Weather dictated our camping plans would unfold as scheduled. So we made the choice to head up to one of my favorite XC race courses via the Bluff Riders Charge at Mt. Kato ski area just outside of Mankato, Minnesota for the weekend. We have gear for rain and cooler temperatures, so the thought of camping in overnight temperatures that could range from 39-49 degrees did not deter us.
Tara, Lisa, and I loaded up the Element and the Yakima ski rack box on top of the Element for our 1st weekend camping journey. We were not planning on cooking dinner, but brought along the Coleman stove for morning oatmeal and coffee. The 4 hour drive up was through light rain with showers here and there along the way. We timed the drive to arrive just after a small front had moved through Mankato and although it was still misting when we arrived, the sun was starting to poke out at the same time.
We got the camp site set up at the Minneopa State Park Campground (had to pull out the Cutters as the Many Soda State Bird was attacking in full force), purchased two bundles of firewood and bundled up for the cool evening.
The sun came out and I took the JET 9 around the campground and headed out on one of the trails for a little 20 minute recovery spin....
I quickly noted that it was everyone's favorite dirt conditions known as hero dirt. This meant that the race on Sunday along with the mild temperatures of 60-65 would make for a nice fast XC race compared to the previous year that was a bit wetter and warmer. After a recovery spin, we all headed into Mankato for dinner at the same restaurant we hit up last year - Number 4 American Bar and Kitchen. I had delicious Alaskan Halibut and fun was had by all as we visited and ate more than we should have.
After a cool evening, but warm in our beds thanks to the correct gear, the gals got up and set about making coffee and oatmeal...
The oatmeal was good, the coffee was strong and I felt refreshed from an 8 hour slumber. I hopped on the bike to spin around the campground for a few minutes to get the blood flowing and dial in the tire pressure for the hero dirt. Then we headed over to Mt. Kato ski area so I could get registered for the 11 a.m. race. The sun was shining, the air was crisp, and it promised to be a good day of racing. After I registered, I headed out for my warm-up and got the motor primed. I climbed a good gravel road hill to remind my body and mind of the pain that I was about to endure on the opening climb up the ski hill at Mt. Kato. I'm not sure my mind was as thrilled about it!!!
I got lined up in my wave which included 45-49, 50-59, 60+, and I think Fat Tire bikes as well, but I'm not sure who all was in it. I was visiting with Jef Leif who was next to me in line about the race course, racing, and his handlebar mounted camera that he was going to film the race and post on YouTube. Competition is stiff in the Minnesota Series and even more so this year as at least 6 or more guys had moved from the 45-49 age class into the 50-59 class by virtue of their birthday. There were about 6 new guys (50 year olds) in our group lined up for the race. Former Iowan Steve Stilwell was not in attendance, but last year's series winner Gary Santoorjian was.
I felt good on the start as I managed to pedal my way up and into line in the top 10 going up the opening climb. I settled in behind Jef and his camera as we climbed the hill. I dropped it down from the big ring about 1/2 way up and spun it in a high cadence, high heart rate content with my position in the line as we crested the climb and jumped into the singletrack. The dirt was in fantastic shape and as I thought - it was hero dirt. That's the kind of dirt you don't really have to worry about traction on the way up or the way down. The Renegade tires were perfect for the conditions and my psi was dialed in just fine.
Traffic backed up on the first series of technical descents and everyone keyed up for passing at the next opening sections. We started catching up with slower riders from start waves that had gone off 2 and 4 minutes in front of us and the passing began. It's a pretty good course for passing and everyone was being very courteous and actually moving over without even being asked as we worked out way through the crowd and things began to open up. My legs felt fine and last week's breakthrough ride was confirmed as I was able to hold my power and push myself more than all previous races this year.
Goal was to best my times from 2012 (1:18:58) and 2011(1:18:58.02). This had me keeping more pressure on the pedals and not settling into anything that felt like just riding along. Lap one was error free and lap two I decided to push a little harder, but not blow up. At this point I realized I maybe could have given a tad more on certain sections during lap one, but I wasn't phased. I was happy with how I was doing. I passed 2 very in shape Clydesdales (both were about 6'6" or more and Clydedales due to their height and muscles - not because of being overweight). It reminded me, at 183 pounds, of how much easier it is for me to go up the hill compared to being over 200 pounds and the same was probably true for those that are 20-25 pounds less than me. Oh well, just then, one skinny guy with a beard on a fat bike passed me near the top of the hill. I gave hunt and followed him. He and Jef Leif were dangling in front of me about 50 - 100 yards or so with me doing my best to try to close the gap.
