MTB in SB Blog
Friday – November 14th
After working until 2, I jump on BART back to Berkeley in time to get packed for a trip to Santa Barbara. Saturday is my first mountain bike race and I can’t wait to get down there.
Six hours later I’m squeezing in the back of Rob’s car, the team President, with the WCCC (Western Collegiate Cycling Conference) trophy on my lap. This will be our last chance to outrace Cal-Poly for the conference title.
We stop to pick up Antoine, a 22-year-old Frenchman studying Mechanical Engineering. Since he’s from France there’s only one topic of conversation: Le Tour de France, at least for the first two hours. He’s seen a few stages but is more into mountain biking. I cringe at his lost opportunities but he doesn’t seem to mind. I grill him on all the French cycling terms: rouleur, grimpeur, soigneur, domestique, tarmac, et cetera.
After a while we talk about the election and French politics, but always back to cycling. Eventually we both pass out. We wake up as we’re pulling into a grocery store parking lot. Food! We’re still at least an hour away but we’ve got food so I could care less. I buy enough food for a week. We’re on vacation so I’ve got none of the usual food guilt. That means sugar topped blueberry muffins and, well that’s the extent of my splurge. Antoine makes a comment about me not being hungry. I chuckle at how stereotypically American I am. Anytime is a good time for carb loading. It’s easy for him to say though, he’s super lean and has less to feed!
Finally we arrive at the race area. It’s too late for us to go on to our teammate’s parents’ (not sure about those apostrophes) house 35 miles away. Plus this way we’ll get an extra half hour of sleep in the morning. I roll out my sleeping bag and kick myself for not bringing my sleeping pad. Antoine, the smart Frenchman he is, has brought a blow up mattress. I’m not French enough to ask him to share though. The ground isn’t that hard and I fall fast asleep.
Saturday – November 15th
I awaken to the cool morning air and bright sunlight. It’s still early so I roll back into the fetal position and try to sleep. Unfortunately, the muffins from the night before along with a bit too much kefir have done a job on my stomach. Fortunately, there’s a row of porta potties (sp?) near registration.
A lot of the other schools have slept outside as well although they look better prepared. I put on my bike gear and begin riding around. I still have a few hours before my race but I like a lot of time to warm up.
The atmosphere is tangibly different from at road races. For one, most of the people here seem hung over and I hear the word “bong” about as often as “bike.” Two, no one is warming up.
Undeterred, I set out to ride some of the course. It’s my first time mountain biking on a trail so I take it easy on the downhills. Sure enough, I can still ride dirt. I was hoping my younger years of bmxing in the woods and jumping bonfires would come in handy and it does.
The men’s As start their race and the butterflies begin. I still have an hour but I’m anxious because I know what’s coming. Pain, pain, pain. I ride a bit more and then get ready to go.
It’s go time. I ride to the line full of jitters.
“15 seconds gentlemen” says the race official.
The whistle blows and it’s a dead sprint into the first turn. We head off along a flat straightaway. The area is super dry so there’s tons of dust and I’m about to choke. Up the first climb we go. Once again no one else is as wooed by my climbing skills as I am.
We go along more flats until we hit the first little downhill. It’s pretty rocky but I handle it fine. Then it’s off to the first big climb.
Going up I shift into a bigger cog and sure enough, the derailleur I neglected to align earlier is still unaligned. Plus these hills aren’t like road biking hills, they’re steep! Some parts I have to get off and walk the bike up. I realize too how much of the technical aspect to mountain biking I lack. Every time I stand up to crank the back wheel slips but when I sit down and crank it hurts to bad.
I continue to have shifting problems on the climb. I curse Calder whose bike I’ve borrowed. I curse his poor maintenance like it’s a moral issue. Then I lay into the bike until I realize I should be grateful I still have air in my tires. That lasts until the next hill. This time I get the chain caught above the chainstay. I had just passed a teammate who was racing in the Bs so he stops and helps me. Three Cal-Poly riders pass me. They’re the same ones I’ve already passed twice.
Finally I get going again and try to chase them down. I pass one who goes off to the right to let me pass. I’m shocked since that’s not exactly something you see in road racing. The joys of single track.
