Yesterday was my first race of 2007. It was the Nebraska Lottery Psycowpath Series opener in Omaha, NE at Tranquility Park. I drove over on highway 92 which goes through John Wayne's birthplace, the Bridges of Madison County and through the heart of agriculture all the way to Omaha.
It's a very pretty drive and I was surprised at the fields of sheep I saw along the way. Not a lot of them, but maybe 4 or 5 fields of a hundred or so sheep each. Yet, you can hardly find lamb in the stores here in Iowa. Go figure.
Temperatures at race time were between 28 - 34 degrees with howling winds in the 20 - 30 mph range. Fun stuff! Balaclava, toe warmers, layered clothing underneath my long sleeve bib and a full winter jersey with gloves. I felt pretty warm once the race got going and did not have any complaints about my body heat. The cold weather and exercise induced asthma did kick up for a lot of riders. I didn't get a cough until after the race. But going that hard out in that cold of weather is not friendly to those of us who get the cough from exercise even in warmer weather. I did drool a lot during the race, though. ;-)
I bought my annual Norba license since the Nebraska Series requires a Norba license for all races. I entered the Sport 45+ category now that I am 45. I always figured it to be a tough category as there are some serious riders in this category who are old enough to take the pain and do the training to still be out mountain bike racing. I don't know if this is correct, but there seems to be more out of shape guys that can be found in the Sport Open and Sport 35+ categories than the 45+ group. Anyway, lining up with the 45+ group at the start had me feeling like a Category 5 roadie going up against a bunch of category 3 masters when I looked at all of them. My plan was just to ride my race and check the early season legs after the past 2 months of interval grinding it out in the basement to see how they responded under race conditions and see where I need to get for the IMBCS races.
Speaking of lining up and seeing all the precious metal found at the start line this year as opposed to last year, it is clear to me that there is a tide of change underway. Big wheels are everywhere. Women's divisions, SS' division, Expert Division, Sport Division, Beginner Division. 29"er's were more in abundance than 26"er's for the first time at any race. It was more like "who didn't have one" than "who has one" when it came to 29"er's. There were even 29"er demo bikes from one of the bike shops there. I saw Dos Niners, Paragons, Fisher Ferrous, Niners, Karate Monkey's, Moots, Badgers, Sugar 292/293's, etc... everywhere I looked.
Experts went off first followed by the various Sport categories one at a time. We old men in the 45+ category took off in the last group of the day with the Clydes and the Sport women. As expected, everyone shot off the line like there was a fire, but I looked ahead and saw a big jam up on the first climb of the day that had 50 - 100 riders spread out over the open prairie climb in the wind. It was a nice red zone climb that went on and on and on and just at the end when the singletrack turned north for the final 50 - 80 yards of climb - it was dead into that nasty wind. Nice! The pre-ride showed there was plenty of passing room on this first 5 minute climb, so I just settled in to stay in the middle of our pack on the sprint and waited to see what would happen on that first climb. Don't know where my legs came from, but I was easily spinning up that climb and passed about 20 riders on the first section of the climb alone. Hey, maybe the interval work had been worth it.
Turns out all day long, my climbing was the best part of my racing. Descending felt timid and got sucked up by the strong gusting winds. To top it off, the tight stuff in the forest sucked as I was having trouble laying the rear Crow into the turns. Kept breaking loose on me. Too much air pressure, maybe? Wrong tire choice for this particular soft and dry dirt? Perhaps.
Whatever it was, I felt like a big chicken poop on some of the sharp corners during descents yesterday for my first time out in the singletrack dirt this year. I was cursing myself several times during the race for my handling skills being so novice. I need to get out there and rail some corners in the dirt to boost the confidence to get ready for next weekend's race. I could only move the bike like I wanted to going up the hill. All those lead out 20 second sprints came in real handy. In almost every case, as I passed some riders on the climbs, one or two of those I passed would catch back up to me and pass me on the flats and then I would tail them until the next climb. There was a group of 4 or 5 of us during lap 2 and lap 3 that kept playing this chess game. In spite of that, I was able to work my way through some of the riders from groups that had started a few minutes ahead of us, but don't get me wrong - there was nothing amazing going on for me. Coming out of the forest switchbacks in the first lap on a sharp corner a gal on a 29"er asked to pass me on the left. I let her by and then her handlebar accidentally caught mine and sent my right hand grip smack into a tree which threw me off the bike. Of course, I yelped an expletive that starts with S and ends with T at the tree (not the girl).
I hopped back on the bike and got going again where I then ran into fellow MTBR.com 29"er Forum member Matt Gersib (mgersib) . He was pulled over on the side of the trail on his Dos Niner talking to somebody, but had started in the Expert Open category 10 minutes or so before me. I passed by and Matt started following my group screaming out "Hey, Dos Niner! Is that you Bruce?" And I screamed back, "Yeah, it's me. What happened to your bike?" I figured he was pulled over because he had a mechanical. Anyway, he caught up and rode with me for part of a lap and explained to me his bike was fine, but his achilles tendon was bothering him which is why he had stopped. He won the Landahl 6 hour race last week and the tendon was hurting, so he decided to go into survival mode after the first climb and spin some laps while chatting with various riders. Dang, that would be nice to be able to do that!
He was chatting away, hardly out of breath while talking and I was obviously sucking some air while trying to carry on a conversation at race speed. Well, there you go - one in shape rider with genetic talent (Matt) and one in shape rider with no genetic talent (Me). We passed some folks going up the climbs and on the final climb of lap 1, I went around a guy on the left and Matt went around him on the right and took off like I was standing still. I guess the tendon felt better at that point, huh Matt? ;-) Hope the achilles heals up for the next race.
The day was a basically a battle with the howling wind, cold weather and all the usual first race jitters of the season. Outside of those elements, my gams felt like new legs I was operating on for this point in the season compared to last year at this time. Yes, one year ago during my first race of the season, Camp Ingawanis ate my lunch. I usually like to get out of the saddle and hammer up some climbs, but I found myself seated most of yesterday - and enjoying it - while just pacing along and finding a nice first race rhythm. I think the 29T middle ring was the reason where as with the 32T middle ring I may be forced to stand on the steeper grunts. This new gearing of 42/29/20 more matches a 26"er stock set up and keeps the middle ring in play more often on the climbs without redlining it all the time. The bike felt good with no numbness in the hand or neck. It shifted great, brakes were solid and fit seems dialed in just right this year. I should be ready to go at full steam next weekend if the weather plays nice. Now I can adjust to in season training and get some time on the dirt this week to get the handling skills back and drop the timidity.
I haven't seen the full results yet, but I think I was 5th in my category. Big whoop-te-do. If I can manage it, I will try to race in most of the Psycowpath XC races and the IMBCS races this year. I have to miss a few due to work obligations and vacation plans, but it is something that keeps me in shape and sure is fun as a physical challenge.