Several races stand out in my mind as my favorites to try and attend in the Minnesota Mountain Bike Series. Mt. Kato, Red Wing, and the Border Crossing at River Falls. This year - due to weather conditions at Mt. Kato causing me to not race, and the rescheduling of Red Wing - River Falls Border Crossing was the first event in the Minnesota Mountain Bike Series that I was able to race in 2014. It's always worth the 4 hour drive up from Iowa to hit the sweet trails at Whitetail Ridge where the race is held. KORC does an excellent job with the trail system and hosting this race.
I went solo this year as Tara was "camped out and traveled out" from RAGBRAI. She enjoyed the trip last year when we camped at the race venue, and she brought her road bike to hit some of the country roads in the River Falls area.
I drove up on Saturday to set up my tent and take a pre-ride lap before it got dark. I started the lap a bit after 5:30 PM and the trail was in absolutely perfect condition. About 1/2 way through the lap it started to sprinkle very lightly, but the canopy the trees provide had very little of it making it down to the ground. As I finished the lap, I pulled over to use the forest facilities and a huge clap of thunder startled me. Immediately, the light sprinkle turned into a sideways torrential downpour. I ran for cover under a tree with my bike debating if I should get back over to the car, or wait it out in the forest under the trees. I chose the trees even though the trees were providing no shelter from the rain after about 5 minutes. Needless to say - I was totally drenched. The lightening and thunder so close overhead while out in the forest reminded me how defenseless we all feel when Ma Nature strikes. The singletrack turned into raging streams and I was reminded of that scene in Bull Durham when Kevin Costner's character turns on the baseball field sprinklers the night before a game to cause a rain out the next day. I was standing there soaking wet, cold, shivering and watching the singletrack rage with the water flow thinking I was going to have to drive back home due to a race cancellation.
After about 30 minutes, it let up enough for me to ride over to hang out under the registration tent until the rain fully subsided. Temperatures had dropped into the 60's and I was shaking due to being wet and cold. My teeth were chattering, and my core was really chilly. Finally, it stopped raining and I hopped on the bike to head back to the car to dry off, and change into dry clothing. I headed into River Falls for dinner to kill some time as I waited it out a bit to set up the tent to make sure the storm had passed. I set the tent up around 9 PM as it was getting dark and settled in for a humid evening. I checked the Facebook post that mentioned the Whitetail Ridge trails could handle that amount of rain and things would be fine for the race.
Race day was sunny, humid and sure enough - everything was in great condition despite the torrential rains from the previous evening.
Checking the tires of the Citizens racers after their race, very little dirt/mud was on their tires as the trails had absorbed the moisture. I got breakfast, went to the local laundromat to dry out my kit and gloves from the soaking they received during the pre-ride, and headed back to the race venue. I did my warm-up, got hydrated and went to line up with all the others for the 11 AM race. In spite of doing RAGBRAI the previous week and feeling the effects of a 7 day ride across Iowa, I didn't feel too bad and was able to hit my numbers in warm up.
Quite a crowd of racers has assembled for the 40+ groups wave start. There was much joking about it being so large because we were the only age group that could afford to be there in such strong numbers. There was not a WORS race going on this particular weekend, so chances are that this event had racers from both states in attendance - especially since it formally was a dual event for WORS/MMBS. That's one of the reasons I wanted to attend - due to the number of competitors in my age group. Anyway, there were 24 guys in the 40-49 lined up, 20 in the 50-29, and 5 in the 60+ group. That made for at least 49 of us in our wave scrambling for position at the line. I'm not sure if the Clydesales were in with us or not. After call ups and we all did our best to jam together in the crowded chute, suffice it to say I was near the back of the pack. No worries, as I had my strategy for the opening sprint, first climb, and passing section in the meadow before we entered the singletrack all worked out in my mind, and felt prepared.
One of the caveats that I have spoken about before at a race is that in spite of all the prepartions, goals, conditioning - there are certain things that remain out of your control that you cannot allow to get you down if and when they happen. I have come to accept it as part of the fun of racing. Some days are simply not your day, and some are - whether it is due to a flat tire, a competitor who falls in front of you and blocks your path, a mechanical, a crash, etc... . I have been fairly fortunate this year with only a locked handlebar crash, and tire burp at Tranquility altering my day with things that might be considered as things being out of one's control.
The opening sprint is in a mowed grassy meadow at the base of the Whitetail Ridge forest which takes us over to a nice climb up a rutty and rocky fire road climb. Having raced this venue 4 times before, I was well versed on what can happen on that climb in terms of jockeying for position that could lead to causing one to get stuck way back in traffic. Like any race, the best strategy is to march to the front of the group on the climb to be in a good position going into the singletrack. The Border Crossing bumps that up a notch by causing you to redline on the climb right at the start to be able to do that.
Here's a shot when I had my best opening climb at this venue when I sort of got bumped over a big rut at the base of the climb and decided to just stay over on the right edge and climb out of the traffic (and over the spectator's toes....!)....
Much of the ruts have been filled in and repaired with some large water bars having been added over the years to prevent such erosion from taking place on a trail that goes straight up the fall line. So that secret line to the right no longer exists, but there is still some rutting in the center that nowadays is rideable. The rut erosion was not so friendly back in 2011 when that photo was taken by my kids.
