I've come a long way since the last time I raced SoNoMas a year ago. I finished 2nd this year, compared to 17th from last, shaving 12 minutes off my previous time.
I started really well with the lead group, and held on all the way to the beginning of the single track. The race rolled out with a long road climb for a few miles. It was a mass start of all categories and ages, and I knew it was important to stay on the outside, preferably on the left so I had room to pass without risking getting slammed on the right or getting caught up in a crash. Not even a quarter way up did people start to get squirrely, tapping their brakes and riding too close to each other, overlapping wheels and swerving nervously. I finally heard the rub of tires, followed by the sound of people hitting the ground. Luckily that was all happening behind me. I kept moving and made my way to towards the front.
Levi Leipheimer was there, and I paced him a little bit. My friend Ryan was up in the mix, too, and knew he had a solid chance of taking the win and/or getting on the podium. He eventually finished 3rd in the pro class. I wasn't sure how big my group was, but I could immediately tell it was going to be a long and hard-fought battle.
The trails around Lake Sonoma is made up of mostly loose over hard pack. I crashed really hard the last two times I was up here. First, from really poor tire/line choice down a rutted out downhill, and the second time coming around a corner way too hot, losing grip and plowing headfirst into the ground. I've since upped my handling skills and am quite familiar and fond of my Racing Ralph tires. I had a lot of near misses and overshot corners, but I didn't crash or have any major mechanicals to ruin my day.
What makes this 35 mile race hard is that it's a lot of loose single track with about 7000' of total elevation gain. With a lot of the climbing out of the way in the first few miles it dips back down towards the base of the lake, and from there it was a series of never-ending punchy climbs. You're either going straight down into a dry ravine crossing or coming up the backside of one. It eventually starts to wear on you. Also, the heat is an important factor you can't overlook. While not as hot as last year, it still got pretty toasty. Luckily the course put us in the shade for most of the day. I ran with two bottles full of Osmo, which got me through till the end. I brought along my CamelBak just in case, but didn't need to use it. I made it my game plan during the week to pre-hydrate as well as lay off the bike to conserve and build my energy.
The last third of the course saw a big improvement from last year. They smoothed out and widened a long stretch of single track, making the pain and suffering last a little less than before. I was surprised I didn't run into more overlap from racers coming onto the trail from the short course. I spent the last 10 miles or so by myself, grinding it out. On the last section of climbing before you reached the road I heard someone hot on my heels. I glanced back and saw this guy with big chops on the sides of his face. It was Mark Weir, and he was charging up the trail. I held my lead for as long as I could, even all the way down the road to the finish line, but he had just a bit more than I did. I had nothing left to contest a finish line sprint, so I let him go. I was spinning furiously all the way down the paved road while I'm sure all Mark had to do was get into an aero tuck and let his body weight carry him past me.
Today was another example of why I love mountain bike racing. I met so many cool people before, during and after the race. People that have read my blog, or raced with me before. Even a handful of new coworkers were up here racing, and crushing for that matter. I got an overwhelming sense of belonging here, as we all just went through a few hours of pain. It's that shared experience that brings us together. Till next time, my friends.