heard James Hall endo at the same spot I had slipped. He went down hard and was groaning beside the trail. I called back & he claimed to be "alright" as a team mate of his checked him over. After the race he told me he feared he'd cracked a rib. That rocky slot claimed several other victims this day. I spotted John Moser after his race with 4 inches of gauze taped to his knee. The "bear trap" put a gash in his knee deep enough that he was off to get it sutured. All in all I was lucky.

tight racing on lap 1
But back to racing. I was eager to at least gain back a little ground before the end of the lap. I charged down the River Trail and pounded the pedals with all I had left on the fire road. I managed to catch a couple of guys before the finish, for 17th place. I had lost 10 spots in my fumbling with my bike on Carr Ridge. But I was not injured and got a solid hour & a half of race pace pedaling.


I got back to my car, changed kit, put together the cyclocross bike, & ate a little lunch. After the Cat. 1 race started I headed out to preview the "endurance cross" course. My initial thought was "they aren't going to make us ride the first sections of single track, are they?" Oh yes they were. In fact almost half of the cross course was single track, the same tough drops we had just raced mountain bikes on. This was going to be much harder than I expected. I spun around on the fire roads with my thoughts swirling about the level of risk in racing cx on this technical track.

But I had a training plan for this day and I was going to stick to it. I went out to the campground road for a tempo loop. As I began an interval my heart rate would not go up. I spun easy for 5 minutes then tried again, still not hitting my target. I went back to the car, maybe I just needed some more real food. It started to drizzle again, so I got into the front seat, just to wait for the rain to pass. Twenty minutes later I woke up from my own snoring. I now had less than an hour before the start of the endurance cross, & had serious doubts if I should race. But I was already kitted up, so I put the number plate on my bike, slathered on the embro & headed out to wake up my legs.

Funny thing about bike racers and start lines, once we're on one all the exhaustion & doubt sometimes melts away. I lined up on the front of the combined men's field, again. I got decent but not perfect position off the line, again. So I was chasing the leaders, 3 young guys, into the single track again. I was smoother on the first section of single track than I feared during pre-ride. The demanding track meant I had to pick razor sharp lines over the roots & between the rocks. As we exited onto the fire road my team mate Pierre came past & sprinted to join the leaders. He towed along another M35+ racer to the front, Doug Reid. I pushed as hard as I could to follow but I did not have much jump. I could ride hard tempo and hoped I would close on them in the next single track section.


Start of the Endurance Cross
But as I approached the entrance two other younger guys squirted past. This would have been fine except they both slowed down once we hit the roots & narrow sections of the track. Once we exited to the fire road Pierre & the lead group had a solid 20 second gap. I worked to close some of the gap before entering the woods again. But my lack of high end sprint meant Ben Kramer continued to beat me to the single track. In the middle of the lap the two younger guys I had been blocked by took a wrong turn through a gated fire road. I almost followed them but stopped, looked at the trail markers, and found the entrance to the single track just past it. My stop allowed a State 9 Racing guy to close within a few seconds as I got back up to speed. He looked definitely over 35, so now I had a chaser. Race on.

I was not gaining any ground on my chaser in the fire roads. But I realized in the next lap that I was increasing the gap by ripping the single track. I stayed in the drops to maximize control as I hopped over roots & down the rock ledges. My triceps began to scream for mercy at the strain. Narrow tires & a rigid fork meant that lines I could bull doze through on the mtb now had to be hit with extreme precision. Such narrow lines meant that I scraped my knuckles against a fat oak tree while trying to clear it's roots on the River Trail. At the end of lap 2 I could see Pierre come past me on the opposite side of the fire road. He had a solid gap over Doug & a 3 minute lead on me. But I could hold onto a podium position with a clean final lap.


Endurance Cross M35+ podium
On the initial section of fire road during the final lap I could see my chaser was only 5 seconds behind me. I put my head down and charged through the single track. I shuffled up the log run as fast as my cramping legs could go, bike over my shoulder. On the River Trail for the last time I bombed over the roots and hopped the rocks. Again I scraped by knuckles raw & tore my glove against the same oak tree. I poured out all my remaining energy down the fire road. But when I looked back with 1/2 a mile left I could still see a State 9 jersey closing in. I clicked down two gears and cranked it out to the finish line. I kept 3rd place by 2 seconds. After the finish I realized that the chaser was Craig Schaepe who I had raced with on the road over a decade ago. It was good to get reacquainted after a fierce duel. I was worn out from racing hard twice on the such demanding track in one day. I was still exhausted Tuesday morning.

The event itself was run extremely well. Andy Gould, Aaron Miller, & all the State 9 members did a tremendous job. The kids course was one of the best I've seen at a New England mtb race. More importantly each child got a coupon for the ice cream truck that was at the venue! State 9 Racing did us a great favor in bringing back a favorite venue for many NE mountain bike racers. I hope they host it again next year, though I'll probably only do one race in the future. Getting bitten by the bear once is enough.     



The State 9 bear and cub


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