For this year jumping off the staring line, I sprinted and passed as many as I could before the climb started. I followed the line I wanted on the climb and moved over to the right as I passed a few more. There was a guy directly in front of me in my line that was going slower, so I reached for the shifter to shift and pass him on the left as I called out to him. I clicked the shifter and moved over to pass, but my gear did not shift. Hmmmm.....
I tried again, and again. It wouldn't shift. Oh, well. I changed my cadence and heard a poing, poing, poing, bling, bling, bling, flop, flop, flop and thought "that doesn't sound good, I wonder who is having such bad luck with their bike so early in the race?" As I passed a spectator on the side of the trail, she heard the racket coming from my rear wheel and said "that doesn't sound very good". It was then I realized the racket was coming from my bike!!
I figured I must have broken a spoke and wondered what I should do. I couldn't stop on the hill as we were 2 - 3 abreast and powering up in whatever manner we could. And I was in a gear that was far away from being my first choice of gear for that climb. But I had no choice but to power it up in whatever gear I was stuck in at that moment. I also could not look down to see what was going on back there as I had to focus on my line and who was on either side of me as we made the climb. As we approached the top of the climb, I put it in the big ring up front and jumped ahead of three riders going into the connector section through the meadow to the singletrack. Again, I tried to shift the rear derailleur to speed up and got nothing. Even though I could shift the front, I basically had a choice of spinning like a hamster or spinning like a hamster on the flats. ;-) I finally looked down and saw something sticking out of the rear of my bike. I asked the guy behind me if he could see what it was and he informed me it was a big stick stuck in my derailleur.
Hmmmm.....I knew if I pulled over to dislodge it, I would be passed by many. I went with the hope that eventually it would jiggle out, break or dislodge on its own as I entered the singletrack. By now, my original plan of using the opening sprint, climb and the meadow passing lane to sprint ahead of as many as possible had been foiled a bit by the stick in my derailleur and I was stuck in traffic with our big starting wave as we entered the singletrack.
I kept up the high cadence (felt like I was spinning 120-130 rpms to keep up). Once we finally hit the first series of bridges that have some rocks around them, the shaking and bouncing of going over that section dislodged the stick from my rear derailleur and I could shift as normal again. Phew! Nothing broken and the bike was okay. Who knows what the odds are of me, and only me picking up a stick in the grassy meadow on the opening sprint? I'll just have to file that one away in the things out of my control in spite of all the excellent planning and strategy I had for the opening of the race. Luckily, it didn't ruin my race. Now it was all about how I recovered from that and used the rest of the race to bounce back. I don't think the stick really held me back more than a few positions in the traffic as I was able to pedal and keep it going up the climb and into the singletrack. It just wasn't according to plan. C'est la vie...
I had my iPhone and chest strap to log the ride and glanced down to see the traffic I was stuck in had my heart rate staying down in the 148-152 range. Not going fast enough for an XC race. Usually I'm in the 161-176 range most of the race, so I knew I was falling out of contention just riding along at that effort, but could not get by so many in the lined up traffic. I used the passing lanes to power forward and got passed by somebody in the 60+ group on the passing lane descent just as I was negotiating myself around the one and only mud bog in the trail. The rider did not call out to inform me he was passing on my left, and I almost took a tumble trying to avoid hitting him at top speed. That got my dander up, and off I went with another rider in front of me in pursuit of him. Two of us locked onto his wheel and noticed that on the climbs, the 60+ rider was slowing down and losing his flow. I told the guy in front of me we needed to get around him before the next climb. Unfortunately, we couldn't get around him until the 2nd big climb in lap 1. We came flying out of the forest and with about 5 cranks on the big ring I passed both of them and muscled my way up the hill at a 176 heart rate (that's good!).
Now I felt like my tempo was up to the racing speed I can maintain this year and let it all out from that point to the end of lap one. I kept it up on lap 2 and was playing catch up as best I could to make up for the stick in my derailleur and resulting poor start. It was good to see Steve Stillwell out on the course as a volunteer and we exchanged a hello on both laps at the wooden berm (covered in chicken wire). I passed a few in my age group in the 2nd lap, so I knew I was slowly clawing my way back into the race. However, without a third lap to give me more time to work my way up - I ran out of singletrack real estate to make any more progress than I did. I was able to really enjoy lap 2 as I was flying and really pushing myself to keep the motor revved up. The trail has great flow and enough variety to keep one interested as they fly through it at race speed. Even though it didn't matter in terms of results, I managed to cap off the final lap by outsprinting somebody in the 30-39 class from the cyclocross spiral section to the finish line. There was a rider in my age group right on my tail (separated by 9/10th's of a second at the line), so the sprint actually did turn out to be worth it for me to hold off Jack Ellefson at the line (who beat me last year). I crossed the line all smiles knowing that one of those things out of my control had happened at the start.
I ended up in 8th place out of the 20 racers in the 50-59 age group, and 40th out of the 99 in Sport.
That's the exact same placing I had last year when I was 8th out of 18 with a slightly faster time of 1:06:49, and 57th out of 117. In fact, I have a lot of 8th place finishes at the Border Crossing/Border Battle. I would like to think that my improved racing weight and conditioning maybe could have yielded a slighter better result this year had the opening not unfolded like it did, but who knows? That's racing and it is what it is. Fun, fast, and a joy on such a great trail system as the one at Whitetail Ridge. Kudos to KORC, and MMBS for making the drive well worth it from Iowa. I hope to be able to make it up for another race or two this season, but we shall see...