Dead front and center at the start line of the Old Caz race in Occidental, CA, the first of the Grasshopper Adventure Series, where I placed 10th overall. I managed to line-up at the front, knowing I didn't want to get caught up in the traffic of over 300 eager racers. To my far right sat Levi Leipheimer, also awaiting the start, but not as an official racer, per se. A few announcements by the race organizer, and we're off.
A full race recap after the break, but I'd like to thank Edie of Kitsbow apparel for snapping the great pictures in this post.
I was really nervous at the start, not knowing if I came with a disadvantage racing my Open 29er amongst a sea of cross bikes. The start reminded me a lot of Leadville, a mass of hyped up dudes ready to shred. I got boxed into the middle of the lead group and wiggled my way to the outside line where I'd be able to move more comfortably. There was an immediate climb and no sign of anyone slowing down. My heart rate was through the roof, but I held my own and kept up with the lead 30 or so racers.
Upon the first drop into gravel road I knew I brought the right bike of the day, as people were slamming their brakes and sliding off the side while I kept my line and leaned in with confidence. All of my riding/training in the Marin Headlands is paying off big time as I found myself passing people left and right. The long fire road descent finally gave way to rolling country road where the ground was still frozen with spots of black ice.
Meanwhile back in the pack, my friends Peter and David got caught up in a crash over similar black ice, but near the start and on the road. It took out maybe 50 people. It really sucked for them, but I was glad I started so far at the front.
As soon as we hit the first section of flat road I knew it was critical to stay with a group and work together. I don't have much experience riding in a pace line, but I managed to hold my own, trading pulls with some really strong riders. I'm starting to see the lead group stretched out with three chase packs.
Heading into the first dirt climb I do my best to scoot past as many riders as possible, knowing it'll be the only way to make up time on the leaders. The dirt climb quickly descends down a gnarly fire road mixed with some single track. The course cuts through some closed gates where you have to dismount and climb through. Again, I gain time going down having fatter tires and front suspension. At this point I begin to see the carnage of bodies on the side of the road, fixing flats.
This marks the start of a long road climb to the halfway point of the race. I push a bit harder than I wanted to, trying to make up more time while distancing myself from the larger chase group along the flats. My Open O-1.0 shines in long sustained climbs. It probably weighs as much as most of the cross bikes out there, and that's with suspension and fat wheels. It's also the first race on my fairly new bike. It went beyond my expectations as it carved down the hills with ease and held its own and then some up the climbs. I put my head down and go to work. Nearing the top I start to feel the twinges of cramping in the backs of my legs. I'm hoping I didn't push too hard to leave me with little at the end.
This is where the fun starts. I reach the top of the climb and start to bomb down a fire road which quickly turns into a slippery mess. I pass even more bodies fixing flats and realize the lead group has got to be less than 20 or so by now. Again, I brought the right bike set up as I fly down the trail. It starts off rather smooth, but quickly turns rocky and muddy. I'm following a guy on a full-suspension 26" mountain bike and watch him tripod around each corner, causing me to loose momentum. I back off my speed knowing I don't need to put myself at risk. There's still halfway to go, and I need to make sure I recover while I can.
At the very bottom of our descent is a creek crossing. The guy just ahead of me tries to ride through only to get halfway across. I got the tip early on that it's not rideable, so I dismount and carry my bike through the crossing. I didn't want the creek to wash off my chain lube, which is why I decided to carry it. My feet, of course, are cold and wet.
On the other side I quickly mount up and pedal past the guy that was just ahead of me. I slowly pull away on the climb and make my way down the backside before hitting an intersection. A guy on a cross bike seemed to be turned around, and I decide to read the road and make a right turn based on how much more traffic it had. I ride to the bottom of that country road and hit another unmarked intersection. Left? Right? I don't know! I circle and wait 10-15 seconds before the guy on the full-suspension bike appears and leads the way. I give him my thanks. He had ridden Old Caz before, so I knew I needed to stay close.
We're soon joined by a cross racer, and the three of us start to work together as we make our way back along the second half of the course. Our pace was too fast for the cross racer and so we became two. We had built up a really good lead, and didn't want to give up what we worked so hard for. The course is beautiful here, following a creek through shady trees, but no time to enjoy the scenery, really.
We were out on our own for at least 15 minutes before hitting the main road back before the last and final climb. I spot a group of riders way out in the distance and decide to attack in hopes of bridging up to them. After a few minutes I catch up to them, but realize they were just a group of roadies enjoying their Saturday. Not a moment later a freight train of racers charges by, and I'm quick to react and jump on the tail end.
The group is composed of the mountain biker I worked with earlier, a few cross riders I passed along the downhill, mixed with a few racers I dropped on the climb. They clearly worked together to chase us down, and I knew it was critical to stay in this group. We start trading pulls, and again I hold my own. I'm actually feeling pretty strong despite knowing I've got about 8 miles of racing left, 3 of which end on a monster climb to the finish line. I have to make sure I don't blow up, and ride smart. Two cross guys turn up the pace, splitting apart our pace line. We regroup, but I could tell everyone is fading fast.
There's about 6 of us in the chase group as we make our way to the base of the last climb. Once I knew the only way to the finish was up I attacked and didn't look back. I quickly put distance between myself and the group I was just in. I catch a few riders right away as well as one of the two cross guys that blew our group apart. I'm looking at my Garmin expecting the climb to go on and on. It's getting steeper, so much in fact I gear down to my small front chainring, the first time all day. I spin and catch another rider.
A few minutes roll by, and I get passed by a fellow 29er. He must have put in a massive effort to bridge up to our chase group and hammer up the climb. I didn't have much left to contest my position, but I knew the finish is nearby. Up ahead I see a small group of people by the side of the fire road. I round the corner and spot an even bigger group. I must be close. Before I know it I'm asked for my name as I cross the finish line.
To my surprise I finish in 10th place with a time of 3 hours 18 minutes, just behind 9th place, and just 10 minutes behind the podium. I was super happy. Thinking back on the start, seeing over 300 people line up, I never dreamed of finishing in the top 10. I was hoping for a top 50 finish at most. I was lucky. I made the right moves. I came in with the right training and bike, and it all paid off.
At the finish I met the fine folks of Kitsbow mountain bike apparel. They make super amazing tailored clothing specifically for mountain biking, the Rapha equivalent. Edith took a picture of me and my Open bike and newly minted Open kit, courtesy of Andy Kessler, co-founder of Open Cycles (thanks, Andy!). I'm so happy with my bike, the recent tire change and knowing I crushed it on a 29er hardtail.
I wait at the finish line for a bit to see my friends roll through. I love the atmosphere after a race like this. People laid out on the ground, depleted and already swapping stories. It was so much fun. I can't wait for the next Grasshopper, though I doubt I'll do as well as I did today. I did learn a lot; race tactics, pacing, being patient and knowing when to attack. Starting off my year with a big result like this feels good. I just need to build my confidence a bit more, knowing what my limiters are and working on them.