I had a great day on the bike on Saturday, winning the Expert 19-34 category. I finished the 23 mile course in roughly two hours. It had 3,700' of climbing, with lots of fun single-track climbs and descents. The turnout was pretty good considering all of the other races going on the same day. There was the big Fontana race as well as CCCX. I chose to do The Big Sandy because it was a real mountain biker's course, and it did not disappoint, well mostly.
After a long day of traveling on Saturday, resting for most of the day today, I'm finally finding the time to reflect on my race win. On Friday I got about four hours of sleep before I had to pack up the car and drive another three and a half hours down to Auberry, CA, just outside of Fresno. I left around 5am and got to the race site around 9am, roughly two hours before race start. The drive down was easy. It got very scenic as soon as I got towards Auberry, rolling hills and mountain ranges out in the distance.
The start of the race was down in a canyon, near the beautiful Milerton Lake State Recreational Area. I recognized a few guys from the races up in Granite Bay, and knew there was some fierce competition. My friend Ryan was there, too, and knew he would give everyone hell. He won the overall race, setting a new course record, as well as winning close to $400. Well deserved. I had plenty of time to warm up, as did the temperature. I was expecting it to rain, but it was blue skies all day long.
The start field, which included pros, experts, men and women, as well as the sport and single-speed category. They let the beginners and folks doing the short course early before unleashing our group of well over 50 riders onto the long course. By the end of the day I believe I finished 6th or 7th of that massive start field. Before I knew it we were all sprinting up the short section of pavement before hitting the trail. I had a rather bad start position, but hustled my way up to the top 15 riders before the single-track. It was a decisive move that proved worthwhile as the long train of riders quickly stretched out.
The first climb was long and steep. I knew it was my chance to gain some time on the leaders before it dropped back down the backside of the mountain. It was four miles or so of deep and dusty trail, my heart rate was through the roof, and the sun was blazing. I only had one bottle with me over the 23 mile course, but made sure I hydrated days before the race. I managed to move up from 15th all the way up to 5th by the top of the climb.
The downhill on the backside is world-class. It had lots of sweeping turns, drops and rock gardens to keep me alert. The hardest part was navigating through all the sandy sections, which took a while to get used to. I conjured up my newly found skills and let my bike carve and drift. I didn't get caught till halfway down, getting passed by a rider I had passed earlier on the climb, but my goal was to stay upright without any crashes. I nearly ate dirt towards the bottom over a series of sizable drops followed by a sharp left-handed turn through a tight boulder section. Momentum is your friend when dicing through the rough stuff.
The course looped back on to the first section of single-track we started on, finishing up what's considered the long course start loop. What a hell of a loop. I get back up to the start area to continue onto the rest of the course, getting feedback from spectators that I wasn't too far off the leaders, and that I was currently in 6th. From there the trail was an undulation of rolling single-track, some of the best I've ever ridden. It cut through pastoral hills and trees, rocks jutting out from the greenest grass I've ever seen. The land's so fertile and beautiful I can imagine it being difficult to hold a race there, let alone be allowed to ride.
Having studied the course profile I knew it was a matter of holding my momentum and speed, punching up the short climbs as quickly as possible. I kept looking back, and saw only one guy trying to bridge up to me. After five miles or so I lost sight of him and kept working. I eventually caught glimpse of the rider that passed me on the downhill early on, slowly catching up to him on the climbs, only to be dropped as soon as it went down. We played cat and mouse all day, but I was never able to bridge up to him.
I was running out of water fast, but knew I had enough in the tank to get me to the finish. Eventually I started catching up to the the earlier groups doing the short course, passing most of them on the climbs. We were following a trail that hugged the lake, a steep slope overlooking the water below. Speed boats hummed along, and all I could think was how nice it would be swimming in the water right about now. I wanted to soak in the views, but had to concentrate on the trail in front of me.
The last climb before the finish was long, steep and painful, but not as hard as everyone made it out to be. Having done most of my training on the steep hills of the Marin Headlands I knew what kind of pace and effort was needed to make to the top and still have enough left to finish strong. I put my head down and went to work, passing even more riders, but never quite catching the guy in my start group. The downhill to the finish line was really fun and fast. It was a sharp turn to the right, down to the riverbed, and back up a loading dock to the finish line. Kind of an awkward way to finish, but I was sure glad that it was over.
I knew I had held my position for most of the race, but didn't know how I placed within my category. I saw my friend Ryan, chatted a bit, congratulated him on his win, and started the waiting game.
The Big Sandy is a point-to-point race. One of the last remaining, other than Downieville. They had a real nice party vibe with beer, music and food, but no real way of knowing when to expect a lift back to the start. It was fun for a while, but I knew I had to get going. More and more racers finished, but still no shuttle service. We had been waiting there for two hours, and I was starting to get irritated. We find out eventually that the shuttle service won't start till after the awards ceremony. I wish they had filled us in earlier.
Naturally I miss the first shuttle, which is basically a truck and a van that could fit accommodate eight people at a time. It was at least an hour before the next round, and I started to get worried I may never leave for at least two more hours. Ryan managed to talk to a fellow racer into giving me a lift back up to the start. If it weren't for him I would have been screwed. My wife was worried sick about me. I wasn't able to text her because of the lack of phone reception all day, and not being able to get to my care because of the shuttle was just making it worse.
It was a great course, and ended with great festivities, but the lack of organization of information and especially the shuttle system will keep me from coming back again. It really ruined my otherwise amazing day on the bike.
My bike, as always, performed like a champ. I had the early advantage on the big climb towards the start, as I rocketed past a bunch of riders. The power transfer and lightness surely helped in securing my position towards the front of the race. I never felt fatigued over the rolling and somewhat bumpy course. It was definitely a hardtail course.
This race win was special to me because it was on a real mountain biker's course, with lots of climbing and technical descending along some of the best single-track I've ridden in a while.