Mountain Nationals Report

Chad Haga - 2009 Mountain Bike NationalsNow that I’m finally on the way home after being snowed in at my grandparents’ house in Oklahoma, I suppose now is as good a time as any to write up some race reports….most importantly that of Nationals.

Yes, I’m referring to collegiate mtb nationals from October.  Don’t doubt my memory!  Besides, the two months between the race and now provides the opportunity for some hyperbole—and nobody will be the wiser!

After the pre-ride of the cross country course, we settled in for a night of Cool Runnings (yeh mon!) and spectacular cooking (I don’t recall if this night was Krishna’s chili, Kyle’s salmon, or Hattaway’s pasta). 

The women started first the next morning, so Kathleen headed to the start line while the rest of us had breakfast.  Shortly before they were to start, we jumped in the van in time to walk the start route through the village area.  Two areas in particular had us concerned—the u-turn at the end of the starting stretch and the bottleneck at the stairs leading to loose gravel.  We wished Kath the best, then headed for where the course dumps onto the gravel turn.

We were pleased to see that the gravel didn’t cause too much trouble, and headed to Steve’s rock garden to watch the carnage—er, racers.  We debated the best line choices as the racers came through, planning our own routes when our time arrived later in the day.  Steve was feeling peppy, and took the opportunity any time a girl slipped up to compliment her bike: “Sweet brake cables! Awesome wheels.  Thanks for stopping to show me.”

With our reconnaissance done for the day, it came time to prep for the race.  Kath ended up finishing 35th.  Whereas the women raced in 40-50 degrees and fog, our race was set to start at 60 degrees in glorious sun — a far cry from the near-freezing rainy slopfest of the previous two years.  I was feeling fresh and was psyched up for the race by the time they started callups. I got my front-row spot as conference champion, but the remaining callups for our conference are best described as FUBAR.  Everyone else in our conference was on the back row because of a failed interpretation of the callup rules.

As Dave Towle went through his prerace “This is not a drill!” spiel, my heart rate started to pick up. The gun fired and I was able to get clipped in before my starting foot completed half a stroke.  I sprinted through the range of my gears two at a time, spinning out each gear and slamming the shifter again.  Within seconds I was diving into the u-turn second wheel, with a Lees-McRae rider driving our crazed pack through the village.  I had dropped one place by the time we reached gravel at over 20 mph (the first guys through beat the bottleneck, thankfully).  I drifted a solid foot to the side through the turn and got to work cranking up the thick gravel hill, gasping for air.

It was here that I realized I was in trouble.  I couldn’t breathe, plain and simple.  Turns out there’s less oxygen at 7000 feet than at 500.  Riders were flying by me left and right up to mid-mountain and I could do nothing about it.  My heart rate was redlined and I was not taking in enough oxygen to bring it back down. Towards the end of the climb, Kyle caught me and we rode in a small group with a few others for the first two laps.  The steady pace was treating me much better, but in the end I was done in by the length of the race.  With a training load of nearly zero for the previous month, I was only prepared for a race of 2 hours (the length of all our conference races).   This race was looking to be 3 hours long.

Sure enough, I hit the wall shortly after the two hour mark and slipped out of the group with Kyle.  I was served well by the downhill portion of the course, though, as I was always able to regain good time on the descent.  It was technical enough to sort the roadies from the mountain bikers (or the roadies with good mtb skills). Even as my arms, back, and legs gave out on me,  I managed to improve on the descent each time through.  It bordered on reckless abandon as the rocks became smaller at higher speeds, simply bouncing over the tops.   My only crash during the race was a rough one, though.  I believe it was the beginning of the downhill on the second lap.  In one of the fastest parts of the descent, in a particularly flowy section with high berms, a right-hand turn had loosened up greatly at the exit of the turn.  I came through in a tear to regroup with some other riders and over-corrected when I reached the loose stuff.  I could have ridden it out, but the dirt firmed up again and my wheel was sideways….  My momentum threw me down to the left and partially winded me with the impact.  I looked back just in time to realize my head was about to be run over by the rider behind me.  I tucked up and he was able to skirt by.  The wreck had scraped one knee and elbow, and my shifter had removed a nice chunk of skin from the other knee.  My saddle had also been finished off, bending the rails irreparably.

I was one of the last riders to make the cutoff for the full race-length of 4 laps, while everyone else was pulled because the leader was about to finish.  Krishna had been at mid-mountain for two laps between his downhill practice runs and encouraged me throughout the race:
“Go Shane!”
“I’m Chad.”
“Go Chad!”
 
The next lap through:
“Go Shane!”
“Wrong again.”
“$@#%!”
 
I ended up finishing 28th of 70-something starters at a time of 3 hours and 15 minutes.  Kyle almost broke into the top twenty.  As terrible as I felt, this had still been my best finish at mtb nationals XC, an improvement of 13 places from last year and over 30 from the year prior.  Hattaway was done in by crankarm troubles, while Steve and Shane finished 35th and 46th respectively.

I was excited for the short track the next day, as I always do better in short track than XC.  The start was at the base of the gravel climb, then jumped onto a jeep road false flat before bottlenecking into a tight and twisty tree section.  The end of this section spat us into a slalom-esque downhill before a short loop through the village.  The women’s race gave us an idea of how ours would play out.  Kath finished 35th for the second day in a row.

They did a better job of calling up our race, but still managed to screw it up.  I was again on the front line, but was somewhat concerned because I was about 2 feet from the worn-in line up the gravel hill.  I was starting up hill in loose gravel.  Fantastic.  The national collegiate director approached me when Shane was called up, asking me if there was any relation… “Only a little.”

I’m certain Dave Towle reads from a script, because his amp up talk went just the same as always.  The gun fired and we were off.  I got a good start, and everyone started crowding towards the center for the firmer gravel on the hill.  20 feet into the race, the guy on my left got tangled up with the rider on his left. They got untangled and then he came over into me.  Hips trump handlebars—I wasn’t moving.  So he went left again, got tangled again, and went down.  I was feeling pretty good, getting into the trees at the top of the course in the top 10. Towards the end of the wooded section I awkwardly got over an odd-shaped rock but didn’t think much of it.  We got down to the village and I jumped up onto the brick section and tried to make the turn.  I turned right and my rear wheel drifted left. Crap. Remember that oddly shaped rock?  I was only running 29 psi for maximum traction on the loose turns (normally not a problem for me), and had burped out almost all of the air in my rear tire on that rock.  My race was over, as I didn’t have my CO2 gun with me.  Not willing to drop out, though, I chugged along for two more laps until they pulled me for near-last place.  All the other guys enjoyed themselves until they were pulled—I’m not sure of the placings.

After walking the downhill course, watching the 4-cross finals, and an over-priced and mediocre banquet dinner (it’s tradition!), we called it a night.

Krishna was racing in the morning, so we headed up the mountain to get in place at the biggest and baddest rock garden on course.  We watched the women and then some of the men come through before Krishna—there were several exciting crashes and I realized there were two types of riders in the event: 1) “Downhillers” doing the race for points only—whether individual or team and 2) Hold-on-to-your-hat-he’s-coming-through-honest-to-goodness-Downhillers.  Krishna, even though he, his bike, and his helmet were beaten up after 4 days of practice, was one of the latter.  Knocked off his line at a crucial spot near the end of the rock garden, Krishna was able to maintain most control and not go down.  It was pretty cool having the only downhill racer from our conference in years there with us.  His race didn’t go as well as hoped, but we all enjoyed seeing that side of the sport for once.

The drive home was long. Nearly 2000 miles long.  34 total hours in the car long. But we made it.

Chad “one down…better late than never?” Haga