I ran into guys dismounting on some of the steeper, technical climbs and vocally reminded them that I was still on the bike climbing and to please move to the side. That's something you learn to do as a racer after a number of experiences, but it appeared these were newer racers and unaware of that. Luckily, I made it through all of the sections still on my bike and didn't have to dismount due to riders in front of me struggling with the climbs.
Coming through the finish area and heading for the climb on lap 3, I decided to not hold back and kept it in the big ring to mash up the big climb. I made it 1/2 way up and got to the "false flat" area before the final portion and saw Jef and the fat bike pulling away at the top of the hill. I had to shift to the small ring and spin for some recovery as maybe the big ring going up that hill wasn't my best choice. Oh well....I got going again and finished the crest of the climb strong and took off in the singletrack.
Over my shoulder, I noticed a guy who had beaten me at a couple of races last year, Mike Franken, was catching up to me. I didn't want to give up my position, so I pushed it when I could but took it easy in the downhill technical sections to make sure I stayed upright and didn't crash. I closed a gap to a rider in front of me and on one of the steep technical climbs, he fell and his bike was blocking the trail so I had to dismount. I asked him if he was okay and he was, so I ran around him and up the hill to mount my bike and take off. Cresting the final climbing section from the backside of the ski area to the top of the ski area before descending into the famous section called "The Luge", I saw that I had created a big enough of a gap to fend off my position and descended through The Luge in a more relaxed and controlled speed. I hit the bottom of The Luge and sprinted from there to the finish line feeling really good about my race this year...
I rolled across in 1:11:58 which was a full 7 minutes faster than last year's 1:18:58...!!!!
As I said, competition is tough this year (and Steve wasn't even there!!!). Jef and his camera had pulled open that gap from lap 2 and smoked me by 1 minute and 18 seconds for the final podium spot. I rolled in for 4th place, but was pleased with a much better time than the previous two years. Looking at times from last year and this year for quite a few racers, it looks to me like the dirt and the temperatures probably were good for a 2-4 minute faster time for everyone this year compared to last. It's hard to figure out exactly how much faster, but it was pretty consistent for everyone to pull a faster time this year. Even factoring that into the equation, I'm very pleased with my time having improved over the past 2 years. I'll take it and there is still plenty of room for improvement. I learn a little more each race what I can and cannot do.
And my time in the overall CAT 2 standing improved 23 spots over last year. That seems to confirm my improvement as well through what I call "organized training" this year. Today begins week 10 of my 12 week build, peak, and race training block and time will tell how I end up in 3 more weeks. Before I get too excited about it all, I have to remember that what I've really done
is simply work myself back into a similar shape I was in for the 2009
race season. My time at Mt. Kato back in 2009 when I was in the 45-49 age
class was 1:11:40 (about the same as Sunday's showing). However, this
is good news to me because I haven't been racing as strong the past 2
seasons since joining the 50+ age class. My times, overall, have been
slower than back in 2009 and before. So getting back to that kind of
form is actually a very welcome relief for me.
Once I had cooled down from the race and results were posted, I loaded up the bike and we headed into Mankato for lunch at Tandem Bagle. Then we went out to the campsite, packed up the tents and gear and headed over to the waterfalls in the Minneopa State Park. Tara has a torn hamstring and Lisa is recovering from knee surgery, so we did not climb down the 150 stairs to the lower falls!!! We took some pictures and really enjoyed the beauty of this state park.
Here are the upper falls...
Here's s shot on the footbridge looking down the lower falls...
Here they are together from a distance...
And of course, the obligatory "I'm in the shot" from Tara's cellphone (she claims her cellphone takes better pictures than my camera, but I disagree)...
We hopped in the Element and drove down 169 to Blue Earth, headed over on I-90 to Albert Lea, and turned south on I-35 to make it home at 7:30 for dinner. Fun was had by all on the trip and it was a good 1st camping excursion for the season. I drove the speed limit for the entire trip and whodathunkit - my gas mileage even with the Yakima box on top, bike on the rear rack, and a loaded down Element is the best it has ever been!!! Here's to slowing down (in the car that is).
Kudos to the Minnesota Mountain Bike Series and the race hosts of the Bluff Riders Charge. It's a very well run and attended race in a beautiful setting that isn't too terribly far from the Des Moines area (about 3:40-3:50 drive). It's always worth the trip and I look forward to the next time I can do it.