As I get near the finish I make sure my mask of pain is on. People are watching, photos are being taken, I have to show the pain that is bike racing. Okay but really, this doesn’t take much effort. I’m dying.
I’m unable-or unwilling?-to catch the three Cal-Poly guys and I cross the line an uncontested 7th. I’m a bit pissed about not having 4th due to the mechanicals I had. I have no excuse good enough for not being 1st.
After an hour of lying down I decide to try the slalom course out. We need all the points we can get as a team so I figure I might as well try to race it. I hit the first jump and get some good air. Then I hit the rollers. Unlike jumps, getting air on rollers, unless you can clear them all, is very bad. I fly over the bars and smack my head on the ground. I stumble as I try to stand. My helmet is broke and I’ve got scrapes on my arms and legs. So maybe I won’t do the slalom.
I go get bandaged and catch word that a teammate is planning on riding back to SB. That’s more my speed. We load up with food and water and head out an hour later.
We ride along 154 and he’s really cranking. The teammate is Lucas, a cat 2 road racer who wants to do some “base” miles. “Base” miles are usually done at a lower intensity but his base is a bit higher than mine. I do my best to hold on until we get to the pass. Supposedly it’s 2500 ft but it looks monster. Thankfully he raced the As race so he raced three times as long as I did. Thus, I’m able to keep up.
We climb and climb and climb. After more false summits than I can count we see the sky ahead. I, remembering the whole time that he’s ridden farther than I, decide to attack. My legs go along with that decision for a whole 5 seconds until I sputter to a slow grind and watch Lucas take off up the hill. Like the man says, you can take the boy out of the jalopy but you can’t take the jalopy of the boy.
Finally I make it over. Lucas is stopped admiring the view of the ocean. I pee behind a bush and then we head down.
We go 30-40 downhill long enough for me to get tired of descending. First I whine about the ascents, then the descents. Blah, blah, blah.
Eventually we make it to the house we’re staying at. They’re blocks from the beach so we go dip ourselves in the cool water.
The rest of the night is a blast. The teammate’s mom is very into growing her own produce so we talk a lot about local co-ops they have in SB. That’s until I find out she’s Jewish, then I give her the full history of Zionism.
Having watched Home Alone far too many times as a kid, I make sure tell a few teammates I’ll be sleeping the backyard. Then I retire to the hammock out back and fall asleep under the stars.
Sunday – November 16th
I hear someone tell me it’s time to wake up. My body is super sore so I’m slow getting up. I wonder how on Earth people are able to stage race. I decide there’s no way I can race today. Moments later I’m sharing this decision with a teammate over bagels. Another one overhears and asks “you came down to race bikes right?” “Uh, yeah…” I mutter. Helluva salesman.
Next thing I know I’m back on the trail cryin’ “ma-ma!” It’s the short track race though so it’ll be over soon. On the climb I pass on the right and the kid comes over into me. “Sorry dude” I say as I knock him off me to avoid the edge. I feel bad for half a moment then realize that’s just bike racing.
Four laps later I’m on my last lap. Out of nowhere I’m passed by a Cal-Poly rider. We come up on a technical portion. “Come on grandma, that’s the ticket, there you go…” I’m trying to psyche him out. A few turns later it pays off because he eats it on a U-turn. I look behind and when I see no one I pedal lackadaisically toward the line. I finish an uncontested 6th.
Hours later the downhill race starts so I go watch the guys scream down the hills. It’s utter insanity. I’ve never seen downhill before so I’m stunned.
Finally, the podium ceremonies finish and we all pack into the van and head home. Lucas, the guy I rode to SB with is in the same van. There’s also Jordan, a Freshman mountain biker, in the car who’s pretty good. He’s considering racing road this coming season.
“Should I just attack from the start?” asks Jordan.
“Yep, just go off the front and don’t look back.” replies Lucas.
“Um, yeah, I would say maybe not. That’s a good idea if you’re, well, Lucas but you might want to hang tight near the front for the first half to just see how you feel because you could, you know, attack then blow up and be caught.” I say prudently.
Lucas persists. “What you do is attack hard off the front. Then once you’ve got a gap, you attack again, and then you attack your own attacks...”
Attack your own attacks. I write it down in my journal and begin to dream of next season...