Made the Podium...

After a heavy week of cycling (trying to build for the 50 mile endurance race in the Black Hills coming up), I drove up to Duluth on Saturday for Sunday's The Great Hawk Race which was to be race #8 in Minnesota's Mountain Bike Race Series. I had not been to Duluth since the summer of 1980 (when I had to wear a heavy flannel shirt it was so cold). The 6 hour drive was too long to do on the morning of the race, so I headed up thinking I could take a loop of the race course on Saturday and find a place to stay.

The drive was nice as temperatures got cooler as I kept heading north. About an hour south of Duluth, it began raining which I knew was going to spoil my chances of a pre-ride. By the time I pulled into Duluth, the rain had stopped and I drove to the Lester Park area on the North Shore to find the race course. There were a few in the parking lot that had just finished a lap or were heading out to do one. Since my legs were on a rest day from the week of training, I decided it was best to let them rest and I didn't want to hurt the trail after a fresh rain. So I walked a bit of it to get an idea of conditions. It was muddy. I determined I needed to swap out my Race King 2.2's for the Maxxis Beaver mud tires. I figured I could do that in my motel room. So I headed back into town to find a room.

Big problem. "No rooms for 30 miles" was the word I kept getting at every motel desk. Duluth is a happening summer vacation spot? WTF? I had no idea and figured the worst case scenario would be for me to drive 30 miles or so to find a room. I grabbed dinner at a wood burning oven restaurant which had rotisserie chicken going full force over the flames and looked tasty. So I ordered 1/2 a bird and a sweet potato. Then I headed back south in search of a room. Long story short, everyone in every town was full. Finally, at a town about 110 miles south I found the next to last room left in a seedy place. It was cheap, but the price of gas to drive there and back made it the same had I stayed at a nice place in Duluth. Tired from the extra miles of driving, I hit the sack and was out by midnight. I got up at 7 so I could grab some coffee and change my race tires to mud tires. It sounds like a rather odd thing to do, but there I was on the bathroom tile floor changing tubeless tires in a seedy motel room at 7:15 a.m. on a Sunday morning. I finished up, cleaned up the mess, showered, dressed and headed back up to Duluth with my breakfast in the car.

Construction traffic delayed my arrival, so I only had about 10 minutes to warm up after I got registered, dressed and ready to go. That's not enough time for me (especially after the training week I went through) and I know it meant I would have to start the race slower than planned because of it to get the blood flowing. I was mentally prepared to turn myself inside out on this race to shoot for a good finish. However, without the proper warm up the danger was going out too hard on the start and not being able to recover at all for the rest of the race. So I went over to the starting line and saw that the usual crowd of 50+ age riders had not made the drive up to Duluth. A quick look around the riders in my wave (45-49, 50-59, and 60+) looked to be only about 15 of us compared to the usual 25+ riders. Steve Stilwell was there in the front row and is in 1st place in the standings as well as some wins under his belt this season. Another rider ahead of me in the standings was there lined up in the 2nd row...and the next thing I knew, we were off. I had to bring along and wear my old MOB Racing kit for this race since my son, Zack, managed to "borrow" both my BikeIowa.com kits for his exercise rides on the trainer in the basement and I found them wadded up and dirty on his bathroom floor as I was packing. Too late to wash them, so I grabbed my MOB kit.

The opening climb was on a cross country ski trail and it was uphill. Here's the start of my wave...

Great Hawk Race Start

I had to pace myself and hold back to use the opening as a warm up, so I was back in the pack huffing and puffing. The rain had made the trail spongy and muddy - enough so that it felt like my rear brake was rubbing (it wasn't, it just felt like it). There was going to be no coasting on this course with the soggy conditions, so Niner's top tube sticker on all of their bikes which reads "Pedal Damn It!" kept staring up at me and reminding me to keep grinding it out. I was hanging with a guy in front of me and a couple were hanging on my tail, but once we finished the ski trail climb and headed into the single track, I recovered and realized the guy in front of me was a bit timid in the singletrack. It was pretty greasy, but I got around him.

By now, the lead group was not only not in sight, they were long gone. That's the price I had to pay for no warm-up and the inability to go cross eyed on the start for fear of not recovering. But I forged ahead. It felt like a lot of climbing on this course, but some of that was due to the soggy conditions making it feel like even the flat spots were a climb. Short power climbs had my grinding it out...

Great Hawk Power Grind Corner

I passed a couple of guys from earlier classes walking a climb after one of the first road crossings and after I cleaned the climb and powered around a corner, got my wheels in a rut on a flat spot and went down as they slipped out in the mud. My handlebars were turned sideways, but I was able to hold the front wheel between my legs and get them straight again.

Back on the bike I was now warmed up and felt like racing, so I turned on the gas and powered through the best I could. Not having ridden here and stuck in no man's land with no rider visible in front of me to follow and learn the trail, I was being a bit cautious not knowing what was coming around the next bend. The final descent into the finish line area to start lap 2 was a long cross country ski trail where you could really let it all out and fly down the hill. I had walked most of this section on Saturday evening, so I knew what it looked like and I powered through the finish area to start my next lap.

Lap 2 was really soggy on the ski trail climb as all of the bikes had done their damage to cut through the top layers and turn things into a bog. I was searching for the least soggy line at all times, but it was work to keep turning the pedals over in the muddy, clay sections. And of course, bike and legs and face were covered in mud. Once in the singletrack, things were drying out and turning the course into perfect conditions. It wasn't as slippery on the 2nd lap and I found a bit of a groove which allowed me to up the pace and push on, but I still felt like I had a brake dragging. It didn't take much to put me in the heart rate area of no return, so I had to use my easy gear with a high spin when I could on the steeper power climbs. The leader of one of the waves that started behind us caught me and passed me in the singletrack.

Again, I found myself out there on my own with nobody to follow or track down. I find that a tough spot to be in on a tough course where you can find yourself backing off to just handle the technical nature of the course and you then find yourself riding at a pace that is not really racing, but seems like you are just out for a good ride. I found myself in that sort of pace when all of a sudden a rider appeared and passed me at the top of a climb. That woke me up and I gave pursuit only to watch him pull over 5 minutes later at the side of the trail with a mechanical. No matter, I was racing again and the end was in sight. Several bridges including a final series of bridges kept one on their toes with the soggy conditions...

Great Hawk Bridge Crossing

I floored it the rest of the way and once I hit the ski trail descent, I put the chain on the big ring and sprinted with whatever I had left to the finish line. Actually, the legs turned over very well as I was now warmed up!! Oh well....

It wasn't my best race, but due to the lack of numbers showing up - I rolled across in 2nd place, 5 minutes and heavy change behind Steve Stilwell who got his third win of the season in the Minnesota series (congrats Steve!!!). I was 10 minutes in front of 3rd place (about the same amount of time I had over that same rider last week at the Single Track Attack in Elk River - where I got 4th and he got 6th). Lester Park was an absolutely beautiful course with the rivers, climbs, rocks, heavy forest, smell of fresh rain, temperature around 70 and usual Minnesota hospitality. Kudos to the entire crew for the excellent trails and race!!! It was well worth the drive and frustration of not booking a motel room (lesson learned). I cleaned up, had some Granola Bars, watermelon and a couple of bottles of water to recover. I hung around for the awards ceremony and then hopped in the car for the drive home.

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